In the world of Bluetooth audio, not all codecs are created equal. The default SBC works everywhere, but it doesn’t offer the audio quality of more specialized formats, like aptX, AAC (if you’re using an iPhone), and if you’re really lucky, LDAC. Marketed by Sony as a true hi-res codec, LDAC doesn’t exactly offer comparable audio to a wired connection, but you probably won’t notice the difference. Because the codec is made by Sony, support is rather scant outside of the company’s own products, but there are certainly a few Bluetooth headphones with LDAC worth looking at.
What to know about Bluetooth Codecs
A Bluetooth codec is like a language devices and headphones use to exchange audio information. By default, Bluetooth just isn’t great at transmitting high quality audio, so different standards have been developed to improve things. The default SBC codec is available on every Bluetooth device, and it gets the job done, but compressing audio for limited bitrates is extremely difficult. The better codecs for audiophiles are aptX and LDAC, which offer much higher quality audio, and respectively make claims at offering “CD quality” and true “hi-res” sound.
Though LDAC falls short of hi-res claims, it’s still the best-performing Bluetooth codec currently available. We’re still waiting to see if aptX Adaptive is going to be as good as it seems, but luckily any issues are increasingly hard to hear as we age because, sorry to break it to you: our ears aren’t that great when we’re old.
Even if your phone doesn’t currently support it, you should still get headphones that support these codecs anyway. Android 8.0 brings support for these wireless standards to lots of phones, and assuming your headphones last longer than your smartphone does: your headphones will only sound better as the tech in your phone catches up. Additionally, the AAC codec performs far better when paired with an iPhone than an Android phone, so if you’re in the market for headphones to use with your Samsung Galaxy phone, maybe avoid the AirPods.
The best headphones with LDAC support are the WH-1000XM3
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the best pairs of headphones of the last year is also the best LDAC compatible option on the market. The WH-1000XM3 may be expensive, sure, but they’re worth it. An update to the similarly popular WH-1000XM2, the headphones bring best-in-class noise cancelling, LDAC support, and great battery life to the table, all wrapped up in a lightweight comfortable build.
When you use the app, you can also make use of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, which when paired with partner streaming services, lets you listen to your music as if it were all around you. It’s a brilliant feature, but requires the Sony headphones app to work.
The headphones can last around 24 hours of playback on a single charge, with noise cancelling turned on. That’s plenty long enough for even the lengthiest commutes or flights. Further sweetening the pot, it charges with USB-C, too. The included touch controls do a solid job handling volume and playback, though finding them can be a little finicky, and you may feel like a bit of a dope doing it a lot in public. Regardless, something this expensive should offer a fantastic experience in almost every scenario and this almost certainly achieves that—just don’t take it out in the rain.
The Sony WH-XB900n is the cheaper, bassier cousin to the best
These headphones look just like the WH-1000XM3, but they cost $100 less. These lightweight Bluetooth headphones support LDAC, aptX, and aptX-HD codecs, along with solid active noise cancelling and fantastic battery life. On paper this is basically the same feature set as the WH-1000XM3, too—so what’s different?
Where the comparison between the Sony WH-XB900N and their more expensive cousin breaks down is in the audio quality. These headphones don’t sound better by any stretch, but they boost output pretty much across the bass range of the frequency spectrum. If you’re a fan of EDM this is nothing to complain about. Past that, there’s nothing so far out of whack that you’ll have a bad time listening to anything else, but prominent bass parts might drown out the sounds of some strings and cymbals in genres like rock and roll.
When they first came out, the Sony WH-XB900N cost about $250, which seems a little steep given the uneven audio output. However, often you can find them on sale for around $150, and that’s frankly a steal. If you’re looking for a solid pair of Bluetooth LDAC headphones and you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars, you probably won’t do better.
Panasonic Noise Cancelling Headphones are a versatile, yet simple pair of LDAC Bluetooth headphones
Panasonic doesn’t pop up much in conversations about the hot tech to buy these days, but the company never stopped putting out solid, if a little anonymous products. The Panasonic Hi-Res Wireless headphones are a pretty straightforward product. These headphones are compatible with Bluetooth 4.2, which isn’t as good as it could, but nothing to sneeze at. Nonetheless, it supports a wide range of hi-res audio codecs, like AAC, aptX, aptX-HD, and LDAC.
The headphones sport an all-plastic design, which mean they’re quite light too. Despite that, there’s no shortage of premium features, like solid ANC and an ambient sound mode, which lets you filter outside noise in with your mic by placing your hand on the right headphone (something the WH-1000XM3 can also do). Battery life is also similarly solid, apparently lasting up to 20 hours of playback time on a single charge. If you’re looking for something good, but rather low profile, these are pretty reasonably priced, and definitely some of the best Bluetooth LDAC headphones.
If earbuds are more your speed, check out the Sony WI-1000X
True wireless they aren’t, but the Sony WI-1000X neckband earphones are a great buy for anyone looking for earbuds that can use hi-res Bluetooth codecs. Sony’s noise cancelling prowess is once again on display here, offering the same capabilities as the WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds. Here, the noise cancelling cycles through three modes to adapt to your environment:travelling, walking, and waiting. The modes vary the intensity of the noise cancelling, so you get a similar level of ambient sound regardless of where you are.
The earphones use DSEE HX to upscale compressed music files, restoring data that may have been lost during compression. LDAC and aptX HD are both supported for high-quality streaming over Bluetooth, and if the battery dies, you can listen by wire and enjoy full high-resolution audio with the convertible microUSB to 3.5mm cable.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant are supported, with the former being built-in to the headset. By updating the firmware via the Sony | Headphones Connect app, you’re also afforded Google Assistant access. Sony provides a slew of accessories including a carrying pouch, airplane adapter, and charging cable.
The Audeze Mobius makes the case for gaming headphones being your main headphones too
If any headphones on this list can compete with the WH-1000XM3 in terms of raw audio quality, it’s the Audeze Mobius. The first attempt at a gaming headset from luxury audio company Audeze, the Mobius sports 100mm planar magnetic audio drivers, and it sounds fantastic. However, don’t rush out just yet if you’re looking for an obvious alternative to a typical pair of wireless headphones.
This is a gaming headset, and its primary use is over a wired connection on PC, so a lot of its best features aren’t available over a Bluetooth connection to a mobile device. However, if you’re a gamer who doesn’t necessarily want to own a bunch different pairs of headphones for different activities, it’s worth a look. When it’s connected via USB (or Bluetooth to a laptop) this gaming headset features 3D audio and head tracking via WavesNx tech for simulated directional audio pretty cool. In game, it means surround sound is accurate and responsive. Out of game, it simulates a stereo home theatre, so audio sounds like its coming in from in front of you, and it maintains a set point of origin regardless of how you turn your head.
While this all probably sounds pretty neat, the flip side of this is that it jettisons the typical niceties you’d expect of a $400 pair of Bluetooth headphones. The headset can’t last as long, with only 10 hours of battery life. It’s heavier, due to the planar magnetic drivers. On top of all that, there’s no ANC—the included memory foam ear pads do a fine job with isolation, but not out of the ordinary.
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