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Jonathan Flower
Jonathan Flower

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A Coder's Journey to Find The Best Wireless Headphones

While coding in the home office sometimes it is nice to throw on a pair of headphones and drown out the kids "playing". I am a bit of an audiophile and put some time and thought into finding the the best wireless over ear headphones under $400.

Long story short, I have fallen in love with the Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT2 wireless over-ear headphones.

Beats Studio 3

Two years ago I purchased the Beats Studio 3 headphones. This decision was based almost entirely on finding the best headphones with the Apple W1 chip. I have Apple products and the W1 chip makes switching between my Mac, iPhone, and iPad quick and easy. Unfortunately, about 3 months ago the headphones started crashing, randomly they will blast white noise at full volume right after turning them on, I am unable to turn off ANC mode, the mic won’t work, or no audio plays. I would say about 1 out of every 4 power ups, something goes wrong and I have to cycle power again. I have tried a factory reset, but no luck. They are out of warranty so I am stuck being completely disappointed in the quality of these Beats headphones.

Bose QC45

The experience opening and setting up the Bose QC45 headphones was sublime. The Bose iOS app is easy to use and they have a fun screen where you can select from a collection of funny names for your headphones. I chose "Electric Earmuffs". The app also provided a great tutorial for how to use the controls. I was particularly impressed with the firmware update process. It downloaded the new firmware automatically while I was listening and then asked if I was ready to restart. I clicked restart and it only took about 10 seconds. The “aware” is perfect for when the wife gets my attention and I need to hear her talk. The controls on the headphones are intuitive and easy to use. There are a lot of nice little touches. When powering on, it speaks to you letting you know which devices are connected and the power level. In the settings I was able to select automatic power off after 3 hours. No more accidentally leave my headphones on overnight only to wakeup and the battery is drained. Being able to connect my Mac and my iPhone at the same time is amazing. I would press play on my iPhone and it would play. Pause it, hit play on my Mac and boom, the headphones immediately switched to my Mac. Even better than the W1 pairing experience. However, after a few hours I noticed that the headphones would skip a beat every once in a while whenever I had 2 devices connected at the same time. My Aftershokz headphones do the same thing. It is very distracting to me when it does this and thus a deal killer. On my Aftershokz I was able to disabled the feature and now they will only connect to one device at a time. It does not look like Bose has a similar setting. The best I could come up with is opening the iOS app and toggling devices. Very inconvenient. It is a neat feature to connect to multiple devices, but having the music regularly skip is unacceptable to me, and the workaround is too inconvenient.

Sony WH-1000XM4

With the Sony headphones I downloaded the iOS app and was prompted to allow permission for notifications, then permission for something else, I agreed to 2 service agreements. Then it wanted me to signup for a Sony account, then I needed to configure 360 audio. I did not care about any of this. I just wanted to pair them, install a firmware update if there was one and listen to some music. I believe I tapped 15 different agree or skip buttons. Then it kept popping up messages about new firmware, but it was not obvious how to install it. Incredibly disappointed in the UX of this iOS app. The ANC was about the same between the two. The touch/gesture control on the Sony I found unfamiliar and I often triggered the wrong action, or unintentionally brushed the left headphone triggering an action or a beep. There is a very bright blue light that blinks the whole time they are on. At one point I set them on my desk and found the blue light blinking in my eye very annoying. I care a lot about user experience and onboarding experience. These headphones sound great, but the unboxing, setup, and regular usage experience is horrible.

How do the Sony and Bose compare to the Beats? They sound slightly better and the ANC is way better. I also find the Sony and Bose more comfortable. The Bose are especially cozy.

Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT2

A few days later I receive a pair of ATH-M50xBT2s in the mail. These are the least expensive and have the largest box! When I first put them on I did not like how hard they clamped down on my ears and head. My ears are a bit sensitive to pressure and after wearing my Beats for an hour, my right ear often hurts. At this point I had given up on the Sony’s so it was between the Bose and the ATs. I kept switching the headphones back and forth and comparing the audio. The Bose are so comfortable and sound really good. The ATs don’t have all the features… I decide to try cranking the volume. Wow the ATs sound amazing at higher volume levels! The Bose and my corded Sony MDR-7506 start to sound harsh while the AT’s just get better. I am very curious if the extra pressure squeezing my head has a positive effect on the sound? The ATs also connect to my iPhone and Mac simultaneously, but I have gone an entire day without them skipping a beat. I also did not mind the pressure on my ears as much as I expected. We are running on 8 hours and only a small amount of discomfort in my right ear. These have twice the battery life of the Bose and sound better, yes please. It also does not hurt that I found the ATs for half what I paid for the Bose.

The Best Active Noise Canceling

When I really want to cancel out the noise around me, I pop in ear plugs fire up my Aftershokz Air bone conducting headphones. I do this on airplanes and when mowing the lawn. It works way better than ANC. I eventually get used to the small amount of white noise ANC generates, but I hate thinking about how it might be effecting the pure sound of the music. The Bose does not allow you to turn off ANC. You can only switch it to “aware” which uses microphones to amplify the sound around you. The ATs do not have ANC, but the closed ear design does muffle the sound a reasonable amount. And again, if I really want less noise, low tech earplugs are hard to beat.

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