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Budget Bluetooth: Six wireless headphones for a song

J. Andrew Yang | Feb. 3, 2014
We've all heard of Moore's Law, which posits that the number of transistors on a typical integrated circuit doubles every two years. But one of the overlooked side effects of such technological progress is the proliferation of cheap chips. For example, the price of Bluetooth ASICs, used in everything from audio devices to smart watches to fitness monitors, has dropped dramatically over the past few years. As a result, a growing number of small vendors are bringing stereo-Bluetooth headsets to market at prices that would have been unheard of just five years ago. I took a look at six budget-priced Bluetooth headphones to see if there are (finally) affordable options worth considering.

My biggest complaint with the AF32 was with the control layout. Limited by the narrow headband, the controls consist of three horizontal rocker switches (a "multifunction" button on top, track controls in the middle, and volume controls at the bottom), located just below a raised, horizontal indicator light. I put multifunction in quotes because using a two-way switch, with ambiguous actuation points, to trigger four different functions was an exercise in frustration. The only function that worked consistently was power on/off, and even then, I would often trigger another function as the AF32 powered down. Between never being quite certain of the relative locations of the track- and volume-control buttons, and the seemingly random behavior of the multifunction button, the control scheme left much to be desired.

That said, the positives of the AF32 — namely comfort, above-average sound quality, and solid battery life — outweigh the complaints I have about the controls, making it a good choice in this price range. The fact that the AF32 can often be for considerably less than its $100 list price makes it even more compelling.

Monoprice Premium Bluetooth Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphones (10245)
Monoprice's $79 Premium Bluetooth Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphones (10245) is a larger, over-ear model and the company's top-of-the-line wireless headphone. For the Internet crowd, Monoprice has long been the place to go for budget cables and connectors, but over the past couple years, the company has also been offering a number of impressive budget-audio products. The 10245 continues that trend.

The 10245's styling borrows heavily from the look of market heavyweights like Beats, but Monoprice ratchets up the ostentation a touch with mirror-finished earpieces. I wouldn't describe the headphones as gaudy, but the 10245 does stand out. Build quality is a notch above the other headphones at this price, though still not what I'd call "premium." The ear cushions aren't overly plush, but they're comfortable enough for multi-hour listening sessions.

A key feature touted by Monoprice is the 10245's use of multiple drivers in each earpiece: three 13mm high-frequency drivers and one 50mm low-frequency driver. Four drivers per earpiece is a unique design feature at any price, and I found the 10245 to have very competent sonics, overall — and when it comes to $100 Bluetooth headphones, "competent sonics" means class-leading audio quality. The bass is well defined and satisfyingly deep, thanks to the 10245's larger earpieces and drivers.

However, I found more-uneven performance at the higher frequencies. Midrange is well reproduced, but I found it to be overly emphasized, leaving me wondering if the multiple drivers led to crossover issues. (When a speaker or headphone uses multiple drivers, it needs one or more crossover circuits that determine which frequencies are produced by which drivers.) The highs are smooth — overly so at times — without the harshness or sibilance found in lesser headphones, though a high-frequency roll-off results in a lack of crispness with certain instruments, and a soundstage that's less spacious than expected. I'd be heavily critical of these sonic flaws if the 10245 was two or three times the price, but at $100, it's tough to be too hard on it.

 

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