Is It Blue?
This may seem obvious, but make sure that it is actually a Bluetooth set. Don’t accidentally buy an RF set with a dongle attachment. These sound worse, are more prone to interference, and generally suck. There aren’t that many on the market anymore, but it is still worth the warning.
The second thing is to make sure that the device supports a recent or, if possible, the latest version of Bluetooth. While your iPad is backwards-compatible with even quite old Bluetooth devices, newer standards have lead to longer ranges, better battery life, and quite a few new features which I won’t go into here. Just make it a general rule that newer is better. At the time of writing BT 4.0 was the hot new thing, but BT 3.0 still does good work. Anything older should be on the no-no list.
Can You Ear Me?
The next thing that you have to decide is what style of headphone do you want? The highest comfort levels, best noise isolation, and best sound quality comes from “over-the-ear” headphones that cover the entire ear and rest on the parts of the skull around it. These headphones may even leave your outer ear untouched. The downside is these are the bulkiest headphones, which makes them a pain to transport. In recent times, though, there have been some very clever folding designs that make these headphones more portable. Still, they are the bulkiest of all headphone types.
“On-the-ear” headphones are smaller, lighter, and less comfortable and noise-isolating. These have been the most popular for people on the go who still care about sound quality. As over-the-ear phones get smaller and cheaper, though, the on-the-ear models are falling out of favor.
The biggest drawback with these is definitely comfort. Since the ear cups press directly onto the ears it can make prolonged use uncomfortable or even painful. In general these headphones are better suited for short bus trips rather than long flights.
Finally we have “in-ear buds”. These are the most compact and a set comes with just about every smartphone you can buy these days. Unless you are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on the very best in-ear headphones, you’ll find that these are generally the weakest in terms of bass and audio quality. Look for in-ear headphones that come with a variety of tips for different ear hole sizes – there’s nothing more uncomfortable than in-ear buds that don’t fit properly.
Life of the Party
Bluetooth headphones are battery powered and so when you run out of juice the music will stop. Larger styles of headphones tend to have longer battery life, since they have room for bigger batteries. Take note of the rated battery life and take 10% off, just to be realistic. Does the rated play time look like it be enough for your needs? Also, check if the headphones need a special charger or will charge with plain old USB (if so, you can use a power bank to recharge it). Be sure to confirm if the headphones can play and charge at the same time, since having to wait an hour on a flight or long road trip to have working headphones can be a real pain in the behind.
File Under Audio
Obviously one of the most important aspects of the headphones is the sound quality, but defining that is pretty hard, as it turns out. The manufacturers can throw numbers at you but there are plenty of examples of headphones that sound better subjectively, even though they have lower specifications. Things like the BT compression math and cup material and shape can affect how the speakers sound; it is not just about the speakers themselves.
You want headphones that have a low bass frequency and good separation between low, mid, and high frequency sound. Often the best headphones will have multiple speakers in each cup that are dedicated to different frequency levels.
This poses a problem when buying online of course, since you can’t try them out first. Pay attention to user reviews and their impression of the sound. Also, be sure to make use of short term, no-questions-asked return policies if the headphones don’t sound good to you.
Another thing that can dramatically improve the perception of sound quality is active noise cancellation. This is where the headphones use an external mike to measure ambient noise and then counter it with tuned white noise so you can hear the audio in silence. It’s pretty amazing and worth getting if you can afford it.
Out of Control
The whole point of BT headphones is to give you some freedom, and it would be pretty dumb if you had to stay within arms length of the iPad in order to control playback or volume. Almost all BT headphones have onboard controls. While they will all work, some are easier and more comfortable to use. Give them a good look before you make a purchase to ensure your butter fingers will get on with them.
Bob the Builder
Build quality is another one where you need to rely on long-term user feedback. Common failure points for headphones include folding hinges and the size adjustment components. The glue that holds ear cups on is also a common failure point. Take note of whether other buyers have found certain parts of the headphone to break over time. Even some high-end headphones (I’m looking at you Dr. Dre) have had horror stories of cheap components that break. Hopefully, if that does happen, it happens within your warranty period and you can get a free repair or replacement.
Because headphones are not just a functional thing, but also a fashion statement or a status symbol, the price does not always reflect quality. So do not assume that the $300 headphones are going to be the best ones. Rather, pay attention to the other factors and make a decision from there.