I have PowerBeats 2 bluetooth headphones that I use at the gym. When listening to them on their own, I thought they sounded alright. But my recent purchase of surprisingly good no-name Chinese wood earbuds made me realize that actually, these PowerBeats don’t sound very good. Uh oh.
I’m not really a fan of the Beats brand, or paying as much as I did for these headphones. I got them “on sale” for $130, because it was August 2016, a couple months before the PowerBeats 3 came out. But that’s still a lot, and I only was willing to pay that much because I’d killed several other pairs of bluetooth gym headphones with my ear sweat, and out of frustration, I decided I should try the expensive ones like Jaybirds and PowerBeats. The Jaybirds sounded like crap, and the PowerBeats, in comparison, were an improvement.
They PowerBeats have actually held up for the past year and change, with no sign of giving up the fight with my ear sweat. So in that regard they’ve been good. But their cord is a little too long and dangly. I tried the little deedlybopper to shorten the cord, but then it would snag on the back of my neck or my shirt. The best solution was to let it dangle under my chin, but when I run it bops on my chest and transmits the noise to my ears.
And like I said, when I listened to them back to back with all of my assorted wired headphones, hoo boy, their sound quality did not hold up at all.
Then I remembered something: Qualcomm’s aptX bluetooth codec can make a noticeable improvement in bluetooth sound quality. Many Android phones with Qualcomm chipsets, including my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, support aptX. My OG Moto Droid RAZR that I bought in 2011 supported aptX. Shortly after getting it, I bought some cheap aptX-compatible Creative T12 speakers for using in my office. And damn if they didn’t sound good.
I’ve changed jobs a few times since then, and moved, and those speakers have been in a box in my garage for the past few years. But I recently fished them out and hooked them up in the mini-office space we have in our guest room, and since my phone and my wife’s Moto G5 Plus both support aptX, once again I was reminded that these cheap speakers were really quite decent.
But do the overpriced PowerBeats support aptX? Of course not! Actually, very few of the name-brand, pricier sporty bluetooth headphones support aptX. You know what gym headphones do support aptX? The cheapie $20 SoundPeats Q9A that I got my wife a while back when she said she’d also like a pair of bluetooth earbuds like mine, but didn’t want something expensive. Their design is...rather similar to the PowerBeats.
Just for kicks, I decided to pair them up to my phone, and compare them back to back with my PowerBeats. I opened up Pandora, and the first song that came up was Good Day by Nappy Roots.
Now, I don’t pay for Pandora, so the best audio quality is a mediocre 64 kbps stream. But I like the Pandora shuffle play at the gym, so I wanted to see the difference based on real usage. First, I listened to the PowerBeats. Then I switched over to the SoundPeats. The difference was startling.
The cheap SoundPeats sound way better. Even when listening to free Pandora, I could clearly notice that hiding in there behind the piano, there was also a guitar. Switch back to the PowerBeats, and the guitar was totally overwhelmed by the piano. I could barely pick it out. Everything above the bass was way less clear than the SoundPeats. I switched back and forth between the two headphones a couple more times just to be sure, and yup, my wife’s cheapie Amazon headphones officially sound much better than my overpriced Beats.
The thing I’ve noticed with both the of the cheap aptX devices I own is that level of detail is much closer to a wired connection than regular bluetooth. Details of instruments are much easier to distinguish than without aptX. Even when you’re talking about something as simple as whether or not you notice the guitar part on a poppy rap song streaming over Pandora.
With more and more phones ditching headphone jacks, high-quality bluetooth codecs like aptX should be more and more important, but it’s such a nitpicky little thing that most people don’t pay attention to. Many Android phones support aptX, but don’t make much mention of it in their specs. Apple, the Beats mothership who started the headphonejackpocalypse, can’t be bothered to include an industry standard high-quality bluetooth codec in their phones, or their bluetooth headphones. All of which are very expensive. Oh sure, Apple has their W1 bluetooth chip, but all that does is help with pairing and syncing true wireless headphones like AirPods. It does absolutely nothing to improve sound quality.
I’ll spare you the technical nitty gritty of the bitrates and whatnot, but there are other high-quality bluetooth codecs out there aside from aptX. They are:
aptX LL - this version of aptX is focused on low latency, to make sure audio syncs up with videos, particularly for video games.
aptX HD, Sony LDAC & Samsung UHQ-BT - these all support various higher bitrates than regular aptX.
Now obviously, supporting a quality bluetooth codec like aptX is no guarantee that your headphones will sound good. It only guarantees that the connection between your phone and your headphones won’t significantly degrade the sound quality. Just like there are plenty of crappy wired headphones out there, it’s certainly possible to have crappy aptX headphones.
But if you’re shopping for bluetooth headphones, or any other bluetooth audio device, definitely check the specs for aptX. Especially if you’re talking about something remotely expensive. Because it doesn’t matter how fancy the headphones themselves are, if they’re saddled with a crap basic bluetooth connection. Otherwise you might end up like me, with some over-$100 gym headphones that sound noticeably worse than their $20 Amazon knockoff you buy for your wife.