Budget Bluetooth review: Six wireless headphones for a song

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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.

monoprice premium bluetooth hi fi over ear headphones
Monoprice’s 10245

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.

Another unique feature of the 10245 is a MicroSD card slot located on the right earpiece that supports direct playback of audio files hosted on a memory card. This feature explains the confusing second set of control buttons along the edge of the right earpiece. This card slot isn’t a feature I would use, but it could be useful for people who don’t own a portable audio device—or who don’t want to bring their phone or tablet to, say, the gym or when relaxing in bed.

The larger size of the 10245 also allowed for a larger battery, giving the 10245 longer playback time, roughly 20 hours, than that of the other headphones here.

My chief complaints with the 10245 were its balky controls and poor microphone performance. As I mentioned above, I’ve come to expect mediocre microphones on Bluetooth headphones. As with most of the headphones here, voice quality on calls was acceptable. The built-in track-control and volume buttons worked fine in my testing. However, the multi-function center button was quite frustrating to use. I never had a problem with the button recognizing a finger press, but which function that press would activate was often a guessing game: I would sometimes initiate redials when trying to power down, or playback would resume playing as I was powering down, or nothing would happen at all. (I’m guessing this is a software issue that might get worked out in a future revision.)

Ultimately, my experience using the 10245 was as mixed as the phrase “Monoprice Premium” sounds. Certain aspects of the 10245 were well executed while other areas were, well, not. What makes the 10245 a solid recommendation here is its solid build quality and its remarkable audio for the price. The 10245 is king of the hill under $100.

Subjekt Pulse Bluetooth Headphones

Subjekt’s $100 Subjekt Pulse Bluetooth Headphones aims to provide both style and performance, says the company. The headphone’s plastic headphone sports a large Subjekt logo on each side, just above each earpiece. The earpiece extensions are stamped metal and provide about an inch of extension on either side. In the past, I have been skeptical as to the value of folding headphones. Not headphones that fold into a small bundle, but those that fold into a less large bundle. Using the Pulse, which doesn’t feature any folding for compactness during travel, I missed the small reduction in footprint even a single hinge in the headband can afford.

(My review sample of the Pulse had a matte-black headband with glossy black lettering. Subjekt has since revised the Pulse to use a glossy black headband with white logos, but the two versions are otherwise identical.)

subjekt pulse bluetooth headphones
Subjekt’s Pulse

The Pulse’s built-in control buttons are located on the right earpiece. The central power button also serves as a play/pause/phone button. A light in the middle of this button provides basic information such as connection status, power state, and low battery. The playback and volume controls eschew the common diamond layout in favor of a square configuration with volume-down and -up buttons on top and track back and forward on the bottom. Even over several weeks of use, I never got used to the novel control arrangement—I had just enough doubt as to the relative positioning of the controls that I was hesitant to make any adjustments during long podcasts for fear of losing my spot. The buttons are a rubberized plastic, and work well; I just wish they used a more traditional layout.

In terms of comfort, the combination of thin earpads and a headband that squeezes too tightly meant that I had to regularly adjust the headphones to ease the pressure. If you have an average to narrow head, this will likely be less of an issue, although I suspect that the thin on-ear cushioning will still be uncomfortable.

The Pulse is physically similar to other headphones I’ve recently reviewed, including the Eagle Tech Arion, above. However, the Pulse’s audio performance lags behind its peers. I found the audio to be harsh, thanks to an overemphasis in the higher frequencies—across my usual range of blues, jazz, pop and rock listening, it was difficult to listen to most vocals and instruments in the upper midrange range. I found myself almost wincing while listening to the upper registers of female vocalists, many sections of lead electric guitar, and drumkit cymbals. Lower frequencies—across the entire bass range—were also lacking: The standing bass on a jazz recording was clearly audible, but it lacked any real sense of presence or depth. The Pulse might perform better with synthetic pop, but it just wasn’t a good fit for my listening tastes.

As with many Bluetooth headphones, I had a poor experience using the built-in microphone for Siri: On my iPhone, Siri’s microphone icon indicates an audio level of nearly 50 percent—meaning lots of noise—even when I wasn’t speaking any commands. On many occasions, this left Siri waiting indefinitely for “the rest” of my command, as it seemed to think I was still talking. Manually ending the input sequence allowed Siri to begin processing the request, but these audio issues also often led to poor accuracy. I was surprised by this poor performance, given the good performance of the apparently similar Arion.

Subjekt claims battery life of up to 10 hours of audio playback, 11 hours of phone use, or 250 hours of standby—similar to the promised life of most of the other models here. I used the Pulse daily for almost three weeks on a couple charges, so Subjekt’s claims seem to be on the conservative side.

The Pulse has an understated style that I find attractive, and it’s competitively constructed and priced, but when it comes to audio quality, the Pulse falls well short of its promise.

Bottom line

The world is going wireless, and good wireless audio is finally within reach. Monoprice’s 10245 is the best-sounding of the headphones I tested here, so much so that I can overlook its balky controls and average microphone. That the 10245 is the second-least-expensive model of the bunch is nice bonus. That performance, however, comes at the expense of size and bulk. For a more compact choice, MEElectronics’s Air-Fi Runaway AF32 gets the nod, thanks to above-average sound quality, good battery life, and good comfort; Eagle Tech’s Arion is a good choice for a compact design on a budget. I would steer clear of the other models, though Manhattan’s Flyte might be worth considering if only the company would let you disable its audio-processing feature.

This story, "Budget Bluetooth review: Six wireless headphones for a song" was originally published by Macworld.

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At a Glance
  • Subjekt Pulse Bluetooth Headphones

  • Monoprice Premium Bluetooth Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphones (10245)

  • MEElectronics Air-Fi Runaway AF32 Stereo Bluetooth Wireless Headphones

  • Manhattan Flyte Wireless Headset

  • Eagle Tech Arion ET-ARHP200BF-BR Foldable Bluetooth Headset

  • Able Planet True Fidelity BT400B Wireless Headset

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