The benefits of wire-free headsets have been recognised ever since NASA pioneered wireless technology for their astronauts in the early 1960s.
Four decades later, the development of Bluetooth saw Noughties trend-setters sporting a wireless earpiece to use their mobile phone hands-free for the first time.
And more recently, headphones have become the latest portable devices to free themselves from the shackles of cabling – specifically, the ubiquitous 3.5mm jack lead.
The first wireless headphones were launched in 2004, but wireless earphones are a more recent development.
By common consent, the first wireless in-ear headphones were launched in 2015 by Japanese brand Onkyo, since they didn’t require a cable connecting the two separate earpieces.
However, Apple brought wireless earphones to widespread public attention the following year with their AirPods.
Sales were undoubtedly boosted by Apple’s decision to eliminate the 3.5mm headphone jack on their iPhone 7.
Even wired headphones can only be connected through the Lightning port also used for charging – meaning a binary choice between listening to audio or replenishing the battery.
But how do their wireless counterparts connect and function?
Something borrowed, something Blue
A conventional set of wired headphones will receive digital data along a thin cable from the primary device’s 3.5mm jack lead socket – a modern evolution of the thicker 6.35mm socket.
Although wireless devices occasionally connect via infrared signals or across domestic WiFi networks, Bluetooth has become the default connection method.
That’s because infrared is easily baffled by thick fabrics or leather, and WiFi networks aren’t always available outside the home.
Conversely, a pair of Bluetooth-enabled devices can communicate in any conditions, from a distance of up to 30 feet from the device they’re connected to.
Crucially, one device can support multiple simultaneous Bluetooth connections – such as two independent stereo headphones.
This provides the full stereoscopic experience without a single wire being needed – for a while, at least.
Eventually, the modestly-sized power packs inside a wireless headset or earpiece will be drained, and it’ll be necessary to recharge them using a power source hardwired to the mains.
This might be a docking station or a charging plate, most probably using the Qi wireless standard for optimal inter-device compatibility.
Because of their diminutive size, wireless earpieces tend to have a far shorter battery life than conventional wireless headphones.
The former can deliver a maximum of seven hours playback, whereas on-ear headphones have been known to last for 24 hours from a single charge.
Nonetheless, wireless buds are perfectly suitable for enjoying some rock music during a gym workout, or livening up the rush-hour commute with a podcast.
Are they easy to connect?
Manufacturers have done their best to simplify the process of pairing wireless earphones with smartphones and tablets.
If the primary device has Bluetooth turned on, it should be able to detect any devices which are discoverable.
This often involves tapping a pairing button to flag up a peripheral’s presence. As an example, AirPods need to be inside their charging case before a first connection takes place.
Pressing a white circle on the back of the case causes an amber light to start flashing as the AirPods look for a phone to sync to.
A flashing signal on any wireless peripheral generally suggests availability or pairing in progress, with a solid light indicating the peripheral has connected successfully.
Any paired accessories should automatically be detected by the phone in future, instantly rerouting audio output away from the phone’s built-in speakers.
Like all electronic devices, Bluetooth can become glitchy, with random disconnections or forgotten peripherals, but this is usually easy to overcome.