I've used alot of headphones in my time as a professional programmer. Everything from cheap 20$ wireless earbuds, to $150 wireless earbuds, to $200 wired headphones and so on. And, while they all have have their own standout features, only a few of them have really stood out in terms of quality and in getting out of the way so that I can focus on the work at hand.
If you are on the market for a new pair of headphones can can't quite decide, here are my 3 picks for the best wireless headphones in 2021, particularly if you spend most of your time sitting in front of a computer writing code.
3. Logitech Pro X Wireless
I'm not a huge gamer these days. But when I was, I used the Logitech Pro X's (wired) as my headset of choice for 2 reasons.
The first reason is that these come built in with Blu mic voice technology. That means that out of the box, your voice sounds fantastic and ready for that next YouTube video. You can even customize the microphone settings to a voice signature of your choice.
And the first reason is that these sound amazing. They might even sound better than the other 2 listed below, or at least come very close. The 50mm drivers, the external sound card and the online library of pre-configured equalizer settings pretty much ensure that you can find the sound that is most fitting to you and to your work setting.
Note that these are definitely designed for gaming though. They aren't sleek office friendly looking headphones. They are a tough aluminum and steel headset designed for hour long PvP sessions. The leatherette headband offers plenty of support and the clamp force is just strong enough that these don't slide around easily. But they do not feel like vice grips either.
They make the list though because of their comfort (you can wear them for hours), their durability (metal construction), fantastic sound quality and their starting price. You can check the latest pricing over on Amazon, though they typically tend to go for $179 and are not always in stock.
2. Sony XM4
Quite possibly the most popular choice for wireless headphone currently on the market. And that's because if there is one thing that Sony does well, it's audio. Even their cheapest wired earbuds have a high-end sound. I know because I used those for years when I was an up and coming college student.
The Sony XM4's are a tiny leap up from the previous XM3's, only adding the last remaining missing features to the almost perfect wireless headset. That includes features such as proximity sensors that detect when you have taken off the headphones as well as voice detection that automatically pauses your music if it detects that you are speaking. Probably not the most useful features while coding, but a nice to have in any case.
The battery life with noise cancellation on is estimated to be around 30 hours and 38 hours with noise-cancellation off. That is a ridiculously high number in my opinion. In a good way. And it beats most other competitors out of the water, including the others mentioned on this list.
The noise cancelling on the XM4's is also quite possibly the best that you can find currently on a wireless headset. Which is important if you are working in a noisy environment or office setting. Though these days as remote work is more common for programmers, I find that perhaps the need for high quality noise cancellation might not be as important. Unless you have kids or a noisy dog.
So why are they number 2 on the list instead of leading the front? Well, while the battery life, sound quality and noise-cancellation on the XM4's are quite possibly the best that you can get, the same can not be said for the microphone quality.
From the various tests and benchmarks that you can find online (which I heavily researched), the XM4's typically come in at the bottom end. And I know what you're saying:
'Walt, this is a headset for programmers and music aficionados! What's a mic have to do with it??'
Maybe a few years ago I would have agreed 100% and these would have made the top spot. But these days, I think it's safe to say that most people are spending a much larger percentage of time in online conference calls. So needless to say, the microphone is vital.
I personally spend a good 4 to 6 hours per day talking to my coding bootcamp students or my personal blog consulting clients. And having a single pair of headphones that sound good, have a decent battery life, have decent noise cancellation and a good microphone is the lofty goal.
If you don't care about the microphone though, then for sure pick these up. You can find them on Amazon here, and while they retail for $349, you can almost certainly find them on sale for $279 a few times per year.
Which brings me to the last item on the list.
1. Surface Headphones 2
If you've read my blog in the past, you know that I am a big fan of the Surface line from Microsoft in general. I've used the Surface 3 to build and run an entire startup, and now I use the Surface Pro 6 to essentially handle everything that I do on a day to day basis. Everything from managing my blog, to writing, to consulting and teaching.
The Surface Headphone's 2 are pretty much icing on the cake when it comes to putting together the Surface ecosystem. They're sleek, lightweight, finally matte black and have those fantastic dials on each of the sides to control volume levels. These headphones look like they belong in a corporate setting to be perfectly honest.
The other 2 headphones listed above might stand out if you're at work (particularly the Logitech gaming headset). But these look like the person wearing them is busy doing something important. And probably something to do with Office 365.
The sound quality of the Surface Headphones 2 are definitely top of the line. With the included equalizer in the app, you can pretty much configure your sound to whatever makes the most sense to you. Is it better than the XM4's though? That can be debated. I would agree that while the sound on these is definitely high quality, that the XM4's have a bit better overall depth to them.
I attribute that to the fact this is still Microsoft's early attempts at audio devices. A very fair attempt, but there's just no way that it could compete so early on with a company that has decades of years in the industry.
The battery life on the Surface Headphones 2 is estimated to be around 20 hours with noise cancelling on, which is definitely on the high end, though not as high as Sony's estimated 30 hours. And after a month of daily use, I can vouch that they pretty much land around the 18-20 hour mark.
Total charge time on these though is impressive. With just 2 hours plugged in, you are topped off and good to go for the next 20 hours.
Let's talk noise cancelling. The Surface Headphones 2 has it. It has 13 levels of it to be exact, which might be overkill. 3 levels sounds about right. Off, moderate and high. But these have 13. And best of all, they are controlled through the left dial. You can slowly turn until the outside world is all but gone. Which is actually gives a very satisfying effect. How good is the noise cancelling? Well, it's actually not bad at all.
Many online reviews flagged the quality of noise cancelling as subpar on these. But honestly, if they are positioned well on your head and you find just the right level (maybe a 10 or maybe a 12), it's hard to argue that they don't work very well. But maybe not as good as the XM4's.
With less than perfect sound, a smaller battery life and adequate but not amazing noise cancellation, why did I give these the #1 spot.
There are 3 main reasons though why I gave these the number 1 position. The first being the physical control dials on each of the earpieces. The right side dial controls the volume, while the left the level of noise cancellation. And once you get used to the dials, not having them there seems almost archaic.
The XM4's have volume control on the earpieces, but it relies on touch sensors. And that means that they might not always register correctly what it is that you are trying to do. The dials solve that issue and they do it seamlessly as you can't even notice the actual dials.
The 2nd reason why these win out, is mainly because the microphone quality is much better than the Sony XM4's or the Surface Headphone 1's. Not better than the Logitech Pro X's though, with the Blu Voice technology. And for me personally, as I spend a fair amount of time talking to students on Zoom calls or consulting with clients, microphone quality is high on the list of importance.
In the past, I've had to switch headsets in between calls at times, which was a solution sure. But the convenience of having one headset to rule them all is hard to beat.
And the first reason? Well, the Surface Headphone 2's are only $249 (compared to $349 for the Surface Headphone 1's), unless you find them on sale for even lower, which you will eventually. Compare that to Sony's $349 MSRP for the XM4 and you can really start to gauge the ROI on these.
As of this writing you can find them on Amazon here for around $230.99.
Truthfully, these are all fantastic headsets and you'd be better off with any of them than with none. Particularly if you do work in less than perfect settings with distractions all around you.
Programming typically requires alot of focus for long periods of time. And we might not always get that in our corporate office, or our home office. So noise cancelling is important to some degree.
Programmer's typically like to game as well, so low latency and comfort ranks high on the list. The Logitech Pro X's are probably the most comfortable and durable headset that I've used so far.
And it's hard to nail every single one of these elements on a single device. The Surface Headphone 2's are my current daily drivers because, while not perfect, they aim to tackle each of these areas at some level. And so far, they help keep the outside noise out, they keep my voice sounding sharp and they don't break the bank in the process.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.
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