The Real Reason Why Wi-Fi Headphones Are Still a Dream

It's 2024 and we still haven't seen a lot of Wi-Fi Headphones
It’s 2024 and we still haven’t seen a lot of Wi-Fi Headphones

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We’re so close yet still so far in terms of Wi-Fi headphones.

The idea of Wi-Fi headphones has always been exciting. Imagine seamless, lossless audio streaming without any wires.

It’s a dream for many music fans, but it’s still not a reality.

Why? Because Wi-Fi, even with its advantages, just doesn’t work well for wireless headphones... yet.

The Concept and Potential Benefits of Wi-Fi Headphones

Wi-Fi headphones’ main appeal is in their ability to stream high-quality, lossless audio.

Lossless audio files contain more data than compressed files, resulting in a higher bitrate.

For instance, a CD-quality lossless file has a bitrate of 1,411 kbps, while a typical compressed file has a bitrate of 256 kbps. This higher bitrate keeps the audio as close to the original as possible.

Unfortunately, Bluetooth can’t handle the large amount of data in lossless audio files because of its limited bandwidth. So, instead, it compresses audio using codecs like SBC, AAC, or aptX to transmit it efficiently.

In contrast, Wi-Fi has a much higher bandwidth. In fact, it can even support lossless formats like FLAC and ALAC without compression.

In theory, Wi-Fi’s higher bandwidth and throughput could let you stream lossless audio at 24-bit/96kHz. This would give you a more immersive and detailed listening experience than Bluetooth could ever dream of.

Technical Limitations of Wi-Fi for Headphones

Even with these potential benefits, there are several technical limitations that make it hard to create Wi-Fi headphones.

Here’s why:

1. Wi-Fi is a notorious battery hog

Comparison of the typical power consumption of Bluetooth vs Wi-Fi on mobile devices. (From: Research Gate)
Comparison of the typical power consumption of Bluetooth vs Wi-Fi on mobile devices. (From: Research Gate)

Bluetooth is made for low-power use, but Wi-Fi drains battery life like someone drinking water after getting trapped in the desert for one day.

Imagine using a pair of Wi-Fi headphones that need charging thrice a day. It’s simply inconvenient and, not to mention, impractical.

It’s almost funny to think of small, battery-powered devices like headphones using Wi-Fi, where saving power is so important.

Unless you fancy having a brick-sized battery hanging off your head, Wi-Fi just doesn’t cut it.

2. Wi-Fi’s large-burst data approach poses latency issues for real-time audio

Wi-Fi sends data in large bursts that need a big buffer to keep the playback smooth. This buffering causes latency, which can be a real problem for real-time audio like phone calls, movies, or gaming.

You can’t possibly enjoy your movie if you hear the explosions seconds after seeing them on-screen.

While this latency can be manageable in speaker bars or home audio systems, it’s a dealbreaker for portable, on-the-go devices like headphones.

3. Wi-Fi isn’t exactly better at handling interferences than Bluetooth

Just like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi operates on the already crowded 2.4GHz. Sure, it can also operate at 5GHz frequency bands, but that’s not any better.

This means it can be affected by interference from many other devices, from your microwave to your neighbor’s baby monitor. So, it might not be the most reliable for stable, high-quality audio in busy places.

4. Wi-Fi headphones may have compatibility issues

Presentation of the Qualcomm XPAN technology at the Snapdragon Summit 2023. (From: X/Bob O'Donnell)
Presentation of the Qualcomm XPAN technology at the Snapdragon Summit 2023. (From: X/Bob O’Donnell)

Some companies are looking into solutions that mix Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, like Qualcomm’s XPAN technology. But these solutions have their own problems.

First, they aren’t backward compatible, so users would have to buy new devices with the supported chipset.

They’re also proprietary, so they don’t follow an open standard and can’t be used across different platforms.

Plus, these hybrid solutions can even create isolated network tunnels, preventing your headphones from seeing other devices on the network.

5. Wi-Fi’s benefits don’t entirely outweigh the hassles

Discussing what Bluetooth LE can do in the Virtual Convention 2021. (From: Bluetooth)
Discussing what Bluetooth LE can do in the Virtual Convention 2021. (From: Bluetooth)

Considering how much Bluetooth has evolved over the years, it’s simply not justifiable for companies to invest a lot in solving Wi-Fi issues on headphones yet.

The latest Bluetooth LE technology, for example, has a better range and bandwidth than other past Bluetooth versions. It works well over short ranges, uses less power, and is made to handle small, frequent data packets, which is more than enough for most users’ audio needs.

Also, almost every modern device supports Bluetooth, so it works seamlessly across platforms.

Wi-Fi headphones, however, would require new infrastructure, compatible devices, and potentially proprietary standards, making them harder to adopt.

Sure, Bluetooth’s real-world bandwidth is lower than its theoretical max and much lower than Wi-Fi. It’s also not immune to latencies and interference. But for casual listening, it’s generally good enough.

Past and Present Attempts at Wi-Fi Headphones

The lack of successful Wi-Fi headphones in the market can also be blamed on the challenges faced by early attempts to introduce this technology, not just the technical limitations.

The Koss Striva Pro were the world's first headphones that used Wi-Fi to stream music wirelessly. (From: Koss)
The Koss Striva Pro were the world’s first headphones that used Wi-Fi to stream music wirelessly. (From: Koss)

Take the Koss Striva line, for instance, which was the first to offer Wi-Fi connectivity way back in 2012. But they didn’t become the big hit Koss thought they’d be. In fact, they were a bit of a flop.

For one, the Striva struggled with poor battery life. In fact, the Striva Pro headphones had a battery life of only 8 hours, while the in-ear Striva Tap IEMs lasted a mere 1.2 hours.

To make matters worse, they also needed a Wi-Fi transmitter (called the Content Access Point or CAP) that only worked for about two hours.

The setup process was also complicated. Users had to configure Wi-Fi networks and manage music streams through a web interface.

On top of all this, Striva’s Wi-Fi feature also made Koss price them pretty high at around $500. At the same time, Bluetooth headphones were getting better in quality and more affordable. So, a lot of users just didn’t find these appealing and chose typical Bluetooth options instead.

Fast forward to 2024, there are still only a few companies trying to put Wi-Fi in their headphones.

One of which is the HED Unity headphones, which boast 24-bit/96kHz lossless audio over Wi-Fi.

But cutting-edge tech like this is expensive. So, the Unity are priced much higher than most popular wireless headphones (at more than $2K). It also remains to be seen how well they handle Wi-Fi’s battery life and latency problems.

A close look at the HED Unity headphones. (From: GetUnity)
A close look at the HED Unity headphones. (From: GetUnity)
Instead of focusing on Wi-Fi, most newer headphones are using solutions like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound. This tries to deliver high-resolution audio over Bluetooth with less latency.

But that doesn’t mean Wi-Fi headphones will never happen. They might not be here yet, but they’ll probably be popular in the future.

For example, Qualcomm’s latest flagship audio platform, the S7 Pro Gen 1, supports Wi-Fi implementation and will begin appearing in products next year.

This isn’t fully Wi-Fi, though. It’s a hybrid solution that will let users switch between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections when needed.

Still, it’s a step closer to our Wi-Fi headphones dream.

Until then, most of us will probably stick with their trusty Bluetooth (or wired) headphones.

But who knows? Maybe one day, we’ll all be using Wi-Fi headphones and wondering how we ever lived without them.

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