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Wireless headphones are improving faster than anything else in tech

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Equipped with USB-C, voice assistants, and better batteries, 2018’s wireless headphones kick 2017’s butt

Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC.
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

If you’re in the market for new wireless headphones, IFA 2018 has been an absolute treat for you. If, on the other hand, you just bought a pair, well... this is going to be an upsetting read. At this year’s IFA in Berlin, headphones manufacturers brought out a litany of meaningful, tangible, delightful improvements that have made the wireless audio market much more exciting than it was just a few days ago. Let’s take each new change in turn.

USB-C is the new charging standard

Anyone who’s been following my writing will know that I think this change is overdue. For months, I’ve been imploring headphone makers to get with the times — a majority of smartphones and laptops now charge via USB-C — but most of them kept updating their flagship models while keeping the flimsier and now outdated MicroUSB standard. No longer. Every new pair of wireless headphones or earphones I’ve come across here at IFA has featured a USB-C charging port. Whatever market data everyone has been looking at, it’s finally showing the investment into USB-C to be worthwhile, and the industry has promptly responded by flooding the Berlin Messe halls with USB-C-powered headphones.

Sony 1000X M3.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Sony’s new 1000X M3s switched to USB-C charging this year, leaving my friends who already own the earlier generations holding their heads in despair. The absence of a USB-C charging port was one of the very few reasons I didn’t award the previous 1000Xs the prize for best wireless headphones. Now, many people who might have ruled Sony out and handed Bowers & Wilkins their cash for the excellent, USB-C-powered PX will have to reconsider. You may think I’m overstating this point, but the convenience of having one charger compatible with all your gadgets is the sort of thing that you’ll be loath to retreat from once you’ve tried it.

Beside Sony, Sennheiser added USB-C to its first truly wireless earbuds, the Momentum True Wireless, and Beyerdynamic outfitted its full range of new Byrd earphones and Lagoon headphones with USB-C. I’ll admit, there are few stragglers like Audio-Technica dragging their feet with MicroUSB, but they’re increasingly in the minority. Flagship wireless headphones from this week onwards will all have USB-C as a standard expectation.

Every pair of headphones now has a voice assistant trigger

The added feature that Bose pioneered with the QC35 IIs last year — having a dedicated button to launch your preferred voice assistant — has grown widespread at IFA this year. Sony’s 1000Xs have a Google Assistant trigger, Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless do as well, and so do the Beyerdynamic Lagoon. iPhone users can opt to use the same function to talk to Siri. It’s no accident that I keep returning to these three pairs of headphones: to me, they represent a unified and extremely coherent vision for the immediate future of wireless headphones. They contain all the good ingredients that make IFA 2018 such a milestone moment for this product category.

Photo: Bose

I strongly believe that a tightly integrated voice assistant will be a key component of the future of consumer-tier headphones. Initially it will be just a simplistic link-up to your smartphone, as it is now, but over time I imagine more and more companies will try to fit the necessary processing aboard the headphones, making them autonomously smart much in the same way that smartwatches have evolved.

Battery life getting better

This is the most incremental improvement on my list, and yet it might also be the most important. Sony’s quoting 30 hours of battery life with noise canceling active on the new 1000Xs, while Beyerdynamic’s Lagoon almost matches that with 24 hours in the same mode. With noise canceling off, Beyerdynamic’s headphones go for 46 hours, while Sony’s probably become immortal and render the whole USB-C talk above redundant. This is all the product of technology maturation, with Sony also adding a new dedicated chip for noise canceling that’s supposed to be multiple times more effective. I’ve heard the way the 1000X M3s obliterate noise the moment you put them on, and I’m confident that Sony’s cans have gotten better both in the magnitude and the efficiency of their noise canceling.

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless.
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

You might think Sennheiser’s 12-hour total battery life (four in the buds with two extra four-hour charges in the case) on the Momentum True Wireless less monumental, but they’re extracted from a lightweight design that’s effortless to wear. We always say we want more battery life and would tolerate bulkier designs, but Sennheiser has rightly listened to the way we spend our money — on extra-thin phones with fewer features but slicker design — and it’s made its first wireless earbuds as small as possible. Plus, they sound pretty damn good, and 12 hours of damn good music is worth more than 20 hours of discomfort and mediocre audio.

In all cases, whether larger over-ear designs or smaller in-ear ones, each successive generation of wireless headphones is taking major steps forward in increasing battery life. The smartphone market hasn’t known such a rapid pace of improvement since the early days of 4G, when most phones had terrible battery life and every new model offered a chance to make significant advances. Now, smartphones have plateaued in most respects, we’re still waiting to see how good ARM-powered laptops will be with their extended battery, and smartwatches are waiting for more efficient chips to push them forward. Headphones are the consumer electronics category that is in the most fast-moving part of its development cycle.

Smarter design

Give designers enough time and enough tries, and they’ll really perfect a product. Sony’s third-generation 1000Xs are, once again, the cardinal example of this. These are a massive redesign from the first two 1000Xs, which were already super comfy to wear for long periods of time. But the new edition, well, it just ratchets the goodness up a couple of notches. Now even lighter, even more gentle in their embrace, these are benchmark-setting headphones. My colleagues in the Verge New York office tried them out before me, and each was elated (one, already an owner of 1000X M2s was more frustrated than thrilled) with how comfortable Sony’s latest headphones feel.

I already mentioned above that Sennheiser seems to have made the right trade-offs with its Momentum True Wireless, but the matter bears expanding upon. If we rewind to only a couple of years ago, truly wireless buds were huge, ugly, didn’t hold a connection well, and sounded like an indistinct mess of exaggerated bass and tinny treble. This is hardly ancient history, yet here we are today, looking at a pair of neatly crafted buds that you might quickly forget you’re wearing if it wasn’t for their great passive noise isolation. Oh yes, the Momentum True Wireless are also great at isolating noise.

My absolute design highlight of the whole IFA 2018 has been Beyerdynamic’s Lagoon and the way its status LEDs are integrated into the interior of the two ear cups. Obvious in hindsight, this design tweak makes the headphones simultaneously cooler to look at and more informative. And once you put them on, you get perfect visual harmony, no obnoxiously blinking blue LED to disrupt you or the people sitting nearby on a long flight.

Beyerdynamic Lagoon.
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

Looking ahead to 2019, we’ve got a new breed of wireless Bluetooth headphones coming built around Qualcomm’s next generation AptX Adaptive audio codec, designed to handle the trouble spots of wireless connectivity. And Apple is rumored to be launching new noise-canceling AirPods and “studio-quality” over-ear headphones.

The dynamism of the wireless headphones market is driven by an obvious impetus: demand continues to grow at a rapid pace, and so supply — and, importantly, the quality of the goods being supplied — is trying to keep pace. As cities grow larger, as more people have longer commutes, as podcasting networks turn into self-sustaining businesses, the desire for the best possible wireless headphones is only going to increase. And the tech industry is responding in the best possible way: by competing on quality first.