I get that everyone loves earbuds, but I’m not a fan. They’re uncomfortable, and I don’t like the sound clarity. I had a chance to try some top-of-the-line earbuds too from Jaybird, JBL, and Beats by Dre before my ex-roommates got greedy and stole them. They didn’t manage to get their desperate hands on the high-end headphones, though.
I spent the last month switching between two pairs to determine which I liked best: Cleer’s BT Wireless On-Ear or Master & Dynamic’s MW60 Over-Ear headphones. I tried them with a variety of music, movies, games, and put them on with beanies, hoodies, and glasses to see how well they held up.
While impressive, it’s important to know these headphones are still unable to compete with the sound clarity and range possible with wired connections and drivers. This is because of the limitations of Bluetooth.
How Bluetooth Degrades Audio Quality
While Bluetooth and WiFi may seem similar to the layman, there’s a very important difference in the available bandwidth. Bluetooth is designed to consume as little power as possible, and it carries with it a limited bandwidth. Bluetooth was created to accommodate the range of a human’s voice, which is from 85 to 255 Hz, for hands-free telephone usage.
Music was never the intended purpose, but we’ve evolved since then and our phones are now mobile devices. Still, we’re using Bluetooth’s 25Mbps wireless connection over WiFi Direct’s 250Mbps connection. Wireless G-band networks offer 11 Mbps, while N-bands offer 300 Mbps.
What this means is your audio files are often (although not always) compressed when transferred from the phone to the headset. This compression happens in addition to the compression already in the file. An MP3, for example, isn’t CD quality already, and even that file is being recompressed and decompressed in transmission.
The result is loss of audio fidelity, something that both of these headphones claim to combat.
Under the Hood
Priced at $149, Cleer’s BT Wireless headphones have a 40mm Neodynium speaker driver with a 20Hz to 20MHz frequency response range and 16 Ohm impedence. They’re equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 and have built-in aptX codec support. The rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery provides up to 16 hours of playback, according to the company website (this seemed to hold true, as I only had to charge them about once a week).
There’s also an optional headphone jack for passive audio. BT Wireless is mostly white, with silver trim and touchscreen controls on the left can.
Master & Dynamic’s MW60 headphones are priced at $549 and come in three color variations (I have the Gunmetal/Black Leather). Their leather and stainless steel design give them an industrial look of professional-grade headphones.
MW60 uses a 45mm Neodymium driver at 32 ohms impedance and a 5Hz to 25MHz frequency response range. They’re equipped with Bluetooth 4.1 and have built-in aptX codec support. The rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery provides up to 16 hours of playback, according to the company website (this seemed to hold true, as I only had to charge them about once a week).
Comfort and Fit
I have a large head, but it’s thin and with large ears on both sides. Cleer’s BT headphones still managed to fit over my ears just fine. They’re much thicker than what I’m used to with on-ear headphones, but still feel light (though nowhere near as light as Audio Technica’s featherweight Isolation and Open Air headphones.)
Over time, I had some issues with the looseness of the headphones causing misalignment with my ears. I found myself having to adjust them throughout long walks and bike rides. Occasional ear sweat would build up with extended usage (especially during physical activity), but overall, they felt great.
MW60 takes comfort to a whole other level, however. Although heavier than Cleer BT (345g compared to 230g), the removable memory foam padding encased in lambskin leather snugly fits against the sides of your head to evenly distribute the weight. I did have some issues over time wearing them over glasses, however.
The cans on Cleer BT and MW60 are the same width, but MW60’s are about 50 percent taller. They fit well over my ears and created less ear sweat (although it still existed during physical activity).
Performance and Longevity
Cleer’s BT headphones actually held up well in tests for what they are. They’re not noise cancelling, but still more clarity at higher volumes than the wireless Jaybird, JBL, and Beats earbuds. There is some distortion however, and the bass of Lil Wayne was heavily dampened.
While the touch interface looks cool when it lights up a bright blue, in usage, I wanted physical buttons more than anything. I often accidentally skipped or paused a song by bumping them with my hand while pulling my hood up or adjusting them. What sounds good on paper became a major annoyance throughout my usage.
Leaving my phone in my room, I was able to freely wander around the house without issue, though I could hear interference in the garage and began having connection issues as I wandered around the backyard.
With the music turned up full blast, I couldn’t hear traffic as I walked down the street, but I could still hear the occasional horn or big rig when it passed. These headphones could support a decently high volumes, but I felt like I was only turning up the treble.
Believe it or not, Master & Dynamic also skipped the noise cancelling in MW60. This is because the company went out of its way to distort the audio as little as possible. Still, the isolation provided by sealing air around the ear did a great job of cancelling much of the background noise from the real world.
Because the audio is manipulated less, I felt like the volume didn’t get quite as high as Cleer’s BT, but that could just be a trick. I’m in the back half of my 30s, and years of concert and festival attendance has led to some significant hearing loss (tinnitus being a tell-tale sign). There’s no denying the more fuller sound coming from the MW60 over the BT Wireless, however.
Some of this can be attributed to the larger frequency range. Although it exceeds what a human can hear, those frequencies do add to the overall sound. In addition, the extra space between your ear drums and the speaker give the audio time to mix before it hits your ears. Lil Wayne’s bass started to sound almost as good as it does on a corded headset (though not quite, as I couldn’t ever feel the bass rattle my stomach).
Another aspect that contributes to this is the approach to tuning. While Cleer BT utilizes a digital equalizer, M&D went acoustic, so you’ll hear a much warmer sound (like switching from a CD to a vinyl album).
The buttons took a minute to get used to finding by feel while they were on and I had to keep reminding myself there’s another ledge above where I’m feeling on the outskirts of the can. They were much easier to navigate than Cleer’s touch interface, however.
It feels a bit unfair to compare $150 headphones with a $550 pair, but I’ve always wanted to know if it’s a difference you can truly hear. While Cleer’s BT headset is great for its price point, it simply can’t compare to the quality of the Master & Dynamic’s MW60.
A more solid construction, better sound isolation, and more clear audio all contributed to this decision. The padding is thicker and softer, and they aren’t cold on your ears during the winter. Premium materials are used inside and out, and no corner is cut.
The constant annoyance of accidentally tapping the outer touchscreen on Cleer BT played a role in its demise as well. They outperform Bluetooth earbuds, but for the best possible sound quality, MW60 is the way to go.
In fact, although not as good as some of the high-end wired gaming headsets I have with drivers on a desktop, they’re the best mobile headphones I’ve tried so far. And the only ones I’d dare call high fidelity.
Cleer BT – B
Master & Dynamic MW60 – A