Can wireless audio quality finally match wired? We tested the latest, AptX HD

Listening to music with Bluetooth headphones connected to your phone is convenient, but wireless headphones can never compete with a great set of wired headphones for sound quality, right? Until recently, the answer would have been no. That’s changing. A new Bluetooth audio codec called AptX HD promises a better-than-CD listening experience, crucial to enjoying higher resolution music streaming apps like Tidal.

To test this claim, we’ve put the new AptX HD products up against a dedicated headphone amp/digital-to-analog converter (DAC) — the Chord Mojo — matched with a selection of awesome headphones, to see if you should cut those cables to your phone for good.

What is AptX HD?

AptX HD is a Qualcomm-developed audio protocol that claims to support Bluetooth streaming at 24bit/48kHz resolution, higher than the 16bit/44.1kHz resolution of a CD or Tidal stream. Even if you’re not fully onboard with higher resolution, uncompressed music yet, AptX HD also supposedly enhances MP3-quality compressed audio too.

AptX HD is only available in a handful of Android smartphones.

AptX HD is only available in a handful of Android smartphones, but Google will build it into Android O, meaning we’ll see more of it in the future. To get AptX HD you need a compatible smartphone, and a compatible pair of Bluetooth headphones, plus — preferably — lossless (i.e., uncompressed) audio files. At the time of writing, the LG G6 and the OnePlus 5 are the only two current smartphones that support the tech, but the older LG G5 and OnePlus 3/3T also have the feature. Outside of phones, various Astell & Kern music players also support it. For headphones, you’ll need options like Audio-Technica’s ATH-DSR9BT/ATH-DSR7BT over-ear cans, or the LG Tone Active+ halo-style in-ear headset.

Bluetooth like you’ve never heard before

With a fully charged LG G6 in hand, a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT, and a subscription to Tidal Hi-Fi all paid up, we settled down for a quick AptX HD test. Fifteen minutes turned into three hours, and we’d inadvertently spent the entire evening saying “just one more track” as we scrolled through Tidal’s app. The Audio-Technica headphones, without any doubt, provide the best Bluetooth listening experience this author ever had. It’s not a solo effort either. The LG G6 sounds incredible, and gives a stronger musical performance than the OnePlus 5.

Mobile Audio LG earbuds
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Yes, AptX HD is that good, but’s it’s no surprise the Audio-Technica headphones sound astonishing. A set of specially developed 45mm drivers are in each earcup, each with a quad-core voice coil, to which a digital signal is sent using its Pure Digital Drive technology, which does away with a digital-to-analog converter. Comparing the same track with the same headphones played through the OnePlus 5 was a lesser experience. The phone couldn’t reproduce the wide soundstage, punch, or wonderfully full sound generated by the G6.

Put the AptX HD headphones aside and try a set of regular, but still super, Bluetooth headphones — in this case, a pair of B&O Play H8 — and the difference is immediately and strikingly noticeable. There’s less presence, depth, and spaciousness from the music, specifically. Plus, the increased clarity with AptX HD gave the impression of more volume than standard Bluetooth. It was only noticeable when playing uncompressed music through Tidal, however. Both sounded very similar playing compressed MP3 files stored on the phone.

Hey, big spender

The Audio-Technica DSR9BT headphones cost $550, or 500 British pounds, which is a lot of money to spend. What if you want to spend less, and already have the right phone? LG comes to the rescue with the Tone Active+, a set of in-ear headphones worn halo-style that come not only with AptX HD but a wealth of other features, including fitness tracking and external stereo speakers.

Whatever you choose, AptX HD is a wireless audio revelation, and you won’t be disappointed.

They’re available for around $110, and the great news is they’re strong competitors for the Audio-Technica headphones. They don’t have quite the same presence though — the DSR9BT puts you center stage in a concert venue with remarkable clarity — but we’d argue they’re more suitable for mobile use anyway. The battery is long-lasting, they’re convenient to carry around, and are relatively inconspicuous.

There’s even a third option. Astell & Kern’s tiny $180 XB10 Bluetooth headphone DAC also has AptX HD onboard, and provided it’s connected to an AptX HD phone, will supercharge your preferred wired headphones without upgrading them. Digital Trends noted the XB10’s warmer lyrical tones and wide soundstage in our review.

Whatever you choose, AptX HD is a wireless audio revelation, and you won’t be disappointed.

Embrace the wire

Or will you?

Maybe you don’t mind wires. Maybe you don’t mind carrying something a little bulkier around, just to get the best sound quality possible. The G6, AptX HD, and a set of DSR9BT headphones sounds better than any Bluetooth setup this author has heard before; but how about up against a Chord Mojo DAC?

Mobile Audio Chord Mojo bands phone
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Chord Mojo, a $530 headphone amp/DAC, has a pair of 3.5mm headphone ports and requires a MicroUSB-to-USB Type-C cable to work with the G6 and OnePlus 5. It’s built like a tank, has 10-hours of battery life, and boasts sound enhancing technology usually found in audio processors that cost four times as much.

If all you’ve ever done is listen to your phone using bundled or cheap headphones, the Chord Mojo will be a life-changing experience, something like the chronically myopic putting on a pair of glasses for the first time. It’s utterly, mind-bendingly, stunningly fabulous. You have to assume Harry Potter has waved his wand over the Mojo and instilled it with some magic, it sounds so impossibly wonderful. The Mojo, combined with the LG G6, is simply mobile audio nirvana.

Yes, it’s superior to the AptX HD Bluetooth experience; but maybe not for the reason you think.

Headphone agnostic

The reason is because you can use almost any headphones with the Mojo and they’ll sound incredible. We repeatedly listened to three main pairs. The Brainwavz B200 $200 dual balanced armature in-ears are superb, with a dynamic sound that makes the vocals come alive, backed up by detailed, realistic mids and an intimate soundstage. Too much money? Denon’s new $100 C621R in-ears give the bass kick the B200’s lack, with a richer, less-shrill vocal response. Still more than you want to pay? Meters Music’s $65 M-Ears combine the best of both, enhancing the soundstage and bringing out more detail, with a stronger bass punch.

The point we’re making here is, the Mojo makes your headphones sound better than ever before, almost regardless of what they are, or how much they cost. It also made all our smartphones sound better, not just the G6. This versatility is what makes us tell you to go out and buy it now, if you really want to experience mobile audio in the best way possible.

But carrying it around is a pain. Why? Cables. Lots of cables, which is why we’re so thankful AptX HD improves Bluetooth audio quality to the degree it does. Wireless audio is improving; but it still has a way to go before it can match the Mojo’s magical qualities. The solution to our dilemma of whether we should abandon our headphone cables is an expensive one. Yes, cut them when you’re out, but have the Mojo at home, ready and waiting. We promise you’re not going to be disappointed with either.

For the curious, we used five main test tracks repeatedly, all found on Tidal. Hans Zimmer’s Time from the Inception score, Perfume’s Tokyo Girl, The Eagles’ live version of Hotel California, The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, and CloZee’s Inner Peace.

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