Bluetooth headphones are the ultimate in portable listening convenience. Without wires to get tangled in your bag or pocket, you can take them out, pop them in, and listen to your music, audiobook, or podcasts hassle-free.
But there's a flaw in this perfect plan; Bluetooth headphones are a wireless device. Air travel, one of the most common times to pop in a pair of earbuds and tune out the world,does not allow wireless devices.
So can you use Bluetooth headphones on a plane? The answer is yes, but it's a yes with a caveat. Let's dig deeper.
Before we get into how they work, it's worth noting that you may hear the term "wireless headphones" used interchangeably with Bluetooth headphones on occasion. While this is technically accurate, it's a bit like describing a Ford Buick as a "car". Bluetooth is a wireless technology, but there are many wireless technologies out there, and Bluetooth refers to one specific variant.
So, here’s the basics.
Bluetooth allows devices within a short range of each other to connect without the need for cables. The system requires authentication in the form of "pairing", though the degree of security needed to pair can often be changed in your device's settings. Bluetooth can transmit data, of course, but for this particular situation, we're primarily interested in audio.
Before transmission, audio is compressed by the sending device to reduce the amount of information that needs sending. It is then decompressed at the other end, which is one reason why some Bluetooth devices are not compatible with each other.
In this context, the term "advantages" comes with a big drawback. If you needed to communicate over long distances or receive information from multiple sources, Bluetooth would be a terrible technology to use. When it comes to sending high-quality audio over a short distance between two devices, however, Bluetooth is one of the best techniques we currently have.
The narrow focus of the signal allows Bluetooth to have a much higher audio quality than you can expect from other wireless technologies. It also allows private signals. But above all, it is compact; other wireless technologies aren't practical for this kind of use.
Knowing how Bluetooth compares to other wireless technologies may be appealing, but those other wireless devices aren't the competition in this scenario; wired headphones are.
Wired headphones do have their advantages; they don't require batteries, they are straightforward to set up, and they offer even better audio quality than Bluetooth. On the other hand, Bluetooth headphones are literally wireless, meaning you don't need to untangle them when you want to put them on. This lack of wires means they're less likely to get caught on things, or accidentally strangle you!
Perhaps the most significant advantage that Bluetooth headphones have is compatibility. The most common use for headphones these days is for listening to audio from a phone, and the trend in mobile phone design is moving ever more towards entirely wireless connections. With the proliferation of wireless charging, mobile phones may soon be completely free of physical ports.
So, now you understand what Bluetooth headphones are, let's get back to that question we mentioned at the top. Officially, most airlines state that no wireless devices are allowed to be active during a flight, and Bluetooth certainly falls into that category.
However, these are often rules that were put in place many years ago, before the proliferation of things like WiFi. Indeed, many airlines offer in-flight WiFi services. The crux of the "no wireless" devices is mobile phones, not localized wireless technology like Bluetooth. It is believed that wireless transmissions, such as the signal your cell phone receives, can interfere with the plane's systems. While banning wireless devices may be an extremely over-cautious action to take, few passengers begrudge them that caution given the potential consequences of a failure in mid-flight.
The general rule is that your devices must be in "Airplane Mode" during the flight. For most modern devices, this isn't a problem as they will allow you to switch Bluetooth and WiFi on while in this mode. For some older devices, "Airplane Mode" will turn all wireless radios off. In those cases, you may find yourself technically allowed to use your Bluetooth headphones, but practically unable to.
It should be stressed that while this general rule may be right for the majority of airlines, you should always check with the specific airline you plan to fly with before making any assumptions.
Unlike the rules about using wireless devices during a flight, the rules about landing and takeoff are far less ambiguous. Airlines clearly state that all devices should be switched to Airplane Mode and held in place or put under the seat. If a device is too large to be held, it should switch off entirely and put away.
Rules on takeoff and landing-as well as during taxi-are as much about keeping your attention on the crew as they are about avoiding wireless interference with the plane's systems. Those periods are when the cabin crew will give any necessary safety information, and when the captain will relay any information about the flight itself.
So, can you use Bluetooth headphones on plane takeoff, landing, and taxi? It's best to assume the answer is no in all cases, though most airlines will have a list of approved devices-as well as when you can and can't use them during the flight.
It's essential to understand the practicalities of being on a flight. You are thousands of feet in the air in a metal tube with potentially hundreds of other people. Safety is taken very seriously in the air, and there is not much in the way of tolerance when dealing with potential problem passengers.
For this reason, if a member of the crew asks you to remove your headphones or switch your device off, you should do as they say. Even if you feel you are entirely within the airline's rules regarding the equipment and your use of it.
If that is the case, you should undoubtedly lodge a complaint with the airline once you are back on the ground, but while in the air, you should comply with any requests from the crew.
You do not want to be the reason a plane full of people turned around and landed back at their departure airport.
If, after reading all of that, you've decided you'd like a pair of Bluetooth headphones for your next flight, we've put together some basic things to look out for when you purchase a pair.
Unlike wired headphones, Bluetooth headphones need their own power source. The good news is that these are relatively small, low powered devices, so they can often last a reasonable amount of time between charges. If you opt for larger over-ear headphones, you should expect to get at least 20 hours of use out of a charge, often more.
For wireless earbuds, expect battery life in the range of eight hours, though it may be less for true wireless earbuds where each bud carries its own charge. Also, be aware that more volume drains your battery faster. If you listen to your music loud, you'll need better battery life.
The compression techniques used in your Bluetooth headphones significantly affect the sound quality, but they also affect latency. Latency is essentially the amount of time it takes for the audio to get from your device to your ears. If you are just listening to music, latency isn't particularly relevant. However, if you're planning to use your headphones to watch movies, high latency can be irritating, and it will result in the audio from your video seeming to be out of sync.
It should go without saying that any Bluetooth headphones you buy should be comfortable, especially if you plan to wear them on a long flight. Unless you're flying first class, the seats on planes have been getting smaller and smaller for years, and you don't need uncomfortable headphones adding to your neighbour's elbow and the reclined seat in front of you.
If at all possible, try the headphones on before you buy them. And if you can't try a specific model, be sure to try different styles. There's no sense in buying a top of the range set of Bluetooth earbuds, only to find out they irritate your ears!
Flying isn't always the most enjoyable experience, and long flights, in particular, can be soul-draining. But with a decent set of Bluetooth headphones, your favourite entertainment, and knowledge of what you can and can't do on a flight, it should make your flight more enjoyable.