After 16 hours researching Bluetooth audio technology and Bluetooth receivers (including three hours dedicated to researching portable models), we spent dozens of hours using 10 portable models, and four additional hours conducting in-depth testing. If you want to add Bluetooth connectivity to your current wired headphones—either because your phone lacks a headphone jack, or because you just want to be able to listen to audio without a direct wired connection to your phone, tablet, or computer—the BlueAnt Ribbon is the best choice for most people.
The BlueAnt Ribbon is small and lightweight, has easy-to-use controls along with battery life comparable with that of most Bluetooth headphones, and offers sound quality close to that of a wired connection. It is also durable, clips easily to your clothing, and charges using a standard Micro-USB cable. The Ribbon also has a microphone for taking calls or using voice control, though the mic’s gain is a bit quiet for noisy environments.
If the Ribbon is sold out, discontinued, or otherwise unavailable, the Griffin iTrip Clip is a good alternative, with battery life, range, microphone, and connectivity comparable to those of the Ribbon. It lacks aptX support, so sound quality won’t be as good as the Ribbon with some sources, but it still sounds good. The iTrip’s playback controls are harder to use without looking at them, but it does offer dedicated track forward and back buttons.
If you’ve invested in really good headphones and you want to listen to them wirelessly, the Creative SoundBlaster E3 offers better sound quality than our top pick thanks to a high-quality DAC chip and support for the AAC codec (especially useful for iOS devices). It’s also a great fit for headphones that require more power than most headphone jacks can provide, thanks to a beefier headphone output. Despite its relatively small size, the E3 has a relatively large battery that offers long playback times, and it also works as a wired USB DAC and headphone amplifier with most computers and portable devices. It costs a good bit more than our top pick, and its design and controls aren’t perfect, but its sound quality ensures that you get the performance your high-end headphones are capable of.
If you’ve got headphones with a removable cable that attaches to one side of the headphones, the Voxoa BTunes replaces that cable to give you truly cord-free headphones. (It’s available in separate versions for headphones with a 2.5 mm connection, a 3.5 mm connection, and for the Bose QC25.) The BTunes is a bit pricey and lacks volume controls, but it provides good sound—comparable with that of our top pick—and a truly wireless connection.
I’ve obsessed over audio gear for 14 years, going through more headphones, speakers, and audio components than I care to admit. I spent six years covering audio gear for Macworld, where I reviewed more than 75 headphones, DACs, headphone and speaker amplifiers, and computer accessories. I also contributed to Macworld’s yearly headphone and speaker buying guides. I’m passionate about good sound, and I’m not ashamed to call myself an audiophile. But just as important, I love finding great, affordable gear that connects people to the music they love. I also have a PhD in computational biology, so I have a strong technical and scientific background, and I’m not afraid to delve into technical details to answer important questions.
Bluetooth headphones are popular, but they’re still more expensive than comparable wired models, and many headphones aren’t available in Bluetooth versions. If you have a favorite pair of wired headphones that you wish you could use wirelessly with your smartphone, tablet, or computer, a portable Bluetooth audio receiver will let you do so (as long as the source has Bluetooth, of course).
Instead of connecting your headphones directly to your source, you plug them into a small device, about the size of a Fitbit Zip or a square iPod Shuffle, that receives a Bluetooth audio signal from your device, letting you keep your phone or tablet stashed safely in a pocket or bag, or charging across the room. You still have to deal with a cable—at least with most models—but it’s not connected to your source, and you can wrap it up to keep it out of the way.
These receivers also let you use your favorite wired headphones with a smartphone or other device that has no headphone jack; they also offer a simple solution for a device with a broken headphone jack.
The Bluetooth receivers we cover in this guide are portable and battery powered, so you can also use them with portable speakers, with car stereos, and in other scenarios where you need portable, battery-powered Bluetooth. For dedicated home use, we have a guide to the best home Bluetooth audio receivers, and for car use, we have a guide to car Bluetooth kits.
We began by looking at the most popular models on Amazon and checking the websites of high-profile manufacturers, ultimately assembling a list of 56 candidates. We then considered how you would actually use a Bluetooth receiver in order to identify the most important features and specifications, which resulted in a shortlist of 10 serious contenders.
The main appeal of a portable Bluetooth audio receiver is the convenience of listening to audio through your existing headphones without having a cable physically connecting those headphones to your phone. Pairing and connecting your devices to the receiver should be easy and reliable. The receiver’s connection should be strong enough to play audio without frequent skips and pauses, and ideally strong enough to let you listen to a device that’s plugged in and charging across the room. However, range doesn’t need to be as good as that of the receivers we tested for home use, as you’re unlikely to be roaming far from your phone while listening to headphones.
Because people want to be able to use their headphones on the go, we restricted our search to small, lightweight models with an integrated clip for securing the receiver to your clothing or a bag strap. These requirements eliminated a large number of models.
A Bluetooth receiver should ideally sound as good as a direct, wired connection. Sound quality depends on the receiver’s built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and its other audio circuitry, as well as how the audio is compressed for transmission: Bluetooth doesn’t have enough bandwidth to transmit uncompressed CD-quality audio, so Bluetooth devices use lossy codecs to compress audio for transmission, and can vary the compression bit rate based on available wireless bandwidth. The receiver then decodes the transmitted data for playback on your speakers.
All Bluetooth devices support Low Complexity Subband Coding (SBC)), an older codec that can sound downright bad in some implementations. Devices can optionally support the aptX codec (available on Windows and Mac computers, and most Android devices, but not iOS), as well as MP3, AAC (supported by iOS), and other codecs. Though aptX support is relatively common in home Bluetooth receivers, few portable receivers support aptX, and fewer support AAC, so we made sure to test the ones that did.
Several receivers we tested support multiple simultaneous connections to source devices, so you don’t have to manually switch connections if, for example, you want to switch from listening to your phone to listening to your tablet. In practice, this feature didn’t work well on most models we tested, and we don’t think it’s especially useful for headphones, so it wasn’t a requirement.
None of the receivers we found let you use the inline remote and microphone modules found on many headphones. Instead, they generally include their own playback controls and microphone. We prioritized models that included volume and track controls in addition to play/pause/call controls, but we considered interesting models that lacked some or all of these controls.
To test the contenders, I paired each first to an iPhone and then to a MacBook to see how easy it is to pair source devices to the receiver, how reliably the receiver connects to and disconnects from sources once paired, and how easy it is to switch the active connection to a different source. For devices that can connect to multiple devices simultaneously, I tested to see how easy and reliable it is to switch between connected devices.
I also looked at how each receiver reconnects to source devices following a disconnection (due to the devices moving out of range of another, or one device being turned off), making sure the receivers automatically connect when powered on.
To evaluate audio quality, I used each receiver for at least three hours of casual/background listening. I then compared them head-to-head by playing my favorite test tracks from the Mac and iPhone. I tested the receivers with JH Audio JH13 Pro custom in-ear monitors, AKG K7XX full-size headphones, on-ear Koss KSC-75 headphones, and a few other in-ear models. I also listened using my home stereo consisting of NHT speakers and an NAD home-theater receiver. For the Voxoa BTunes, I used a set of compatible headphones I own, the V-Moda Crossfade M-100; I also used a female-to-female 3.5 mm adapter to test the receiver with other headphones.
To test microphone quality and functionality, I made recordings using both a voice memo app and my AT&T voicemail.
I used each receiver for multiple exercise sessions, including walking and running, to evaluate ergonomics, the clip mechanism, and controls, as well as to test connection reliability and battery life. I also tested range by placing my phone at one end of my apartment and listening to music while walking to the other end of the apartment, which let me test range up to about 30 feet through walls and furniture.
In fact, a string of Ribbons, so to speak, have been my workout companions almost every day for the past four years. One lasted for two and a half years of daily workouts—as anyone who works out with headphones can tell you, that’s impressive. Two others unfortunately succumbed sooner, but only because of abuse: cable snags violent enough to rip the headphone plug out of the unit, and heavy rain. I’ve never hesitated to buy another.
The Ribbon is one of only two models under $50 I tested that support the aptX codec. (The other, the Avantree Clipper Pro, has poor controls and was buggy in my tests.) When I listened to the Ribbon with a source that supports aptX, it sounded particularly good. But even with an iPhone (which uses the SBC codec with the Ribbon), audio quality was solid: Music played through the Ribbon sounded lively, with good dynamic range, lots of detail, and solid bass. In direct comparison with a wired connection, I noticed some decrease in dynamic range and detail, but you probably won’t notice that difference using the Ribbon in on-the-go situations with portable gear.
The Ribbon’s six-hour battery life is competitive with that of many small Bluetooth headphone models. With some sources (such as recent iPhones), you can view the Ribbon’s battery level right on the source’s screen, although this display shows increments of 10 percent, and seems less accurate as power decreases—on more than one occasion, I left the house with the Ribbon reporting 50 percent battery, only to have the unit run out of power within an hour, leaving me without music for the remainder of my workout. Still, this is better than the two-level LEDs used on some devices.
Over multiple years using the Ribbon, I’ve found that it pairs and connects reliably, rarely skipping if my phone is nearby.
Like most models we tested, the Ribbon also has a built-in microphone that allows you to use the device as a headset to take phone calls, use voice-control interfaces such as Siri and Google Assistant, and record voice memos. In my testing, the Ribbon’s microphone quality was acceptable, but not as good as that of the inline microphones found on some wired headphones, and not as loud, making it difficult for others to hear my voice in noisy environments. However, none of the receivers under $50 we tested were better.
BlueAnt includes a free set of in-ear headphones with the Ribbon. We didn’t consider these earbuds when making our picks—in terms of sound quality, they can’t match even the $13 Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fit, our runner-up pick for inexpensive in-ear headphones—but if you’re still using the earbuds included with your devices, it’s worth giving these a shot to see if you prefer them.
The Ribbon is missing dedicated track controls, which are handy when using the Ribbon on the go with headphones. (You can skip tracks forward or back with a long press of the up or down volume button, respectively.) That said, the track controls on other models we tested were difficult to distinguish from other buttons, and therefore not much use in practice. The Ribbon is also slightly larger than most models we tested, but this is offset by its better buttons and clip.
The Ribbon’s headphone jack drove my large, power-hungry AKG headphones loudly enough for a quiet room, though with less bass than I’m used to. Our upgrade pick can better drive demanding headphones and provides better sound quality; however, the Ribbon handles most headphones just fine.
As with many Bluetooth audio devices, the Ribbon’s volume level is independent of the source device’s volume level, so you’ll want to set the source’s volume close to maximum, and adjust volume using the Ribbon’s controls. With some receivers we tested, the source’s volume level is linked to the receiver’s, so you have only one volume setting to manage, and you can adjust volume via the source or the receiver. We prefer linked levels, but the Ribbon’s approach is only a minor annoyance.
Finally, though the Ribbon’s wireless range was about 30 feet when obstructed by my body—and generally reliable—the connection was still inconsistent compared with the best models we tested for home use: Occasionally, even when within a few feet of the source device (such as when I wore it while walking) audio would pause for a fraction of a second and then resume. Sadly, this was an issue with all the portable models we tested, and most of the home ones, as well.
If the BlueAnt Ribbon is sold out, discontinued, or otherwise unavailable, the Griffin iTrip Clip is a reasonable alternative: Its price, range, ease of pairing, microphone quality, and battery life are comparable with those of the Ribbon. The iTrip Clip’s audio quality is also comparable for devices that don’t support aptX, but the Ribbon sounds significantly better with aptX-compatible devices.
The other major difference between the iTrip Clip and the Ribbon—and the difference that resulted in the Ribbon being our Top Pick—is ergonomics. The iTrip Clip has the track controls that the Ribbon lacks, but because these buttons and the volume buttons are arranged in a circle, they can be hard to distinguish, particularly if the iTrip Clip is clipped to your clothing at an angle. Also, the iTrip Clip’s multifunction play/pause/power button seems too large for the button mechanism underneath, so off-center button presses didn’t always register in my testing. The iTrip Clip, and especially its thinner clip mechanism, also just don’t seem as sturdy as the BlueAnt Ribbon.
We prefer the Ribbon’s simpler button layout, sturdier design, and aptX support, but the iTrip Clip is a reasonable alternative.
If you have high-end headphones, such as our pick for the best over-ear headphones under $400, or ones that perform better with more power, the Creative SoundBlaster E3 is a great way to be able to use them wirelessly with a phone or other Bluetooth-audio source. The E3’s headphone jack has more power than those on the less expensive models we tested—it had no trouble driving my AKG K7XX over-ear headphones to high volumes. The E3 also sounded better than our top pick with my JH13Pro in-ear monitors.
The E3’s great sound is likely due not only to its improved amplification, but also to a higher-quality DAC than those found in the less expensive models we tested. It also supports both aptX and AAC—I was able to verify its AAC support in testing—so it sounds particularly good with devices that support these codecs, including iOS devices (which support AAC).
The E3 is also marketed as a headphone amplifier/DAC, and can connect to many devices via USB (including iOS and Android phones using an included USB on-the-go cable), potentially providing better sound by bypassing Bluetooth’s lossy compression and the built-in DAC used for the source’s headphone jack. Similarly, the E3 includes an analog audio input for use as a traditional headphone amplifier.
Despite its additional amplification, the E3 still manages around eight hours of playback. (Like the other models here, it charges via Micro-USB.) The E3 also supports connecting to two devices at once, and its implementation works better than on any other Bluetooth receiver we tested, portable or home: When powered on, the E3 connects to the first two previously paired devices that it “sees”; to switch between devices, you just pause one and start playback on the other—the device currently playing audio takes precedence until you pause playback or disconnect. (On other receivers we’ve tested that can connect to multiple devices, if your phone loads a webpage with an autoplay video, for example, that audio will interrupt music playback from your computer.) The E3 also has the best built-in-microphone performance of any Bluetooth receiver we tested, and you can attach any microphone with a 3.5 mm miniplug.
The downsides to the E3’s power and battery life are increased size and weight—the E3 is about twice the thickness and three times the weight of the BlueAnt Ribbon. It’s still smaller than any portable headphone amp/DAC I’ve used, however, and it’s plenty small enough to use on an airplane, in a coffee shop, or even walking around. That said, its clip doesn’t seem quite as sturdy as the Ribbon’s, and between that and its larger size, I wouldn’t work out with it. And the E3’s buttons are all identical in shape, which can be confusing initially, but they are clearly separated (unlike the buttons on the iTrip Clip), making them easy to use by touch out once you memorize their order.
The three picks above are made for headphones where you can’t remove the cable, so although the Bluetooth connection to your phone is wireless, a wire still connects the headphones to the receiver. If you have certain headphones with removable cables, Voxoa’s BTunes replaces the cable by plugging directly into the cable jack on the headphone body. (Voxoa offers the BTunes in separate versions for headphones with a 2.5 mm connection, for headphones with a 3.5 mm connection, and for the Bose QC25. Voxoa’s website has a thorough list of which headphones are compatible with which BTunes model.)
The result is something close to true Bluetooth headphones. You still have a small dongle where the cable used to be, but it sits close to the headphone earpiece, looking relatively unobtrusive if not completely integrated. The BTunes’s sound quality, range, ease of connection, and microphone performance were all comparable with those of the BlueAnt Ribbon in my testing. Like the Ribbon, the BTunes supports the aptX codec, but the BTunes battery life is a little longer at around 10 hours.
The BTunes has a single multifunction button for play/pause/power, but it lacks volume and track controls, so you have to use the source device to change volume and tracks. The BTunes is also expensive, considering that inside it’s essentially identical to the other models we tested—it simply has a male 3.5 mm miniplug instead of a female jack. But it’s the only model we’ve found that eliminates cables entirely (if only for certain headphone models), and it’s a less expensive wireless upgrade than buying new Bluetooth headphones.
When using Bluetooth audio devices, you’ll hear talk of “pairing” and “connecting.” Pairing is the initial configuration process that associates two devices (in this case, your smartphone, tablet, or computer and a Bluetooth receiver) so that they can communicate. Once you’ve paired the devices, they remain paired, even if you turn one of them off or if they’re out of range of each other. You should have to pair those devices only once.
Connecting refers to establishing an active wireless connection between two paired devices. When you turn one device off, or move one out of range of the other, the two disconnect to conserve energy and to free each other for connecting to other devices, but you can easily reconnect them when needed—disconnecting does not affect the pairing between two devices. However, unpairing two devices means they’ll no longer connect unless they go through the pairing process again.
Some receivers will automatically reconnect to a paired source when within range, and others require you to manually reconnect through your device’s Bluetooth settings—the exact behavior depends on how the manufacturer designed the receiver to function.
Four models appear to be very similar to the Griffin iTrip Clip. The Jumbl Bluetooth Calling & A2DP Audio Streaming Adapter looks almost identical to Griffin iTrip, but appears to be older hardware—Jumbl’s website specifies that it uses Bluetooth 2.0, whereas Griffin says the iTrip Clip uses Bluetooth 4.1. Given that, and Griffin’s established reputation, we recommend the iTrip Clip over the Jumbl.
We didn’t test the similar Produtrend Stereo Bluetooth Music Receiver, opting for devices sold by better-known companies that are likely to give better customer support.
The NoiseHush NS560 Clip-on Bluetooth Stereo Headset is also almost identical, but uses a nonstandard USB charging cable that has a coaxial DC connector on the receiver end, rather than the Micro-USB connector of other adapters. Because you can’t use any standard Micro-USB cable for charging with these two models, we prefer the iTrip Clip with its Micro-USB connector.
The Outdoor Technologies OTAdapt also uses the DC connector, and has been discontinued since we tested.
The Antec Mobile Products SmartBean is somewhat similar in design and performance to the Griffin iTrip Clip, but I found the SmartBean’s buttons even harder to distinguish. The SmartBean does support two simultaneous connections, but in practice I found this feature unreliable and difficult to use.
We also received a sample of the Antec Bluetooth Receiver, but its buttons are all under a single, flat panel and impossible to distinguish by touch, making it hard to use on the go.
The Avantree Clipper Pro is the only model besides the BlueAnt Ribbon that supports aptX. However, we found the controls and design to be awkward, and its clip uses a spring mechanism that seems less durable than those of the Ribbon and Griffin iTrip Clip. We also identified a bug where the Clipper mutes all audio if you pause playback using its play/pause/power button—so if you pause music or a podcast, you won’t hear other audio (such as alerts or game sound effects).
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: March 3, 2017