Will my Bluetooth headphones work with my [blank]?

by Will my Bluetooth headphones work with my [blank]?Daniel Gniazdo

Finding out whether your Bluetooth headset or headphones will actually work with your phone, tablet, or computer is kind of a big deal. Here’s what you need to know about that.

Man holding a smart phone

Bluetooth has become ubiquitous nowadays. You find it in phones, headsets, smart fridges, and – yes – even socks. Yet when it comes to figuring out whether your Bluetooth headset will work with a phone in your hand or a computer at your desk, people often have doubts.

Well, if you must take just one thing away from this post, here it is:

All Bluetooth headsets should work with all Bluetooth smartphones, tablets, and computers

That’s because…

Bluetooth is backward-compatible

Bluetooth technology is made to be backward-compatible. Every new version of Bluetooth works with all the previous ones. However, new features that come with each version will only work if both connected devices are using that latest version.

For example, Bluetooth 2.1 introduced the concept of secure simple pairing that doesn’t require a PIN. A Bluetooth 2.1 phone would work just fine with, say, an older Bluetooth 2.0 headset – but you’d just still need to pair them by entering a PIN.

The main message here is: As long as both devices use Bluetooth, you should be fine.

But then there was Bluetooth 4.0…

Big, bad, bewildering “Bluetooth low energy”

In mid-2010, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) adopted Bluetooth 4.0, which included a new protocol called “Bluetooth low energy.” As the name implies, this protocol could be used for applications with extremely low power consumption: One could potentially get up to a whopping two years of operation on a single 1,000 mAh coin cell battery.

This low energy protocol created a sort of fork in the Bluetooth development path. Ironically, in an attempt to make things simple, Bluetooth SIG ended up introducing new, somewhat confusing labels: “Bluetooth Smart” and “Bluetooth Smart Ready.”

Bluetooth Smart

Bluetooth Smart refers to single-mode devices that only use the new, low energy protocol to communicate with other gadgets. These are typically quite specialized things like heart monitors, sensors, and other equipment that can benefit from the ultra low power consumption. Because of their single-mode setup, Bluetooth Smart devices won’t be able to communicate with the older, “classic” Bluetooth.

Importantly, Bluetooth headsets and headphones will not fall into the Bluetooth Smart category (see below).

Classic Bluetooth

This refers to all Bluetooth gadgets, from phones to tablets to headsets, that came before the whole low energy deal. This also covers new devices that need to make use of “classic” Bluetooth’s higher rate of data transfer (for e.g. file sharing) and therefore cannot really benefit from the low energy protocol.

As it stands today, Bluetooth headsets and headphones will always be in this “classic” category. That’s because, by definition, audio headsets must use the voice capability and the higher rate of data transfer, neither of which is offered by Bluetooth low energy.

Bluetooth Smart Ready

Bluetooth Smart Ready devices are dual-mode: They can communicate with both classic Bluetooth and Bluetooth Smart devices. The vast majority of smartphones, tablets, and computers that came out since Bluetooth 4.0 fall into this category.

Here’s a great diagram that summarizes the relationship between the three, which I’ve shamelessly stolen from here:

Bluetooth Smart, Smart Ready, and Classic

Because Bluetooth headsets must use the classic Bluetooth, they’ll work with both your older phones and newer, Smart Ready ones. (The same goes for tablets and computers.)

A fun aside: There are signs that Bluetooth SIG is now moving away from the “Smart” naming, according to this brand FAQ:

For example: the technology branded as “Bluetooth Smart” will be more simply characterized as “Bluetooth low energy technology.”

Sure, why use two words when you can use four? Simple!

The main takeaway is that the low energy specification has little to no impact on whether Bluetooth headsets will work with Bluetooth-enabled computers, smartphones, and tablets. Our key statement remains true:

All Bluetooth headsets should work with all Bluetooth smartphones, tablets, and computers

There are (rare) exceptions

One main exception to the above happens when manufacturers explicitly decide not to support Bluetooth headsets. The most notorious examples of this are the PS4 and Xbox One gaming consoles that have offered no support for third-party Bluetooth headsets when they first launched.

Keep that in mind when you’re about to get a Bluetooth headset or a pair of Bluetooth music headphones for that new fancy Playbox 3000. But remember: Apart from these rare cases…say it with me:

All Bluetooth headsets should work with all Bluetooth smartphones, tablets, and computers


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