Bluetooth headphones have become very popular and if you already have a pair you might be wondering if you can use them with your electronic drum kit. Unfortunately, bluetooth headphones are specifically NOT recommended for electronic drumming, and the biggest reason is latency.

What is Latency?

Latency is the time that it takes for an audio signal to get from it’s point of origin to your ear. It could also be thought of as a delay. Technically speaking, latency is the time it takes for an audio signal to pass through it’s full signal chain and reach a point where you can hear it, such as speakers. The full signal chain could include analog to digital conversion or vice versa along with buffering depending on the capabilities of the hardware involved.

Our Perception of Latency

People can’t really perceive latency below 10 milliseconds or less. As latency increased to higher levels people can start to notice a delay. For example, if you are playing a keyboard that is connected to a computer to play something like a virtual piano or synthesizer, but the latency is high, you’ll notice a delay between when you hit the keys and when a sound is played. Higher latency will have a larger delay.

Digital Musical Instruments and Latency

For this reason, digital instruments such as keyboards and drum kits need to have a low latency in order to be able to played without a delay. Imagine playing a drum kit and you don’t hear any of the sounds until half a second after you hit one of the drums or cymbals. That wouldn’t be fun at all and would be impossible to play.

Latency is usually a bigger issue when connecting controllers such as keyboards or drum pads to computers to play virtual instruments. There can be a lot processing and buffering involved with the signal chain in computers than can introduce more latency, and musicians will soon find that they need to use more powerful computers and higher quality sound cards to reduce the latency as much as possible.

Bluetooth Introduces a Lot of Latency

So we already touched on the fact that you need to keep latency below 10 ms to keep it imperceptible. How much latency does Bluetooth headphones usually have? It can be as high as 100 to 300 ms. That is quite a large amount of delay and that is why Bluetooth headphones aren’t very ideal for playback of digital instruments. Drums or keyboards would be very hard to play if every time you struck a pad or a key you didn’t hear the sound instantly.

Some Electronic Drum Kits Still Have Bluetooth Though

Why do you still see some electronic drum kits with Bluetooth features? Bluetooth on drum modules is usually used as an aux input, allowing you to connect your smartphone or tablet to playback music to play along with. When Bluetooth is used this way, the delay isn’t an issue since it’s just being used for listening to the music. The drum module output isn’t actually being played back over Bluetooth, which is where the issue of latency would be introduced while playing.

Wired Headphones Work Best For Electronic Drumming

It’s too bad that wireless Bluetooth headphones don’t work with electronic drums. It really would be nice to jam on a electronic drum kit without having to worry about cables between the drum module and headphones. For now, wired headphones are the way to go.