How to manage the Bluetooth headphone connection dance among devices

Bluetooth is a miraculous technology for audio when it works perfectly, letting you stream crisp, high-quality sound from a variety of devices you own. But most Bluetooth headphones have a limitation: they can pair to multiple devices—anywhere from two to eight—but they can only be actively connected to one playback device at a time.

Bluetooth multipoint technology was released a decade ago along with the Bluetooth 4.0 specification to allow audio devices to receive streaming input from multiple paired sources at once. However, few headphones implement this, and often only with specific Bluetooth audio compression profiles.

Instead, with most headphones, most of the time you have to do a dance to move among devices.

Many headphones restore the connection to the last device with which they’ve paired, but not always. In my testing with iOS 14, macOS 14 Mojave, and macOS 15 Catalina, a set of Bluetooth headphones I use only reconnect automatically with iOS 14 if that’s the last connection they made. This appears to be asserted by the operating system, not the headphones, as the operating system asserts the desire to connect.

mac911 bluetooth headphones connect list IDG

The Connected status shows the headphones are in active use.

To check if your Bluetooth headphones are connected with iOS or iPadOS, go to Settings > Bluetooth. Find the item in the list. It displays Connected if it’s currently active and Not Connected if not. (Alternatively, swipe to reveal Control Center, hold down on the networking panel and hold down on the Bluetooth icon to retrieve the same list.)

You cannot disconnect from the audio source by tapping the item in the list, however. Instead, tap the i info icon to the right of the Connected label and then tap Disconnect.

mac911 bluetooth disconnect ios IDG

Tap Disconnect in this nested dialog to halt the active connection and free up the headphones.

(You can tap to connect if it’s not currently connected to another audio source.)

In macOS, click the Bluetooth icon in the system menu and choose the headphones name to see if it’s connected. If so, you can can select Disconnect; if not, select Connect and the audio link becomes active if it’s not connected to another device.