Meditations on the impermanence of wireless earphones

Today, I’m finding myself back on wired earphones for the first time in five years. Not so much because I want to be, but because for now, I’ve burned through every wireless sound device that I own.

I still remember the first time I saw wireless headphones, when my mom gifted some to my dad for Xmas, two to three decades ago. They were a space age novelty at the time, although comically impractical compared to what we have today, with range, sound quality, and battery life all awful, and regular audio outages if you weren’t careful to stay within tight line-of-sight of the base station.

Since then, I’d relegated wireless safely to the category of “just not worth it” until about five years ago when it experienced a renaissance, largely driven by the popularity of Apple’s AirPods 1. Convinced they’d have serious problems that may not be evident in the first few months, I excused myself from the game for quite some time, but was finally convinced to play, and once I did, they were delightful. AirPods didn’t just improve the state of the art, they conquered it, overcoming every major defect of previous generations. The form factor was impossibly great, sound quality high, pairing lightning fast and 99% reliable, and the battery life was excellent, with the charging case an added touch of genius.

From there, I was all in. I ordered the AirPods Pro the day they were released, and noise cancellation became another hill to die on. Combined with the added touch of water resistance, these were a runner’s best friend, overcoming sweat, rain, and loud roadways.

I was hooked. I ordered the Beats Solo Pro on launch week as well. They weren’t a replacement for AirPods, but a perfect companion for them, replacing the wired headphones I still had at my computer. The noise cancellation a huge boon in the noisy open office, I could freely leave my desk to get coffee without tripping over a cable, and unlike AirPods, the battery life was good enough to last all day and even into the night. At home, they brought new tranquility by tuning out traffic and noisy neighbors. Life was good.

And yet, today I’m back to wired headphones, and with all the old problems. Wires emerge from pockets with strings of knots so dense as to be seemingly inexplicable according to known laws of physics. Occasionally, a jack goes flying out of its port or a headphone torn unceremoniously from ear as a cable catches a cabinet handle. How the mighty have fallen.

What happened? Well, wireless earphones have varying problems, but they’re also all kind the same when you squint: reliability. Not reliability over days or weeks, but reliability over a longer span of months or years. My original AirPods are still functional, but their battery life’s been ground to a nub. I still use my AirPod Pros, but they face constant trouble with charging if left in their case too long, and have fallen victim to “rattlegate”, with an audible low-frequency buzz coming on the second they hit your ear 2. My first pair of Beats Solo Pros developed a constant background static in one ear along with a ghostly intermittent clicking and whining. I sent them in for warranty, and liked the product so much that I bought another pair in the meantime. Apple sent a brand new pair of Pros back from my warranty claim, and for a while, I had two fully functional pairs of headphones, one for each room of my apartment. Then, the second pair I’d bought developed the same background static and clicking that my first pair did. A few weeks later, the third pair, which I’d received from warranty claim, manifested exactly the same thing.

(Although not the main point of this writing, do not buy Beats Solo Pros. I’ve had three different pairs all develop the same problem with 2 to 5 months of ownership, and on the same side of the headphones no less. None of them were mistreated, and barely left my front door. This is a completely defective product line.)

I’ve sent both pairs of Beats Solo Pros back to Apple for warranty claims. My AirPod Pros don’t have the battery or comfort to use all day, and are rattle-y, so I’m back to – you guessed it – wires.

And not just wires, but wires on headphones that I’ve owned for ten years or more, and which still work perfectly. Wireless works great when its new, and in all honesty, it’s going to be hard to ever go back on some of the quality of life improvements it conveys, but going from wired to wireless has changed a category of products that were reliable, durable, and remarkably long-lived into yet another that’s brittle, prone to defects, and on the timeline of only a handful of years, inexorably disposable. That’s a shame.

1 Note for pedants: I know there were wireless earphones before AirPods. What I’m claiming is that they drove a new wave of new wireless devices that were small, fun, and most importantly, good.

2 After publishing this post, Apple announced a Service Program to remedy “rattlegate” for all AirPod Pros manufactured before October 2020.

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