Apple’s AirPod Mistake

AirpodsYesterday Apple introduced AirPods. What a mistake.

While I appreciate the uniqueness of these headphones, I predict that in a year or two, they’ll have gone the way of the gold Apple Watch Edition.

You know how you’re walking or running and one of your earbuds falls out? You grab the cord, reel it in, and put it back in your ear. And then you go on walking or running. With AirPods, one of them will fall out, and you’ll watch as someone steps on it, or as it falls down a subway grating.

I can also see that, as you get on a bus or subway, someone grabs at one of your AirPods to snatch it, and you’re listening only to one channel of music for the rest of the day.

It is admirable, nay, courageous, to introduce a product this unique. But it simply won’t work. There is an advantage to having a wire between the two ends.

A lot of people are criticizing the 5-hour battery life. That’s not really a problem, since the case contains a battery, and brings to total battery life to 24 hours. I have a Bluetooth headset (one ear only, for calls) that works like that; its case has a battery, giving it several days of battery life. It’s a good idea.

No, the real problem is the fact that they’ll be so easy to lose. I can’t understand why Apple would release a product like this. Unless it’s just because they can.

Apple: Jacks Off iPhone 7

“Courage.”

That’s what Apple’s Phil Schiller said was behind Apple’s removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7.

We’ve been talking about this for more than a year, and I had pretty much resigned myself to accepting the company’s boneheaded decision, and living with yet another dongle (though I hadn’t planned to buy an iPhone 7, and I still don’t plan to do so).

But when Phil Schiller said “Courage,” that flipped my bits.

Courage is refusing to move to the back of the bus, not removing a connector so you can force companies to pay licensing fees to use yours.

What Apple did is remove a technology that works very well, and has for some time, and replace it with something they control. Saying the technology is old, therefore not good any more, is puerile. They haven’t replaced the AC power plug, most likely invented by Thomas Edison. They haven’t replaced pushbuttons on the side of the phone. They haven’t replaced the keyboards on their computers.

Now, you’ll probably say “but the floppy disk…” And I’m tired of that comparison. The floppy disk was a storage medium that was inadequate. At the time, I recall often having to split compressed archives to fit them on multiple floppy disks, and I was already using Zip disks for backups. Everyone wanted a replacement for the floppy disk. I don’t know many iPhone users or music listeners who want the headphone jack to go away.

Yes, with a digital output over the lightning port you can allow headphones to do signal processing and offer better sound. Currently, there are so headphones that do this, at price points that rival those of the iPhone itself. But you can do that with the lightning port anyway; you don’t need to remove the headphone jack. And only the 1% of music listeners care about that kind of headphone. Anyway, if you’re listening to music on an iPhone outdoors, you won’t hear the difference between audiophile headphones and average headphones.

The headphone jack has one advantage: it’s very good at what it does. It’s a simple technology, and an adaptation of Occam’s razor says that the simplest technology is often the best. It’s also ubiquitous. You know that you can connect a headphone to just about any audio device in the world. The only exception is hifi amplifiers and receivers which still use the larger 1/4″ headphone jack; you do need a convertor for that, but if you have large headphones, they generally come with the smaller jack plus a converter.

So now “courageous” Apple bundles a dongle with the iPhone. Another little gadget that people will lose and have to buy again. (To Apple’s credit, it only costs $9.) But if they use wired headphones, they’ll be using that inadequate technology called the lightning connector. Because lightning cables are anything but robust. They split at the cable-to-jack connector, and the metal nib breaks off. This happens far more often than headphone cables breaking.

And you can no longer charge your iPhone while using its headphones. But, hey, Apple has their new AirPods.

The Next Track, Episode #5 – Headphones or Speakers?

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxIn episode #5 of The Next Track, Doug Adams and Kirk McElhearn take a quick look at the new features coming to Apple Music, and then discuss how we listen to music with headphones and speakers. What’s the best kind of headphones? When should you use speakers? Why not use both (not at the same time, of course)?

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #5 — Headphones or Speakers?.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

An iPhone without a headphone jack? No way!

Every now and then an Apple rumor takes on a life of its own. Websites start treating it as fact and speculation starts on whether the new product/feature/change is a good idea. Michael Simon did just that this week when he wrote about the current rumor that Apple may remove the headphone jack from the iPhone. He thinks it’s a great idea. I think it would be terrible.

This rumor is not new. It started in June 2014 when Apple released specifications for using the lightning port for audio. Back then, pundits imagined a future without headphone jacks. While Apple didn’t remove the jack, headphone manufacturers were able to create headphones with advanced features such as an onboard DAC (digital-analog converter). So far, there is one headphone–Phillips’ Fidelio M2L–that uses this technology.

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would remove the headphone jack…

Read the rest of the article on Macworld.

On the Recurring Rumor that Apple Is Getting Rid of the iPhone Headphone Jack

The rumor is back again that Apple is getting rid of the headphone jack on the iPhone, to “make the iPhone thinner.” Based on a rumor on one Japanese site, every Mac and iPhone site is reporting that this is a done deal.

Remember last year, when Apple introduced specifications which allow headphones to use the lightning port? All the some websites ran articles saying how Apple was getting rid of the headphone jack. Turns out they didn’t. A couple of companies introduced headphones that can use the lightning port to grab digital music streams, and convert them using DACs in the headphones. But have you ever seen any of these? While it’s an interesting concept, it hasn’t taken off. (These are the only ones I’ve been able to find that are for sale currently.)

I doubt many people bought these headphones. Because, as I said last year:

Would you buy headphones that you can only use on Apple devices? I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy such headphones. Why spend money on good headphones — because these specs aren’t talking about earbuds — and not be able to use them on other devices?

But the rumor is back again. Because removing the headphone jack can make the iPhone thinner. No matter that the iPod touch, which has a headphone jack, is only 6.1 mm thick (the iPhone 6s is 7.1 mm.) Or the iPod nano – yes, that’s still being sold – is a mere 5.4 mm thick. (Lets also remember that the iPhone’s camera lens sticks out from the case.)

This rumor makes no sense. Apple certainly isn’t planning to make the iPhone thinner than the iPod touch, if only because the iPhone needs room for a bigger battery. So if they can make an iOS device that’s 6.1 mm thick with a standard headphone jack, they won’t be getting rid of it any time soon. Because the inconvenience of requiring that people use an adapter, or buy new headphones, is just huge.

Also, I don’t think the lightning connector puts out analog audio. In other words, an adapter would be needed with a DAC (digital-analog converter). Perhaps Apple can create a way to use certain of the pins on the lightning connector to carry the analog audio, but I don’t know the specs of the lightning connector well enough.

Anyway, if Apple wanted a slimmer headphone jack, they already own this patent.

However, it’s not crazy to think that Apple is planning to replace the lightning connector with a USB-C connector. That won’t happen in the immediate future – lots of people already got burned buying docks using the 30-pin dock connector, and it’s not a good idea to shake up the accessory market again so soon – but it’s certainly in the cards, now that USB-C can handle Thunderbolt 3.

Note: a few people have suggested that this is no different from the removal of the floppy drive or the optical drive from Macs. That’s not correct; it’s very different. The floppy and optical drives were for reading and writing data. They involved using relatively inexpensive media for that purpose. Switching to a different form of media certainly had an effect, but it’s far different from telling people that their listening hardware, which could cost several hundred dollars (such as if it’s a Beats headphone) would no longer work without an adapter. And that if you did buy an accessory that works with the connector, then you wouldn’t be able to use it with other devices, such as amplifiers, mixers, etc.

Big Discount on Refurb Beats Solo HD Headphones

Beats solo hdI’m not a big fan of Beats headphones, but I know a lot of people like them. The company – well, Apple – is running a discount on refurb Beats Solo HD headphones. They’re only $99; check out the offer here.

The colors may not be exactly what you want: they’re available in light blue, green, purple, and white.

Here’s the manufacturer’s description:

Beats, the universal symbol for sonic perfection. The iconic reflective logo shines around the world, and beneath that flawless exterior lies superior sound down to every detail. These Solo HD headphones distinctly feature a matching cord, headband, and ear cups, and rock unique, bold, colors through and through. With a tri-fold design for easy portability, they’re truly best-in-class headphones for every day – you can’t beat it, don’t even try.

  • Features extremely high-definition quality, clear sound & deep bass
  • Includes titanium-coated driver technology for accurate music reproduction
  • Made of quality durable & flexible material for the perfect fit
  • Folds down to a compact, travel-friendly size w/ tri-fold design
  • Includes a built-in mic for on-the-go calls
  • Includes an in-line controller for adjusting tracks & volume
  • Cancels ambient noise w/ active noise control
  • Supports all-day comfort
  • 60-Day Defect Replacement Supplier Warranty

Three Alternatives to Beats Solo2 Headphones

Beats headphones have achieved a level of notoriety based on their style, but the sound they offer isn’t for everyone. Often touted as headphones for urban music–rap and hip-hop–the Beats sound doesn’t transfer well to all genres.

It just so happens Apple is giving new Mac buyers a free pair of Beats Solo2 headphones as part of its back to school campaign. But it’s worth investing in headphones that offer better sound quality. (Maybe you can sell the Solo2 headphones and use that money for a different pair.)

I found the Beats Solo2 to be comfortable, and to offer good noise isolation, but, as for the sound…while some music sounds excellent–Bob Dylan with an acoustic guitar, for example–most music doesn’t. The bass booms, overwhelming much of the music, in what sounds like an artificially equalized sound. It’s as though I pushed the loudness button on my amp, then turned down the treble. Sometimes these headphones make it sound like you’re in the bathroom of a club, listening to music through the walls. The bass can be so overwhelming that it drowns out much of the rest of the music.

I tried three other wired, on-ear headphones, at a similar price as the Beats Solo 2. I tested these headphones with a wide variety of music, from Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, to Miles Davis (both acoustic and electric) and Brad Mehldau’s piano trio, as well as with classical music, from solo instruments to string quartets and orchestral works.

Read the rest of the article on Macworld.

Headphone Review: Jabra Revo Wireless Bluetooth On-Ear Heaphones

Jabra revoA few months ago, I started searching for a new set of Bluetooth headphones. I like to listen to music when I walk – both outdoors, and on a treadmill at home – and wires get in the way. I had an older pair of Philips headphones that was good, but the sound wasn’t great; I wanted something better. I tried the Beats Solo 2 wired headphones, and was very disappointed by them, so didn’t bother to try their wireless version. The same was the case with the Sennheiser Momentum; I tried the wired headphones and found them to have a muddy sound, so I didn’t explore their wireless model.

I’ve been using the Jabra Revo wireless Bluetooth on-ear headphones (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) for about two months, and I’ve found that they fit my needs. But will they be right for you?

The Jabra Revo is a compact, foldable headphone, which looks a bit like the Beats. They are on-ear headphones, which means they block out a lot of noise around you, but also heat up your ears. At a current retail price of $200 or £200 (discounted, on Amazon, at the time of this writing, to $156 and £115), they are affordable headphones for those who want good sound and Bluetooth.

Like any headphones, there are pros and cons. With the Jabra Revo, the cons are apparent, but the pros outweigh them, at least for me. One of my main criticisms of the Beats headphones was their excessive bass. As I said about those headphones, “I would need to switch the EQ on and off to use these headphones. And if they need EQ, then they’ve failed.”

I’ve contradicted myself with the Jabra Revo. They are a bit bassy; not as much as the Beats, but more than I want. I found that, when listening to music on my iOS devices, if I turn on the EQ to bass reducer, they sound fine. But not just fine, they sound great. The clarity of the sound approaches that of very good wired headphones. When I first tried them out, I felt that needing to use the EQ would be a deal-breaker, but after using them for a few weeks – so I would still be in Amazon’s return window – I realized that they sounded so good that I’d be willing to compromise.

The other issue I have with the Jabra Revo is that the controls aren’t easy to use. It’s very hard to see where the controls are. Look at this photo of the right earpiece.

Jabra controls

If you look closely, you can see the on/off slider just below the USB port that you use to charge the headphones. It’s not well marked, and I have to look very carefully to find it whenever I turn on the headphones. It could be colored a bit differently from the black background to make it more visible.

To pause or play music, skip tracks, and change the volume, you use controls on the side of that earpiece. Do you see them? It’s just the center button, and the sort of wheel around it. To play or pause, you press the center button. To change the volume, you slide your finger around the ring. Which means that, most times, when I want to pause music, I reach up to press that button and end up changing the volume. Because hitting that button precisely when you can’t see it is well nigh impossible. And to skip tracks, you have to press the ring, around the level of the center button; unavoidabley, I end up changing the volume when I do this.

It’s surprising how poorly designed these headphones are as far as the controls are concerned. So much so, that I use my iPhone to change tracks or volume. (In the future, I hope to use my Apple Watch for this, so it should be easier.)

Note that these headphones also come with two cables, if you wish to use them as standard wired headphones (or have a wire for when the charge runs out). One is a standard cable, and the other has a microphone and remote control. There is also a carrying case.

Jabra accessories

Jabra offers an iOS app, which I found to be useless. It’s free with a code that you get with your headphones, or $5 otherwise. It gives all sorts of EQ settings, but isn’t optimal to use for actually playing music. So I don’t use it at all.

As much as I may criticize the design and usability of these headphones, the quality of the sound won me over. I know there are no perfect headphones, and sound quality is a lot more important to me than buttons. I’m quite happy with them, considering the many negatives that I’ve highlighted. Great sound, if you use EQ; poor usability, but you can avoid many of the problems with the illogical controls buy using your iPhone or Apple Watch. Try them out; you might find them easier to use than me, but I think you’ll find the sound to be excellent, with the right EQ setting.

Noise-Canceling Headphones and Music Quality

Noise-canceling headphones are a great invention. Instead of walking down the street of a hectic city, being overwhelmed by the sounds of the million-footed beast, you can shut out much of din of traffic and conversation while listening to your favorite tunes. Another common use of noise-canceling headphones is plane trips; the constant sounds of an airplane can be fatiguing, and noise-canceling headphones – even with no music playing – can make for more restful traveling.

It may seem like these headphones use voodoo to silence background noise, but the technique is actually a pretty simple application of physics. They combine both passive and active noise cancellation.

To start with, each of the ear cups is well insulated, blocking out much of the noise around you. This passive noise cancellation blocks out many of the higher frequencies. In fact, you may find that good noise-canceling headphones block enough sound even before you turn on the active noise cancellation.

For this latter feature, each of the ear cups contains a tiny microphone that picks up the external sounds. The headphones process these sounds by flipping the sound waves upside down. When you play two sound waves at the same time – one inverted – they cancel each other out.

2000px Active Noise Reduction svg

A great example of effective noise cancellation is the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound. Back in 1974, sound man and chemist extraordinaire Owsley Stanley came up with a setup for the band that was distortion-free, and also served as monitors, so the band could hear themselves play without having blowback monitors on the stage in front of them.

Wall of sound

The Wall of Sound was the largest sound system ever built, and packed a lot of power: it weighed 75 tons, contained some 600 speakers, and put out more than 26,000 watts of sound. But there was a problem: since the microphones were facing backwards, toward all those speakers, wouldn’t they create a feedback loop?

Stanley set up microphones in pairs, out of phase, which worked exactly as active noise cancellation does. The singer sang into the top microphone, and the bottom microphone picked up the background sounds. This second microphone’s waves were flipped, canceling out the background.

Jerry microphone

As you can see in the first image above (from Wikipedia), there is still a remnant of the noise after the cancellation; this is unavoidable. As such, Grateful Dead recordings of the time – notably those officially released of the Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack – have a bit of a hiss in the vocals.

The same is true with noise-canceling headphones today. If you stop playing music, you’ll hear a slight hiss in the background. Noise-canceling headphones may offer great sound, but they do have this limitation: anything you listen to, with active noise cancellation turned on, will be affected by this hiss. Because of this, no noise-canceling headphone will sound as good as regular headphones of the same audio quality.

So noise-canceling headphones are a trade-off. The sound quality of these headphones isn’t as good as standard headphones at the same price. But they’re great in noisy environments – planes, trains, busy city streets – where you really want to get rid of the background noise. If you use them in quiet areas, make sure to turn off the active noise cancellation; your music will sound better. (Some noise-canceling headphones only work with power; others will work without power, just like regular headphones.)

(If you’re curious, I have a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B noise-cancelling headphones. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) They’re a lot cheaper than Bose headphones, and are well rated. I don’t use them often, but when I do use them, they work very well, and have very good sound.)