When the iPhone 7 was released, many lamented the headphone jack. Since my own shameless adoption of this new phone, I have and certainly feel obliged to share a different perspective on the matter, one which I have been dabbling in a little. Since many rumors are swirling about the galaxy s8 and whether it will include one, or if other phones are about to adopt the trend like Motorola certainly has, this is quite important to look at. Apple is clearly trying to position their AirPods as the premier experience, especially for seamless connectivity among an ecosystem of many Apple devices. However, just as Belkin and others are benefitting from the new market of adapters capable of charging and 3.5 audio output on iPhones, other markets also get a boost.
If Bluetooth is not yet the answer… Then what is?
Along with the hype came another victim: Bluetooth and the need to replace it. Cook and company touted their product to be superior in audio quality compared to Bluetooth, but reviewers are mixed on this one. Ultimately, the underlying technology must remain the same, though the “magic” done to pair easier and perhaps other exclusive features are locked to devices supporting the new w1 chip. As with many things Apple, this also is, ironically, exclusive to their latest iPhones, though not all features are tied to requiring a W1 chip in every device. Once you’ve paired your AirPods with an iPhone, the pairing info will still synchronize to devices which do not have a W1 chip, adding the additional technology benefit to the entire ecosystem line. For the sake of this, let’s just establish that Bluetooth is here to stay though, and even Apple knows this as it built Bluetooth support into the new w1 hardware as well and maintained compatibility with the old pairing standard, although it with great benefit to its technology owners.
With the coming of Bluetooth 5 in the future there is hope for getting audio over a wider distance, along with an increased bandwidth for data speed which could help throughput. These are not the golden days for the technology yet, at least not in the audio space. However, as many times before, Apple has invested itself in a newer hardware outlook on the future, even though calling this one left users with very little transition from the old to the new systems. They are, internally no doubt also assisting with the principles behind newer standards like Bluetooth 5, so expect for more intuitive-driven Bluetooth ideas. Now the big question is, would they ever switch iPhones to USB C and patch up another compatibility problem?
Comparing two products, at very different price-points
I must clarify, now that you have read thus far: I do belong in the group who wishes their iPhone had 3.5 audio. Countless times I have rummaged around in my backpack, looking for that little adapter which so dangles with its extension. No dice, and when I miss-placed my wireless ones, I was doomed to the careless noise of passengers. Quite alright, but certainly inconvenient.
I have now used a Plantronics BackBeat Fit ( on amazon for $80 USD ) and a $14 (possibly $20 USD if not with a deal) cheap “m12” earbuds. I also own the LG Tones headphones, though do find it uses an older Bluetooth standard which adds lag to the usage experience. Along with this, I own the first blues bone conduction headphones which again, were released a while ago but are useful for GPS. Short to say, I have seen how this technology went from passable and “compressed” to having less latency and a bit of a higher quality in audio, A little compression remains, however.
Let’s also talk about the AirPods for a bit. Even An Android news site claimed them to be a great solution for Android and Apple users alike, stating them to be the best one of the market because of the comfort and features. Portable charging and latest Bluetooth technology would still benefit Android phones that also are equipped with compatibility to the standard. Although sound quality is only a step up from the prior provided EarPods, the wireless comfortability (and lack of chords between earbuds) make it a great choice for users who want a future technological emersion.
Yet it is clear that no person would spend upwards of $200 for headphones unless they had better sound quality; And if you do lose an AirPod, It will cost you $69 at best, with warranty. Therefore there is a market for cheaper, convenient-quality headphones. No person likes to have their headphone jack dongle missing or not around when they are traveling on a bus, and keeping several Bluetooth headphones has ensured me that some are kept in the places I frequent, in case I do happen to run into this issue.
When looking at these headphones, it’s clear that audio quality is not a factor to measure them by, or at least not yet. Any expert audio user will turn to a wired solution which provides them better throughput than any wireless solution ever could. However, Between the Backbeat Fit, M12, LG Tones and even the aftershocks, there are differences in the way they handle connections and the Bluetooth audio in general. These differences make it difficult to buy cheap replacements which people can see as reliable and viable. This, I feel, is even more compounded when you are a user of speech.
- Recently, I determined that Windows handles the closing of the audio channels differently depending on headphones used. The BackBeat Fit and older Aftershocks headphones would often cut the first few seconds of speech off, until I played a song to keep the audio channel open. The M12 and LG Tones handled this a bit more gracefully, as each time a sound came to be streamed to them, a slight “hiss” would indicate the internal audio circuitry keeping a channel open in the process. This for some could be a huge detractor towards features: Hearing a little hint of static does not bode well for songs where silence is used as a tool, although at lower volumes, it is less noticeable and not anything but in the background.
- Connection breaks: unfortunately, the $12 price you spend on a replacement will probably come with a $.12 antenna as well, worth its value. When pairing, I often had problems listing these headphones in Bluetooth settings of Windows. If you live in an area with many devices and other apartments, you will often see those before your own. During use, there would be periods when sound would chop itself into pieces. With an iPhone, I noticed these connection issues less, although the iPhone drops the connection first and requires manual clicking on the devices in settings.
- Fortunately, most headphones which come with later Bluetooth technology will have less lag between the time audio is sent and a key is pressed on your keyboard. Older versions presented a lag like running a virtual machine, or, per numbers, about a .3-.5 second lag after the pressing of keys. Today, this has been reduced to something that only feels like less than .1 of a second. This is good.
- There’s a bit of irony to be said about the $12 headphones, when they work during charge while all others do not. This is a huge problem with Bluetooth headphones because a wired solution never requires charging, and the most inconvenient time is when headphones die during use. If I can listen to my music while also charging them, it’s a win win in not interrupting my workflow. The BackBeat, Aftershock, and LG Tones all will disconnect once a Micro-USB is plugged into them. Apple is not immune to this problem either, although having a case which doubles as a charging cradle means that it is greatly minimized. Chances are, when not using them, you’re charging your headphones anyway.
- Music controls are also important when examining these new, sometimes generic headphones at any price point. With small compact earbuds, it is often difficult to designate surface area for button placement. Apple knew this when they designed the side of AirPods to contain a tap strip which can detect sequences of tap-gestures. For some, this requires the use of forceful taps; Others lament a lack of physical response from the buttons. The BackBeat Fit possesses two sets of round buttons on each earcup, with left controlling volume and right track-placement. Again, the $12 headphones come close to a multi-button solution. A rocker on the top right side of the unit allows for volume control, while holding it in either direction changes tracks. This leaves “fast-forward” functionality out the window, as there’s no way to signal it with a “prolong press.”
- Finally, battery life on these gadgets should always exceed 6 hours. I would prefer something modern to also push the boundaries and limits of technology, so if there are headphones with 8.5-10-hour battery life, those are most ideal. I see very little marketing or actual performance difference among a lot of wireless ones, where this 5-6.5-hour range has become very common and almost a line dropped into every marketing material these days. In experience, the BackBeat Fit fell on the lower side of this range, while LG tones and these new M12 headphones do maintain their 6-hour standard quite well. In a funny twist, the M12 even lets you turn it back on for another minute or two once it powers off, if you are so inclined to finish a phone call for when you really can’t get plugged in.
Other aspects to consider are ones I feel you would with any general headphone purchase. What type of noise cancelation do they have? Is it active (where a digital sensor filters out the audio using microphones) or passive (where special cups or squishy eartips block out audio) and how well is this made? The BackBeat fit uses a design like the shoe-shape of EarPods, so if those work and fit your ears, you are more likely to enjoy them. The M12 ones are the tipped design with a small and large set of tips included in Box; The LG tones also shares this same design. The M12 has little microphones mounted on the top plastic of each earpiece, however the LG ones require you place a curved headphone base around your neck and have the eartips extend outward from this center-piece. They also offer vibration support provided by this around your neck, so deaf-blind or those who require an extra notification to know if some call is coming in, that could be ideal.
Of course, Aftershocks prides themselves in bone conduction technology which leaves both of your ears open to also listening to the local environment.
Now you can go forth and look for the right wireless headphones which hopefully can match your style. As increasingly look to a wireless future, no doubt choice will explode in relation to the types and form factors which are affordable and come with good features in their chip designs. I think audio quality with Bluetooth will really be the same across devices, unless you get ones that couple it with tiny drivers that make music sound as though it is being forced out of a small can — Sometimes, adjusting them a little can improve this. Unfortunately, with choice we also have a lack of quality control, so if you make a bad purchase because you couldn’t experience the product before buying, my deepest sympathies to you. Since wireless is radio waves, it will also be subject to limitations in interference that these can pose. Yet with better error correcting and standards around how companies must implement features in a chip with little variability, the solution could be there.