Following Up on Headphones
Last week, Apple announced the iPhone 7, which features no headphone jack, which shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, as it had been rumored since all the way back last December. This has spawned six new Apple products revolving around audio:
- A Lightning-capable version of Apple’s existing EarPods headset, which has been included in the box with iPhones going back to the iPhone 5
- A mini phono-to-Lightning adapter, which is included with every iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, and will also be sold separately for $9
- A completely new set of wireless earbuds called AirPods, which use a similar shape to the wired EarPods product
- Updated versions of the Beats Solo headphones and PowerBeats earbuds featuring the same underlying technology as AirPods
- A new line of Beats earbuds called BeatsX, which are meant to be an affordable entry point into wireless Beats headphones, also relying on the W1 chip powering AirPods
There’s not much to say about the first two, because they aren’t very exciting. A surprising amount of people use the earbuds that come bundled with their phone, so the Lightning EarPods “solve” the issue of the missing headphone jack for those users by simply coming bundled with the phone. The mini phono-to-Lightning adapter also comes bundled with the new phones, meaning that anyone who would rather use their existing headphones with their iPhone can still do so without needing to buy anything extra. About the only valid complaint I’ll accept about either of these new products is that it’s no longer possible to listen to audio while the device is charging. I imagine this is fairly common when people are at work, or if they’re using an auxiliary cable in their car while on a road trip and want to keep it charged. In the grand scheme of things, I imagine Apple finds these cases fairly minor. Headphone cables get in the way and are a pain in the ass when you’re at work, so you’d benefit from going wireless. In-car Bluetooth has also been around long enough by now that anyone capable of affording a flagship iPhone is likely to have it on-board as well.
But it’s clear as day that the future Apple envisions is a wireless one, and Lightning is just a transitional technology until that day is here. They’re making a big push towards wireless audio as I had suspected, and the chip underlying it all is called the W1.
There is surprisingly little documentation on what this chip actually does, but it does appear to be a standard Bluetooth chip with a layer of proprietary magic sprinkled on top. W1-enabled headphones have a simplified pairing process where you just hold the headphones (or in the case of AirPods, their charging case) near your iPhone and a dialog pops up asking if you want to pair with them. If you say yes, your phone will propagate your pairing settings with all of your other iOS devices and Macs via iCloud, and the paired device will automatically shift dynamically based on which one is emitting audio. Pairing a headset with multiple devices is one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had over Bluetooth, and if this works as advertised, that entire friction is completely eliminated. They also charge really quickly; AirPods are advertised as charging 3 hours’ worth of battery in 15 minutes, and the Beats X earbuds charge 2 hours’ worth of battery in 5 minutes. Aside from the pairing process and quick charging, it’s very unclear what magic the W1 is doing. Is connectivity more reliable than standard Bluetooth? Who knows. (Would be great if it was.) Is the latency in real-time audio applications like DJ software greatly reduced compared to standard Bluetooth? I guess we’ll find out soon, but until we know for sure, it’s hard to tell if there’s a big reason to buy W1-enabled headphones.
But to be frank, I’m more excited about the potential for the W1 chip than I am about any of the products using it. The AirPods use the same shape as the EarPods, which I find greatly uncomfortable, so those are out of the question. Beats products are known to use a very bass-heavy audio profile, and while that definitely seems to be how kids these days appreciate listening to music, I can’t stand it, so it’s unlikely that any of the Beats headphones are in my wheelhouse either.
And then there’s the pricing for these things, which is particularly bad in Canada. The Beats X is the cheapest option available to you at $180. AirPods come in next at $220, which is particularly egregious given how easy they seem to lose if one falls out of your ear when you’re out and about. The PowerBeats 3 Wireless come in next at $250 and the Solo 3 Wireless close the W1-enabled lineup at $330. I know Beats headphones are known for being a sort of accessible luxury brand similar to Apple, but when they said Beats X were going to be the affordable entry point, I was expecting them to be half the price they are now. In comparison, the Bluetooth earbuds I have now are $30 on Amazon, and they are comfortable, get the job done, and the sound quality is better than I expected for the price point. Yeah, pairing with other devices is a pain in the ass, but for the price of the cheapest W1 earbuds, I can buy 6 of these and pair them with all my devices. Is it wasteful and overkill? Probably, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
But the audio product I found most interesting in the entire event wasn’t even from Apple, but rather from JBL’s wired Lightning earbuds, the Reflect Aware. Noise-cancelling headphones usually rely on batteries to power the noise-cancelling hardware, but because these earbuds use Lightning instead of the mini-phono jack, they can get powered over the bus instead. As someone who recently booked tickets to Japan for late December, the idea of having noise-cancelling earbuds that aren’t yet another thing giving me battery anxiety is really appealing, especially compared to Bluetooth headphones, most of which can’t even last the entire flight anyway.
So the secret motivation for paying attention to all of this stuff is that the right side of my $30 Bluetooth earbuds crapped on me recently, and I was waiting on the new iPhone news to make a decision on what to buy next to replace it. Unfortunately, I’m just as undecided as I was before.