Tag Archives: AirPods

My New Best Buds

Happy New Year! In the spirit of putting my best foot forward, I am happy to report that I have achieved closure on one of my lingering items from 2016… no, I still haven’t found a Nintendo Classic. At this point, I may as well set my sights on its rumored successor, the Super Nintendo Classic.

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Come on, Nintendo. One heartbreak at a time. (Source: @trademark_bot on Twitter)

This loose thread from last year involves my quixotic quest to find the perfect wireless earbuds. In my Dec. 12 posting, I touched upon my experiences with earbuds from Sol Republic and Jabra. Neither brand impressed me, nor had models from Plantronics and Jaybird, which I also tried out. In fact, while I was patiently waiting for Apple to release its AirPods, only one brand met my demands for comfort and functionality: Skybuds, by Alpha Audiotronics, Inc.

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Alpha’s Skybuds, enlarged to show detail. (Source: Skybuds.com)

The size and shape were a perfect fit, and the sound quality was great… once I was able to pair them to my iPhone 6S. Out of the box, the setup process was arduous, to say the least. I had to install the Skybuds iOS app, and then, pairing each bud was a fussy process. Sometimes Left would pair without a problem but Right wouldn’t show up; sometimes vice versa; and sometimes neither bud would appear at all. To resolve these issues, Skybuds had a software update I needed to get before I could continue. The update told me it would take three hours to download. Three. Hours. Several times during the download, it would drop the connection and I would have to resume. Luckily it didn’t start over at the beginning of the three hours, but each pause was an unwelcome interruption.

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This tour was only supposed to be three hours, too. (Source: Parade.com)

Once the software was updated and the Skybuds successfully paired in tandem, the listening experience was great. And it had better be, at $249.99 retail*. This was my new gold standard for wireless earbuds, even with the setup headache. Apple was going to have a pretty high bar to cross, whenever their long-awaited AirPods would arrive.

And then they arrived.

I had gotten the Skybuds on 12/12, just after posting my blog about my false starts with other brands. Precisely one week later, on 12/19, my local Apple Store notified me that the AirPods I wanted, and for which I had put my name on a waiting list in September, had finally arrived. I didn’t immediately return the Skybuds; I wanted to try out the AirPods before deciding on a “keeper.” So I bought the AirPods over the phone–mustn’t risk their selling out before I got to the store!–and went to pick them up.

 

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And I didn’t even have to wait in line. (Source: MacRumors.com, click photo for their article on the AirPods release.)

 

The setup process isn’t much to describe. I opened the box in the store, opened the charging case, and the AirPods automatically paired with my iPhone 6S. No app downloads, no three-hour updates. I was reminded of the simplicity of adding components to my first Mac, after switching from a Windows PC over a decade ago. “You mean, that’s it?” I thought to myself. And the answer was a resounding yes… and no.

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For real, that’s the process. (Source: CNet.com, click the animated GIF for their article on how easy it is to set up the AirPods.)

Listening to iTunes or Spotify sounded great with both AirPods in. They even stayed in my ears when I would move my head around, despite this satirical take from Conan O’Brien:

So they sounded good, they paired easily, and they fit well–in my ears, at least. What was left?

 

Despite all the positives, AirPods didn’t get along perfectly with my iPhone 6S, when I tried to have a phone call (fun fact for my younger readers: the iPhone, in addition to supporting email, web, and texting functions, also works as a telephone!). With both AirPods in my ears, paired to my iPhone 6S, the bluetooth would disconnect, forcing the call back to the phone’s built-in speaker. I looked into this issue, and apparently the glitch was even worse for some users, ending the call altogether.

In a recent post at AppleToolBox.com, the topic of “iPhone Airpods Disconnecting Calls” came up.  It appears that I was not the only one having difficulty maintaining a phone conversation with both AirPods in. Indeed, with that hypothesis in mind, I began taking calls with only one AirPod, reminiscent of the classic one-ear bluetooth earpieces of years past. This was not an ideal solution, but at least I could have my calls without worrying about losing the audio, or the call outright.

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Using only one AirPod? I suppose there are worse things I could have done…

According to that Apple Tool Box article, “Currently, the issue appears to affect iPhone 6S and 6S Plus more often than other iPhone models.” I’m not totally surprised. It’s no secret that the AirPods were intended to be a companion piece for the brand-new iPhone 7.

It’s the first iPhone without a headphone jack, remember?

At the end of the year, I upgraded to the iPhone 7. Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program lets me swap out iPhones each year, when the new model becomes available, so it would have been silly not to trade in my 6S (known to have problems with AirPod calls) for a 7. And for readers who recall my frustration with Mophie for not making a Juice Pack battery case that supported the 7, they finally released a compatible case. Everything was in place.

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It’s essentially the same as the Juice Pack Air for the 6/6S, but with a larger opening for the camera (upper left); and of course, no opening at the bottom for a headphone jack. (Source: Mophie.com)

After several days of testing, I can confidently say that the AirPods have none of the difficulties with the iPhone 7 that they had with the 6S. Songs, videos, and even phone calls sound great in stereo from start to finish. But the last lingering question remains: “Are AirPods better than Skybuds?”

AirPods sound just as good. In my ears, they’re just as comfortable. They’re much, much easier to set up. They’re fully supported by Apple; so if I have a problem with the connection, it’s one trip to the Genius Bar to see if the problem is with the AirPods, or with the iPhone. And it should be noted that they retail for $159.00, as much as $90* less than the Skybuds. For all those reasons, if you have an iPhone 7, AirPods get my full recommendation. If you’re still on an older iPhone (particularly the 6S or 6S Plus), save your money, at least until Apple can properly address the issue with phone calls. Heck, just use wired headphones while you still have an available jack for them!

* UPDATE: At publication time, it appears Skybuds have gone down in price to $219.99.

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The Tireless Search for Wireless Earbuds

I hate coming to this blog empty-handed. My NES Classic non-review still haunts me as a personal and professional disappointment. With that experience behind me, I was hoping for more success with my hunt for new headphones.

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Pictured: My NES Classic.

This quest actually began before Apple announced that their next iPhone wouldn’t support traditional wired headphones. My Mophie Juice Pack case limits the access to the iPhone 6S’s headphone port, but they make a special adapter cable (about 2.5″ long) that lets any wired headphones connect through the case. One night not too long ago, during my nightly walk, the Mophie adapter cable kinked just a bit too far in my pocket, and the internal conductor snapped. I could no longer listen to my iPhone with standard wired headphones.

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Mophie’s recessed headphone jack (above), and the adapter required to plug into it. Source: techguide.com.au

I took it as a sign, since very soon after this happened, Apple took the headphone jack away altogether from their next phone. I concluded that I shouldn’t spend any more time or money on “legacy” equipment that, while effective for using wired headphones on an iPhone 6S, would be useless on a 7. So my attention turned toward wireless solutions.

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 7, they also announced their own stereo wireless earbuds, the AirPods. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, these AirPods have yet to hit store shelves; in fact, since missing their announced “Late October 2016” launch window, no new street date has even been announced. I may eventually get those AirPods, but I’ve got walking to do in the meantime. And I can’t walk without my tunes.

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Until a realistic street date is announced, the AirPods (above) are nothing more than “vaporware.”

Wireless stereo headphones come in two styles: connected and separate. The connected headphones are often wired to each other by a thin cable, but sometimes there’s a thick middle piece that wraps around the neck or back of the head. My own comfort preferences led me toward the separate form factor. At this point, I’ve tried out two models of separate earbuds: the Sol Republic Amps Air, and the Jabra Elite Sport.

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Connected headphones, in many shapes and sizes. Not the best for running, in my opinion. Source: bestbuy.com

For those of you looking for a quick conclusion, here’s the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) upshot: I’ve returned the Sol Republic set to the store, and the Jabra is going back, too. Neither were especially comfortable (a risk one runs when all the electronics have to be crammed into the individual earpieces with no external modules). And while the Sol Republic set’s sound quality was too tinny to justify a $150 price tag, at least I could hear my Spotify playlist in both ears. My attempt to “road test” the $250 Jabra set was hampered by an inability of the left bud to produce any sound at all. And the whole point of stereo earbuds is to avoid looking like “that guy” with the bluetooth headset in one ear.

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Sol Republic Amps Air. Source: solrepublic.com

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Jabra Elite Sport earbuds. Source: jabra.co.uk 

It’s funny, now that I’ve tried these two sets for myself, I can understand Apple’s hesitation to release their own wireless earbuds too early. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal (shared via Macrumors.com), the sound quality–particularly distortion-free stereo sound–didn’t meet Apple’s high standards. And that may be true (although manufacturing problems may also or instead be contributing to the delay); but it’s very frustrating for those who jumped to the new iPhone 7 (or those of us about to), counting on wireless earbuds to complement their new wireless phone audio experience.

I’m not sure what earbuds I’ll try next. Samsung makes a set, the Gear IconX; but the salesman actually discouraged me from picking it originally, because I wouldn’t be pairing it with a Samsung phone. I may decide to live on the edge and try it out, regardless. And if it works better than the other brands, you’ll be hearing from me.

I just hope I can hear from it. ◼︎

Hit the Road, Jack: Saying Goodbye to a 3.5mm Hole

On Wednesday, Apple announced that their new iPhone 7 would be the first in the line not to have a dedicated headphone jack. This was met with some controversy and consternation, and I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on the matter.

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The lonely Lightning port of the new iPhone 7. (Source: WhatHiFi.com, click photo for their article.)

This is Apple’s M.O.

The first thing that surprises me about the response, honestly, is anyone’s surprise at the move. Apple is notorious for moving away from older technology when they create new devices, or new versions of existing devices. Here’s a brief timeline:

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The original Macintosh (right) and the first iMac (left). (Source: MacWorld.co.uk)

1984: While IBM-styled PC manufacturers are still including 5.25” floppy drives, Apple unveils the first Macintosh computer, equipped with the smaller, yet higher-capacity 3.5” diskette drive. Apple’s last computer with a 5.25” drive would be in their II (“two”) series, the last of that line being 1988’s  Apple IIc Plus. PC makers would eventually phase out the 5.25” floppy by the early 1990s.

1998: With the iMac, Apple courts controversy again by removing the 3.5” diskette drive from this new all-in-one form factor, opting strictly for optical media; first in the form of CD-ROM, then DVD-ROM, and finally, rewritable DVD “SuperDrive,” first appearing in 2002’s Flat Panel iMac. Apple would remove the “floppy” drive from its laptops, as well; 1999’s PowerBook G3 would be the first Apple notebook to exclude the diskette drive, in favor of an optical drive.

2008: Speaking of laptops, Apple invents a new model, the MacBook Air (below), boasting unprecedented (for Apple) thinness and lightness in a fully-featured computer. One feature that is notably absent is its optical drive.

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2008’s wafer-thin MacBook Air. (Source: nextmedia.com.au)

Apple is confident, not only that users could rely upon the optional USB SuperDrive for their disk-based needs; but that program installations and media downloads would be performed over the internet, instead of coming from CDs and DVDs. This change coincides with the growth of the iTunes Store (selling music in 2003, TV shows in 2005, and movies in 2006); followed by the arrival of the App Store in 2011, from which users could download their programs directly from Apple, instead of having to insert an installation disc. Ambitiously, Apple both predicts and precipitates the massive shakeup of the disc-based media and software industries.

Apple would eliminate optical drives from its iMac and MacBook Pro in 2012, and it would redesign the Mac Pro desktop tower in 2013 and MacBook in 2015, each without optical drives as a matter of design.

2015: The aforementioned MacBook (below) marks another design change by tossing out all ports but one universal USB-C port for both charging and data interface.

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2015’s redesigned MacBook. Note the single port on the corner. (Source: abc.net.au)

This move would be a boon to the after-market USB hub industry, for users who need to plug in more than one device at the same time, to say nothing of charging the battery in the process.

As history has shown, the iPhone 7’s removal of the headphone jack is just the latest in a long string of bold moves. Anyone who wasn’t prepared for it just hasn’t been paying attention.

Thin is In

During his segment of the keynote, Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, asked the question outright: “Why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone?” He would go on to answer:

Our smartphones are packed with technologies and we all want more. We want bigger, just brighter displays. We want larger batteries, we want faster processors, we want stereo speakers, we want Taptic Engines, we want all of that and it’s all fighting for space within that same enclosure. And maintaining an ancient single purpose analog big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.

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Phil Schiller’s inside look at the new iPhone 7. (Source: Reuters)

And he’s right. We demand a certain thinness from our mobile devices (as long as they’re not prone to bending, as was the case with 2014’s iPhone 6 Plus, shown below).

Removing the analog headphone jack not only frees up that much space on the phone’s shell, but it also allows for further technological expansion inside the phone. This could result in longer battery life, more processing power, or ideally, both.

This also means the removal of an oft-taken-for-granted component in all other smartphones: the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Translating digital audio to conform to analog headphones requires a dedicated chip. Apple has this time opted to leave the audio processing to the headphones; be they from Apple, or from other manufacturers who can focus on higher-quality DACs without the limitations of an iPhone’s internal real estate. These chips can be built in to the plug, the cord, or the headphone itself. Some predict this will mean higher quality sound than an iPhone’s native DAC could have generated. Time will tell.

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An X-ray of last year’s iPhone 6S. Note the headphone jack in the lower-left. (Source: iFixit.com, click photo for their full teardown.)

Moving Toward A Wireless Future: CHARGE!

Apple doesn’t expect its users simply to use the iPhone’s built-in speakers for all future audio needs. After all, not only are they bundling with the new iPhone wired headphones that connect directly to the multi-purpose Lightning jack, but they’re also including an adapter (below) to allow users to plug their existing analog headphones into that jack.

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Apple’s included Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter (Source: Apple.com)

Third party companies like Belkin have already announced splitters, such as their RockStar™ (below) to allow for lightning headphone use while simultaneously charging the iPhone.

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Belkin’s Lightning Audio + Charge RockStar™ (Source: Belkin.com, click photo for their page.)

But wired headphones may themselves be the next thing to go. At the same keynote where they announced the iPhone 7, Apple unveiled AirPods (below): wireless earbuds that promise high-quality audio while leaving the Lightning jack free for charging (or other purposes, like an SD Card reader).

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Apple’s wireless AirPods. (Source: Apple.com, click photo for press release.)

But what if the iPhone didn’t need to plug in a cable even to recharge its battery?

Apple’s latest gadget du jour, the Watch, doesn’t require a cable to be inserted into a hole to recharge its battery; it uses a magnetic pad placed on the bottom of the watch (shown in this video narrated by Apple designer Jony Ive).

Likewise, Apple’s latest flagship tablet, the iPad Pro, features the “Smart Connector,” a row of three small circles (shown below), through which electricity can travel from the iPad to devices like keyboards; or to the iPad, from devices like the Logi BASE Charging Station. In both cases, the power goes strictly through touch, through the process of “inductive charging.”

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iPad Pro’s new Smart Connector on the edge. (Source: MacWorld.com)

Third-party manufacturers have been working toward a future with touch-only charging for years. Mophie’s Juice Pack battery case now comes in a model allowing for wireless charging, through their “Charge Force” line (see their video below to learn more).

Even furniture maker IKEA (below) has gotten in on the trend, selling wireless charging pads, and building the technology into some of their lamps and nightstands.

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IKEA’s SELJE Nightstand with wireless charging. (Source: IKEA, click photo for its page.)

I predict that iPhones will eventually have built-in wireless charging technology to take advantage of these options without needing a special case or adapter, just like some Android phones do already.

Eventually, the iPhone may not have any holes for any purpose: not charging, headphones, or anything else. This could bring about a near-hermetically sealed iPhone, with greatly improved water and dust resistance.

Conclusion

I don’t expect the removal of the headphone jack to go over smoothly, and I encourage debate on the subject. I just think that knowing Apple’s history, design philosophy, and ambitions for the future have made this a foregone conclusion. Personally, I’m ready to have one fewer wire to have to untangle.

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