21st Century Ears

This article was first published by dmcityview.com

Headphones have come a long way. From decades of soup on the endless of a metal headband to tiny, wireless hearing aide like ear inserts the innovations continue to shrink and astound. Everyone has their preference and while audiophiles may tell you there's only a few  headphones truly worthy of listening to music through, audio quality is not always the point.

While they've been around for nearly as long as recorded sound has existed, it wasn't until the last decade or so that headphone style erupted into consumer war. The first truly mass marketed as “cool” headphones were the expensive and style Beats by Dre. Founded in 2006 by hip hop legend Dr Dre and music industry mogul Jimmy Iovine, Beats by Dre became so stylish that less than a month later and acquisition by Apple made them both multi-billionaires… Problem Beats headsets are primarily about style. A quick Google search about Beats by Dre audio quality and build materials reveals their couple dollar price tag is built with materials that cost a fraction of that.

Along with Beats another consumer favorite was the Apple earbuds supplied with the purchase of every iPhone. Of course you can only talk about Apples earbuds in the past tense because since the 2016 release of the iPhone 7 didn't include a headphone jack, the earbuds have been replaced with a wireless version, the Apple Airpods. While not the first to cut the headset cord, Apple’s ubiquity in the smartphone marketplace has pushed these Airpods to top sales numbers. The downside is wireless headsets means charging batteries and batteries fail over time, so expect to replace your Airpods or any other bluetooth headset with permanently affixed power supplies every two-three years. The other huge bugaboo is wireless means signal transmission, and transmission means frequency noise.

Here is where innovation meets audio reality. Wired headphones supply higher quality audio than wireless bluetooth headsets. I don’t care if you’re rocking $20 over-the-ear headband style jogger headphones; as it stands Bluetooth adds an audible hiss that makes it nearly unusable. This problem isn’t distinctly bluetooth’s to deal with. Turn on AM radio and it sounds innately bass heavy. Switch to FM and you’re getting compressed sound with the whole spectrum of highs and lows deadened. Even Satellite radio has it's issues. It is just a matter of fact that local, wired-for-sound audio is king. Now Apple, Bose, Sony, and all the other pushers of bluetooth say they’ve made strides in this area, with current bluetooth headsets having overcome the issue… but the earbuds don’t lie. Bluetooth has a ways to go before it becomes the sound standard.

Even with bluetooth’s shortcoming some tech giants continue to forge ahead, and Google’s brand new headset almost makes me look passed the transmission issues. In early October, at the launch of its new flagship smartphone, Google snuck in the announcement of the Google Pixel Buds. While the Pixel Buds offer the standard audio listening and phone calling functionality, they also offer baked in Google Now voice assistant and real-time language translation. Now with the simple press of a button Pixel Bud users can translate two-way conversations in 40 different languages. As mindblowing as that is, the Pixel Buds have the full languages downloaded already so having an internet connection is not necessary. I don’t care if the audio sounds like a 1870s gramophone that is an incredible feature.

When it comes down to it features in headphones don’t really matter. Some people don’t like putting things in their early, some people can’t stand over the ear massive headsets. But with fresh interest in headphone innovation I wouldn’t bet against device free headsets within the next decade.

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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