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Wireless Earbuds: When a Clever Solution Brings New Problems

Wireless earbuds are an impressive display of technological prowess. The combine analog disciplines such as power management, charging, and links along with digitally based signal processing, and much more, into tiny packages. The recently introduced Apple AirPod earbuds are a good example of the design challenges and how they were overcome. With a list price of $160, they also represent an impressive financial commitment by the customer, no doubt of that.

The Apple AirPod wireless earbuds are an impressive technical achievement, but the gain they provide may not be worth the gain for many users - a surprisingly common situation.

The Apple AirPod wireless earbuds are an impressive technical achievement, but the gain they provide may not be worth the gain for many users – a surprisingly common situation.

Still, I wonder about the “problem” they purport to solve and the downsides of the solution. Apparently, the thin wire from the smart phone to both ear units is a nuisance and hassle for some people. It gets in the way, it gets tangled in their clothes or whatever; I suppose there are many ways to describe the situation. The solution is obvious and one very much aligned with today’s thinking: when you have a problem with a “wire”, just go wireless (assuming you can) – it’s that simple.

At the same time, the wireless earbud seems to me a classic case of a solution which is not only much bigger than the problem it addresses, but one which brings many new problems as well. Obviously, these earbuds are far most costly than a basic wired set, for starters. Further, you have to keep their run time in mind, although the claimed spec of four to eight hours in “normal use” is probably good enough for most users. There is also the issue of what happens when you are jogging along and one of them falls out of your ear; perhaps you can find it, or perhaps it is gone forever in the sand or down a grating.

However, those are only the beginning issues. To me, it’s the discipline required to own and use the earbuds that seems somewhat counterproductive. They come with a special charging case into which you lay them to rest when not in use—so that's another thing to keep track of at home or office, and carry with you when traveling. Further, there’s the very obvious issue of not misplacing just one of the pair even when you are just hanging around the house, so to speak.

In fact, I was amused by a recent article in The Wall Street JournalHow to Not Lose Your AirPods” which appeared only a few days after a lengthy article ” Best Wireless Earbuds: Apple’s AirPods (Yes, Those Ugly Things)” in the same publication praising them as the greatest – talk about irony! This is a lot of customer self-training and paying of attention that you simply don’t have with plug-and-play wired units. (Seriously, one of the suggestions was to purchase an accessory which ties the earbuds together, which seemed to completely negate their independent wireless nature; perhaps it was a meant as a joke?).

I have nothing against using wireless for short-distance links, when it makes sense and it overcomes a problem yet with few or no headaches. For many years, I had a wired bike speedometer and the short run from the front-wheel sensor to the handlebar readout was a hassle: it got snagged on various obstructions, it interfered with some maintenance, and it was challenge to neatly dress tightly and cleanly. Once I switched to wireless, I truly realized what an ongoing nuisance that short run of wire was.

There's nothing new about full-size wireless headsets; they have been around for many years for audiophiles who want the freedom to walk around while listening and also blocking for external noises. Wireless headsets (not earbuds) are also used with smartphones, but those are hard to lose, of course.

Have you ever been involved as either the creator or recipient of a solution that was far greater than the problem (which we can express as solution >> problem)? In what aspect was this so?

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2 comments on “Wireless Earbuds: When a Clever Solution Brings New Problems

  1. jonharris0
    February 2, 2017

    I haven't ever been a big fan of wireless headphones and am definitely not a fan of the EarPods.  It would be a nightmare to keep up with those things!

    I'm interested to see some comments on your question…I don't have an example to offer off the top of my head, but I'm sure there have been of examples plenty out there.

  2. Ed322
    February 15, 2017

    Nothing can change good old school earbuds, btw it's easier to maintain…

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