Totally Wired

Well over five years ago, I was having a hard time with wired earbuds. The pair that came with my phone at the time had a sort-of butterfly wing that held each earbud securely in place, but when they slowly deteriorated I found it nearly impossible to find a pair that used the same (or similar mechanism). My ears are a little strange, it seems.

Lo and behold, during my search I came across a display for Bose and their new-ish SoundSport model. They were wireless. They sounded decent enough in the store, and after some thought I picked up a pair. The clincher were the wingtips each earbud had, which made their fit more or less guaranteed. Note: these were not what are now somewhat pedantically called “True Wireless” as there was a flimsy harness wire which connected them (this turned out to be handy, given that if I had to remove an earbud I could let it drop and it would simply hang over my shoulder). They sounded good and were comfortable, which is really all I wanted.

I listen to music a lot; and when I’m not listening to music on my phone I’m listening to streaming radio stations like BBC 6 Music. I’m not an audiophile, but I like decently balanced sound. Whenever I read about “high fidelity wireless earbuds” I struggle with the dissonance that a) Bluetooth (how wireless earbuds connect) is an inherently lossy format to begin with, and b) what exactly are you listening to that requires peerless sound quality? If I’m commuting to work and listening to compressed MP3s of GBV, what exactly am I gaining from a $400 pair of earbuds?

The Bose SoundSport buds simply worked, which is all I wanted. And then they began to fall apart. After 1.5yrs the rubber covering on the selection buttons was disintegrating. It became harder and harder to pause what I was listening to (I had to press with the edge of my fingernail to do this after a while). After stretching it out as long as I could, a total of 2.5yrs, I began to (begrudgingly) look for a replacement. I started looking at “True Wireless” models from various brands, and they were all hideously expensive and/or maintained the same hard-to-fit-in-Matt’s-ear bud shape. In a moment of “what the hell, eh” I decided to order a pair of Google Pixel Buds. They were comparatively inexpensive and I figured it was as good an introduction to “True Wireless” as I was going to get.

Out of the box, the Pixel Buds did their job. They fit about as well as the Bose and came with a sleek egg-like charger case which didn’t take up much space. I also appreciated that I could, especially for client phone calls, optionally only have one bud in my ear (the idea of having both of my ears plugged on a phone call is not attractive as I get a form of claustrophobia from things like that). And then, after a year, they too began to fall apart. The charger case began to crack along the edges, and then each bud’s charging ability began to lessen, up to the point where I couldn’t use them for 50-minute client sessions. It became a bit of a joke, though I didn’t appreciate the cost and inconvenience of having to contemplate replacing them in less time than I was able to stretch out my pair of Bose previously. When I looked up help from Google the answer was either a version of “did you turn it on and off again?” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I know this is the way things are: disposability. I don’t like it, but I when it comes to what you get for those low prices I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But goddamnit, can’t something last more than 2 years without falling apart??

Let’s take a moment to made room for my biggest bugbear about wireless earbuds (True and not): radio frequency (RF) interference. The idea that is sold to us about wireless/Bluetooth devices is that we are liberated from our phones etc, but little ink is spilled (don’t get me started on online product reviews) about RF interference. Yes, within the confines of my office, Bluetooth technology presents no immediate shortfalls. However, when I’m walking down an urban sidewalk, whatever I’m listening to begins to cut out, with the sort of maddening infrequency that makes the whole point of listening to music futile. The worst culprit is Spadina Avenue, where my office is, naturally. I can neither listen to music nor conduct phone calls walking on Spadina owing to what I can only imagine are high levels of interruptive wifi signals (Spadina is a tech company ghetto after all).

I finally decided to look for a good-fitting pair of wired earbuds, which made it clear, if it wasn’t already, that True Wireless Earbuds Are Everywhere Now. And here I was, looking for something unintentionally retro. I looked far and wide, even at used products — this is how desperate I was. Eventually, scratching at the bottom of a Google search, I saw a pair of JBL earbuds for sale at Staples. Sleek and black, and made for workouts, they were also on the verge of being a legacy model at this point. They were also $29.

It’s been a week with them so far and I have no complaints, aside from navigating the wires occasionally. They sound great (no lossy format), they fit decently, I don’t have to worry about charging them throughout the day, and there’s no need to fear RF interference.

All is well.