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What to consider when buying headphones

Story by Ignacio Rodriguez, Business Manager

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Wireless vs. Wire-Free Earbuds

The term “true wireless” sounds like techie jargon and, for the most part, it is. Regardless of whatever people call them “true wireless,” “cable-free,” or “wire-free,” the important distinction between these and typical earphones is the complete lack of a cable connecting the earpieces. These designs first became mainstream with the release of Apple’s AirPods in 2016. Design limitations, quirky operational issues, and poor battery life defined much of the true wireless offerings, earning no clear winners. Since then, the category has quickly matured and finally produce some standout products.

If someone simply wants a pair of Bluetooth earphones for exercise and doesn’t mind a cable that connects the earpieces behind the neck, stop reading now. That said, there is something liberating about going completely wire-free.

With that in mind, here is some criteria to consider when shopping for the perfect  wireless pair.

On-Ear Controls

If there’s one complication that many models share, it’s that it’s easy to accidentally pause music, skip a track, or call a voice assistant when merely meaning to take an earpiece out or adjust it slightly. There’s not a lot of space on most of the earpieces, and thus much of the outer panel area is devoted to controls.

Early on, models went in opposite directions in terms of on-ear controls. Some offer a plethora of ways to swipe and tap, which is a lot to memorize and provides lots of ways to fail. Apple’s answer to on-ear controls is to do away with it completely. The AirPods lack track navigation or volume controls—double tapping can either summon Siri or play/pause, but not both, giving them the simplest (but most limited) controls of most wireless headphones pairs.

Newer models from Bose manage to strike a balance between operability and layout. The Bose, for instance, uses actual tactile buttons to control playback, call management, track navigation, and volume. Despite needing to do a little more thinking before tapping, eventually, the division of controls between the two earpieces reveals itself to be intuitive. So on-ear control panels are getting more creative and user-friendly, but there’s still a ways to go before they catch up with traditional wireless models.

True-Wireless Battery Life:

Battery life is the Achilles’ heel of the true wireless category. The best-estimated battery life available (keep in mind results will vary with volume levels) tops out at around six hours. Just about all the other options hover in the three-to-five-hour range. It kills a battery quickly when two earpieces need to be charged separately. The solution that mostly all designs share is a charging case. Each case protects the earpieces when not in use, and charges them simultaneously. Most of the cases carry two extra full charges, so it can recharge earphones on the go. It’s not unlikely that this weak aspect of the true wireless realm will improve to the point that it will no longer be an issue.

As for simply misplacing an earpiece when not in use, this also seems unlikely. The charging case is intrinsically tied to the user experience—like hanging up the phone or turning the TV off when finished watching, most people will automatically reach for the case to stow and charge the earphones. To put it another way: It is far more likely to misplace the whole thing—the case with both earpieces inside—than to misplace one earpiece.However, if one earpiece is somehow lost, plenty of companies like Apple gladly sell an extra one à la carte for less than the price of a new full set. If losing an earpiece still seems like something imaginable, it’s worth researching whether the model you are interested in offers this option.

Are They Easy to Pair?

If you have an Apple device, no product has an easier pairing process than the Apple AirPods, which essentially do all the work from the second they turn on. Other products were less successful in the pairing phase early on—it turns out pairing two distinct pieces as if they are one product can be tricky. But recent entries to the category from Bose and Jaybird have it all figured out, and it seems the complicated pairing process is fading.

Gym-Friendly Designs

Surprisingly, many of these wire-free models can be used at the gym and even get wet, despite the fact that each earpiece has an exposed charging contact on the inside.

If durability and a true waterproof design are priorities, either sacrifice some user-friendliness or opt for a traditional neckband-style wireless design. Thus far, most of the earphones that are bundled with fitness apps or heart rate monitors have been in the neckband cabled realm.

Nevertheless, the one thing to always be considered first and last when purchasing anything new, is the price. Most wireless earphones, even the cheaper ones, are still exceedingly expensive compared to wired earphones

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About the Writer
Ignacio Rodriguez, Staff Writer

Ignacio Rodriguez is a senior and is brand new to the Paw Print staff. Ignacio joined the Paw Print because he wanted to get involved with the school in...

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What to consider when buying headphones