headphones

Bang & Olufsen’s latest Beoplay E8 fully wireless earbuds offer top sound and comfort

Posted by | AirPods, Android, Bang & Olufsen, Bluetooth, electronics, Gadgets, hardware, headphones, Headset, iPhone, mobile devices, qi, Reviews, smartphones, Sony, TC, wireless, wireless earbuds, wireless headphones | No Comments

Bang & Olufsen has an excellent reputation in home audio, and its original Beoplay E8 fully wireless headphones were a category leader when there was barely a category to lead. The company recently launched the third version of the E8, a new generation of hardware that comes with a number of improvements for better audio quality and convenience, including wireless charging, up to seven hours of continuous use on a single charge and the latest Bluetooth standards for improved audio quality, operating distance and latency.

B&O’s latest wireless headset is a must-have for sound quality enthusiasts as a result, providing all-day comfort and wearability, excellent passive sound isolation and rich, sophisticated audio performance that does a good job of rendering the low end but without sacrificing any detail at higher frequencies, either.

Design

The design of the actual Beoplay E8 buds hasn’t changed much since the original version — but in this case, that’s a very good thing, because the original design has remained one of my all-time favorites for fully wireless in-ear buds. You get a small, sleek bud with a rounded face and touch-sensitive surfaces for manual control.

However, B&O has made some minor updates to the design, including getting rid of an irregular nub that stuck out somewhat from the otherwise circular sides of the original, and on the black version I tested, what was once an inner silver-colored metallic accent band on the face now has a shiny black finish. The overall effect is to make them even more understated and attractive.

While the originals also offered great fit, in my use it seems like B&O has improved the physical design on that scale, too. Whereas before I would occasionally have to reseat one or the other of the buds to get a proper noise-isolating seal, the E8 3rd Gen seems to just fit properly once they’re in, no matter how long you wear them.

The last thing to mention regarding design is the case. It’s somehow both smaller and more pocketable than the case for the original, but also includes wireless charging so that you can set it down on any Qi-based wireless charging pad (the same kind that works with modern iPhones and Android devices) and have it charge both the case, which contains additional battery capacity for the buds (bringing total play time to up to 35 hours, per B&O), and the buds themselves. The case is wrapped in a pebbled leather finish that feels fantastic, and a magnetic clasp ensures it stays closed while in transit. Magnets also help you make sure your buds are properly seated in the case to charge.

Performance

The first point to make about the third-generation Beoplay E8 is that they sound fantastic. By just about every measure, they are the best-sounding wireless earbuds I’ve used, including the AirPods Pro and Sony’s WF-1000MX3, both popular options. The E8 manage sound separation and clarity that is sure to please even hardcore audiophiles, and they sound great regardless of what kind of music you’re listening to, but they excel with high-quality, lossless recording formats.

In terms of sound isolation, the Beoplay E8 are also outstanding performers. They don’t have active noise cancellation, but their passive blocking is extremely good at keeping out ambient noise. So much so that it’s good B&O included a transparency feature (accessible by tapping the left earbud) to pipe in ambient sound, which is great for when you want to be more aware of your surroundings. Sound isolation and comfort both get even better when you make use of the included Comply memory foam eartips that ship with the Beoplay E8, which is an excellent bonus because, generally speaking, Comply tips require an additional purchase for just about every other set of earbuds.

The E8 is also a great headset for making calls, thanks to onboard mics that provide clear vocals mostly free of background noise. And because they feature both aptX and use Bluetooth 5.1, they’re also excellent for watching video and taking video calls on both mobile devices and computers, without any real noticeable lag.

Bottom line

Bang & Olufsen make premium products, and they come with premium price tags — at $350, the Beoplay E8 3rd Gen is no exception. But for that money, you’re getting premium build quality, great aesthetics and class-leading sound. For those who want the best audio possible in fully wireless buds, these are the ones to get. They’re fantastic for all-day wear for a work-at-home lifestyle, and offer great portability and sound transparency for taking with you on the go, too.

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Jabra’s Elite Active 75t earbuds offer great value and sound for both workouts and workdays

Posted by | Bluetooth, Gadgets, hardware, headphones, Headset, iphone accessories, Jabra, Reviews, sound cards, TC, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Technology improvements over the past few years mean that most fully wireless earbuds are a lot better than they used to be. That has led to something of a narrowing of the field among competitors in this arena, but some of the players still stand out – and Jabra have definitely delivered a standout performer with its newest Elite Active 75t fully wireless earbuds.

Basics

Jabra’s Elite Active 75t is a successor to its very popular 65t line, with added moisture resistance designed specifically for exercise use, as indicated by the ‘Active’ in the name. At $199.99, these are definitely premium-priced – but they’re a lot more affordable than many of the other offerings in the category, especially with their IP57-water and sweat resistance rating.

The Elite Active 75t also feature an esteemed 7.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, and their compact charging case carries backup power that adds up to a total of 28 hours potential run time across a single charge for both. The case charges via USB-C and also offers a fast-charge capability that provides 60 minutes of use from just 15 minutes of charging.

While they don’t offer active noise cancellation, they do have passive noise blocking, and an adjustable passthrough mode so that you can tune how much of the sound of the world around you you want to let in – a great safety feature for running or other activities.

They use Bluetooth 5.0 for low power consumption and extended connection range, have an auto-pause and resume feature for when you take out one earbud, and include a 4-mic array to optimize audio quality during calls.

Design

Jabra has accomplished a lot on the design front with the Elite Active 75t. Their predecessor was already among the most compact and low-profile in-ear wireless buds on the market, and the Elite Active 75t is even smaller. These are extremely lightweight and comfortable, too, and their design ensures that they stay put even during running or other active pursuits. In my testing, they didn’t even require adjustment once during a 30-minute outdoor run.

Their comfort makes them a great choice for both active use and for all-day wear at the desk – and the 7.5 hours of battery life doesn’t seem to be a boast, either, based on my use, which is also good for workday wear.

Another key design feature that Jabra included on the Elite Active 75t is that both earbuds feature a large, physical button for controls. This is much better and easier to use than the touch-based controls found on a lot of other headsets, and makes learning the various on-device control features a lot easier.

Finally in terms of design, the charging case for the Elite Active 75t is also among the most svelte on the market. It’s about the size of two stacked matchboxes, and easily slides into any available pockets. Like the earbuds themselves, the case features a very slightly rubberized outer texture, which is great for grip but, as you can see from the photos, is also a dust magnet. That doesn’t really matter unless you happen to be tasked with photographing them, however.

One final note on the case design – magnetic snaps in the earbud pockets mean you can be sure that your headset buds are seated correctly for charging when you put them back, which is a great bit of user experience thoughtfulness.

Performance

It’s easy to see why the Jabra Elite Active 75t is already a favorite among users – they provide a rich, pleasant sound profile that’s also easily tuned through the Jabra Sound+ mobile app. Especially for a pair of earbuds designed specifically for active use, these provide sound quality that goes above and beyond.

Their battery life appears to line up with manufacturer estimates, which also makes them class-leading in terms of single charge battery life. That’s a big advantage when using these for longer outdoor activities, or, as mentioned, when relying on them for all-day desk work. Their built-in mic is also clear and easy to understand for people on the other side of voice and video calls, and the built-in voice isolation seems to work very well according to my testing.

In my experience, their fit is also fantastic. Jabra really seems to have figured out how to build a bud that stays in place, regardless of how much you’re moving around or sweating. It’s really refreshing to find a pair of fully wireless buds that you never have to even think about readjusting them during a workout.

Bottom Line

Jabra has done an excellent job setting their offering apart from an increasingly crowded fully wireless earbud market, and the Elite Active 75t is another distinctive success. Size, comfort and battery life all help put this above its peers, and it also boasts great sound quality as well as excellent call quality. You can get better sounding fully wireless earbuds, but not without spending quite a bit more money and sacrificing some of those other advantages.

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Apple said to be working on modular, high-end, noise-cancelling over-ear headphones

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, apple inc, audio engineering, Beats Electronics, electrical engineering, Federal Communications Commission, Gadgets, hardware, headphones, iphone accessories, noise cancelling, noise cancelling headphones, powerbeats pro, siri, Sony, TC | No Comments

Apple is said to be developing its own competitors to popular over-ear noise-cancelling headphones like those made by Bose and Sony, Bloomberg reports, but with similar technology on board to that used in the AirPod and AirPod Pro lines. These headphones would also include a design with interchangeable parts that would allow some modification with customizable accessories for specific uses like workouts and long-term wear, for instance.

The prototype designs of the new headphones, which are set to potentially be released some time later this year (though timing is clearly up in the air as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and Apple’s general tendency to move things around depending on other factors), are said to feature a “retro look” by Bloomberg, and include oval ear cups which connect directly to thin arms that extend to the headband. The swappable parts include the ear pads and headband cushion, both of which are said to attach to the headphone frame using magnetic connectors.

These will support Siri on board, along with active noise cancellation and touch controls, but most importantly for iOS and Mac users, they’ll also feature the simple connection across multiple devices that are featured on AirPods and some of Apple’s Beats line of headphones.

Apple has already released Beats over- and on-ear headphone models with AirPod-like features, including cross-connectivity, and that feature onboard noise cancellation. The Bloomberg report doesn’t seem to indicate these new models would be Beats-branded, however, and their customization features would also be new in terms of Apple’s available existing options.

Bloomberg also previously reported that Apple was working on a smaller HomePod speaker as part of its forthcoming product lineup, and a new FCC filing made public this week could indicate the impending release of a success to its PowerBeats Pro fully wireless in-ear sport headphones.

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The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, audio engineering, audio equipment, Bluetooth, electrical engineering, Gadgets, hardware, headphones, iPad, iPhone, Reviews, sound cards, TC, technology, TwelveSouth, usb, USB-C | No Comments

Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address — and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today — and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro — but the latest noise-canceling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travelers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the “Pro” designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only has auxiliary audio in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it has been rock solid, with easy pairing and setup, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again, you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode — but you get up to four more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less, at $49.99 each.

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Razer targets gamers with low latency wireless earbuds

Posted by | Gaming, hardware, headphones, Razer, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Everyone’s in the wireless earbuds business these days. Razer, never one to be left out of a trend, is entering the category this week with Hammerhead True Wireless, a pair of fully wireless earbuds targeting its core demographic of gamers.

Where the headphones set to distinguish themselves from the chattering masses of competitors is a focus on low latency. Anyone who’s ever attempted to use earbuds for gaming purposes knows that lag is an issue with a majority of the products on the market. Understandably so, as most are far more focused on music playback and therefore prioritize other features instead.

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To achieve this, the company has tweaked Bluetooth 5.0 to offer a Gaming Mode with 60ms, according to the company’s numbers. What’s more, Razer’s offering them up at an extremely reasonable $100, less than even Amazon’s new Echo Buds — not to mention Apple’s pricey AirPods Pro, which were announced earlier this week.

On paper, at least, the specs are solid for the price point, including a decent (but far from exceptional) three hours of battery life on the buds, for 15 total hours with the charging case factored in. The headphones also feature the standard array of touch controls for playing and pausing music. Honestly, aside from gaming mode, they’re an otherwise pretty standard pair of earbuds from the looks of it. 

The Hammerheads are available now through Razer’s site.

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Sennheiser debuts its first wireless gaming headset, the GSP 670

Posted by | audio, Computex, Computex 2019, Gadgets, Gaming, GSP 670, headphones, headsets, Sennheiser, TC, wireless gaming headset | No Comments

During Computex last week, Sennheiser gave media a sneak peek at its first wireless gaming headset, the GSP 670, slated to ship starting at the beginning of next month.

The GSP 670 retails for €349 (about $393), significantly pricier than other popular wireless gaming headsets (as well as its wired predecessor, the Sennheiser GSP 600, priced at $249.95). Sennheiser is hoping its features, as well as the company’s reputation for excellent sound quality and comfortable headsets, will convince gamers to take the plunge. (When I tried on a pair at Computex, it delivered on wearability, connection speeds and audio quality, but of course it is hard to tell how headsets will feel and sound after hours of gaming, versus a few minutes of testing.)

Despite the freedom afforded by wireless, many gamers stick with wired headsets to avoid reductions in sound quality and connection speeds or having to worry about battery levels, issues that Sennheiser addresses with the GSP 670’s features. Like other wireless headsets, the GSP 670 needs to be connected to a wireless dongle. Each one comes with a GSA 70 compact USB dongle with proprietary technology that Sennheiser developed to ensure a low-latency connection it promises transmits sounds with “near-zero delay.” The USB is compatible with PCs and the Sony PlayStation 4. The GSP 670 also has Bluetooth, so users can pair it with their smartphones and tablets, as well.

The GSP 670’s microphone is noise-cancelling and can be muted by raising the boom arm. The headset has two volume wheels to allow users to control chat audio and game audio separately. Gamers can also adjust the audio on the GSP 670 with Sennheiser’s Gaming Suite for Windows, a software tool that lets users switch between audio presets or customize sound levels, and also includes surround sound modes and an equalizer.

In terms of battery, Sennheiser claims the GSP 670’s quick-charging battery can run for two hours after a seven-minute charge. When fully charged, it says the battery can last for up to 20 hours on Bluetooth and 16 hours when connected via the GSA 70 dongle. The headset has automatic shutdown to save power.

The GSP 670 is currently available for pre-order on Sennheiser’s website and will ship beginning on July 1.

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Google and Qualcomm launch a dev kit for building Assistant-enabled headphones

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Bluetooth, computing, Developer, Google, hardware, headphones, Headset, jaybird, Qualcomm, TC, technology | No Comments

Qualcomm today announced that it has partnered with Google to create a reference design and development kit for building Assistant-enabled Bluetooth headphones. Traditionally, building these headphones wasn’t exactly straightforward and involved building a lot of the hardware and software stack, something top-tier manufacturers could afford to do, but that kept second- or third-tier headphone developers from adding voice assistant capabilities to their devices.

“As wireless Bluetooth devices like headphones and earbuds become more popular, we need to make it easier to have the same great Assistant experience across many headsets,” Google’s Tomer Amarilio writes in today’s announcement.

The aptly named “Qualcomm Smart Headset Development Kit” is powered by a Qualcomm QCC5100-series Bluetooth audio chip and provides a full reference board for developing new headsets and interacting with the Assistant. What’s interesting — and somewhat unusual for Qualcomm — is that the company also built its own Bluetooth earbuds as a full reference design. These feature the ability to hold down a button to start an Assistant session, for example, as well as volume buttons. They are definitely not stylish headphones you’d want to use on your commute, given that they are bulky enough to feature a USB port. But they are meant to provide manufacturers with a design they can then use to build their own devices.

In addition to making it easier for developers to integrate the Assistant, the reference design also supports Google’s Fast Pair technology that makes connecting a new headset easier.

“Demand for voice control and assistance on-the-go is rapidly gaining traction across the consumer landscape,” said Chris Havell, senior director, product marketing, voice and music at Qualcomm. “Combined with our Smart Headset Platform, this reference design offers flexibility for manufacturers wanting to deliver highly differentiated user experiences that take advantage of the power and popularity of Google cloud-based services.”

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The damage of defaults

Posted by | AirPods, algorithmic accountability, algorithmic bias, Apple, Apple earbuds, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Bluetooth, Diversity, Gadgets, headphones, hearables, iphone accessories, mobile computing, siri, smartphone, TC, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

Apple popped out a new pair of AirPods this week. The design looks exactly like the old pair of AirPods. Which means I’m never going to use them because Apple’s bulbous earbuds don’t fit my ears. Think square peg, round hole.

The only way I could rock AirPods would be to walk around with hands clamped to the sides of my head to stop them from falling out. Which might make a nice cut in a glossy Apple ad for the gizmo — suggesting a feeling of closeness to the music, such that you can’t help but cup; a suggestive visual metaphor for the aural intimacy Apple surely wants its technology to communicate.

But the reality of trying to use earbuds that don’t fit is not that at all. It’s just shit. They fall out at the slightest movement so you either sit and never turn your head or, yes, hold them in with your hands. Oh hai, hands-not-so-free-pods!

The obvious point here is that one size does not fit all — howsoever much Apple’s Jony Ive and his softly spoken design team believe they have devised a universal earbud that pops snugly in every ear and just works. Sorry, nope!

Hi @tim_cook, I fixed that sketch for you. Introducing #InPods — because one size doesn’t fit all 😉pic.twitter.com/jubagMnwjt

— Natasha (@riptari) March 20, 2019

A proportion of iOS users — perhaps other petite women like me, or indeed men with less capacious ear holes — are simply being removed from Apple’s sales equation where earbuds are concerned. Apple is pretending we don’t exist.

Sure we can just buy another brand of more appropriately sized earbuds. The in-ear, noise-canceling kind are my preference. Apple does not make ‘InPods’. But that’s not a huge deal. Well, not yet.

It’s true, the consumer tech giant did also delete the headphone jack from iPhones. Thereby depreciating my existing pair of wired in-ear headphones (if I ever upgrade to a 3.5mm-jack-less iPhone). But I could just shell out for Bluetooth wireless in-ear buds that fit my shell-like ears and carry on as normal.

Universal in-ear headphones have existed for years, of course. A delightful design concept. You get a selection of different sized rubber caps shipped with the product and choose the size that best fits.

Unfortunately Apple isn’t in the ‘InPods’ business though. Possibly for aesthetic reasons. Most likely because — and there’s more than a little irony here — an in-ear design wouldn’t be naturally roomy enough to fit all the stuff Siri needs to, y’know, fake intelligence.

Which means people like me with small ears are being passed over in favor of Apple’s voice assistant. So that’s AI: 1, non-‘standard’-sized human: 0. Which also, unsurprisingly, feels like shit.

I say ‘yet’ because if voice computing does become the next major computing interaction paradigm, as some believe — given how Internet connectivity is set to get baked into everything (and sticking screens everywhere would be a visual and usability nightmare; albeit microphones everywhere is a privacy nightmare… ) — then the minority of humans with petite earholes will be at a disadvantage vs those who can just pop in their smart, sensor-packed earbud and get on with telling their Internet-enabled surroundings to do their bidding.

Will parents of future generations of designer babies select for adequately capacious earholes so their child can pop an AI in? Let’s hope not.

We’re also not at the voice computing singularity yet. Outside the usual tech bubbles it remains a bit of a novel gimmick. Amazon has drummed up some interest with in-home smart speakers housing its own voice AI Alexa (a brand choice that has, incidentally, caused a verbal headache for actual humans called Alexa). Though its Echo smart speakers appear to mostly get used as expensive weather checkers and egg timers. Or else for playing music — a function that a standard speaker or smartphone will happily perform.

Certainly a voice AI is not something you need with you 24/7 yet. Prodding at a touchscreen remains the standard way of tapping into the power and convenience of mobile computing for the majority of consumers in developed markets.

The thing is, though, it still grates to be ignored. To be told — even indirectly — by one of the world’s wealthiest consumer technology companies that it doesn’t believe your ears exist.

Or, well, that it’s weighed up the sales calculations and decided it’s okay to drop a petite-holed minority on the cutting room floor. So that’s ‘ear meet AirPod’. Not ‘AirPod meet ear’ then.

But the underlying issue is much bigger than Apple’s (in my case) oversized earbuds. Its latest shiny set of AirPods are just an ill-fitting reminder of how many technology defaults simply don’t ‘fit’ the world as claimed.

Because if cash-rich Apple’s okay with promoting a universal default (that isn’t), think of all the less well resourced technology firms chasing scale for other single-sized, ill-fitting solutions. And all the problems flowing from attempts to mash ill-mapped technology onto society at large.

When it comes to wrong-sized physical kit I’ve had similar issues with standard office computing equipment and furniture. Products that seems — surprise, surprise! — to have been default designed with a 6ft strapping guy in mind. Keyboards so long they end up gifting the smaller user RSI. Office chairs that deliver chronic back-pain as a service. Chunky mice that quickly wrack the hand with pain. (Apple is a historical offender there too I’m afraid.)

The fixes for such ergonomic design failures is simply not to use the kit. To find a better-sized (often DIY) alternative that does ‘fit’.

But a DIY fix may not be an option when discrepancy is embedded at the software level — and where a system is being applied to you, rather than you the human wanting to augment yourself with a bit of tech, such as a pair of smart earbuds.

With software, embedded flaws and system design failures may also be harder to spot because it’s not necessarily immediately obvious there’s a problem. Oftentimes algorithmic bias isn’t visible until damage has been done.

And there’s no shortage of stories already about how software defaults configured for a biased median have ended up causing real-world harm. (See for example: ProPublica’s analysis of the COMPAS recidividism tool — software it found incorrectly judging black defendants more likely to offend than white. So software amplifying existing racial prejudice.)

Of course AI makes this problem so much worse.

Which is why the emphasis must be on catching bias in the datasets — before there is a chance for prejudice or bias to be ‘systematized’ and get baked into algorithms that can do damage at scale.

The algorithms must also be explainable. And outcomes auditable. Transparency as disinfectant; not secret blackboxes stuffed with unknowable code.

Doing all this requires huge up-front thought and effort on system design, and an even bigger change of attitude. It also needs massive, massive attention to diversity. An industry-wide championing of humanity’s multifaceted and multi-sized reality — and to making sure that’s reflected in both data and design choices (and therefore the teams doing the design and dev work).

You could say what’s needed is a recognition there’s never, ever a one-sized-fits all plug.

Indeed, that all algorithmic ‘solutions’ are abstractions that make compromises on accuracy and utility. And that those trade-offs can become viciously cutting knives that exclude, deny, disadvantage, delete and damage people at scale.

Expensive earbuds that won’t stay put is just a handy visual metaphor.

And while discussion about the risks and challenges of algorithmic bias has stepped up in recent years, as AI technologies have proliferated — with mainstream tech conferences actively debating how to “democratize AI” and bake diversity and ethics into system design via a development focus on principles like transparency, explainability, accountability and fairness — the industry has not even begun to fix its diversity problem.

It’s barely moved the needle on diversity. And its products continue to reflect that fundamental flaw.

Stanford just launched their Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (@StanfordHAI) with great fanfare. The mission: “The creators and designers of AI must be broadly representative of humanity.”

121 faculty members listed.

Not a single faculty member is Black. pic.twitter.com/znCU6zAxui

— Chad Loder ❁ (@chadloder) March 21, 2019

Many — if not most — of the tech industry’s problems can be traced back to the fact that inadequately diverse teams are chasing scale while lacking the perspective to realize their system design is repurposing human harm as a de facto performance measure. (Although ‘lack of perspective’ is the charitable interpretation in certain cases; moral vacuum may be closer to the mark.)

As WWW creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has pointed out, system design is now society design. That means engineers, coders, AI technologists are all working at the frontline of ethics. The design choices they make have the potential to impact, influence and shape the lives of millions and even billions of people.

And when you’re designing society a median mindset and limited perspective cannot ever be an acceptable foundation. It’s also a recipe for product failure down the line.

The current backlash against big tech shows that the stakes and the damage are very real when poorly designed technologies get dumped thoughtlessly on people.

Life is messy and complex. People won’t fit a platform that oversimplifies and overlooks. And if your excuse for scaling harm is ‘we just didn’t think of that’ you’ve failed at your job and should really be headed out the door.

Because the consequences for being excluded by flawed system design are also scaling and stepping up as platforms proliferate and more life-impacting decisions get automated. Harm is being squared. Even as the underlying industry drum hasn’t skipped a beat in its prediction that everything will be digitized.

Which means that horribly biased parole systems are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Think of healthcare, social welfare, law enforcement, education, recruitment, transportation, construction, urban environments, farming, the military, the list of what will be digitized — and of manual or human overseen processes that will get systematized and automated — goes on.

Software — runs the industry mantra — is eating the world. That means badly designed technology products will harm more and more people.

But responsibility for sociotechnical misfit can’t just be scaled away as so much ‘collateral damage’.

So while an ‘elite’ design team led by a famous white guy might be able to craft a pleasingly curved earbud, such an approach cannot and does not automagically translate into AirPods with perfect, universal fit.

It’s someone’s standard. It’s certainly not mine.

We can posit that a more diverse Apple design team might have been able to rethink the AirPod design so as not to exclude those with smaller ears. Or make a case to convince the powers that be in Cupertino to add another size choice. We can but speculate.

What’s clear is the future of technology design can’t be so stubborn.

It must be radically inclusive and incredibly sensitive. Human-centric. Not locked to damaging defaults in its haste to impose a limited set of ideas.

Above all, it needs a listening ear on the world.

Indifference to difference and a blindspot for diversity will find no future here.

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Sorry Apple, I’m still not ready to upgrade my iPhone

Posted by | Apple, Apple earbuds, apple inc, e-waste, Gadgets, headphones, iOS, iPhone, Mobile | No Comments

Last week, in light of Apple’s revised revenue guidance, my TC colleague Ron Miller made a tongue-in-cheek apology for taking so long to upgrade his old iPhone.

He wrote that he had finally bitten the bullet and shelled out to upgrade a more than three-years-old (but still working) iPhone 6 for a shiny new iPhone XR ($750+) — deciding at the last minute to spare his wallet the full $1,000 whack for the top of the range iPhone XS. 

Ergo, even the famous Apple premium only stretches so far.

I bring even less good news for the company. I still can’t bring myself to upgrade my (still working but now heavily creaking on the battery and storage front) iPhone 6s because — and here’s my line — Apple removed the headphone jack. Which is absolutely an affront to usability and choice.

My (petite) ears do not conform to the one-size-fits-all shape Cupertino uses for its bundled earbuds. So even if the earbuds weren’t low audio quality, I still couldn’t use them. Headphones that you have to walk around holding in your ears because otherwise every twist and head turn pops them right back out again are, to put it politely, not very useful.

And, yes, this also applies to wireless AirPods — even if I wanted to give Apple more money to be forever stuck having to charge a pair of headphones before being able to use them, which frankly doesn’t sound very smart to me.

On the earbuds front, Apple does not cater to petite people, period. I have to use in-ear headphones, with replaceable rubber caps that come in a range of sizes (typically requiring the tiniest of the bunch). This means a 3.5mm jack, which lets me use my own choice of appropriately sized headphones, is not optional but essential.

A 3.5mm jack also lets me invest in higher audio quality kit, should I choose to.

Apple has other ideas, however. And judging by its own messaging at the time it ditched the headphone jack, it presumably thinks I should bravely ram its earbuds in my undersized ears anyway. Er, no thanks!

Of course, I could upgrade and just plug in a dongle to (re)convert the Lightning port into the necessary 3.5mm headphone jack. But that’s yet another dongle tax ($9) I shouldn’t have to pay.

iPhones are a premium product, after all. Having to buy extra accessories that are actually essential to get you back to where you were doesn’t feel like progress. (A better word for these irritating wallet-gougers would be “unnecessaries.”)

Add to that there is of course the sheer irritation and hassle of having to remember to have the stupid thing with you whenever you want to use your headphones.

While, for those into Apple aesthetics, dongles are of course 100 percent pure eyesore.

Also — an extra kicker — the Apple Lighting to 3.5mm converter doesn’t appear to play nice with third-party remotes. So your headphones’ physical volume control is probably going to be glitchy… (just check out all these 1-star reviews).

I won’t get started on Apple also vanishing the SD card port from the MBA. But the expense and hassle of trying to deal with that SNAFU, following a work laptop upgrade, has put me right off the prospect of “courageously” forgetting about other ports that I really need to use.

Nor am I the only TCer affronted by Apple ditching the headphone jack. My colleague Greg Kumparak wrote in December that he’s still missing the 3.5mm port two years later. “It enabled happy moments and never got in the way,” he lamented of the missing jack.

Safe to say, no one is ever going to bemoan the lack of a dongle like that.For TC’s Miller, he was finally pushed to upgrade his trusty old iPhone because of a bad battery and a glitchy recharge cable.

My own iPhone 6s has also tipped over into bad battery territory. The original battery was replaced in 2017 (after being in a faulty bunch for which Apple offered free replacements). But the other day the phone experienced its first “unexpected shutdown” — and a pop-up informed me Peak Performance Capability had been switched on.

Aka the performance management feature Apple got in some hot water with consumer groups for not being clear enough about previously. So there’s now an option to disable this in iOS settings.

I could also, of course, pay to replace the battery. Which would be a lot cheaper than a new iPhone. Or else — even cheaper — just carry a spare battery pack.

So which is less hassle to remember? A spare battery or a headphone dongle?

At least a battery pack extends the daily longevity of the handset, which feels like it’s offering some added utility (with the bonus social feature of being able to offer to juice up friends’ devices on-demand).

I’d certainly much prefer to keep a spare battery pack in my bag when I leave the house than always be trying to remember where on earth I left the dumb headphone dongle.

Ignoring Apple’s customary fraying charger cables (which can just be replaced), the other issue I’m facing with my current iPhone is storage. It’s almost full.

Apple offers cloud storage for a fee (after a small amount of free space). But I could also delete stuff I’m not using and buy an external hard drive for storing iPhone photo content (which is what’s taking up the most space) and offload the data to that.

Then I could wipe the iPhone 6s clean and start again.

Frankly the prospect of a rebooted iPhone 6s, which (battery wobbles aside) otherwise still works fine, is more appealing than paying a premium for an otherwise not so different handset which will, in certain key aspects, be less welcoming and useful to me than the one I already own.

It’s almost the more environmentally friendly choice, of course. And let’s not forget that lots of dongles = lots more unnecessary e-waste. So imposed dongle hell is bad for the planet too.

One size never fits all, but when combined with an upwardly inflating Apple premium, the Cupertino philosophy is starting to feel increasingly awkward — while “reuse don’t replace” feels more and more normal.

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Two years later, I still miss the headphone port

Posted by | Apple, Dongles, headphone jack, headphones, iPhone, Mobile, TC | No Comments

Two years ago, Apple killed the headphone port. I still haven’t forgiven them for it.

When Apple announced that the iPhone 7 would have no headphone port, I was pretty immediately annoyed. I figured maybe I’d get over it in a few months. I didn’t. I figured if worse came to worse, I’d switch platforms. Then all of the other manufacturers started following suit.

This, of course, isn’t a new annoyance for me. I’ve been hating headphone adapters on phones right here on this very website since two thousand and nine. For a little stretch there, though, I got my way.

It was a world full of dongles and crappy proprietary audio ports. Sony Ericsson had the FastPort. Nokia had the Pop-Port. Samsung had like 10 different ports that no one gave a shit about. No single phone maker had claimed the throne yet, so no one port had really become ubiquitous… but every manufacturer wanted their port to become the port. Even the phones that had a standardized audio jack mostly had the smaller 2.5mm port, requiring an adapter all the same.

Then came the original iPhone with its 3.5mm headphone port. It was a weird recessed 3.5mm port that didn’t work with most headphones, but it was a 3.5mm port! Apple was riding on the success of the iPod, and people were referring to this rumored device as the iPod Phone before it was even announced. How could something like that not have a headphone port?

Sales of the iPhone started to climb. A few million in 2007. Nearly 12 million in 2008. 20 million in 2009. A tide shifted. As Apple’s little slab of glass took over the smartphone world, other manufacturers tried to figure out what Apple was doing so right. The smartphone market, once filled with chunky, button-covered plastic beasts (this one slides! This one spins!), homogenized. Release by release, everything started looking more like the iPhone. A slab of glass. Premium materials. Minimal physical buttons. And, of course, a headphone port.

Within a couple years, a standard headphone port wasn’t just a nice selling point — it was mandatory. We’d entered a wonderful age of being able to use your wired headphones whenever you damn well pleased.

Then came September 7th, 2016, when Apple had the “courage” to announce it was ditching the 3.5mm jack (oh and also by the way check out these new $150 wireless headphones!).

Apple wasn’t the first to ditch the headphone port — but, just as with its decision to include one, its decision to remove it has turned the tide. A few months after the portless iPhone 7 was announced, Xiaomi nixed the port on the Mi 6. Then Google ditched it from its flagship Android phone, the Pixel 3. Even Samsung, which lampooned Apple for the decision, seems to be tinkering with the idea of dropping it. Though leaks suggest the upcoming Galaxy S10 will have a headphone port, the company pulled it from the mid-range A8 line earlier this year. If 2016 was the year Apple took a stab at the headphone jack, 2018 was the year it bled out.

And I’m still mad about it.

Technology comes and goes, and oh-so-often at Apple’s doing. Ditching the CD drive in laptops? That’s okay — CDs were doomed, and they were pretty awful to begin with. Killing Flash? Flash sucked. Switching one type of USB port for another? Fine, I suppose. The new USB is better in just about every way. At the very least, I won’t try to plug it in upside down only to flip it over and realize I had it right the first time.

But the headphone jack? It was fine. It stood the test of time for one hundred damned years, and with good reason: It. Just. Worked.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the removal of the headphone port bugs me more than other ports that have been unceremoniously killed off, and I think it’s because the headphone port almost always only made me happy. Using the headphone port meant listening to my favorite album, or using a free minute to catch the latest episode of a show, or passing an earbud to a friend to share some new tune. It enabled happy moments and never got in the way.

Now every time I want to use my headphones, I just find myself annoyed.

Bluetooth? Whoops, forgot to charge them. Or whoops, they’re trying to pair with my laptop even though my laptop is turned off and in my backpack.

Dongle? Whoops, left it on my other pair of headphones at work. Or whoops, it fell off somewhere, and now I’ve got to go buy another one.

I’ll just buy a bunch of dongles, and put them on all my headphones! I’ll keep extras in my bag for when I need to borrow a pair of headphones. That’s just like five dongles at this point, problem solved! Oh, wait: now I want to listen to music while I fall asleep, but also charge my phone so it’s not dead in the morning. That’s a different, more expensive splitter dongle (many of which, I’ve found, are poorly made garbage).

None of these are that big of a deal. Charge your damned headphones, Greg. Stop losing your dongles. The thing is: they took a thing that just worked and just made me happy and replaced it with something that, quite often, just bugs the hell out of me. If a friend sent me a YouTube link and I wanted to watch it without bugging everyone around me, I could just use whatever crappy, worn out headphones I happened to have sitting in my bag. Now it’s a process with a bunch of potential points of failure.

“But now its water resistant!” Water-resistant phones existed before all of this, plenty of which had/have headphone ports. As a recent example, see Samsung’s Galaxy S9 with its IP68 rating (matching that of the iPhone XS.)

“But it can be slimmer!” No one was asking for that.

“But the batteries inside can be bigger!” The capacity of the battery barely jumped in the years from the 6S to the 8 — from 1,715mAh to 1,821mAh. It wasn’t until a few years later with the iPhone X, when the standard iPhone started getting wider and taller, that we saw super big jumps in its battery capacity.

Will this post change anything? Of course not. Apple blew the horn that told the industry it’s okay to drop the headphone port, and everyone fell right in line. The next year — and the year after that — Apple sold another 200M-plus phones. At this point, Apple doesn’t even bother giving you the headphone adapter in the box. Apple’s mind is made up.

But if you’re out there, annoyed, stumbling across this post after finding yourself with a pair of headphones and a smartphone that won’t play friendly together in a pinch, just know: you’re not the only one. Two years later, I’m still mad at whoever made this call — and everyone else in the industry who followed suit.

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