headphones

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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Review: The Marshall Woburn II packs modern sound, retro look

Posted by | aptx, Bluetooth, electrical engineering, electronics, Gadgets, headphones, marshall, Speaker, wireless, wireless headphones | No Comments

Marshall speakers stand out. That’s why I dig them. From the company’s headphones to its speakers, the audio is warm and full just like the classic design suggests.

The company today is announcing revisions across its lines. The new versions of the Action ($249), Stanmore ($349) and Woburn Bluetooth ($499) speakers now feature Bluetooth 5.0, an upgraded digital signal processor and a slightly re-worked look.

Marshall also announced a new version of the Minor wireless in-ear headphones. The wireless headphones were among the company’s first products and the updated version now features Bluetooth 5.0 aptX connectivity, new 14.2 mm drivers and 12 hours of battery life. Marshall also says the redesigned model will stay in place better than the original model.

It’s important to note that the company behind these Marshall speakers and headphones is different from the company that makes the iconic guitar amp though there is collaboration. The Marshall brand is used by Zound Industries, which also operates Ubanears.

The models produced by Zound Industries stay true to the Marshall brand. I’ve used several of the products since the company launched and I’m pleased to report that this new generation packs the magic of previous models.

The company sent me the new Woburn II speaker (pictured above) and it’s a lovely speaker. This is the largest speaker in the company’s line. It’s imposing and, in Reddit-speak, an absolute unit. It’s over a foot tall and weighs just under 20 lbs.

The speaker easily fills a room. The sound is warm and inviting.

The Woburn II features a ported design which helps create the rich sound. Bass is deep though doesn’t pound. Mid-tones are lovely and the highs are perfectly balanced. If they’re not, there are nobs mounted on the top to adjust the tones.

I find the Woburn a great speaker at any volume. Turn it down and the sound still feels as complex as it does at normal listen volumes. Crank the speaker to 10, drop the treble a bit, and the speaker will shake walls.

Don’t be scared by the imposing size. The Woburn II can party, but it is seemingly just as happy to spend the evening in, playing some Iron and Wine.

Sadly, the Woburn II lacks some of the magic of the original Woburn. The new version does not have an optical input and the power switch is a soft switch. It’s just for looks. The first Woburn had a two position switch. Click one way to turn on and click the other to turn off. It was an analog experience. This time around the speakers retain the switch, but the switch is different. It’s artificial and might as well be a power button. When pressed forward, the switch turns on the speaker and then snaps back to its original position. The clicking it gone. I know that seems like a silly thing to complain about but that switch was part of the Marshall experience. It felt authentic and now it feels artificial.

Like past models, the speaker is covered in a vinyl-like material and the front of the speaker is covered in fabric. Don’t touch this fabric. It stains. The review sample sent to me came with stains already on the fabric.

The Woburn II is a fantastic speaker with a timeless look. At $499 it’s pricy but produces sound above its price-point rivals. I expect the same performance out of updated Action II and Stanmore II speakers. These speakers are worthy of the Marshall name.

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Wireless headphones and earbuds to fit your budget

Posted by | aukey, earbuds, Gadgets, headphones, Jabra, Skullcandy, Sony, TC, Wirecutter | No Comments

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

Headphones keep us connected to our favorite music, podcasts, and audiobooks. They make sure we don’t drop an important phone call. As our devices ditch the headphone jack and Bluetooth technology improves, more and more people will need to upgrade to something that offers great sound, solid performance, and helpful features.

We’ve tested hundreds of wireless earbuds and headphones, and whether your budget is $30 or $300, we’ve found a pair to fit your needs.

 

Bluetooth earbuds: Skullcandy Ink’d Bluetooth

For the cheapest option that still offers good sound quality, the Skullcandy Ink’d Bluetooth earbuds are the best wireless earbuds under $50. They come with a collar that’s equipped with large control buttons, but it’s so light you’ll forget that it’s around your neck. The Ink’d Bluetooth are comfortable and made to fit all but the largest ear canals. Plus, they’re water-resistant.

The Ink’d Bluetooth’s battery will get you through a full day before it’s time to recharge. During testing, we were able to walk two rooms away from our connected smartphone before experiencing a signal drop.

Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

Workout headphones: Aukey Latitude EP-B40

When it’s time to focus at the gym, there’s no better way to tune out distractions than a reliable pair of earbuds. For a cheap but comfortable pair that can handle casual workouts and a bit of sweat, we recommend the Aukey Latitude EP-B40. They’re the best workout headphones under $50 and they offer more than eight hours of battery life, which is enough for a few gym sessions before recharging.

Silicone tips and wings help with keeping them secured during high-intensity activities. The cable that connects the earbuds is longer than we’d like, but the Latitude EP-B40 are a better option for working out than similarly priced wired earbuds, and they offer good sound quality.

Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald                                                               

Budget Bluetooth wireless: Jabra Move Wireless

For some, earbuds just don’t cut it. The Jabra Move Wireless are the best Bluetooth wireless headphones under $100. They’re ideal for someone who prefers over-ear headphones and doesn’t want to spend a lot of money. The Move Wireless sound almost as good as Bluetooth headphones that cost four times as much—without sacrificing solid basic features like intuitive and easily accessible controls. The Move Wireless’ pivoting earcups and a padded headband add to comfort.

Photo: Rozette Rago

True Wireless: Jabra Elite 65t

If keeping up with the latest tech gear is important to you, you’ve probably already done your research on true wireless headphones. The majority of them are still first-generation models and come with a few kinks. Still, the Jabra Elite 65t perform just as well as standard Bluetooth earbuds—offering great sound, battery life, and comfort—without a wire connecting each earpiece.

The Elite 65t usually block out a good amount of noise, but you have the option of using the mics to hear your surroundings by activating transparency mode. We like that these headphones work with voice assistants (Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa) and they have both track and volume controls. During testing, the Elite 65t’s Bluetooth 5.0 offered seamless and stronger connections than competitors, making calls sound especially clear. For a true wireless workout version of these headphones, we recommend the Jabra Elite Active 65t.

Photo: Rozette Rago

Bluetooth Wireless: Sony H.ear On WH-H900N

If you’re ready to invest in a pair of high-end Bluetooth wireless headphones that come with the best features, we recommend the Sony H.ear On WH-H900N. You’ll get above-average active noise cancelling, long-lasting battery life, a clear mic for voice calls, and, most importantly, a pair of headphones that sound great.

During testing, the H.ear On WH-H900M sounded better than competitors (with or without noise cancelling) and the bass added a noticeable boost that didn’t overpower vocals. We like that these headphones are lightweight, comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and that they come in a variety of colors.

These picks may have been updated by WirecutterWhen readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

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Skullcandy aims upscale with two new headphones

Posted by | audio engineering, audiophile, electrical engineering, Gadgets, headphones, noise cancelling, noise cancelling headphones, noise reduction, Skullcandy, Sony, TC | No Comments

Skullcandy has always been an odd brand. Aimed at a younger, hipper audience, the headphones always featured wacky graphics and a lower price point. Now, facing competition from multiple players, they’ve decided to step up their game in terms of quality and style.

Their two new models, the noise-cancelling Venue and the bass-heavy Crusher 360, are designed to hit the Bose/B&O/Sony quality point while still maintaining a bit of Beats styling. The Venue are the most interesting of the pair. They are true over-ear noise-cancelling headphones that cost a mere $179 — more than $100 less than Bose’s best offerings.

The Venue’s noise cancellation was excellent, as was the sound quality. The headphones were solidly built and last for two five-hour flights, a first for me when it comes to wireless or wired noise-cancelling headphones. Usually in almost every model I’ve tested I’ve had to charge or change the battery after about eight hours. This is a vast improvement.

As for audio quality, I was quite impressed. Having heard earlier Skullcandy models, I went in expecting tinny sound and muddy bass. I got neither. What I got was a true sound without much modification and very nice noise cancelling. In short, it did exactly what it says on the tin.

One peeve is the size of the headphones and the case. Most headphones can fold up to a smaller package that is unobtrusive when it hangs off your back or sits in your lap. These headphones come in a massive, flat case that is not imminently portable. If you’re used to smaller, thinner cases, this might be a deal breaker. That said, the price and sound are excellent and the Venue is a real step up.

Then we have the Crusher 360. These are also well-made headphones that collapse into a slightly smaller package than the Venue. They also offer what Skullcandy calls Sensory Bass and 360-degree audio. What that means, in practice, is that these things sound like a bass-lover’s very effusive home theater system on your head.

The Crusher, like the Venue, is wireless and lasts about 30 hours on one charge. They don’t have noise cancelling, but what they do have is a set of haptics inside the ear cups that essentially turn bass events into wildly impressive explosions of sound. You can turn this feature up and down using a capacitive touch control on the side of the headphones and, if you’re like me, you probably will be using that feature multiple times.

How do they work? Well, the bass these things pump out is almost comical. While I don’t want to completely disparage these things — different ears will find them pleasant if not downright cool – the Crushers turn almost everything — from a drama to a bit of dubstep — into a bass-heavy party. I used these on another flight and heard every single bang, boom and bop in the movies I watched and, oddly, I found the added bass response quite nice in regular music. If you like bass you’ll like these. If you don’t, then you’d best stay away.

The headphones cost $299.

Skullcandy isn’t the audiophile’s choice in headphones. That said, their efforts to improve the brand, product and quality are laudable. I avoided the company for years after a few bad experiences and I’m glad to see them coming back with a new and improved set of cans that truly offer great sound and a nice price. While the Crushers are definitely an acquired taste I could honestly recommend the Venue over any similarly priced noise-cancelling headphones on the market, including Bose’s businessperson specials. These headphones aren’t perfect, but they’re also not bad.

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