I recently broke my second pair of Bluetooth earphones in the span of one year, and that got me thinking about my experiences using Bluetooth audio devices over the years.
The Start: Being forced to use Bluetooth Earphones
The first time I started using Bluetooth earphones was back in 2015. I was forced into using them because my phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack stopped working, and I couldn’t be bothered to send my phone over to a repair shop to get it fixed. I was in grad school back then and money was tight- I remember scouring slickdeals dot net and finding a coupon code so I could buy a no-name brand pair of earphones for ten or twelve bucks.
Before then, I was exclusively a wired headphone/earphone user. I didn’t have to think about the experience of connecting headphones to listen to music – just plug and play. That’s where my annoyances started with going wireless. There’s an initial setup process that involves pairing your earphones and your phone. It usually involves pressing and holding a combination of buttons for some amount of seconds until you see some kind of LED indicator and/or hear a particular sound. You then have to find the device on your phone, go through the pairing process and hope it works.
Over the years, the pairing experience has become more intuitive and convenient due to prior experiences, familiarity, and manufacturers trying to reduce the number of steps needed.
Thinking back to using those first earphones I owned- I mostly remember them being uncomfortable to wear- they dug into my ears at times, and their shape and hard plastic construction meant that holding onto them, keeping them in your pocket, and even pushing the power button was pretty annoying. The sound quality was hollow and tinny. The battery life was decent. But I overlooked the shortcomings because they were affordable, and I didn’t have a choice.
Learning to Live with and Love Bluetooth Earphones
As time went on and I switched phones, I ended up continuing to use Bluetooth earphones at least half the time I was listening to music. Being forced to use them had helped me understand the plus sides of going wireless- being able to listen while your phone’s kept away, or being able to use them more comfortably while working out, for example.
Graduating and getting a job also unlocked the capability of buying earphones that weren’t at the bottom of the barrel – that meant better sound quality, longer battery life, better build quality with more “premium” feeling materials, and better comfort. I remember using a pair of Brainwavz earbuds that came with foam eartips instead of the usual silicone ones. Using foam eartips that conform to your ears makes the experience of wearing earphones significantly more comfortable, especially for longer listening sessions.
Despite becoming more accustomed to using bluetooth earphones, I still had a couple of issues with them. Connecting to a device wasn’t instantaneous, and turning them on required me to press and hold the power button for about 5 seconds. Not huge issues in the grand scheme of things, but when you compare that to the seamlessness of plugging a pair of earbuds into a 3.5mm headphonejack and starting to play audio, having to wait to turn on and connect wirelessly is slightly annoying.
The unfortunate thing with bluetooth earphones- at least the ones I tried, is that they end up malfunctioning or breaking eventually. When my pair of Brainwavs kicked the bucket, I bought a pair of Aukey EPB40s. Design-wise, they were pretty much the same- except the left and right earbuds were magnetic, and were able to stick to each other- nifty to be sure, but nothing extraordinary.
It’s their successor, the EPB60s, that took the magnetic “snapping” feature and used it to switch the earbuds on and off- separating the earbuds to turn them on, and snapping them together to turn them off. What I first considered a clever gimmick turned out to be a great solution to the hangups I had with using wireless earphones. This was the closest that a Bluetooth device had come to seamlessly integrating into my routine. Sometimes the best designs are those that integrate so well into your lives and routines that you don’t even think about them.
These were the first Bluetooth earphones that became my primary way of listening to music on the go. I still use wired headphones while listening to music on my “audiophile” setup- but that’s a whole different story. The ease of connectivity and the freedom of movement came together for the first time to provide an experience that just made sense.
My Next Buy in a Changed Tech Landscape
Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning- My second pair of these just broke in the span of one year. Convenience is cool and all, but durability is pretty important to me too, which is why I probably won’t be buying another pair of these. Even if I wanted to, though- they seem to be out of stock or unavailable the last time I checked online.
Another thing that happened in the past couple of years, is a significant shift in Bluetooth earphone trends. Namely, the rise of “true wireless” earbuds. I’m not sold on the concept personally- knowing how forgetful I can be sometimes, I just don’t know if I can reliably remember to place two separate earbuds into the same box, and not shove them into two different pockets, or keep them in two completely different places. They also tend to be significantly more expensive based on what I’ve seen. Replacing the usual Bluetooth earphones (What do I even call those now- “wired but wireless”? “False wireless”? “Old style”?) doesn’t sting me too much because they’re usually pretty affordable. Having to replace a relatively expensive pair of earbuds will hurt both my feelings and my wallet, and I don’t think I’m ready for that.
There is one alternative to “true wireless” earphones- like Juan Bagnell suggests in his video, “neckband” style earphones offer a lot more capabilities for a similar price. My issue with them is simple- they’re the bucket hat of earphones. Are bucket hats more comfortable than caps? Sure. Do they tend to offer more sun protection than caps? Yes, for the most part. Are they fashionable, cool, or sleek? For the most part- no. Unless you’re the kind of person that can pull off that look. Neckband earphones always strike me as functional but bulky, while true wireless earbuds stand out because of how sleek and low profile they are.
In the end, I have a few choices. I could try to find the usual kind of earphones that I get, and replace them every year or two years. I could try the newfangled true wireless earphones and see how that goes for me. I could try using the neckbands and see if they really are as unwieldy as they appear. Whatever I end up choosing, it’s clear that this is a very mundane affair. Why then, did I write over a thousand words about it?
Changing Preferences and Priorities as you Grow Older
Writing this helped me ruminate about how my tastes changed as I grew up. A younger me would have completely dismissed this discussion as boring and inconsequential. I was a lot more engrossed in the “bleeding edge” of technology back then, and wanted to experience the most enticing prospects in the world of mobile technology. The older I’ve gotten, the more joy I’ve started to experience in how well things integrate into my life. How things make my life more convenient. I get excited about new ways to organize my belongings in the physical and the digital world. Things like finding the perfect set of Tupperware containers, box organizers, shelves… even using an old can of peanuts to store my stationery because it’s just the right shape and size. In the digital realm, it’s more along the lines of password organizers, cloud storage, and faster storage drives for my computer.
I see now that even something that appears seemingly mundane tends to have a lot of thought put into it- sometimes receding into the background of your life is exactly what the designers intended the thing to do. Sometimes what excites you isn’t how flashy something is, but just how it fits perfectly into your life, how it perfectly harmonizes with your routines and your muscle memory. I’d finally achieved a semblance of that with my bluetooth earphones that just broke. Now the question is not just about what I should buy, but it’s also about how well whatever I buy will fit into my routines, how intuitive it is for me to use, and in what ways will this new thing will allow me to experience that which I experience everyday?