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Choice: Bluetooth vs. wired

The ongoing adoption of Bluetooth wireless headsets is a discussion largely confined to tech blogs. However, we should all care. This transition matters to the environment, to consumers’ rights, and to how our international standards of cooperative technology development unfold. The last of these three have brought us huge advantages: tools and devices that perform reliably and predictably, and significantly improved our lives. It does not matter where your fridge comes from. It meets certain standards and you can go to the store and buy one with a high level of confidence. We have moved past the confusion of proprietary models to get here. We should not give up these gains. As well, we have a right to expect technology to be more environmentally and economically responsible too.

The Power of Great Design

I cannot agree with any description of the headphone as ‘primitive.’ It is anything but that. Utility is not defined by the recency of invention. If so, then the wheel–any wheel–must be an insanely primitive device and well past its usefulness. Good design obliterates the passing of time. Put any person in a timeless style of wear–a stunning little back dress, or a well-cut suit–and the timelessness of good design makes itself very evident. Good design is also characterized by simplicity—does it get any simpler than the headphone jack?

The headphone jack matters, because music is and will remain a dominant application of the phone. The jack is not just a superior enabler of utility but serves up that function for billions of people around the world.

  • A fact that is often overlooked is that the headphone jack is an environmentally superior device by miles. I have a couple of different Bluetooth earpieces, and one decent set of wireless over-the-ear cans to inform me. I have never had to unplug my wired headphones to recharge them. Add up the energy consequence across humanity, and this is an almost immeasurable advantage.
  • Sounds, and the human ear that receives them, work natively with analog signals. The wired headphone works with sound in its native form. Any school of design will tell you, once you go past the design of the device to look at its purpose, that the wired set delivers a more efficient form-function fit. Even in the physical design, the wired headphone offers greater freedom for conceptualization–with the exception of the wires.
  • When comparing for equivalent quality of sound, dewiring adds electronic weight. As phones become lighter and more powerful, the added and unnecessary weight of wireless headsets becomes more of a disadvantage. My wireless over-the-head cans become heavy after some use!
  • Wireless headsets have come down massively in price, but again, when comparing for equivalent sound, dollar for dollar, wired has the quality advantage. That holds true for both ear buds and over-the-ear cans.
  • The claimed advantage of remote control via Bluetooth is a trivial point. We have long been able to control objects remotely—on the moon, in deep outer space. TV remote controls are a fact of life. There really is no beef in this argument. If you un-tether yourself, you lose the convenience of having simple controls with you, especially with larger wired head sets that let you move farther away from your phone. You give up a very understandable (screen-based) UI for a more complicated one at the side of your head, that you work from memory (= unnecessary brain loading). We are mentally overtaxing ourselves with new approaches that are displacing millennia of acquired intelligence that is distributed among our five senses. In any event, small earbuds have the most minimal controls and require you to have the phone on you anyway. All you only give up is a few feet of very light wire.
  • From my experience that added convenience of eliminating the ‘wire tangle,’ comes with the added inconvenience of having heavier electronic devices in your ears or on your head.
  • The ‘lifespan’ of a wireless set is much shorter. They have batteries in them that die out. Forget renewing them. By comparison, I have quality wired headsets going on 10 years old. Do I smell a systemic and repeatable grab on consumers’ wallets?
  • They are not as simple to use. No doubt, Apple will work hard to make connectivity seamless, as it has done before. However, there is implicit lock-in here: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Besides, more than 80% of phone users will use another platform. So they will go shopping for 3rd party devices… and will need to pair, connect, charge and do whatever else.
  • The visual aspect is one of personal taste. I have ‘discreet’ grey wireless buds that look like hearing aids. I tolerate them; who knows what will happen to my hearing in the future? I may need to use devices like these. That aside, I also can state quite confidently, that I will never walk around in  AirPods–maybe after a major redesign but not as they are today. I recognize that some might feel the same way about having wires running from their ears today.
  • From a business standpoint, the relevant cost to produce phones with jacks is trivial, and the high-cost alternative delivers nothing better. That is a huge red-flag of which we should be very mindful. Why do you think any manufacturer chooses to go with a higher cost option? There’s gotta be big payola for them down the road.

Whose Value Is It Anyway?

Who is being fed, and with what?

The value of the headphone jack greatly outweighs the trivial negatives, and far surpasses the overall utility of wireless headsets. Still to each their* own. The attempted monopolization of choice, by corporate fiat, forcing the wireless-only option, is disturbingly anti-consumer. In Apple’s case, they may be trying to reach for the ‘keyboard-elimination’ lightning again. It is a very different issue this time, and is not going to be as successful. For other manufacturers, it may not even have that much legitimacy–just purer self interest. The very standardization of the jack is itself a massive source of consumer gain. Anyone with a great idea can join in. If we give that up for a more proprietary connection option—if Apple/Samsung makes the phone, Apple/Samsung will tell you (device partner) how to design the signal—then we will all be worse off.

As phones become more powerful and low-cost sets do even more, I not just expect but predict that a lot of users will abandon high-priced and non-jack phones. That migration will not be because of owners’ existing investment in wired headsets—even though data is skewed in favour of wireless sets because of the ‘newness’ pricing premium, and distorts the relative invested shares. The upcoming migration will be because the wired jack is, quite simply, a superior option. Radio should be looking at the forced movement toward wireless headsets with great joy. It could be a rebirth for them. Imagine: just hearing sound natively, from a box, the way your ears were designed to work! Maybe Amazon is onto something with that new Echo.

 

* Note: This article reflects gender neutral language. The terms ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ may occur in both singular and plural forms.