Thursday, November 23, 2017

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Tech Talk

21st-century ears

11/1/2017

Headphones have come a long way. From decades of contraptions like soup cans on the end of a metal headband to tiny, wireless hearing-aid-like ear inserts, the innovations continue to astound. Most everyone has his or her preference, and while audiophiles may tell you there’s only a few headphones truly worthy of listening to music through, audio quality is not always the point.

While headphones have been around for nearly as long as recorded sound, it wasn’t until the last decade or so that the consumer war erupted. The first headphones truly mass marketed as “cool” were the expensive Beats by Dre. Founded in 2006 by hip hop legend Dr. Dre and music industry mogul Jimmy Iovine, Beats by Dre became so stylish that less than a month later an acquisition by Apple made them both multi-billionaires. The problem was that the Beats headsets were primarily about style. A quick Google search about their audio quality and build materials reveals that their couple-hundred-dollar price tag is for materials that cost only a fraction of that.

Another consumer favorite was the Apple earbuds supplied with the purchase of every iPhone. Of course, you can only talk about Apple’s earbuds in the past tense, as the 2016 release of the iPhone 7 didn’t include a headphone jack. The earbuds have been replaced with a wireless version — the Apple Airpods. While not the first to cut the headset cord, Apple’s ubiquity in the smartphone marketplace has pushed these Airpods to the top in sales. The downside is that wireless headsets require charging and the batteries need replaced over time. Expect to buy new Airpods or other Bluetooth headsets with permanently affixed power supplies every two to three years. The other huge wireless bugaboo deals with signal transmission, which means frequency noise.

Here is where innovation meets audio reality. Wired headphones supply higher-quality audio than wireless Bluetooth headsets. As it stands today, Bluetooth adds an audible hiss that makes the headphones nearly unusable. This problem isn’t distinctly Bluetooth’s to deal with. Turn on AM radio, and it sounds innately bass heavy. Switch to FM, and you’re getting compressed sound with the whole spectrum of highs and lows deadened. Even Satellite radio has its issues. It is just a matter of fact that wired-for-sound audio is king. Apple, Bose, Sony and all the other pushers of Bluetooth say they’ve made strides in this area, but the earbuds don’t lie. Bluetooth has a long way to go before it becomes the sound standard.

Even with Bluetooth’s shortcomings, some tech giants continue to forge ahead. Google’s new headset might tempt you to look past the transmission issues. In early October, at the launch of its new flagship smartphone, Google snuck in the announcement of the Google Pixel Buds. While they provide standard audio listening and phone-calling functionality, they also offer baked-in Google Now voice assistant and real-time language translation. With the simple press of a button, Pixel Bud users can translate two-way conversations in 40 different languages. As mind-blowing as that is, the Pixel Buds have the full languages downloaded already, so having an Internet connection is not necessary. I don’t care if the audio sounds like an 1870s gramophone, that is an incredible feature.

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When it comes down to it, headphone features don’t matter as much as comfort for many users. Some people simply don’t like putting things in their ears, while others can’t stand bulky over-the-ear headsets. With all the fresh interest in headphone innovation, look for device-free headsets to be all the rage in the next decade. ♦

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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