Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.

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Photo credit: Luis Marina via Foter.com / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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Let’s Pick a Decent Pair of Cheap Earbuds

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The bargain I made with myself after my tortuous search for the perfect over-ear headphones, for the purposes of meditational escape and overall awesomeness, was that I could also have a pair of decent earbuds as long as they were cheap. (Such things do exist!) Sometimes the Sony MDR–7506s are too big to take somewhere, or it’s just too hot to put big electronic earmuffs on, and buds become necessary. I have before me three highly-regarded such buds in the sub-$35 price range, and I thought I’d give you my quick verdict on them.

They are the Logitech Ultimate Ears 500vm (which I will refer to as the “UEs”), which I discovered on my own, and the top two picks of The Wirecutter: the Brainwavz Deltas and the Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fits (which belong to my wife). I tested each pair listening to three specific songs, the acoustic version of Seal’s “Crazy,” The Weepies’ “Take it from Me,” to get a little outside of the acoustic sound but not too much, and deadmau5’s “The Veldt” for some straight-up electronic sounds.

The UEs first retailed at $80 but must not have sold well, and are now available for just over $30, while I got them for under $20 on sale. They are packaged and presented as a somewhat high-end product, complete with lots of padding in the packaging and a uselessly-small case that takes so much effort to cram the phones into, it’s not worth it. They have but one button for controlling play, pause, and advancing tracks, and, weirdly, a volume wheel, which I just keep at full, and never touch.

The UEs were by far the most balanced of the three. They didn’t sound flat or full by any means, maybe “neutral+” would be the way to put it. They kept everything on an even keel with just a touch of “umph” to add to the richness. Details come out pretty well overall, though in “The Veldt” I missed the emphasis on bass that the other two sets presented. The bass is by no means missing, but in most circumstances, the UEs put the bass where it belongs. And if you like a genre of music for its low end specifically, you might miss a little bit of that with these buds.

The Ergo Fits, the cheapest of the bunch at about $13, gave much more low end emphasis, though I could still enjoy some detail. They also struck me as the loudest of the bunch. In “Take it from Me” they felt like bass overkill, though they offered what I’d consider a viable alternative output f or “Crazy,” a little beefier than what you’d get from the UEs, but not in the way. The Ergos were probably the best of the three for “The Veldt” specifically, but only by a hair.

The Wirecutter currently considers the Brainwavz to be the best earbuds under $40 (costing about $23), which is why I bought them, and frankly I’m not sure why they won. They don’t so much emphasize the bass as simply allow the low end to push everything else out of the way. In “The Veldt” it was acceptable, as it didn’t overpower too badly, but in “Crazy” they definitely obscured the middle range. In “Take it from Me,” the other frequencies are so muffled by the low end that I was frustrated by what I knew I was missing, straining to hear “around” the bass.

The one thing I do like best about the Brainwavz is the in-line remote, which is actually designed to work with an Android device (very often headphones either have little functionality in their remote, or default to iPhone compatibility).

But as you can probably guess, the best of the three to my ears are the Logitech UEs. None of the buds on this list will blow your mind, but the UEs offered by far the best overall balance, and were head and shoulders above the other two in terms of listening for finer details and overall crispness, though the Ergo Fits had some of that. If the price range of $10–30 is more or less all the same to you, I’d go with the UEs. If $30 seems too much for your purposes, go with the Panasonics Ergo Fits. I’d like to return the Brainwavs, but I bought them with my wife’s Amazon account, and, you know, once bitten…

Now one more thing: What about Apple EarPods? I count myself among the proud and maligned few who actually think the EarPods are pretty good. The worst thing about them to my ears is the lack of a seal; they just sit there and bop around in your ear because they’re simply not fixed in place. I use EarPods all the time for phone calls and podcast chats (I don’t use the built in mic for podcasts, of course) because they give me decent sound and more awareness of what’s going on around me. That’s also why I use them for running, because anything that gives a seal in the ear canal also transmits every movement of the phone cord to my eardrum. For sit-down listening, when I’m not using my Sonys, I go with the UEs.

Oh! One more important note. I only bought the Brainwavz because my I thought I’d lost my Logitech UEs, when it turns out they only went through the wash in a pair of cargo shorts. And they went through the dryer. And you know what? You’d never know it. This review is based on my listening to them after the washer-dryer event, so that might tell you something.

The Quest for Peace, Through Headphones

Image by Shutterstock.
I am told that I am poor at being “in the moment,” and I confess it to be the case. I am nothing if not riddled with anxieties, large and small. At my worst, I am engulfed in worries, drenched in waves of stomach-sickening dread, doubt, and guilt. But normally, just going about my day, I maintain a manageable baseline of unease; the quiet hum of preoccupation with Other Things always resonating, if just barely. I am told this is bad for my health, to say the least.

I come by it all honestly, with anxious genes from my forebears, and traumatic life experiences from childhood and adulthood that have primed my lizard brain to needlessly rev itself while idle, overeager to burst into full fight-or-flight mode at the least cause, be it from a sense of physical danger to thoughts and fears of a more existential, personal, or mundane nature.

But while my limbic system is asserting itself, life is happening. There’s my wonderful family (who, in fairness, trigger not a small amount of anxiety themselves), music to be carried away by, books to be lost in, the lovely natural world that surrounds me here in Maine, Earl Gray tea, writing, bicycle rides, cool autumn air, my guitar, and even dumb video games and TV shows. To enjoy these things, I need to be there for them. I need to be “present.” Usually, I am not.

Being in the moment, being present, having a feeling of mindfulness; these things are enormous challenges for me. Elusive, to say the least, even when sincerely pursued. Being present, letting go of worries and preoccupations, takes up such time, time I could be spending being worried and preoccupied. There are all those Other Things!

The thing is, though, the worry and the preoccupation and the anxiety, it’s killing me. It’s ruining my sleep, shredding my nervous system, bruising my heart, pock-marking my brain, dampening my intellect, deadening my creativity, atrophying my muscles, and robbing me of genuine connection with my wife and kids, who I love deeply. I suffer from depression and I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s also true that I could improve things by leaps and bounds if I could just manage to make room in my life – in my mind – for one simple thing.

Peace.

All this is to say that this is why I went on a weird and frustrating quest over the past few weeks trying to find a nice pair of headphones.

You see, even though I’m a musician and songwriter, actually listening to music, escaping into it, was something I’d lost the knack for sometime in my late 20s. As the Internet and podcasts and Other Things ascended, becoming absorbed in an album became a rare thing for me. I suppose this happens with a lot of people at this age; music is something we obsess over (and spend way too much money on) as teenagers and college students, and then more or less abandon as we become Regular Adults, save for occasional trips of nostalgia.

There’s another odd sore point for me, in that listening to good music comes with the baggage of opportunities missed. I once firmly believed that I would become a singer-songwriter by trade, and make a life of writing, recording, and performing music. Now that this is clearly not going to happen, it becomes more diffiult to enjoy much of the music I used to, or ought to, for it recalls thoughts of a youth spent, talent squandered, and lessons not taken. At times I get wrapped up in fantasies of what might have been, which, for when I was young and hopeful, was an exciting dream about a future, and as an adult is now a sad yearning for what can now never be.

Nonetheless, in the here and now, it seemed to me that music might be a good way to claim some peace for myself. Goodness knows, we have such easy access to so goddamn much of it, that there’s almost infinite choice. I have music in my iTunes library that I’ve owned for over a decade and probably never even pushed “play” on. But music, and audio more generally, seemed like a good way to ease into the pursuit of peace. When I sit to read a book, as Other Things go on around me, I could put on a pair of headphones, play some instrumental music, and escape into the world the author has laid out for me. (What more often happens is I that get distracted or fall asleep.) I could listen to guided meditations and affirmations to start rewiring some of the bad connections and memorizations encrusted in my addled brain. This wouldn’t be a way to be in the moment with people or nature, per se, but it would be a start, a first step toward letting the Other Things go, just for a little while, in favor of peace.

To do this, I’d of course need a decent pair of headphones, right? You can’t achieve inner peace with crummy earbuds, right?

Once upon a time, I’d had a kind-of-nice pair of over-ear headphones. Bose OE2’s, which sounded nice and warm, and were more or less comfortable, though cheaply built and easily broken. Before my quest for peace, I’d decided they were not being utilized enough to justify holding on to, so I sold them. (I also had sold my Kindle Paperwhite, since I was reading so much on my iPad mini – a choice I now regret for related peace-pursuit reasons.)

Now, I actually think Apple’s EarPods are quite nice for what they are, and we have at least two pairs of them in the house. I know there’s a kind of geek-cultural agreement that these are risible peaces of junk, but I have found them rather comfortable and sufficiently nice-sounding to serve most of my listening needs over the past couple of years.

But I didn’t think they’d suffice for finding peace. One needed comfortable over-ear headphones for that. I mean, everyone knows this, right? For true peace, you can’t have a little nugget in your ear canal vibrating the air and your skull. What you need is a couple of cushions lovingly embracing your ears, with earphones that produce a soundscape rich with detail. That’s the only way to peace, of course.

This was the tenet I had subconsciously agreed to, anyway. So I started researching and looking for deals. I was excited to find Logitech’s UE 4000 headphones go on some crazy discount to under $20, so I snapped them up, and at first thought they were a true epiphanic discovery. It wasn’t too long, though, that I realized they were painfully uncomfortable, with a kind of mushy, heavy sound. Dissatisfied and needing to find an alternative, my hunting instinct was triggered. It was time to shop for serious.

Let me say something about this. This is a thing with me, when there is an Important Purchase to be made, something takes over and I become obsessed with the process, consumed with researching possibilities, combing the Internet for bargains, digging through enthusiasts’ message boards, and gathering opinion. I used to only do this on those rare occasions when a new computer was to be bought, but that became a lot easier once I switched to Macs in 2004. But headphones were a new way for my meticulous shopping beast to howl at the moon.

Thinking on it now, how could it not? Headphones are the perfect snare for me: they are of near-infinite variety, there are models and makes that are widely agreed by certain communities to be superior, but dizzying nuance exists not just between price points and types and manufacturers and brands, but within those brands and individual models. And then there are factors that can affect one’s decision such as the quality of the production or compression of the music in question; the source player, be it a computer, an iPod, or a hi-fi system; the earpads, be they stock or purchased separately, made from all manner of materials; one’s surrounding environs; and even that maddening myth (is it just a myth?) of headphone “burn-in.” Audiophiles can give wine aficionados a run for their money, which they need a hell of a lot of.

And it’s not as though I live anywhere near a place that sells decent headphones, and has sufficient models on display for testing out in person. Yes, Apple Stores and other such places have headphones to sample, but they almost exclusively make available cans that are far out of my price range, which was really anything over $100 (technically, there is plenty below $100 that is out of my range, but as we can see rationality was lacking throughout this quest). I was limited almost entirely to what I could actually get delivered to my house. That meant actually buying them.

I won’t bore you with the shipment-by-shipment details, but suffice it to say I spent a great deal of time on websites like Head-Fi.org, r/headphones, and deep within the lowest levels of Amazon customer reviews. And by this time I have to assume that there is a red flag over my name, or perhaps a bullseye target over my picture, at Amazon’s returns department.

My primary experience was with three models: Sony’s MDR–7506, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40x, and Sennheiser’s HD 380 Pro.

I began with the MDR–7506, which The Wirecutter has long named its top choice, and has been a staple of Those in the Know since they were introduced in 1991. I was at first surprised by how neutral they were, with no Beats-like thumping bass or Bose warmth. But I was quickly shocked by the level of detail I could suddenly percieve. I could hear the slightest taps of Erin McKeown’s fingernails on “Queen of Quiet,” and the bass crescendos in Pantera’s “Walk” sounded like they were physically coming toward me. But they were also rather uncomfortable. After a few minutes, parts of my earlobes would begin to ache. I tried a few minor hacks with the earpads to mitigate this, but the discomfort was undeniable.

Surely, I thought, the M40x’s would be perfect. Everyone (and by that I mean a lot of tech geeks) knows the M50x is some paragon of headphone perfection, and the M40x would just be a small step down in, well, some tech spec or other. They were big, rugged, puffy-looking, and extremely well-regarded.

But to my ears, they were claustrophobic where the Sonys were expansive. The sound was meaty, focused, tight, and powerful, but somehow scrunched. I doubted my own perceptions, thinking that I might even be wanting the “wrong thing,” for how could I not like these? But on top of the sound, they too were too painful to wear for long stretches. Replacing the earpads with something softer only made the sound feel empty, drained. Off they went.

The Sennheisers were very strange to me. Rather than pressing against the ears, they completely surround them, so your lobes never make contact with the hardware. I thought that might be just the ticket for my enormous ears, but the clamping sensation on my skull was off-putting, and the sound felt slightly tinny. Bass came through strongly, but mids were weak, as though being heard, well, in a can.

During this process, I began to doubt my senses. Could I even distinguish between crummy and high-end headphones? Was any of this even worth it? One night (yes it was late) I tried comparing the EarPods to one of the contender models, and found I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. I was going a little bit crazy.

I was feeling anxiety over the time and effort and money being put into this quest. I felt guilt. I felt worry.

At one point, I returned to the Sonys. Something indeed had been lost. The vast expanse of soundstage I had perceived from my initial experiences no longer struck me. Had I simply become acclimated to better headphones generally since my first time around the block with them? Or was there really nothing special there to begin with?

Despite the wash of “wow-ness” being gone, I found I still appreciated the “true” sound they produced. Not perfect, as some vocals sometimes came through a little recessed for my taste, but they still came across as superior to the others I’d gone through. I tried out a couple of different kinds of earpads that didn’t change the sound too drastically, but made them far more comfortable.

You can clearly see what happened here.

This all began with a sincere attempt to be more in the moment, to have a taste of relaxed mindfulness, to let go of immediate anxieties and remove myself from the frenetic stresses of work, parenthood, the news, battles on Twitter, and the like. But the process became its own source of stress. I simply had to find, if not the “perfect” solution, the solution that maximized the resources I had available to me, by way of money, time, and access to the objects themselves.

But I realized I was never going to achieve some kind of zen state by way of the headphones themselves. (If there is a doorway to the sublime to be found through headphones, it is likely well beyond my price range, so I may never truly know what it is to live with a pair of $400 cans, alas.) I finally understood that I could just pick a pair that was good enough, and move on to what started all of this. The quest for peace.

As I write this, I am donning my new Sony MDR–7506’s. I have a pair of Auray Ultra Deep earpads on them, which give a little more isolation and bass, and are far easier on my ears than the stock pads. I am still choosing between those and a pair of Beyerdynamic velour earpads, which are much softer, but a little less isolated, if barely. So I suppose this leg of the quest is not entirely over. But it’s manageable. It is not suffused with anxiety, just a twinge of guilt over the additional $20 spent on whichever pads I stick with.

I can stop worrying now about all the Other Headphones that I might test out. The next step, the first real step, begins now. It begins with writing this essay, with enjoying music through the good-enough headphones I’ve settled on. It begins with knowing that my family is here in my house with me, safe and tucked in for the night, and feeling my connection to them even as they’re not in the same room with me. It begins with being in this moment right here, right now, and then it begins again with the next moment. And I can be in those moments with nice headphones, with crummy earbuds, or even, when I’m ready, with blessed, blessed silence.


 

Note: Full credit to Iyaz Akhtar for first having the idea for using the Superman-related phrase “quest for peace” in  the sense it’s used here. In fact, he has a whole show about it.