Truly wireless earbuds are coming for your headphones

One of the dominant trends of IFA 2017 was the sheer volume of companies, both known and not-so known, that launched Bluetooth earbuds. The “truly wireless” revolution that was kickstarted by Bragi and embraced by Samsung and Apple is now a bandwagon that everyone is jumping on.

A recent Wirecutter roundup listed more than 20 companies making truly wireless earbuds, and we can expect that number to increase exponentially soon. At the show we took a closer look at offerings from mid-lower-end players like Philips and higher-end ones like B&O Play.

Speaking with representatives at the show, it’s clear that the advent of the Bragi, back in 2014, sparked a flurry of internal discussions at many audio companies. But many didn’t begin working on their own product until the launch of AirPods and the iPhone 7, which did away with the headphone port.

The slow (and contentious) demise of the smartphone’s headphone jack is prompting a wave of interest in wireless audio. And that, as consumers are gently encouraged to ditch the wire connecting them to their phones, they might as well abandon the ones that you’ll find in traditional Bluetooth headphones.

The numbers back it up, too, analysts NPD believe that around 900,000 pairs of wireless earbuds have been sold in the US since the start of the year. Of that figure, however, it’s thought that 85 percent of them were sold by Apple, with the rest fighting for the remaining 15 percent.

One of the smartest things that Bragi did was to embrace what could have been the fatal flaws in its design. These earbuds are super small, with limited battery space and it’s far, far too easy to lose them — all points that would dissuade plenty of wary customers from purchasing them. But by offering a charging case, supplied alongside the earbuds, Bragi solved both problems by forcing users to develop a habit of only ever moving their earbuds from their skulls to the dock.

SONY DSC

The case is just as important as the earbuds, which is why B&O made a big deal of making theirs look like a scaled-down sunglass case. You could easily plonk it down on the table in a restaurant and no-one would bat an eyelid.

There’s also the issue of sound quality, which requires some elegant audio engineering to get around how cramped these devices are. By and large, most of them that we tried at the show didn’t sound too bad, although it’s clear that — for now — they’ll never be as expressive as a pair of larger cans.

But being good enough, especially if users are only listening to low-resolution Spotify streams while they navigate a crowded subway station or office, will probably suffice. And the convenience of wire-free listening is probably enough to allay concerns from all but the snootiest audio snob.

What’s likely, however, is that as more companies build their own entrants to the market, that we’ll see prices crater. And since there still seems to be some room for innovation, expect to see plenty of nuanced takes on the form — and yeah, a million and one copycats as well.

Follow all the latest news from IFA 2017 here!

Engadget RSS Feed

Teaching the uninterested about headphones

By Aaron Souppouris and Mat Smith

There’s a constant divide at Engadget between those who care about audio and those who don’t. I (that’s Aaron) fall mostly in the first category: I appreciate high-end headphones, but my budget typically leaves me with pairs costing $ 200 to $ 300. My current daily ‘phones are AKG K702s for home and Master & Dynamic MH30s for out and about.

My colleague Mat Smith couldn’t be more different. He uses a mix of unremarkable Sony earbuds and Bluetooth headphones and responds to “audiophile” conversation with a bespoke mixture of groans and eye rolls. This CES, I decided to spend a morning getting him excited about headphones. It went … OK?

The rules were simple and our methodology entirely unscientific. We would travel from booth to booth, listening to a single track over and over. Because we’re mean, the Engadget CES team deemed Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” the perfect fit, despite the holidays being long gone.

After adding a 1411 Kbps (16/44.1 kHz) FLAC file to my iPhone, we headed onto the show floor, stopping at Sennheiser, Audio Technica, HiFiMan, Audeze and Klipsch. In general, I was looking for portable headphones that work well when connected to a phone. For each listen, I had Mat tell me his thoughts before we moved on to the next booth.

Sennheiser HD 4.50BTNC ($ 200)

Mat: It’s my first listen, so there’s nothing to measure against. The track sounds rich, but nothing I can call out explicitly. I don’t really like cans — they’re uncomfortable.

Aaron: We visited Sennheiser first for no reason other than it was closest to the front door. I paired Sennheiser’s latest wireless headphones, the HD4.50BTNC, with my phone, switched off noise cancellation, and gave them to Mat for his first dose of Mariah. They’re fairly functional cans, but don’t excite me massively (their main selling point is noise cancellation, which I have no use for).

Audio Technica ATH-SR9 ($ 450)

Aaron: After Mat’s uninspired response to the Sennheisers, I figured it was a safe bet that Audio Technica’s SR9s would at least sound different than the HD 4.50s. I was a little worried that they wouldn’t sound great on an iPhone, but the Audio Technica rep said they’d be fine, and any fears were allayed by a quick listen. They sounded rich and sharp to my ears.

Mat: Ugh, more cans. The song had both more depth, and the treble stood out a lot more. Mariah even sounded a little hissy. I could hear the components of the track better than the Sennheisers. I think these are better, but I need more. Are these more expensive?

HiFiMan Edition S ($ 250)

Aaron: Now that I’d got Mat at least acknowledging that there were differences between headphones, I wanted him to experience the change between open- and closed-back cans. HiFiMan’s Edition S are portable headphones that switch from closed to open back with the removal of magnetic side plates. In general, open back headphones offer a wider, more neutral sound, at the cost of bass response and noise isolation. We began the test with them closed, and after a couple of minutes I removed the covers, before placing them back in for the song’s finale.

Mat: The difference is almost indistinguishable. The song sounded tinnier with the covers on. When you took them off, it all became richer — somehow airier? Does that make sense? It definitely sounded better open back, but I was afraid of the sound leak. I listen to a lot of embarrassing crap, so this is a concern for me.

Audeze iSine 20 ($ 600)

Aaron: Knowing that Mat has an aversion to over- and on-ear cans, Audeze’s iSines were high up on my list. I tried a pair briefly a few months ago, and they’re like no in-ear monitors (IEMs) I’ve heard before. The planar magnetic drivers inside them result in very low levels of distortion, and a much more crisp sound than you’d expect. They’re also capable of getting ridiculously loud.

Mat: These were confusing. They didn’t sound like any in-ear buds. They sounded very different than what I’d heard so far. I felt the bass was a bit lacking, but maybe that’s because I came from on-ear cans just before. Still the audio was powerful; very strong. The sounds seemed crisper. I was really surprised by power.

Audeze Sine ($ 450)

Aaron: Slightly crestfallen from the “meh” response to the iSines — I’m pretty sure they just weren’t in his ears properly — I took one last shot at impressing Mat. I’ve been weighing up buying a pair of Sines for months now in preparation for owning an iPhone without a headphone jack. All of the Sine series can be bought with Lightning cables, and I took advantage of that for the test, bypassing my iPhone’s audio circuitry in favor of Audeze’s in-cable solution.

Mat: These were really good; the best-sounding headphones so far. It wasn’t only the level richness, but you can really get a sense of distance between you and the various instruments. The sleigh bells were further away. It was almost like listening to a sound system or a soundbar: deep and bassy. Luxurious. So much better than everything else.

3.5mm diversion

Aaron: The breakthrough had happened. Mat was actually excited about a pair of headphones, and now it was time to demonstrate how big a difference Audeze’s in-wire DAC made. I swapped out cables, connected him up to my iPhone’s 3.5mm jack, and let “All I Want For Christmas Is You” play out.

Mat: Yuck. Completely different. Sounds like any pair of loose-fitting cans. I think the downgrade is especially noticeable because I hopped to the 3.5mm jack mid-track. It sounded grayer, flatter. Meh. That test makes a persuasive argument for fair-weather listeners like me to lose the headphone jack.

Klipsch Heritage hp-3 ($ 1,000)

Aaron: I think that last test was a little unfair. The iPhone probably didn’t have the power to make the Sines sound good, as I know from experience that they’re still very good headphones without the Lightning adapter. For our last show-floor test, I gave Mat what should have been a delightful pairing: Klipsch’s new $ 1000 Heritage hp-3, connected to my phone via a tube amplifier. It’s anything but portable, but I figured we’d go out on a high note.

Mat: These look very nice — and feel comfortable too. The track sounds deep and rich, but nothing particularly stands out. I think I was spoiled (or at least distracted) by the planar headphones before.

Mat’s Sony earbuds (~$ 60)

Aaron: Okay, so it turns out Mat actually has good taste. I did the one-two listen on the Sines and Heritage hp-3, and was also way more impressed with Audeze’s cans. To finish off our little adventure, I had Mat go back to the trailer, and listen to the same track on his phone, on his earbuds, using standard Spotify streaming (as he is wont to do).

Mat: These are my regular listening headphones. Treble’s fine; the bass doesn’t feel as rich as the headphones I’ve tried today. The track also doesn’t sound as natural. While punchy, the richer orchestrated parts sounds a bit thinner.

The sound of change

Mat: I know how terrible some headphones sound, but I’m more than happy with my current set. Yes, I expected more expensive headphones to sound better — that was a given. However, I was surprised that I was able to notice differences between headsets at prices way above my usual headphone budget. Will it change how I shop for and buy headphones? I’m not sure. I far prefer in-ear buds to cans (my ears get sweaty) and listening to music through any kind of headphones is something I do when my attention is mostly elsewhere — while working, at the gym, during my commute. That’s why it’s harder to justify spending more on them.

Aaron: I feel thoroughly vindicated here. I’m pretty certain Mat’s not going to run out and buy a pair of $ 500 cans, but I’m at least hopeful he won’t point and laugh if I do.

Mat: There is an aspect of premium headphones that I am intrigued by: Many of them come with lifetime guarantees. I go through my middleweight (or even boxed-with phone) headphones at a rate of about a pair a year. Maybe a pair of more expensive headphones might be worth it in the long run. Even if I change, then, audio quality would be the secondary benefit.

Aaron: Mission… accomplished? Kind of? I’ll take it.

Click here to catch up on the latest news from CES 2017.
Engadget RSS Feed

iOS 10.0.2 update fixes bugs in headphones, Photos

Even if you’ve already updated to iOS 10, Apple has released its first official update for its mobile/TV operating system. Bugs that could shut down the Photos app when turning on iCloud Photo Library and disable app extensions have ben smushed, but folks with the iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus may want it for another reason.

Some users complained about the new Lightning-connected EarPods timing out, which would stop their in-line playback controls from working to adjust the volume, answer calls or use Siri. This update fixes the problem, making things just like they were when your phone had a headphone jack. Of course, you’re probably beta testing iOS 10.1 already, looking forward to new features instead of stable builds with bugfixes . Either way, the current update should be accessible via your Settings menu now.

Via: 9to5Mac, MacRumors

Source: Apple

Engadget RSS Feed

USB-C and Lightning headphones aren’t great news for everyone

The 3.5mm port is dying — at least when it comes to smartphones. If the persistent Lightning headphone rumor wasn’t enough to persuade you, the fact that Motorola beat Apple to the punch should be. Motorola’s new Moto Z and Moto Z Force don’t have that familiar circular hole for your cans to plug into, and it now seems inevitable that almost every phone within a few years will forgo the port in favor of a single socket for both charging and using headphones.

This is a change that few people actually want. It’s driven entirely by the makers of our phones and their desire to ditch what they view as an unnecessary port.

There are literally billions of headphones out in the world with a 3.5mm jack, all of which will need an adapter to work with Motorola’s new phone. And the quality of that adapter is going to be all-important. Phones are digital devices, and headphones require analog input. To solve that, every phone has a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and an amplifier inside, which do exactly what the names suggest. The DAC converts the signal from ones and zeros to waves, and the amplifier makes those waves audible through a speaker or headphones.

The combination of these two parts (DSPs are also involved, but let’s not overcomplicate things) is what makes phones — or anything with a headphone port — sound different from one another. If you listen to the same track, with the same headphones, on an iPhone 6S and a Galaxy S7, they won’t sound identical, mainly because the two phones use different DACs and amps, which output slightly different analog signals through the devices’ 3.5mm ports.

The DAC and amp, then, are the hidden link between your music app of choice and your headphones, and their importance can’t be understated. The industry has gotten a lot better with DACs and amps in recent years, and the general standard of audio output from phones has risen, but there are still devices that are stronger and those that are weaker.

With the switch to USB-C (or Lightning) for headphones, your phone’s DAC and amp (it’ll still need one for the speaker) are being bypassed. That means this all-important component will now reside inside either the adapter (for your existing cans) or the headphones themselves (for USB-C or Lightning headsets).

In reality, those people you’d imagine to be up in arms about the change — i.e., audiophiles — probably have the least to be worried about. Premium manufacturers will be able to pick and configure the DACs in their headphones to match the analog circuitry inside. We’re already starting to see companies like Audeze provide headphones with apps that allow the listener to fine-tune the output of their built-in DACs, DSPs and amps. This can result in clearer sound at louder volumes than, say, an iPhone can provide. You’ll also have the peace of mind that whatever you plug your expensive headphones into, they will sound exactly as the manufacturer intended.

The high-end Audeze EL-8 can plug into an iPhone’s Lightning port.

For existing premium headphones, there’s already a strong market for DACS to complement high-end phones, and with the abrupt switch to USB-C and Lightning, that market is only going to grow. Audiophiles are also unlikely to be fazed by the thought of carrying around a dongle or breakout box in the name of higher-quality sound. Indeed, many already do.

Who should be worried about the change? Well, anyone who doesn’t own expensive headphones and has no intention of getting them. If you’re the type of person who spends $ 30 to $ 100 on cans, then you probably have cause for concern. You’re either going to need to grapple with what is likely to be a budget adapter for your existing headphones or choose a cheap USB-C or Lightning model.

And here’s the problem: The DAC and amp inside that $ 50 pair of digital headphones are not going to be of the same quality as those in a $ 500 pair. Nor will the sound they output be afforded the same time and effort. Instead of trusting in your phone’s DAC and amp to output decent-quality audio at decent volumes, you’ll now be contending with the choices of a company that has had to cut corners to put out headphones on a tight budget.

The argument that those spending “so little” on headphones don’t care enough about sound quality to notice is plain stupid. This isn’t 2007, and millions of people now leave those white earbuds in the box, where they belong. You can also buy some great headphones for less than $ 100, and although there are huge gains made above that price point, it’s a case of diminishing returns as you approach the high end of the headphone market.

In order to get the same quality offered by analog pairs, the price has to go up.

Of course, I don’t want to be a scaremonger. Bluetooth headphones already have the necessary components inside to convert digital to analog, so this won’t be entirely new territory for many companies. But to get good Bluetooth headphones, you need to spend more than you would to get good analog headphones. The same will be true for USB-C and Lightning: In order to get the same quality offered by analog pairs, the price has to go up. Sure, there will probably be, for example, JBL USB-C headphones at $ 50, $ 75, $ 100, etc., but they will each sound worse than their analog counterparts at the same price.

To my mind, anyone investing that kind of money deserves, at the least, to get the same kind of sound quality per dollar as they do now from their analog cans. And it’s difficult to imagine a world where JBL, or any company, will accept lower profit margins on digital headphones than analog. The price has to go up, or the quality has to go down.

Putting these components inside the headphones (or, in some cases, the cable) also has an unwelcome side effect: reduced battery life. Apple, Samsung, Motorola et al. spend a long time fine-tuning the components in their products to maximize endurance. That means limiting the output of the amplifier in order to ensure it doesn’t use too much power.

If you put the control of these variables in the hands of headphone manufacturers, they will undoubtedly choose components that make their hardware sound best rather than those that play nice with your phone’s battery. While powering in-ear headphones is unlikely to have too much impact on your battery, using a pair of cans with large drivers will. We’ve already seen this in action from some early Lightning headphones, with models like the Audeze EL-8 trimming a fair chunk from the iPhone’s already questionable battery life.

The final issue with phones ditching the 3.5mm port — and this might be the worst — is that the industry is far from finished with developing its replacement. Intel, for example, is currently working on USB-C audio in a big way. In addition to trying to standardize USB-C digital audio output, it’s also working on a system that will allow analog audio to be output through sideband use (SBU) pins. These pins are currently not being used in the USB-C spec but would allow for headphones that use the phone’s DAC and amp. That work is not yet finished, and for Apple to benefit from it would involve ditching the Lightning port, which is based on USB 2.0.

The industry is far from finished with developing the 3.5mm port’s replacement.

Given that Apple has switched to USB-C for other products and that it has no problem with killing ports in the name of progress, that’s not as impossible as it sounds. Adopting USB Type-C for headphones could even lead to a MacBook with two ports! But let’s not dream of such crazy things. Let’s get back to the Moto Z: We don’t actually know how Motorola’s system works. There’s an adapter in the box to facilitate plugging in 3.5mm headphones, but it’s not clear if it uses Intel’s in-development analog tricks or has an amp and DAC built in. Chances are it’s the latter, which is what Chinese company LeEco’s new USB-C smartphones do and what all Lightning headphones on the market today do.

This uncertainty is indicative of a real problem: By making the jump so early — before the industry has truly settled on a standard — Motorola, Apple and any other company that follows suit might have a difficult decision to make in a couple of years: Do they upset their customers with another change to audio output? Or ignore progress in the area and persist with a solution that leaves analog output in the past, even when it’s possible through a single port?

Get all the news from today’s Lenovo and Motorola event right here!

Engadget RSS Feed