Yesterday, Apple announced the new iPhone 7, and all the new things that comes with it. Like everyone suspected, Apple formally announced that they would be removing the audio jack from the device, and somewhat surprised some of us with their new wireless audio technology.
Currently, I’m a rather pleased owner of a pair of Beats Wireless Studio headphones. They work either through a bluetooth or analog connection, and for the most part, they’ve been extremely good. Traditionally, I’ve been a bit sniffy towards the Beats brand, probably brought on from testing a pair many years ago that were way too bassy. But after trying a colleagues, I was hooked, and immediately got my own.
Wireless capability, for me, is a killer feature. Yes, it’s no huge bother wiring in, but the sense of freedom you get from wireless headphones is extraordinary. For power users, or those wearing headphones for at least 2 hours a day, it’s a big thing, because only once you’re unshackled, do you realise how many exceptions you make to your physical behaviour. No more turning awkwardly, or the use case ritual of connecting yourself in a very specific way to avoid cables dancing across your keyboard.
For Apple to pursue this approach, given their commitment to usage experiences, is no huge surprise. Yes, it also affords critical hardware space from a manufacturing perspective, but also plays into their core product values of a wireless future. But guess what? Bluetooth plays no part in that wireless audio future, and that is an enormous personal relief.
In my day to day, where I work in my spare room with only the cat for company, I either listen to music through a bluetooth soundbar, or on my Beats. If you have two bluetooth audio devices connected to your machine, you’ll know my pains. Most of the time (about 90-ish%), everything works no problem. But on the occasions it doesn’t involves lots of switching off and on to get the desired device to connect and in focus. It’s also the same in the car, when two devices are in there, and there’s a minor tiff for the system to work out the dominant one.
So in short, Bluetooth is flaky from a user experience perspective, and also really from an audio experience perspective, due to whatever compression you might have with audio quality due to it competing with other devices using the same 2.4ghz wireless frequency.
So yeah, Sonos.
Following a burglary last year, I decided to refrain from rebuying a hifi which was ultimately analog, and decided on a new Sonos Play:5 instead. All of my music is now digital, not only with an MP3 collection, but subscriptions to both Spotify and Apple Music. The Play:5 is a gorgeous piece of kit: It’s superbly made, looks amazing, and most importantly, sounds amazing, even give it’s limited size. I also really love the instantaneous nature of playback, where I press a button, and it just plays.
And here’s the but. While Sonos get so much right with the overall experience of the physical product, it suffers from input issues. Their apps are awful, and simply don’t work in the same level of fidelity as other music apps. Sure, they’ve recently taken steps to correct this, but it’s still sub par in comparison with others, and that leads to the other obvious problem; I can’t play WHATEVER I want on it. Sure, it connects my main music sources, and then my secondaries (Bandcamp, 22Tracks, Hype Machine), and does a good job handling radio through TuneIn integration. But, I can’t output Youtube audio. I can’t listen to iPlayer podcasts. And I can’t throw audio at it like I can with either Bluetooth or Airplay (there is a hack for this though). So basically, there’s problems.
It’s often made me think, why won’t Apple buy Sonos?
I’m not going into that though.
To mitigate the forthcoming lack of jack plug, and likely “I can’t listen to music and charge my phone” problems, Apple have bet hard on creating their own wireless standard which will work with their new Airpods. From other sources in advance of the announcement (well, Macrumors), it was also pointed out how Apple wanted to launch their own headphones as a premium brand, and use Beats to occupy the middle ground. Given the acquisition in 2014, this seems odd, as Apple have a far from brilliant reputation with their audio products (such as the current earpods) and Beats have such at good rep from mid through to top end.
But it seems, and I’m excited about this, that they have got something right. While Airpods are a bit, well, yeah - whatever, the new wireless technology they’re using is rather cool. The peripheral will connect instantly, and supposedly, won’t suffer with audio quality. So this blows away the two main problems with Bluetooth, and creates a new standard for wireless audio. So it’s like Apple, in a way, have bought Sonos. Hmm.
The new generation of Beats will also utilise this technology, and this could also mean a bright future for home audio - might Apple actually have a Sonos-like play up their sleeve?
There could be trouble ahead
Remember when Apple binned the old iPhone connector, and introduced Lightning? Yes, it meant that all those cables you had built up through 5 generations of iPhone were now redundant. And you had to buy new ones. And here’s the kicker: All lightning devices should carry a “Made for iPhone” endorsement, which is a thing product makers have to purchase when developing new peripherals (even power cables). So the result? No more ordering a few cheap cables from ebay, or at the local market stall. While you can still do this, they don’t carry Apple’s endorsement, which also includes a piece of firmware contained in the connector, which tells the corresponding device that it’s legit. So in moving from the 30-pin connection, Apple managed to take control of the entire iPhone peripheral space.
Is that what they will now do with headphones?
For those requiring Lightning connections, most certainly. And for those integrating with the new Wireless protocol, likely. And this will mean for the end user more expensive products, wiping out many cheaper manufacturers products that worked with the traditional analog jack.
Of course, you’ll still be able to use those £10 Tesco earpods, but with the analog to lightning converter supplied with your new iPhone. But if you want the luxury of charging and listening at the same time, you’re now open to a world of audio products fully controlled by Cupertino, unless Apple embraces the new Wireless tech as an open standard for all manufacturers to use.