Beware the solo Podder
Wireless earphones are for losers. Wearing just one is worse.
They looked bad enough as a pair. The iPhone clones who started to appear in 2016 with their latest pricey accessory: AirPods, “true wireless” earphones that resembled Apple’s original white plastic earbuds, with their famously duff sound quality but with a number of differences. These came without the wire that stopped them dropping down the toilet or your dog or baby swallowing them, sat in your ears leaving a weird antenna thing dangling from each lobe so they looked like earrings, and unlike Apple’s original status-symbol earphones (remember those dancing silhouette ads from the 2000s? It was the earphones that sold the iPod, not the other way round — though according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs initially hated that campaign) they didn’t come free in the box, they cost £160. Yes, £160. For one-and-a-halfinch bits of plastic that won’t stay in your ears and make you look like a numpty. You had to buy them — or at least a wireless alternative — because Apple removed the headphone jack off its phones.
The sight of a grown man strolling down the street, proudly “hands free”, with electric toothbrush heads glued to his ears is not a dignified one. But lately it’s become worse.
The new cool thing seems to be wearing just the one AirPod. Solo ’Podding. Doing the One-’Pod. Perhaps it’s because of the podcast boom, where audio quality is less of a priority, perhaps it makes taking phone calls easier, perhaps it’s because these earpieces are just so damn uncomfortable that wearing one halves the pain, perhaps its because everyone has already lost the other one. Or perhaps it’s because you just can — they pair with your iPhone individually.
Whatever: it exposes the sad truth behind the AirPod. That underneath Apple’s trademark minimalist moulded resin — the silliness of the AirPods’ design is surely no accident, nothing Apple does is by accident, they’re meant to be eyecatching, like the original EarPods were — you are wearing a Bluetooth earpiece. The tech behind the AirPods and the much-maligned Eighties earpiece favoured by travelling salesmen, Mondeo drivers and Alan Partridge is identical. In true Apple style, they have “refined” a doomed and unfashionable idea and sold it back to us at a premium.
I’m no Apple hater. I’ve had every iPod since 2001, every iPhone since 2007. I’m typing this on a MacBook Air. I owned a Nano. Pretty soon my kids will wake up and I’ll pair a playlist from my iPhone 8 to my HomePod and make breakfast. And it’s true the company has taken steps to improve its earphones’ sound (it could scarcely have been worse). But I draw the line at AirPods and I draw it double at the solo ’Podders. Like every other pair of headphones you’ve ever owned, you’re going to lose them. Just more quickly and expensively. Plus, there is no easy way to adjust the volume or switch tracks like you can with wired earphones. Everything goes through Siri. Double-tap an AirPod, the music pauses, then you tell Siri you’d like to turn up the volume. Just like a mad person talking to themselves in the street. Or The Six Million Dollar Man. Or RoboCop. Or someone who’s spent £160 on a pair of headphones but doesn’t like music.
This has not stopped them being a hit. Apple cannot keep them in its stores. Celebrities including David Beckham, Kristen Stewart and former New York Mayor Randolph “Rudy” Giuliani have worn them, the latter showing how in touch he was in the new connected world by being photographed wearing them upside down. AirPods 2 are apparently on their way. More audio companies will follow suit with their pop-in buds later this year.
Last Christmas, the headphone market was made up of 75 per cent wireless devices, up
25 per cent on the year before. Naturally, Apple dominates the category. The future is, without doubt, one without wires. Just like in that movie Her. It would just be nice if we didn’t have to embrace it with a mouse’s golf club in our ear.
Alan Partridge, solo Podder