What we’d like to see in Ap­ple over-ear noise-can­cel­ing head­phones

Ap­ple needs to do more than slap its logo on a pair of cans.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY LEIF JOHN­SON

Over-ear noise-can­cel­ing head­phones from Ap­ple are hits wait­ing to hap­pen. They’re also merely the sub­ject of a ru­mor ( go.mac­world.com/ hehf), but it’s a ru­mor from the mouth of KGI se­cu­ri­ties an­a­lyst Ming-chi Kuo, who might as well be the Or­a­cle of Del­phi so far as these things are con­cerned. Last month Kuo pre­dicted that we’d see these head­phones some­times in the fourth quar­ter of this fis­cal year, in part be­cause

he be­lieves they’d round out the fresh au­dio hard­ware lineup we’ve seen from Ap­ple with the Home­pod ( go. mac­world.com/byhp) and Air­pods ( go. mac­world.com/byap).

There was skep­ti­cal re­joic­ing. Af­ter all, it’s al­ready pos­si­ble to get “Ap­ple” noise-can­cel­ing head­phones through the Beats brand, so why make a sep­a­rate, com­pet­ing set? But just as Ap­ple trans­formed the strug­gling Beats Mu­sic brand into a 38-mil­lion-sub­scriber pow­er­house, Ap­ple could work its magic with its own set of “cans” and make the fa­mil­iar feel fresh again. Here’s what we think it’ll take to real­ize that vi­sion.

1. A TOUCH OF EL­E­GANCE, PLEASE

Beats head­phones are visu­ally loud. They scream. If the iphone is a Lexus, Beats head­phones are souped-up lowrid­ers jam­ming to Dr. Dre down your town’s main drag with gold chrome streak­ing through on ver­mil­ion fend­ers. (And, in fact, Ap­ple even makes Beats head­phones that look a lit­tle like that.) They’re aimed at young buy­ers. They’re heav­ily as­so­ci­ated with hip-hop. For bet­ter or for worse, let’s ad­mit it: A huge chunk of oth­er­wise die-hard Ap­ple fans will never buy them for those rea­sons alone.

Ap­ple, though, strives for a form of ev­ery­man’s el­e­gance that main­tains its power across mul­ti­ple cul­tures, age groups, and so­cio-eco­nomic back­grounds. Its prod­ucts work with blue jeans; they work with tuxe­dos. For that mat­ter, they age well. That’s why Ap­ple could never merely swap the b on a Beats head­set with an ap­ple.

Ap­ple’s take on head­phones would also stand out in a crowd, but it’s hard to guess how they might look, con­sid­er­ing that over-ear head­phones have ba­si­cally all looked the same for a cen­tury. They’re also usu­ally de­signed with el­e­ments Ap­ple

likes to avoid. Light­ning ca­bles ex­cluded, Ap­ple usu­ally shies away from mak­ing soft prod­ucts and parts that wear down eas­ily, which means we may see some kind of change to the pad­ding that en­velops the ear. With Ear­pods and Air­pods, Ap­ple got rid of cush­ion­ing and pads al­to­gether, but it’s hard to see how it will work on an over-ear head­set.

But what­ever shape they take, they need to be com­fort­able and pleas­ant to wear. The cur­rent Beats lineup fails in that re­gard, with re­view af­ter re­view for the Beats Solo3 wire­less head­phones in par­tic­u­lar com­plain­ing about how tight they are.

Form and com­fort, Ap­ple. You can do it bet­ter.

2. PACK THEM WITH HELP­FUL FEA­TURES

Peo­ple who don’t have au­then­tic Ap­ple Air­pods don’t un­der­stand that much of the fun of us­ing them springs just as much from the sec­ondary fea­tures as the de­cent au­dio qual­ity. There’s the way the mu­sic briefly stops when you pull out one of the buds and starts when you put it back in, or the way you can tap twice on one bud to talk to Siri. There’s the way that even clos­ing the case feels re­ward­ing, right down to the sat­is­fy­ing snap. I find my­self look­ing for­ward to both tak­ing them out and putting them away.

We’d like to see more of that in Ap­ple’s ru­mored head­set. At this point it’s al­most a given that the new head­phones will have Ap­ple’s won­der­ful W1 chip, which al­lows for some of the tricks men­tioned ear­lier as well as ridicu­lously easy Blue­tooth pair­ing with Ap­ple de­vices and im­proved bat­tery life.

We’d like to see all that, but Ap­ple could go even fur­ther than that with other fea­tures, such as the Quick At­ten­tion mode on Sony’s WH1000XM2 ( go. mac­world.com/whmx) head­phones, which tem­po­rar­ily dis­ables noise-can­cel­ing so long as your hand’s cupped over one of the speaker cups. For that mat­ter, Ap­ple could add en­hanced Siri fea­tures that would al­low us to, say, change the de­gree

of noise-can­cel­ing by voice alone. Be­yond that, I of­ten find my­self wish­ing I could change the vol­ume on my Air­pods just by slid­ing my fin­ger along the side, and such a fea­ture seems far more doable on our larger hy­po­thet­i­cal head­phones.

They’ll also no doubt be much larger than the tiny Air­pods, which means Ap­ple should have room to pack them with a much bet­ter bat­tery. That’s not only ben­e­fi­cial for our lis­ten­ing en­joy­ment, but also po­ten­tially means we’ll be able to call out “Hey, Siri” to the cans with­out wor­ry­ing about bat­tery life as we do when ac­ti­vat­ing the set­ting on Air­pods.

And while we know Ap­ple is try­ing to dis­tance it­self from the head­phone jack, it’d be nice to have the op­tion to plug the head­phones into a tra­di­tional jack when no Blue­tooth is avail­able. Know­ing Ap­ple’s “courage” ( go.mac­world.com/hprt), though, I wouldn’t count on that fea­ture mak­ing it in.

3. GIVE US AN ULTRAFOLDABLE DE­SIGN

If the Air­pods taught us any­thing, it’s that we shouldn’t ex­pect Ap­ple’s over-ear cans to look much like any­thing we’ve seen from the com­pe­ti­tion. Ap­ple, af­ter all, is the com­pany that gave us ear­buds in­spired by the ar­mor of Star Wars stormtroop­ers ( go.mac­world. com/amsw), and now that the cords are gone with the Air­pods, they look even more like relics from a fu­ture that mud­dies the line be­tween hu­man and an­droid.

That’s ex­cit­ing for those of us who like good de­sign. But even bet­ter, the chance to re­think what head­phones “should” look like could be good for all of us as prac­ti­cal con­sumers. This is im­por­tant, con­sid­er­ing how peo­ple use noise-can­cel­ing head­phones these days. Judg­ing from my van­tage point as a pedes­trian com­muter on the streets of San Fran­cisco, many own­ers of wire­less noise-can­cel­ing head­phones use them not in stu­dios or on liv­ing room re­clin­ers, but rather out in the ur­ban world where the en­vi­rons over­whelm the senses. Else­where, they use them for quiet in of­fices. I’m one of those folks. Once you slap on a good pair of cans like the Bose

Qui­et­com­fort 35 ( go. mac­world.com/bs35) and switch on the Na­tures­pace ( go.mac­world.com/ntre) app or some mu­sic, ev­ery­thing else slips away.

The prob­lem? Even the im­pres­sively col­lapsi­ble Bose Qui­et­com­fort 35 head­phones I use hog much of the space in my back­pack when I need to stash them away. It also takes around half a minute to get them down to a stash­able size and in the case. If any­one could slim down that de­sign even fur­ther while main­tain­ing qual­ity, it’s Ap­ple. Con­sider the con­ve­nience of the Air­pods. Stowed away, they’re easy to find, but they take up no more room than a box of floss.

Imag­ine achiev­ing a sim­i­lar ef­fect with tra­di­tional head­phones, al­low­ing you to toss them in your bag with hardly a sec­ond thought. That’s a bit of a revo­lu­tion right there.

4. A SU­PE­RIOR AU­DIO AND NOISE-CAN­CEL­ING EX­PE­RI­ENCE

So let’s get the ob­vi­ous out of the way: These things need to sound good. For­tu­nately, we should be good on that front.

Con­sider the Home­pod. It doesn’t look as though it will be the block­buster seller Ap­ple was hop­ing it’d be, but it clearly shows the Cu­per­tino com­pany doesn’t mess around when de­liv­er­ing high-qual­ity au­dio.

In fact, most crit­i­cisms of the Home­pod cen­ter on its piti­ful use of Siri. Stop the chitchat, though, lis­ten to the mu­sic, and you’ll find your­self awash in evenly dis­trib­uted mu­sic that sounds the same no mat­ter how we move around the Home­pod. Packed with seven tweeter speak­ers, a four-inch woofer, and six mi­cro­phones that can hear us even over wall-shud­der­ing mu­sic, it’s a won­der of de­sign. While Ap­ple’s Air­pods can’t touch that level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion, they, too, pro­duce sound of such qual­ity that it’s hard to be­lieve they’re de­scended from

the rel­a­tively tinny Ear­pods.

All of which is to say that Ap­ple should be more than ca­pa­ble of craft­ing over-theear head­phones that de­liver a divine au­dio ex­pe­ri­ence. But be­yond that, it’ll also have to of­fer su­per noise-can­cel­ing, which

Ap­ple ap­par­ently strug­gled to do with the Beats Stu­dio head­phones which were ser­vice­able but paled in com­par­i­son to some of the com­pe­ti­tion. It’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble Ap­ple can de­liver on this front, but whether it can do it with­out sac­ri­fic­ing mu­sic qual­ity should be the ques­tion that drives any crit­i­cal assess­ment of the unit.

5. PRICE THEM TO MATCH THE COM­PE­TI­TION

We al­ready know that what­ever head­phones Ap­ple makes are go­ing to be ex­pen­sive. At this point, that much is a given. The prob­lem is that noise-can­cel­ing head­phones will bring Ap­ple into a space that’s al­ready crowded with cans that have dizzy­ing price tags. In fact, the com­peti­tors who al­ready oc­cupy the space seem afraid to go higher in price for fear of los­ing cus­tomers, as both the Bose Qui­et­com­fort 35 and the Sony WH1000XM2 head­sets stare each other down with $350 tags. Con­sid­er­ing that the Home­pod was priced at $350 as well, we could ar­gue Ap­ple it­self is play­ing this game.

Ap­ple may try to jus­tify a higher price with claims of bet­ter de­sign or bet­ter au­dio, but it’d be step­ping into dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory. The iphone X may have al­ready proved that there’s a limit to the num­bers even the most die-hard afi­ciona­dos will pay. And con­sid­er­ing that the ex­ist­ing pop­u­lar head­phones al­ready have a well-de­served rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity, Ap­ple will have a tough up­hill bat­tle to con­tend with.

But if Ap­ple sells them at roughly the same price while of­fer­ing a more ap­peal­ing de­sign, bet­ter af­ford­abil­ity, and (hope­fully) bet­ter noise-can­cel­ing and au­dio per­for­mance? Bose, Sony, and even Beats will be fac­ing a force to be reck­oned with. ■

These aren’t so bad, though.

The Air­pods may be but the prov­ing grounds.

It’ll be hard to get over-ear head­phones more por­ta­ble than this.

Shut up and dance, says Siri.

Danc­ing to dif­fer­ent beats.

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