Life without the headphone jack — one year on

When the iPhone 7 launched, the decision to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack was heavily criticised, with some people going as far as calling it “user hostile”. From my perspective, I’m not sure it’s user hostile but a couple of things didn’t sit right:

1. The argument that the space was needed for other things like the battery didn’t add up. When I got my 7, the battery life was terrible — markedly worse than my 2 year old iPhone 6. Also, the physical design of the 7 is almost identical to previous models.

2. It was sold as a vision to move customers towards a wireless future, based on the entirely reasonable assertion that cables on headphones are a bit annoying. But is this what we really wanted?

I decided not to complain too much, and try and get on with things. AirPods weren’t immediately available, so I weighed up a few options and found a set of Beats Solo 2 Wireless on-ear headphones at half price. I knew they wouldn’t be perfect — Beats aren’t known for sound quality, but they were supposed to be better than previous models, and they weren’t replacing high end headphones anyway.

After six months of using the the Beats, I’d had enough. The reviews were right — they are uncomfortable. And while the sound was good in some ways, it also seemed to suck the life out of music.

By the time the Beats were really getting me down, the AirPods had launched and availability was improving, so I decided to track down a pair and live the dream. And in a way my expecations were met — they are excellent. To say they are comfortable isn’t really accurate, it’s more accurate to say you can forget you are wearing them. Sound quality is lovely — sure there’s better out there, but they are crisp and musical, and a pleasure to listen to. Most of my listening takes place at work, and they are perfect in this environment — the open design means external sound still gets through so I can hear conversations and don’t get isolated too much from my colleagues.

But now we get into problem — a simple truth about all headphones:

There is no single pair that works well for every scenario.

At home? A big over-ear pair of Sennheisers would be lovely.
In the office? Sure, AirPods.
Down on the street? You want the ones with rubber grommets that seal the ear canal up and block outside noise. Or a pair with active noise cancelling.

So in the office, the amount of noise AirPods let in is an advantage, but on public transport or on foot near traffic, it’s becomes a nuisance. At the gym, AirPods also disappoint. They don’t fall out of my ears, but as I exercise, they move out of my ear just enough for the sound level to drop off significantly. Try to push them back in while on a running machine and there’s a chance I will tap them twice. Double-tap is configured to pause the music, so you can see how annoying that gets while trying not to fall off the machine.

Before this whole saga of losing the headphone jack, I used wired EarPods at work, a cheap but amazing set of Chinese in-ear buds for noisy environments and the gym, and a big set of Sennheisers at home. Total value of around £140 for all three pairs.

Now I have a single pair of phones that cost £159 but don’t cover all the bases. Is it realistic to buy another pair of wireless earphones for times where the AirPods let me down? Not really because the cost is too high. It’s true that I could use wired phones with the dongle, but no-one likes dongles.

Can I have my headphone jack back please?