Wireless Headphones: Tech Flash
Wireless Headphones: The Technology
In this addition of Tech Flash, we are poking around the technology of wireless headphones. While certainly not a new technology, they have recently been thrust back into the spotlight with the latest advent of new smart phones. Easy to store, enhanced freedom to move and improved sound clarity have wireless headphones poised for the long haul. However, the wired headphone has been king for a long, long time. Other concerns about continued exposure to wireless signals and sound quality could potentially derail the momentum as well. So do wireless headphones have what it takes to thrive? Listen in as we explore further.
Wireless Headphones: A Brief History
The wired headphone has been around since the 1930s or thereabouts. It is less clear when the first set of wireless headphones came on the scene, but it was roughly some 60 years ago. Historically, wireless headphones have primarily utilized RF (radio frequency) or IR (infrared) for communication. With the recent expansion of portable electronics, Bluetooth is now widely used in most wireless technology.
A move to Bluetooth was inevitable. Unfortunately, traditional RF transmission for wireless communication was (and still can be) cumbersome. On a very basic level, to use wireless anything, you need a transmitter and a receiver. Let’s explore this concept further so we have a basic understanding of how far wireless headphones have come.
RF keeping it real
Your radio and garage door opener are some basic examples of RF technology. You tune your radio to your favorite station at a certain frequency. Your garage opener is tuned specifically to the motor that drives the door at some frequency. In either case, one thing is listening (the receiver) and the other is transmitting (the radio station or garage door opener).
The problem with traditional wireless headphones was twofold. Often, whatever you wanted to use the headphones with didn’t have a transmitter. Think early computers or audio receivers. So that meant anywhere you wanted to use wireless headphones, you’d have to bring a transmitter. Often times this was not an easy thing to do.
The other issue was interference. With traditional RF, you can transmit very long distances, which can be useful. But it also allowed for other bands near the same frequency to interfere. Your headphones were listening for any matched frequency. It didn’t care who sent it. Think of your car and terrestrial radio. Often if you drive far enough, you’ll start hearing static or different music on your favorite radio station. This was a key reason people were slow to adopt the technology: it just wasn’t reliable enough with traditional RF methods.
Bluetooth, King of Wireless Headphones
With all the issues of traditional RF, something had to step up and be a more eloquent, convenient solution. Thank you, Bluetooth. Bluetooth still uses RF technology (ala radio waves) but does so in a more secure and compact way. This is actually a key contributor as to why the wireless headphones are making a comeback.
Unlike radio waves, a Bluetooth connection is 1-to-1. Or another way, if your wireless headphones are ‘talking’ with your phone via Bluetooth, no other device can intercept that conversation. This is crucial when considering wireless headphones in the smart phone realm. It doesn’t mean that Bluetooth cannot be hacked but it certainly makes it more challenging than traditional RF exposure. The last thing I need is Moses and his receiver intercepting my call with a client so he can sell the same insurance for a $100 less. Do I sell insurance? Absolutely not, but you get my point. You wouldn’t trust wireless headphones if you believed phone calls could easily be intercepted.
Bluetooth didn’t stop at security. No, it decided to pursue a compact and portable design as well. Bluetooth is limited on range to be sure. Unlike traditional radio, for instance, it can only transmit 100 meters for Class 1 transmitters. In contrast, a typical FM radio station travels miles. What Bluetooth lacks in range, it makes up for it in a compact size. To transmit radio waves miles of distance takes a fairly sizable antenna and transmission power. Guess what? Not at short range. In fact, it’s the opposite. Only a small antenna and low levels of power are required to transmit on the Bluetooth. This makes the technology highly attractive to portable devices, like phones or wireless headphones. It’s why you can fit wireless technology into something as small as air pods. This has clearly reduced the size of wireless headphones, making them sleek and attractive to consumers in the 21st century.
Wireless Headphones: Why they stay
Smart phones are steering everything we do in society. From Snaps to Youtube, smart phones and social media have put audio at their core. As a result, phone manufacturers have focused on both the external speaker (highly recommend this speaker, if you’re looking) and headphone technologies. In particular, this has been a massive boon to wireless headphones. Couple this with the inherent convenient properties that wireless brings, and you now have a compelling argument to keep wireless headphones around.
Phone it in
The latter has received a big boost lately with the introduction of the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2. Both employ wireless headphones only, causing people to ditch wired headphones to use them. Sometimes a little push goes a long way. Arguably, the early adoption phase of wireless headphones is well in the past. However, with this recent renaissance, not giving people a choice helps re-establish the overall adoption of the technology.
With the recent surge in wireless, the technology has also greatly improved. Where you once had bulky batteries or a clunky design, the newer wireless headphones are sleeker and last longer due to the aforementioned Bluetooth designs. They come with multiple environmental settings as well, such as allowing some noise to get through or a complete noise cancelling setting. This flexibility allows you to avoid being hit by a bus on the street while also enabling a comfortable noise cancelled flight.
Wireless headphones also last much longer between charges. The first reason is they simply don’t take that much power to operate with the Bluetooth technology. Although the range is limited, this in turn permits low power transmission. Most Bluetooth is also design to sleep while not in use, therefore limiting the drain on the battery during idle times. As we have mentioned in previous postings, battery life is a key element in technologies hanging around. Score one for wireless headphones here.
Wireless Headphones: Why they fade
While the trend is recently favoring wireless headphones, there are still a few reasons its long term adoption could suffer. Some of the same reasons wireless struggled before have not been resolved with the recent renaissance. Sound quality and interference are two characteristics that come to mind. Not to mention there are still concerns around radiation (via Bluetooth) and some cosmetic/functionality issues around wireless headphons.
The ole quality issue
Because Bluetooth is a form of RF technology, the interference issue mentioned previously still can occur in your headphones. Said another way, if your cruising along on a phone call or jamming to Taylor Swift, you are still susceptible to that static hiss or cutout if you enter the wrong airspace. In fact, because Wi-Fi and Bluetooth share the same fundamentally frequency band (2.4GHz) that is constantly an issue you may be dealing with using wireless headphones around the house. Who wants to be dealing with cutout in their own home? And let’s be honest, you’re not turning off your Wi-Fi every time you go to fire up your headphones. It’s certainly a drawback worth considering.
Fewer people may care less about sound quality, but it does bother me. If you are familiar with .mp3’s, you know it’s a form of compression around an audio file. The science is straightforward. Your ear is only so good at picking up a spectrum of frequencies. Some of the ones that are too high or too low, most people can’t hear at all. MP3 takes advantage of this by omitting those frequencies from an audio file. This in turn reduces the file size.
Compression such as .mp3 must be used in wireless technologies. There are many types of compression out there that Bluetooth can use but the point is that the pure audio file suffers. While most may argue the compressed quality is good enough, the point stands that wired headphones are the only way to preserve the pure audio file, uncompressed.
Bluetooth is radiating me?
I will not dwell too long on the topic of radiation because it is highly controversial. Search the web and you will find aggressive arguments (and experimental data) for and against wireless radiation, specifically around Bluetooth. My only point is this: although the power transmission is low, wireless headphones sit adjacent to your skull. You are exposing yourself to radiation, just like you do everyday with a cell phone to your ear. Whether or not those levels are truly able to do significant damage over time is for your own research.
Radiation is a risk no matter how small the power levels. I’m as careful as anyone with carrying my cell phone on me. However, I’m also realistic that I’m radiated with all kinds of energy everyday, whether it be through my car, Bluetooth calls or plain ole cell phone interactions. I’m fairly conservative though. One reason I opted for (and love) the Google Pixel over a wireless headphone driven phone is because it’s one less source of radiation for me to think about.
Wireless Headphones Takeaway
With all this information, it’s time we make a call on whether or not wireless headphones are here to stay. The technology has certainly matured over the years, thanks to the evolution of technologies such as Bluetooth. Wireless is easier than ever to interface with, the quality better than ever, and being wire free is a joy.
However, traditional issues persist. RF technology continues to deal with interference and you do lose some sound quality in wireless transmission. Throw in the standard radiation argument, especially with ear pieces near your brain, and you’ve got plenty of ammo to shoot wireless headphones down.
Truth is, this may be the first Tech Flash I don’t make a hands down decision. The technology isn’t going anywhere and there will always be a market for wireless headphones. However, I still view the current market as just another trend. Wired headphones will never die. And honestly, if a study finally comes out that proves that the radiation is truly detrimental, you’ll see the masses flee from the technology. But even then… Some will still use them because they simply appreciate the convenience.
Fine. Yes, wireless headphones are here to stay. But I do expect the technology space to continue to mature. By that I mean, I fully expect Bluetooth and RF to vastly improve over time. Happy listening!
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