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The wireless headphone future needs a stronger connection, not noise cancelation

Jabra Elite 75t
Jabra Elite 75t (Image credit: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

I carry both an Android and an iPhone, but I only keep one set of headphones on me. When it was time to go wireless, I tried a number of different pairs, and ended up settling on a set of AirPods. I mostly loved them — past tense, because I ran them through the washing machine and they died. This is a problem that wireless earbuds will need to fix, and I suspect that true waterproofing will come to headphones eventually, but for now I am in the market for a new pair and the timing couldn't be better … or worse.

With CES 2020 behind us, we saw so many new pairs of wireless sets in the new category we call True Wireless Earbuds. Following in Apple's AirPods Pro footsteps, the common feature thread among all of the new earbuds seems to be active noise canceling (ANC). Panasonic claimed that its headphones lead the category in noise cancellation prowess. That's a dubious claim, because earbuds will never be able to truly block and cancel noise like good over-the-ear headphones. When you are on an airplane with your head sunk against the chair and engines vibrating your entire body, even the best noise canceling earbuds aren't going to save your ears from fatigue like a larger set of cans.

Why are we bothering with noise cancellation on true wireless earbuds? The feature and the form are mismatched.

Why are we bothering with noise cancellation on true wireless earbuds? The feature and the form are mismatched. First of all, ANC is a big battery drain. When noise-canceling headphones were wired they still required their own battery to operate. What product manager looked at tiny little earbuds, with their tiny little batteries that can barely last through a long jog, and decided to add the biggest power-drain feature imaginable?

Does ANC even make sense on true wireless earbuds? The use cases for earbuds would not seem to require an engineered level of silence. When you are using the earbuds out and about, you'll probably want to hear the sort of noises ANC headphone block, like car sounds. If you use them on trains and planes, sure the noise canceling will be pleasant, but you might get the same benefit from earbuds with a tight-sealing fit and save yourself some battery life.

I understand the benefit of other power-sapping features like a heart rate monitor and accelerometer. These are solid fitness features that let you leave another piece of equipment at home. The overall benefit is worth the battery drain.

Noise cancelation on earbuds, on the other hand, seems like a feature added because it was technologically possible. Customers will see a natural progression from consumer cans that don't feature noise cancellation to advanced headphones that are more powerful and do more work. If Apple is going to make a "Pro" AirPod, what else could the company add besides noise cancellation? ANC is a necessity if you need to sell more earbuds to people who already own earbuds.

ANC is a necessity if you need to sell more earbuds to people who already own earbuds

How about improving reception? How about improving the signal between the phone and the buds? Bluetooth is a terrible technology. It operates at a low power in a frequency range that is easily blocked by the human body. Bluetooth has trouble penetrating water, and we are mostly water. When we wear a phone on one side of our body it often cannot transmit directly to a device on the other side.

I have tried the best truly wireless earbuds on the market, and they all have connection problems. They all stutter and cut out and have reliability problems that would be completely unacceptable on the lowliest pair of wired earphones. Manufacturers have worked to fix this problem through various techniques that make the earbuds talk to each other and synchronize music between your ears, where the connection distance is shorter. Still, the experience is miserable.

A bad wireless earbud experience is truly agitating. It is sitting on a train trying to remain motionless because you've found the perfect body position to maintain smooth contact. It's deciding whether to quit your run because the song keeps cutting out every few bars. It's popping two earbuds into your head and only hearing music from whichever one is on the same side of your body as your phone.

Samsung Galaxy Buds

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

We need a better connection solution. We need serious improvements to Bluetooth that account for accessories being worn on the body. We need to improve reliability and connectivity to the point they are not even an afterthought —they aren't thought about at all. Bluetooth headphones must simply work every time and they must work consistently until the moment we take them off, with no interruptions. We're not even close to that standard now.

Bluetooth headphones must simply work every time and they must work consistently until the moment we take them off

Wireless headphones are the future, and sooner than you expect they may be the only option for listening. We need to establish priorities for what we need in true wireless earbuds, and active noise cancellation ain't it. We need longer battery life. We need improved durability and a process to repair broken earbuds. Most of all, we need to improve the technology that connects our phones to our ears. At the state of the art, the connection is still terrible and manufacturers are helping us hear less when we need to hear much more.

17 Comments
  • Agree. My Galaxy buds seal good enough to block out my snowblower. What it's missing, same with all my bt headphones, is delay when watching videos and playing games. Die, then bang.
  • I have xiaomi airdots for about $15, it works fantastic, pairs fast, no cuts or drops or delay, even better than the creative outlier I have before this. It pairs much faster on the iPhone, compared to Samsung, on the samsung it could take a couple of seconds to pair. For me that price is a runaway winner. Given a bonus I wouldn’t mind the AirPods pro, for that iCloud pair and fast switching and noise cancellation, if not I’ll just keep buying these airdots. Perfect Christmas gifts as well.
  • Also I have my fair share of wired earphones/headphones, still using my Grado SR80 from 15 years ago, the connector is a little bit finicky now, have to be just right to get the full sound. I have gone through so many sony, shure, audio technica, koss, etymotic, seinheisser, only Grado have survived, the rest will eventually give up on one side after about 2 years. Of course the Grado still have the widest and warmest sound. Even my semi wireless jaybird I’ve used for 4 years also gave up on one side, the battery was still ok surprising. Now I just use Xiaomi airdots, grado, and another bt audio technica headphone that is forever paired to my tablet that has 40hrs of battery, charge once a week, always use that while the baby sleeps, baby cries, get up, walk to baby, no hassle, no tripping in the dark, no putting it down, netflix still playing, tablet not accidentally falling to the ground.
  • Wireless stuff only works great indoor, when you go outdoor they just disconnect, even the future goes with wifi earphone it will still disconnect. The problem is that outdoor has too many bluetooth and wifi signal they are all overlaping each other, this is why it disconnect
  • Phone manufacturers have been such a rush to dump the 3.5mm Jack and the quality of wireless headphone pales compared to being wired with really top notch headphones. My wired Sony Professional Studio headphones that I bought fifteen years ago runs rings around the wireless ones. Fortunately my Note 9 still has the Jack and I can plug it in to my two channel audio, headphones and car stereo.
  • Excellent article.
    Well written with good thoughts.
  • I couldn’t disagree with the author Philip about how we don’t need ANC. I used the Jabra active elevate 65t and they were nice. I bought the AirPods pro and would never buy another pair of earbuds without ANC. ANC is. Must for me while I workout. I tv while I ride my noisy chain driven, fan bike an air assault bike. I ride for an hour and forty minutes and go 36 miles riding about 21 mph and moving my arms and legs as I ride. I love how the ANC blocks the chain noise and I no longer have to turn the volume up to max to hear my programs. When I lift weights in my basement it blocks out the noise of my dehumidifier and refrigerator and it makes my workouts more pleasant. My earbuds are connected to my Apple TV and it has been the best connection with no noticeable gap in audio while watching YouTube tv, YouTube videos, Amazon prime tv, Netflix, etc. I agree that the things you mentioned that need improvements is true, but ANC is just as important in ear buds since there are not any or very few head phones with ANC and a decent IPX rating for those who work out.
  • As much as I fully agree with the poor bluetooth connection observation. I would equally like to see the advancement in developing in-Ear earphone with flexible silicone mould pads. All bluetooth in-Ear and wired earphones I've ever tried don't fit properly on my ear canal. With single movement, they come off my ear (regardless of the earbud pads/ tips size. It will really be a step forward if they can develop flexible mould pad to immediately take shape of canal as soon as you fit it and possibly revert back to normal soon after taking them off.
  • They Do Have Foam
    Tips That Mold To Your
    Ears
  • I don't operate noisy equipment and my Jabra Elite 65t has a tight enough seal in my ear that it blocks out outside sound drastically. In fact I use the hear through feature alot just so I can hear the world around me when in a busy and potentially dangerous environment.
    So ANC is most certainly not a must for me. As for reliable connectivity, there are many environmental factors that can affect that, but only weak antennas have that issue.
    My Jabra Elite 65t has not lost connection yet and there is no lag when watching videos. An unbranded 40 bucks pair I bought earlier, had great sound, but very bad connection.
    So do your research first before you buy. There are many awesome non apple TWS earbuds out there.
  • I still love the headphone jack the most, but bluetooth's alright, I can live with the slightly reduced quality. Found my 25 yr old, open-air Sennheisers, and compared with my bluetooth ankers. Yeah, there's a clarity difference, and the Sennheisers are great for still hearing sound, and keeping the bass too. Alas, their size isn't something I'm comfortable with. ANC scares me, I'd rather hear what's around me, those Sennheisers reminded me I could have it all, if it wasn't for their size(studio open-air, soo..) , looks like I should have a Mike in front of me, and a studio. Stuck with modern Bluetooth.
  • There is not a single day i don't use my ANC Bose earbuds in the office. And since getting them I haven't bought another pair of earbuds. And know what? No way I'm ever going to buy another set of earbuds without ANC. Putting ANC and a good connection on the same plate is nonsense. A wireless device with poor connection is a badly designed product that does not do what it was designed to do. ANC is something else. So, all this rant of yours is just aimed at the wrong target.
    You did succeed to get to my nerves and read your rant though, so your click bait title worked. Congrats. And I'll remember to not read your stuff next time, Mr. Berne.
  • This author misses an arguably bigger issue - the quality of audio over Bluetooth is absolutely *terrible*. Companies are expecting users to shell out upwards of $250 for wireless earbuds that, no matter how high quality the hardware, are automatically capped as far audio fidelity is concerned. Ya know, the primary reason people use headphones/buds in the first place.
  • "Following in Apple's AirPods Pro footsteps, the common feature thread among all of the new earbuds seems to be active noise canceling (ANC). " You mean following Sony footstep? The WF-1000X came out in 2018 with ANC and the WF-1000XM3 came out in Aug 2019 with much improvement including battery life at 6hrs with ANC, 8hrs with it off.
    And if your need to hear the outside noise like from cars, bikes, bus, announcements etc then turn on the ambient mode on where it lets in some sound.
  • This sounds crazy, but what about improve the tech in TWS buds AND improve their connectivity?
  • I brought a pair of earbud ( Aviot te-d01d ) last year which support Qualcomm TWS+, this meets satisfaction in terms of reliable connection, battery life, and low latency, ( For extra, sound quality also really good and relatively low price. ) The overall performance is outweigh to those earbuds without TWS+.
    There is many Japanese manufacturer with little brand name already made this kind of earbuds on their local market, it is surprised that those audio giant took very slow step to adopt this technology.
  • This site Complains about all the small features in Tech, first it's Noise Canceling or noise reduction, and why one plus hasn't opt into wireless charging and a few other things