People lavish praise for Apple’s attention to design details and the lessons from Steve Jobs (the good ones, at least). But it’s odd to see when those ideas don’t translate into what we expect. When it comes to designing things well, the earbud market seems to me like an Apple and a bunch of PC makers. Are most earbud makers aware of their lack of quality, or are content to take advantage of consumers’ naivete? Within the first minutes of using the Polk Audio Ultrafit 500 earbuds, I had made up my mind that these guys (Polk Audio) have actually done a thorough job in designing the earbuds, and I already had started to make up my mind just from opening up the package. My claims are a little over-the-top, so let me explain.
When people said that Apple’s earbuds that they give with every iPod are crappy, I never wanted to fully agree. They worked perfectly fine, even if, once in a while, an earbud would fall out on its own. Every time I put my iPod in my pocket, I would leave the earbuds plugged in. Maybe that’s just asking for the wire to twist on its own, but I just assumed that the wires were better than that. After all, it’s Apple. That wasn’t so much of an issue. But then I started to go jogging. Over time, the gray rubber around the speakers in the earbuds and at the base of each earbuds that sheathed the connection point of the wire would start to erode. Over time, it pretty much disintegrated. And over that same time, where the wire meets the hard sheath for the 3.5mm plug, the wire twisted on itself and eventually frayed, exposing the internal wires. This happened with two of the Apple headphones. And if Apple sells them for $5, then they would normally be sold by someone else for $3. So maybe they are cheap. This happened again with a pair of Skullcandy earbuds as well as another pair of visibly cheap headphones I found randomly somewhere.
For the sake of jogging, I didn’t want to keep going through cheap headphones. It would cost more in the long run. And furthermore, the earbuds really kept slipping out a lot when jogging. So paying a little for a better experience and saving money in the long run was my plan. I went to Best Buy and got the Nike headphones. I got them because of all the earbuds that had an arm around the ear to secure them in place, they were the cheapest. I was reluctant to pay the full $35, but I bit the bullet and went ahead with it. The Nike headphones had much better sound quality (to my surprise), and they came with a very long cord and small, round cord wrapper so that you can manually adjust the length. And they had a flat, round carrying pouch. They were nice and held up well; I was happy with the value of the purchase. But last week, for some reason, the left earbud just died. I’m not sure why. Now, to my fault, I got lazy and stopped taking the headphones out of the iPod when I tucked them in my pocket. But the rubbery coating on the wires meant that they never frayed or anything. Nothing seemed visibly wrong. So I currently have earbuds that are half-dead, but for all intents and purposes, fully dead.
Afterwards, I feared boredom on the jog, so I immediately ordered new earbuds. But I wanted to avoid previous mistakes. I searched the internet for reviews, but if there were any, they were 5 years out of date, at best. Reviews on online shopping sites are few, so it’s hard to tell. I’m sure that I scoured most every review I could find, but I’m not sure what led me to decide on the ones that I got. Maybe it was the reviews on Newegg?
Here’s what I’ve noticed:
- The box that the headphones come in have a flap/door over the front that reveals a plastic window. When boxes have these types of flaps, they often come as-is. Sometimes, you might see a small velco “latch”. But what I noticed was that this box flap door thing had magnets to secure itself! Kind of like how Apple laptops went from magnet-propelled latches, to magnets replacing the latch altogether. And this required 4 magnets — one in each of the 2 corners of the flap, and then 2 more for inside the box. Unnecessary? Yes. Evidence of attention to detail? Wow, yes! But because they thought that through, I now want to keep the box instead of recycle it.
- Inside, I saw the earbuds snug in the front of the shell, and booklets and accessories in the back. So yes, they provided a ziploc bag to hold their instruction manual, product registration paper (which is printed on this weird plasticky paper instead of normal paper-paper… more durable?), and warranty.
- The accessories contain 2 sets of spare rubbery earbud coverings. Of the 3 sets altogether, 2 have this triangle that is supposed to hold snugly against the opposite edge of the inside of your ear. It’s a bit odd, but because I heard about this from a review, I glanced at the instruction book and took the 30 secs in the mirror to figure out how it works. It’s actually not bad at all.
- The around-the-ear arms of the earbuds hold them in place, just like other sports earbuds (e.g., the Nike-branded ones). The Nike ones were designed with a rubbery material that could stretch out for larger ears, vaguely similar to the way that elastic waistbands stretch out if necessary. The Polk Audio earbuds’ around-the-ear arms are made of this stiff, contort-able material so that you can shape them however you like.
- The earbuds have not 1, but 2, of those little rubber things that cinch the 2 wires from the ears together when you slide it up and down.
- When the 2 wires are fused into one, all other headphones will just fuse those 2 wires in a stronger way so that you can’t separate them, but you can see that there are 2 wires. The Polk Audio headphones, instead, wraps both wires together so that the surface is flat, like a ribbon. Time will tell, but I think that this will prevent wires twisting on themselves.
- What’s interesting is that the portion of the wire that is a ribbon is separate from the part with the 2 wires leading to the 2 earbuds. The reason is that there are 2 separate ribbons — one is shorter, and one is longer. The suggested use case for the shorter is an armband audio player, and the longer ribbon is for an audio player at the waist. But they also show that without the ribbon, you can use it if your audio player is clipped at your collar! I’ve never seen that made possible! (I’m not sure I want to do that with my old, threadbare T-shirts, but it’s the idea that’s cool.)
- Now, the one thing I don’t know about yet is the durability since I haven’t sent them through the test of time. But this time around, I will also be treating them as well as I can. I will not only unplug the headphones from my audio player when storing them, but I will disassemble the ribbon from the earbuds. When I carry them in my pocket, I will use the provided zipper pouch.
The point of all this is that they obviously paid enough attention to detail as I paid to them when designing these headphones. And my past experiences have made me appreciate all of it. Within the first hour of having the headphones, I wrote a review on the Newegg page for the headphones so that people later on have a better understanding of what the product is. What’s odd, though, is that the review didn’t get posted right away. It didn’t even post after a few minutes. There were still only 4 reviews, and they were all 4 or 5 stars out of 5. It sat in some Newegg review purgatory. I look now and see that my review posted with the proper timestamp — around 12:30pm, but magically, there are 6 reviews. Mine is the latest. How is that possible? The 6th review has an earlier timestamp than my review — at 11:30am, just one hour before mine — but I never saw it on the website at its alleged time. And it’s a negative one based on durability, a perfect contrast to my raving one. This seems fishy to me, and I know that companies have employees write fake user comments to promote their product and disparage others. I hope Newegg isn’t enabling this because if they were, then I wouldn’t feel bad mentioning that I bought the earbuds at Overstock.com for 20% less.