Wires rule, bluetooth stinks? An investigation of our interactions with headphones

I was considering titling this post less provocatively but decided to stick with something strong to have a better chance to soberly assess a widely assumed idea. After all, contrarian opinions are nearly always more firmly lodged in ones mind if delivered in an exciting and vigorous manner.

The assumption I am referring to is the one that because wireless technology such as Bluetooth is more advanced than wired technology, at least for headphones, that it must necessarily be superior on a net basis.

This line of reasoning follows the form that because technology Y is more sophisticated than technology X, that therefore technology Y is superior to technology X.

Clearly it’s not written in the stars that this must be the case.

I will elide all the technical and esoteric discussion of Bluetooth technology, audio latencies, antenna design, etc., and focus on the user experience that, if you own such headphones, would have noticed on a weekly basis.

Namely, that wired headphones practically never fail to respond, or fail to connect. They. Just. Work. I’m sure that someone would have calculated the approximate failure rate of the standard wire mounted control buttons as popularized by Apple’s original earbuds for the iPod. I haven’t, but I can confidently state in my experience it’s failure rate is 1 in 10 000 or less. That is at least 9 999 times out of 10 000, when I press a button on my headphones, the correct behaviour occurs.

If you’ve ever used any Bluetooth device you probably experienced a failure rate higher than 1 out of every 10 000 times.

In fact, I would be willing to bet that if you regularly use Bluetooth headphones, just connecting the devices together fails at a rate greater than 1 in 100 times. That has certainly been my experience, even for very expensive and top-of-the-line devices such as Bose’s QC30 and Apple’s Airpods Pro.

And if I define a ’failure to connect’ as simply needing to fiddle around with it for more than second, then the number jumps up to perhaps 1 in 20 times!

Over a year of daily usage that translates into hours spent fiddling around with headphones trying to get them to connect!

And then there’s the charging time, charging issues, switching issues between multiple devices, etc…

I mention all this because the way we psychologically perceive reliability, or failure, is non-linear. That is the anxiety and apprehension we feel interacting with Bluetooth headphones is not just a linear increase equivalent with the increase in failure rate from 1 in 10 000 to 1 in 20, but is really an exponential increase.

To give a real world example:

Let’s say we’re walking around in a park, both listening to some nice music on wired headphones and enjoying the scenery, and alternatively having a conversation. We likely won’t spare a single moment thinking about the headphones themselves outside of the few seconds it takes to put them on or take them off. We’re enjoying our nice conversation, nice music, and nice scenery after all! (Neither of us will spend any time caring about the wires unless we somehow get tangled up in a bush with them.)

Now instead imagine we’re doing the same activities but we’re both wearing Bluetooth headphones. We still have the few seconds of concern in getting them on and off, but now we also feel apprehension that this will be one of those 1 in 20 times that the connection will somehow fail and we will then have to look like an idiot fiddling around, going into the settings menu of our music device, fumbling around trying to take them off and put them on repeatedly, etc.

Then as we are listening to our wonderful music, apprehension appears when we try to pause the music to enjoy the sound of the birds singing. What if somehow the headphones don’t recognize my pause command? What if the music starts back up again just by accidentally bumping them? Better take them off just in case so that’s an extra few seconds of fumbling.

And it goes on, because these conscious or subconscious thoughts repeat themselves every single time we interact with Bluetooth devices since the failure rate is high enough that we can’t brush it under the rug like we can with wired devices.

The end result is that we simply feel more alive and can focus better on our activities when walking around in a park when not using the Bluetooth headphones.

Although I could get into complex brain mechanics of why that is so, why our perception is non-linear, the basic reason is because wired headphones almost never fail twice in the period of time covered by short and medium term memory. Since the event is otherwise so minor, without the reinforcement of repetition, the event will never find it’s way into long term memory, unless you actively focus on it.

Whereas a device that sporadically fails multiple times in the time span covered by short and medium term memory trains us like Pavlov’s dogs to be on the ready in case something happens during usage. This ’on-the-ready’ factor is the psychological burden that although small is always there in the background.

Now of course wireless technology such as Bluetooth offer some notable benefits such as never having to worry about getting tangled up in wires, lighter weight, greater flexibility in pairing device, etc. And although these can be tangible benefits when we experience those issues with wired decides, they don’t seem to negate the frustration we feel when experiencing the alternate issues associated with their non-wired brethren.

The final perception of the relative weights and impact of the failings between wired and wireless devices is subjective and based upon each person’s unique history of interaction with such devices. Some may perceive a net benefit one way, others may perceive the same the other way. But because subconscious factors are by definition outside of one’s perception, perhaps the impact of the failure modes of wireless technology is greater on an overall basis, it’s just that we don’t notice the bulk of it.

The difficulty of giving a net assessment of the overall difference is perhaps intractable as the benefits and drawbacks very tremendously based on use case. I certainly won’t stop using wireless headphones, yet there will likely always remain a part of me that yearns for the rock solid reliability of a hard wire.

Perhaps then the fairest way to look at these competing forms of technology is to perceive all current headphone technologies as ’stinking’ in some way or another. In the ideal world the annoyances associated with either wires, such as tangles, or without, such as connection failures, should be sublimated away in the ideal headphone, in the platonic idea of headphones. Perhaps the most perfect device imaginable would communicate with our brain waves directly and sense our intentions and be powered via directed wireless charging, or solar panels? In any case, it’s safe to say our current level of development has not yet reached such an exalted ideal.