Itty Bitty Rants

Infrequent posts about stuff.

A Tale of Three Headphones

I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’ve been having a terrible time with various Bluetooth headphones over the past decade or so. The early years were a series of Jabra and Skull Candy low and mid-range sets that generally lasted 6-12 months before failing in some fashion. Finally getting fed up with throwing away money, in 2016 I bought a pair of HeyDay Bluetooth Flat Earbuds in Vibrant Coral for 25 USD at my local Target. I figured if they lasted as long as the previous half dozen sets at least I’d be ahead financially. There were definitely good and bad things about them. The style is the type that doesn’t actually fit directly into your ear canal which has the huge advantage, at least for me, of not setting up favorable conditions for swimmer’s ear. Plus they had perfectly adequate battery life and charged reasonably fast. That style also has the advantage of being really easy to wear under ear muffs in cold weather which is fairly important in my part of the world for several months of the year. The one downside is that they weren’t great for wearing while active in warmer weather since they would tend to fall out of my ears on one or both sides while doing something like biking. Other than that, they were great. I even bought a second pair to take with me on a long vacation in early 2020.

Time passed, and I got a new phone in early 2021: A OnePlus 9 and one of the promotions they had at the time was a free pair of their OnePlus Buds Z headphones, which are a “true wireless” in-ear style. At the time they were a 125 USD value, so definitely in the mid-high range. Initially I was cautiously optimistic and tried to use them as my primary headphones. They were pretty comfortable in the ears most of the time and the touch controls were pretty responsive. Battery life was remarkably long and, being a OnePlus product, charging time was remarkably fast. Then the downsides showed up pretty quickly.

Since I got them in the middle of winter the minor issue was that they were pretty uncomfortable under my ear muffs. The real problems though started with the the auto-pause functions. Most headphones like this use some sort of capacitive system for determining if one or both of the pieces are actually in an ear to determine if they should be playing music and most of them will automatically pause playback if you take one of them out of your ear to do something like have a conversation with someone. When it works it can be incredibly useful, but in practice the Buds Z suffer from either an overzealous algorithm or maybe I just have the wrong ears. Either way, there were times that playback would pause until I took them out, at which point they decided that air was more like my ear and resume playback. Then stop when I put them back in. You know, exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do. I played around with different tips and finally found a set that alleviated most of those cases, but not quite all of them.

Still, things had improved quite a bit which is when I finally figured out the even worse problem: some of those times I thought there had been a capacitance problem turned out to not be the case at all! Instead when randomly doing something on my phone it will just stop playing audio, but not stopping playback. For example: I’ll put in the earbuds then get out my phone and start a podcast. Maybe check some notifications or something while the podcast gets started up. Then I’ll hit the power button and put the phone in my pocket and get on with whatever. About a half second after I hit the power button the audio will stop for .5-2 seconds and then come back in. When you just miss commercials it isn’t so bad, but when you miss the punchline of a joke or the big reveal in a story it gets pretty annoying. It gets even more annoying when you then get out your phone, rewind 10 seconds to hear what you missed, then hit the power button and then miss a different part of the audio. Suffice it to say that these are probably the most frustrating headphones that I’ve ever used in my entire life. If the rest of their devices are as good as these, no one should ever give OnePlus any money for headphones ever again.

By summer of 2022 my original HeyDay pair was finally starting to get a frayed wire and I was more than sick of dealing with OnePlus’ stupidity so I decided to spend some real money and get a set of Sony’s WF-1000XM4 “true wireless” earbuds. Holy cow were these really nice. Stayed in my ears even while doing some pretty vigorous activity, were not perfect but wearable under ear muffs, had fairly easy to control active noise cancelling, great battery life, all with really good sound. Even better, unlike the OnePlus Buds Z, these would actually reliably automatically pause and resume playback and NEVER ONCE skipped the big reveal in a podcast! They were nearly perfect and I loved them dearly.

Well, I did for awhile. By this past winter the left earbud was clearly starting to have some battery issues. That wasn’t normally an issue since honestly I usually only wear the right piece, but the left side had gone from hours of use down to under an hour. I did a reset and it seemed to fix it, so I moved on. Then I noticed that the right piece was also starting to not last quite as long as well. Originally I could easily get 4 hours out of each of them but 9 months after purchase the left was back down under 40 minutes and the right was down under 1.5 hours. At first a reset and overnight charge would get things back to functional, but by the one year anniversary of the purchase the left piece doesn’t last more than 5 minutes and the right piece doesn’t last more then 30 minutes. Apparently I’m not the only one with this issue and so far trying to contact Sony has been the same as sending messages into a black hole.

That leaves me with three pairs of headphones:

  • The 7 year old HeyDay earbuds are just barely still functional with hours of battery life, but are starting to fray on both pairs and need to be replaced pretty badly. Good to wear in the winter but not good for warm weather since they fall out.
  • The OnePlus Buds Z still have amazing battery life and charging time, but I would not wish them on my worst enemy.
  • The incredibly expensive Sony WF-1000XM4 don’t stay charged long enough for me to update them to the latest firmware which is supposed to fix some of the battery issues and getting ahold of support might require me setting up camp on someone’s lawn.

So what is a person to do? Well, obviously continue to try and get a response from Sony given the money I spent on that set, but I think tomorrow I’m going to spend 20 USD on a pair of HeyDay True Wireless Earbuds at the local Target for the rest of the warm weather and probably get a third pair of those in ear workhorses for cold weather. Bonus: they both come in fun colors! If either of them are as good as the other HeyDay sets I’ve been using for years I’ll probably still be using all of them in 2030…