Wired headphones are becoming the mechanical watches of personal audioJuly 7, 2018
Film cameras. Vinyl records. Paper books. Mechanical watches. And now wired headphones.
There are some classes of personal technology that refuse to die, no matter how much more convenient, compatible, or simply cheaper their successors become. Wired headphones are under no immediate threat of extinction, but the future of personal audio will be defined and dominated by their wireless peers, that’s already clear. The question then arises, in my head at least, as to the role and prominence of wired cans in our ever more technological future, and the closest analog I can find is that of analog watches.
Back in the 1970s, the quartz revolution transformed the entire watch industry. Quartz clocks were vastly more accurate and mechanically resilient than even the most expensive and sophisticated of traditional watch movements, and they were cheaper and simpler to make. According to the Japan Clock & Watch Association, 1.42 billion of the 1.46 billion watches manufactured in 2015 were quartz, so there’s little dispute about the effect or scale of change that’s taken place in the four decades since Seiko’s first pioneering quartz watches. And yet, mechanical watches are still very much around, garnering the majority of horology enthusiasts’ passion and attention.
People, it turns out, just really like the skill and craftsmanship required to do mechanical engineering well.
The classic mechanical movement relies on the release of energy from a wound-up spring to swing a balance wheel in order to keep time, and there are a million little things that can undermine the precision of this process. A fully wound spring, for example, doesn’t release the same amount of force as an unwound one, so a watch has to regulate that somehow. The balance wheel can also be affected by the orientation and movement of the watch while you’re wearing it (or the side on which you rest it while not wearing it during the night). This fragility of the timekeeping process — which feels organic and natural in all the ways that an electronic clock is not — holds a certain romance for consumers. Like film and vinyl, it’s technically worse than the modern alternatives, and yet we find charm in those faults.
Headphones are currently in the midst of their quartz moment. The past couple of years have seen wireless headphones advance in leaps and bounds, both in technical terms and in consumer awareness. Models like Apple’s AirPods and Sony’s noise-canceling 1000X have raised the bar of expectations and lowered the tolerance for wired inconvenience. Smartphones have stopped catering to the previously ubiquitous need for a headphone jack, adding extra pressure for everyone and everything to go wireless.
There’s still a sound quality delta between wired and wireless headphones, but for the broad majority of the market, it’s now too small to matter. All the data shows that the biggest growth in headphone sales is driven by the addition of wireless and other “smart” technologies. In the same way that watches went from mechanical to quartz to the current smartwatch stage, so too will headphones go from wired to wireless to some variety of smartness with a digital assistant in tow. The default expectation for consumer headphones going forward will be that they’re wireless. Having a wire will be a thing that a manufacturer will have to justify.
Watchmakers figured out that the best, or perhaps only, way to sustain their mechanical watch business was to sell those wares as luxuries. Fancy leather straps and sapphire crystal domes, product placements in Bond movies and on Formula 1 cars, and a general “finer things in life” vibe have all been used to mask over the technical superiority of quartz. The same approach has already been deployed successfully by a few headphone companies, the ones daring to put $3,000 stickers on their best goods and finding a receptive, if limited, audience.
A final and important commonality between old school watches and headphones is that, in a certain sense, they’re immortal. You can leave your self-winding watch in its box for half a century, dust it off, give it a few shakes, and it starts ticking again like no time has passed. The same is true of wired headphones: all you need to make them sing is a headphone jack to plug them into. It’s the affinity we feel to that sort of timeless engineering — as contrasted against the battery-powered everything of modern life — that brings us back to technology whose era seems to have passed.
Over time, I expect the headphones market will figure out a happy middle ground, just as the watch industry has done. Wired headphones will be presented as exclusive, in part because their sales will naturally shrink, and luxurious, because to stand out they’ll need to have superior quality of materials and attention to detail. The one thing that won’t happen is a fate like that of feature phones, hard disk drives, and MiniDisc players: wired headphones won’t ever be consigned to the history books and extreme niches. What they do is too valuable, enjoyable, and technically charming for us to abandon them completely.