AirPods, Beats Powerbeats Pro and Bose SoundSport Free wireless earbuds take the headbang testMay 16, 2019
When you’re rocking out, the last thing you want to hear is “kerplunk.”
That would be the sound of your fancy new wireless earbuds flying out of your ears and into a puddle, train tracks or the loo. Apple’s AirPods, those white sticks dangling down people’s lobes, jump-started a big trend in headphones with separate buds that connect wirelessly to each other and to your phone. They’re liberating us from tangles and mismatched plugs. But after you cut the cord, what’s keeping your headphones on your head?
I think we need a new way to judge this new kind of earbuds. Or maybe it’s a very old-school way: headbanging.
I gathered three totally wireless earbuds with very different designs for staying on ears — AirPods 2, the new Beats Powerbeats Pro and the Bose SoundSport Free. Then I sought help reviewing the wobble factor from someone very accomplished at headbanging: Sammy Hagar.
If anyone can shake loose a pair of wireless buds, it’s the former Van Halen singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, whose album “Space Between” debuted last week. “I am notorious — the little stick-them-in things don’t work for me unless they have rubber on them and they can really grip,” Hagar said. “I have large ears on the outside but small inlets.”
Sure, sound quality, price and call quality matter for headphones, too. But not if the darn things won’t stay in your ears as you bounce through life.
Our results surprised me, and offer an important lesson: Human ears are as unique as our feet. The outer parts of the ear vary in size by up to a third of an inch. Sometimes the left and right ears don’t even match. Women’s ears tend to be a little smaller, so Sammy’s wife Kari Hagar, who is even better at headbanging, kindly joined our test, too.
“Designing something that is one-size-fits-all is analogous to making a pair of shoes that fit everyone,” says Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor of Otolaryngology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. One technique that might help earbuds better stay put — going deeper into the ear canal — would require custom fits. Other than that, it’s all about adding stabilization from other parts of the ear.
“The ear canal is a unfriendly place for any kind of electronic device,” says Robert W. Sweetow, a Professor Emeritus of Otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. It’s a “rain forest” in there, he told me, at 98.6 degrees and filled with varying amounts of hair and wax. Sweating can cause plastic devices that normally grab on to the skin to slip right out. The older we get, the more rigid ear cartilage becomes, too.
All of this is why it’s good we now have lots of choices beyond the one-size-fits-most…