I finally caved and bought myself a pair of magic earplugs.

I murder earbuds. I spent the years 1999-2016 inclusive destroying pair after pair of earbuds by getting the cord wrapped around something, or the bud caught under a heavy thing in the bottom of my bag, and yanking. I'm moderately fussy about earbuds in the same way I'm moderately fussy about shampoo -- which is to say, not very, but I do need something at least one step above cheap. My very favorite ones were Sony MDR-E9s, which were $10 a pair for a good ten years, and were absolutely everywhere until Sony broke my heart by discontinuing them. I ruined about a pair a month, on average. RIP, all my pretty blue earbuds.

I graduated to Bluetooth earbuds when I got tired of knocking headphones off my noggin when practicing with my hoops. I tried braiding the wires (and at one point the actual Sansa Clip MP3 player) into my hair, but there's no way to do that and also keep the pads on or the earbuds in while I'm moving. You have no idea how much time you spend untangling yourself from your goddamn headphone cords until you don't have to do it anymore. Not having a tether always running from my head to my bag got me down from $10 a month to $35-40 once or twice a year, which was nice. They survive me long enough for the battery or USB port to flake out, which as cheap as I am, is about six months.

Generally I got the ones with a wire linking the two buds. Acesori is nice for the (very low) price, as is Phaizer. (The magnetic backs are a nice touch -- they're meant to stick to each other when you wear them around your neck, but the buds are light enough that they'll also stick to, like, the fridge, or the side of my clothing rack, even with the USB charge cable hanging off of them.) I wanted the magical musical earplugs, but when I started looking around for them, AirPods were $160 when you tried to buy them without an iPhone attached. That's about $120 more than any sane person ought to be paying for a set of tiny speakers, no matter how snazzy they are. No. Just, no.

I finally drove another set of Phaizers into the ground, so I went looking around on Amazon, and lo and behold, true wireless earbuds are down in the $35-40 range now. I have trouble convincing myself to spend money on just about anything, but I really do use these things every single day, and I go mad without a music player, so I gritted my teeth and clicked the order button.

My main thought is, "I'm gonna lose these damn things someday."

MicroSD cards have already gotten down to the point where you could accidentally insufflate the equivalent of the Library of Congress, and I have several times had to play hot-and-cold with my earbuds to find where I put the fucking phone down. ("My podcast is still running, it has to be in the house somewhere.") Now I have little plastic things smaller than my thumb joint that are streaming music into my ears from my tablet, that is... somewhere on the bed? And running Google Play Music, so it's actually spooling data from servers in, I have no idea, California? Iowa? The Marianas Trench? Who knows. It just finished playing something Samira Saïd recorded in Arabic like twenty years ago.

I'm training myself to put them back into the case every single time I take them out of my ears. I've made it like three days and I still know where both of them are. So far, so good.

I bought these, if anyone cares. I have no idea why they all insist they are for iPhone/Samsung; Bluetooth is Bluetooth, and they play fine with a really rather nice Lenovo IdeaPad Touch, a perfectly acceptable Kindle Fire 7, and an Alcatel OneTouch "smartphone" that rides the short bus to phone school. The case is also the charger; each bud is supposed to get 3-4 hours of play on a 45 mAh battery, with an additional 650 mAh reservoir in the case, which should be enough to cope even with me.

They're about 98% as awesome as I thought they would be.

The sound quality is solidly "$35 earbuds". They're not hyperintelligent Bose noise-canceling studio headphones. You are not going to master an album on these. On the other hand, they're pretty good earplugs -- that's how they stay in place. Any drivers with halfway decent bass response are going to sound pretty good when you jam them directly into your ear canals. The tannoy on the T sounds like the grown-ups in the Charlie Brown cartoons when I have them in, but the tannoy on the T sounds mostly like that when I have them out, too. The important part is that I can hear my music, and I cannot hear the conversation you're having on your speakerphone in the middle of the train car about that embarrassing medical condition, and that's all I care about.

The downside is that they are not especially robust, and they're too small to have any controls on the earbud itself. The ones with the linking wire have the charge port/battery/buttons on one bud and I'm pretty sure the Bluetooth module is in the other; these have to have a Bluetooth chip and battery in each earplug, which doesn't leave a lot of room for anything else, so the only control on the earbuds themselves is a single click button. One click on either bud for play/pause, and press-hold to turn them on or off individually. You have to do everything else on the actual widget that is streaming the audio. I know most people are already staring at their phones all the time, but mine doth not internet, so it's usually in my bag, and I have to dig it out to skip a song.

The earbuds have a very anxious-preoccupied attachment style with respect to the phone, and hate intervening walls, but I suspect I probably could have solved that issue by spending another $10 on them. In theory, they're Class III devices, which should have a range of about 10 meters, but in practice they're twitchy and have no real shielding, so if there's anything weird like power lines or catenary wires around, they get more like 5-10 feet. I shouldn't ever be farther from my bag than that, but still.

The most interesting glitch is one I didn't expect. Instead of both pairing with the device, one bud pairs with the device, then the second bud pairs with the first. If there's any lag at all -- because, I don't know, the impedance of my head has suddenly changed? -- the audio gets ever so slightly out of sync. Like, milliseconds. It's not noticeable at all with music, where the stereo field tends to be wide and the background very busy, but it makes audiobooks or podcasts sound odd.

If it's not specifically done as a radio drama, voice-only things tend to be recorded as if they're mono, from a single mic with no spatial orientation, but mixed down as two identical stereo channels, because everything expects stereo nowadays and it's easier than trying to dig through the menus for that one weird setting. The result is a voice track that seems to originate from a source that's "nowhere"/somewhere the middle of your head. When the buds slip out of sync, the slight temporal shift effectively becomes a slight shift in stereo phase, which suddenly either makes the voice seem to have a physical location, or be coming simultaneously from a source on either side, depending on how long the delay is.

It's interesting on a technical level, but mildly annoying, so I've taken to just sticking one of the buds back into its case if I want to listen to podcasts. Which is what I do most of the time with the ones that hang around my neck anyway, so I can hear the stop announcements on the bus. Ain't technology grand?


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