Bluetooth blues

Let me start out by saying a couple of things. First, I really like my Apple Watch. I use it all the time. I’d say I’m almost 97 percent pleased with it (I think that’s what those results mean), although it took me a while to get satisfaction with one particular Watch use case.

I’ll start by noting that I am not what you’d call an audiophile. Oh, I had a turntable with a bitchin’ Technics receiver and some sweet floor speakers back in the day before “back in the day” was even a thing people said. But I’m not “one of those people”. You know who I’m talking about. I thought the original iPhone earbuds were fine. Not great, but fine. When I heard the new Apple earbuds I did realize the original ones were crap. But I think the new ones are pretty good and I’m sure an audiophile can explain to me at length how wrong I am. Ultimately, I believe the best headphones are really the ones you have with you. As long as they work.

So, I got an Apple Watch and guess what? I looked all over this thing and there’s no headphone jack. Yeah, they forgot to put a headphone jack on it. What the hell?

Anyway, my Watch headphone need stems from the fact that I run now. Not far or fast, but I run. What am I running from? Same thing everyone who runs is running from: Death. Seems pretty obvious. Not sure why people keep asking me that. So I want to run with just the Watch and be able to listen to music. Because I’m pretty sure having an iPhone strapped to my arm is creating tremendous air resistance. Pretty sure. To that end I dipped my toe into the sad little world of inexpensive Bluetooth headphones.

When I did, I had only a few criteria. I wanted them to be cheap and I wanted them to have some means of staying in place while running. Outlandish colors were not a complete deal breaker but I preferred black. Did I mention they needed to be cheap? Because they did. I just splurged on an Apple Watch, I didn’t need $100+ headphones for an activity I’ll spend at most of couple of hours a week doing.

The big problem hit me early: I’ve never had success with the earplug variety of headphones and almost all Bluetooth headphones designed for exercise are of the earplug variety. No matter which of the three plug sizes I try, they never stay in and if they don’t stay in, you can’t hear worth a damn. Despite this, the first pair I ordered were an ear plug model because they wrap around the top of your ear and I had hopes that would keep my body from rejecting them like a tainted baboon heart.

MPOW Cheetahs

These were reasonably well-reviewed on Amazon and only $28. Alas, I had the same problem with these I’ve always had. The slightest movement and, doink, they come out of my ear canal. Also, I’ve found that exercising with earplug-type headphones presents another problem. When you get your heart and respiration rates up, you can hear that in your ear canal a lot more. THUMP-THUMP. THUMP-THUMP. It’s annoying. I really don’t understand how people wear these things. The audio quality on the MPOW Cheetahs is not bad when they fit (again, not an audiophile), at least if you’re listening to rock. I found them worse if you’re listening to something instrumental, however.

The biggest problem with the Cheetahs, though, was that the Watch seemed to treat their Bluetooth connection like my ear canal treated their buds. Periodically, usually when in motion, the connection would get dropped and the audio would cut out. It would pick up again almost immediately but that’s not something I can put up with if it happens frequently. I may not be an audiophile but I do know when the audio cuts out completely. That I can hear. Somehow the problem seems to be the combination of headphones and the Watch. I tried them connected to my iPhone and they seem to work fine. So, if you’re not getting them for the Watch and earplug type headphones work for you, these are a pretty good cheap option.

As was foretold in prophecy, the earplugs were not working for me, so I decided to try some over-the-ear types.

Soundbot SB220s

These suckers were even cheaper at just $14 and still reasonably well-reviewed on Amazon. Which is making me think that things being reasonably well-reviewed on Amazon doesn’t really mean much, at least at the price point I was shopping at. Which shouldn’t be that surprising.

When I first put them on, I thought I was going to like them a lot more than the Cheetahs. And, overall, I prefer the listening experience of the SoundBots. The sound isn’t amazing, but it’s much less fussy — it doesn’t require you to be constantly jamming them back into your ears. The deal breaker with these: The on/off button jiggles. It’s plastic, of course, and it rattles when I run. I could probably stick a piece of paper in it to make it stop but who am I, MacGuyver? The SoundBots do, at least, maintain a connection to the Watch but it wasn’t really an improvement. Also, while the on-ear style is initially better than the in-ear for me, the SoundBots hurt my ears after a while. They’re also significantly larger, giving the wearer an unfortunate Lobot look.

These might be OK if you’re sitting, but I found I couldn’t wear them for long. So if you’re sitting still and don’t want to wear them long and don’t mind looking like Lobot, maybe these are for you.

0 for 2 on cheap headphones, I realized I was probably going to have to step it up. The ear plug types were no good and I wasn’t crazy about on-ear ones either. There had to be a earbud style. There had to be a better way!

Fortunately, there was.

Plantronics Backbeat Fit

At $84, they were quite a bit more than the other two, but $14 spent on headphones you won’t use is $14 wasted. The Plantronics were still less than $100 which is a nice arbitrary limit I made up. A lot of supposedly good Bluetooth headphones sell for $150 and up so I figured less than $100 was a deal. They are blue and black instead of just plain black, but I’m OK with blue.

Ha! See, you thought the title was about Bluetooth problems! But it works on so many levels!

Well, two.

Similarly, the Plantronics succeed for me in two ways. First, the earbuds are wonderfully comfortable, stay in my ears just fine and provide good sound quality. Second, the connection when paired with the Watch is good. Note that I say “good” and not “flawless”. I have experienced a little skipping with the Plantronics when connected to the Watch, but to me it’s very periodic and tolerable unlike with the Cheetahs.

The Plantronics don’t have dedicated buttons for volume, instead it’s different kinds of taps on the play button for up and down. I don’t even know what they are because I prefer to set the volume from the Watch instead of figuring out some tappity jiggery that I probably can’t master any better than three clicks to back up on my Apple headphones. NO I DID NOT WANT TO PAUSE I WANTED TO BACK UP DAMMIT. I suppose the lack of dedicated volume buttons does serve to make them a bit sleeker. The rubbery feel of them is nice, they’re quite light and the voice that tells you if they’re connected or pairing or on or off is much less computery than the others. (Very important.)

All in all, I feel like I can recommend the Plantronics for use with the Apple Watch, particularly if you don’t like earplug-type headphones. If you think any temporary loss of sound is unacceptable, I suspect you’re out of luck because it seems like the problem is less the headphones and more the Watch.

Bluetooth is still a drag for audio. All of the headphones I tried seem to have at least some problems (and I’ve heard from people with even more expensive headphones that connection issues with the Watch are still a problem), but the Plantronics at least make for a pretty good experience with the Apple Watch. Good enough.

[UPDATED: An earlier version of this post speculated that Bluetooth problems are why Apple doesn’t make their own Bluetooth headphones but, of course, they do under the Beats brand. Thanks to Dennis Munsie for reminding me. I was thinking of a less pricey option for use specifically with the Watch, but I’ve removed the pipe dream.]