• Tech

Cutting the Cord

4 minute read

I like to think of myself as an uncommonly lazy person. I’ve purchased electric toothbrushes, universal remotes and voice-recognition software in pursuit of a more slothful life. But even I have yet to feel burdened by the wire that connects my headphones to my iPod. I’m not boasting, merely wondering if there will ever be a wireless headphone revolution. If they can’t sell me on the benefits of eradicating a gossamer of wire, what chance do they stand with people who brush their own teeth?

And to date, the products have been less than inspiring. Most wireless headphones currently on the market use Bluetooth to create a hands-free connection to a cell phone, computer or MP3 player. They’re wireless, but only while the transmitting device is in your immediate vicinity — an almost-imperceptible improvement. What’s worse, the Bluetooth connection is subject to interference from cordless phones and microwave ovens — who wants their Cream interrupted by nuking a slice of pie?

But the technology is picking up, and some of it is so new it doesn’t yet have a price. Creative Labs, maker of the Zen Micro system MP3 player, says its wireless headphone system (due this spring) will be powered by magnetic induction, which reduces interference and improves sound quality. Still, if you walk away, you lose the music.

To see if wirelessness could do more, I presented myself to the manager of a high-end London stereo store who eagerly showed me the Hearo 999 Audiosphere II, a $1,330 top-of-the-line model that works with every conceivable electronic device, comes with a battery that lasts five hours (and recharges in two) and has Dolby Surround Pro-Logic and a Dolby Digital decoder. Before I could ask what those last two things are, I was ushered outside to test the Audiosphere’s claim that it transmits cleanly through walls and ceilings. The manager disappeared to put on some music and moments later — Hello, Gitmo! — Metallica’s Master of Puppets was piercing my brain through the leather earpads.

The choice of speed metal brought on a revelation. Perhaps all I should ask of a wireless headphone is mobile, stereo-quality sound that spares others from my excesses. I asked my wife how much she would fork over never to have to listen to the rapping belches of Biz Markie. Word to the Hearo people: she did not answer $1,330. Luckily there’s no shortage of new models available at various prices, from the $470 Philips SBC-HD1500 Dolby wireless headphone system to the surprisingly good Sennheiser RS 110 (around $75). Sound and comfort vary, but each headset allows you to wander between 50 m and 100 m from your TV, dvd player or stereo.

I was beginning to see how wireless might my make life easier, but only if I squinted. Then I heard about three products that make genuinely innovative leaps in torpor. Headtrip, from Think Computer Products, incorporates an MP3 player, a rechargeable battery and flash memory storage into a single cordless headset (prices start at $80 for a 128-MB player). This comes closer to implanting a stereo and mini-record collection in my subconscious, which would prevent those exhausting consultations of a digital display — though you’ll have to go online to get one, as it’s only in stores in the U.S. Motorola takes things a step further with their forthcoming HT820, due out in the first half of 2005, which promises simultaneous wireless access to a phone and a music source. Songs pause automatically when a call comes in, and resume when the call finishes. This alleviates the need ever to function in a reality not my own. (While not technically a headphone, Belkin’s TuneStage for late-model iPods, featured at CeBIT and out this spring, is another wireless wonder that streams audio to a stereo while running off the iPod’s own battery supply.)But Unwired Technology’s PilotOverride system — due in the first half of the year, priced around $230 — is the most intriguing advance. Parents put wireless headphones on their kids during a long car ride — sparing the adults the Harry Potter audiobooks for the gazillionth time — and use the Pilot Override (a microphone, basically) to speak directly into the little monsters’ ears. The manufacturers claim this will allow parents to say vaguely educational things like “There’s the Eiffel Tower!” I don’t have kids, but I see it more as a potential delivery system for subliminal messages like “Silence is lovely,” or “Do Daddy’s taxes.” I plan on being a very lazy parent.

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