Here’s How Apple Can Take Its Iconic Headphones To The Next Level

Apple earpods
Apple’s current-generation EarPods Flickr / Faruk Ateş

Apple is one of the biggest headphones makers in the world thanks to those signature white earbuds that have shipped with every iPod, iPhone, and iPad since 2001 — and that was before the company bought Beats.

Apple said it’s sold north of 600 million earbuds in a 12-year span — that’s 1.2 billion tiny speakers — but despite a few design modifications made two years ago in the conversion of earbuds to EarPods, the design of Apple’s headphones has gone largely untouched.

That needs to change. Apple has been able to get away with some awkward design flaws until this point — after all, the headphones are only $US30 — but headphones are about to become extremely important as we begin to adopt other wearable technologies. Apple’s EarPods are unfortunately lacking in a few fundamental ways.

Perhaps it’s because Apple’s EarPods are often stuffed into pockets multiple times a day, but the headphones are highly vulnerable: The cords can be sensitive to movements, and the volume and play controls break often. And boy do those wires tangle easily. As a result of these issues, the average lifespan of Apple’s headphones can be rather short.

It’s possible Apple actually wants customers to purchase new EarPods every six months or so, but Apple is known for its design prowess, and the fragility of its headphones is perplexing. Apple ought to be able to produce earbuds that reach the same high industrial design standard as the rest of its products.

But while Apple is still working on that particular formula, others are beginning to crack the code.

Inspiration Elsewhere

Competitors are aware of Apple’s imperfect EarPods. Amazon recently unveiled a new pair of in-ear headphones set to ship with its newly-unveiled Fire phone, which are magnetic, tangle-free and $US5 cheaper than Apple’s $US30 headphones. Considering how Amazon’s solution looks like a black pair of EarPods, it seems like Bezos and his team are trying to send a message: “We can make headphones like yours, and we can make them better.”

Consumers are also voicing their desires for a better pair of casual headphones with their wallets. Recently, the Earin project on Kickstarter received an overwhelming response from users, raising more than $US1.13 million — nearly triple its original funding goal — with more than three weeks left to go in the campaign. Earin is hoping to produce the world’s smallest wireless headphones, which look like tiny bullet-shaped rechargeable earbuds.

OwnPhones can be made from a variety of materials, including gold, silver, and plastic, and be produced in a wide range of styles. OwnPhones

Smaller companies are starting to get creative with their audio products, too. One start-up company called OwnPhones is working on a pair of 3-D-printed wireless earbuds that can be personalised to your liking, as shown in the image above. By using an app that converts photos and videos to 3D models, OwnPhones customers will be able to create truly unique designs that also fit the unique shape of their ears. (To see some really interesting prototypes, check out CNET’s story on OwnPhones.)

There are plenty of quality solutions out there — not all of them as cheap as Apple’s — but EarPods have a lot of room to grow.

A Healthier Solution

In May, a rumour was posted to the anonymous app Secret that said “Apple’s new EarPods will have sensors in them, for heart rate and blood pressure.” While one man later took ownership for this post and claimed it to be erroneous, there’s no reason Apple couldn’t actually build a pair of EarPods with this capability. In fact, it would be a pretty darn good idea.

From an Apple patent filing, March 2007 USPTO

Consider this: One of Apple’s patent applications from March 2007 proposes a set of headphones with “one or more integrated physiological sensors” designed to help users keep track of their body stats. As you can see from this image filed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple’s body sensor could be clipped onto one’s earlobe and thus be able to transmit information about one’s pulse and oxygen levels.

Another patent application Apple filed in August 2008 described a similar system that could “be used to monitor user activity, such as during exercise or sporting activities. The positioning of the monitoring system can also facilitate sensing of other user characteristics (e.g., biometric data), such as temperature, perspiration and heart rate.”

The science is there: Physicians have attempted to build similar in-ear monitoring systems that can inform doctors about cardiovascular risk factors because researchers believe the ear is the “[ideal] location for an integrated wearable vital signs monitor… for both physiological and mechanical reasons.” But a health-oriented pair of earphones has never been made available at a mass scale for one big reason: Fitness devices need to be sexy, and these medical device manufacturers were not necessarily known for their fashion sense.

A pair of health-oriented “smart” EarPods would make sense for Apple, considering the company is said to be making a push into health with the release of iOS 8 and its fitness-oriented smartwatch, both set to arrive this fall. Apple’s new headphones could help supplement any data the smartwatch could gather from your body, but it could also be a standalone alternative for customers that want to get in on the health action but don’t want to throw down serious cash for a presumably expensive first-generation smartwatch.

Think about it: What better way to popularise “getting healthy” than to offer stylish and comfortable products that encourage healthy behaviours? People wear fitness bands like the Fit Bit and Nike+ FuelBand when they work out, but they also wear headphones during those times, too. And if Apple’s headphones can play music, carry phone calls and also capture data from our bodies, the next EarPods could make for some very happy customers.