Apple’s “Courage” actually means “Safe and Boring,” audio-wise

I went into Apple’s big iPhone 7 event last week really wanting to get excited about buying new headphones. I knew the phone would be more powerful. I knew the old headphone jack would probably be gone. I just wanted some cool new headphones. I didn’t get them. I got the same old headphones with fake new things strapped to them.

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I promise this is actually the new headphone and not the old one.

This is a picture of the “New” Beats Solo 3 Wireless. Can you tell that they’re new? Are you perhaps thinking they look EXACTLY like the Solo 2 Wireless?

That’s because they do. What the hell, Apple?

The design, the port locations, the pads, the buttons…it’s all 100 percent identical. Judging from Apple’s ad copy, the sound is the same too. You’d think that with other recent “innovations,” they would have at least removed the 3.5mm headphone jack, but it’s still there too.

I guess Apple was too scared to mess with a market winner. But putting a “3” on this is just lying to people to get them excited.

So what’s different? It has a new Bluetooth chip, and potentially longer battery life.

Apple made a bafflingly big deal out of their new Bluetooth chip, the W1. They went out of their way to not explicitly mention that it’s just a Bluetooth chip, but it’s totally just a Bluetooth chip. It offers easier pairing with certain Apple devices, and it’s power efficient. Oh goody. Are you excited yet? I’m not.

The Solo 2 Wireless had a marketed battery life of 12 hours, and that’s a conservative estimate in my own experience with the headphones. The Solo 3 Wireless promises “up to 40 hours” thanks to the new W1 chip. At first I thought this must also mean that it had a new, bigger battery…but now I’m not so sure.

For one, the Solo 3 Wireless has the same mass as the Solo 2 Wireless, at 215g. So the battery can’t be physically bigger unless they cut some other materials out of the innards. The battery might be better built…but let’s take another look at that claim. “Up to 40 hours.” Is that due to efficiency improvements in the W1? Perhaps. Will those improvements work with all Bluetooth audio sources? Who knows! We won’t have these specifics until the headphone is out there and people have spent a bunch of time with it, hopefully in the coming weeks.

But none of this is exciting enough to warrant a 3.

Puzzlingly, the Solo 3 Wireless was but one product in a raft of new audio announcements, rather than the main focus. All of these announcements were boring and lame. Apple “courageously” took out the iPhone’s headphone jack…and then decided to include one in the box anyway for free. They included new lightning EarPods with the phone…which offer no new sound quality benefits. But hey, they’re free, so that’s nice I guess!

Apple also announced the AirPods, which are exactly like the EarPods…but without a cable. And they cost $159 dollars standalone instead of the $29 the new lightning EarPods cost. And millions of people online have already said they look super easy to lose. Oh, and they sound more or less the same as the regular EarPods. Great? No wait that’s stupid.

To cap it all off, the Beats lineup is now very convoluted thanks to the addition of several new products. It was pretty basic before: Studio, Solo 2, and Powerbeats in-ear were the three main models, and they all had wired and wireless versions. Now, the Solo 3 Wireless replaces the Solo 2 wireless…but the Solo 2 wired still exists. The new Beats EP is a lower-end wired headphone that’s a little cheaper than the Solo 2, and I don’t really know why it exists. The price savings compared to the Solo 2 isn’t quite enough, and the cable doesn’t detach. A new pair of in-ears was also introduced… and the Studio didn’t get any updates at all. Maybe it’s going away?

The Solo 3 Wireless is the safest possible audio product Apple could launch, and for a company known for innovation, it’s weird. On a business level, I get it, the Solo 2 is great and sells like crazy, so why mess with beloved perfection? But maybe, just maybe, they could have included something more exciting than better battery life to go along with the new model number? And no, new colors don’t count as exciting.

Removing the headphone jack from the iPhone might have been courageous…if they didn’t then go ahead and include one in the box. The AirPods might be cool…if they were a new design, and not the same old EarPods. Or if they sounded better. The same decent sound and design do not command a $130 dollar premium just because the wire is gone. Heck, that’s $30 higher than the typical price difference between the wired and wireless models of Beats headphones.

Declaring courage over and over again is the worst cover I can think of for being hyper-conservative. I went into last week ready to give Apple some more money for cool audio products, and came out of it bored and frustrated. Nothing they announced was completely new. At least Apple isn’t making phone-buyers pay extra for lightning EarPods or the headphone dongle, but nothing they announced last week deserves the rampant fervor that will lead millions to buy all this new stuff anyway.

Footnote: My Solo 2 Wireless headphones finally loosened up to the point where they’re comfy for longer stretches. This is not really related to anything. I just wanted to post it somewhere, so here it is. If you want to buy Solo 2 Wireless headphones, get them RIGHT NOW for cheap before they’re gone forever. I’ve been saying for two years that I think the Solo 2 is a surprisingly great headphone in spite of its clamping force, and that I couldn’t wait to see what the Solo 3 brought to the table.

Looks like that hope now rests with the Solo 4. Or maybe Apple’s plan is to just never design anything new ever again. The MacBook and the new iPhone camera just took too much out of them.

I kid because I love.

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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