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Tech by VICE

This Is Probably Why Your AirPods Keep Losing Connection

Sometimes older, dumber technology is the smarter option.

by Karl Bode
31 July 2019, 12:52pm

Image: Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Modern technology sometimes sucks. From “smart” TVs that hoover up your living room conversations to hackable Teddy bears with flimsy firewalls, there’s a universe of new, smart technology that’s often worse than the dumber tech it promises to supplant.

One notable case in point: wireless headphones. To improve design and streamline costs, numerous smartphone vendors have been eliminating the headphone jack, forcing millions of users to replace perfectly fine corded headphones, with Bluetooth-linked wireless headphones that sometimes aren’t up to snuff.

Not only are such products (and their short-lived rechargeable batteries) notoriously bad for the planet, many popular wireless headphone brands suffer from static or cutting out at annoying intervals, making them frustrating to use.

There’s a universe of Reddit threads by AirPod users noting how the problem is particularly bad in bigger cities, and most notable at busy intersections. While sometimes these issues (which aren’t exclusive to Apple) are simply the result of shoddy product and iffy chipsets, the biggest culprit is usually interference.

The Bluetooth radio frequency (RF) transceiver embedded in many devices operates in the unlicensed band at 2.4 gigahertz. It’s the same range of frequencies used by everything from your microwave oven and baby monitor to many older Wi-Fi routers. As a result, in some crowded areas your headphones may struggle to compete with these devices.

Such interference is far more common among Wi-Fi routers, especially if they’re using the same channel. But the Bluetooth transceiver in your cell phone employs a frequency-hopping technology that’s supposed to help combat interference and fading, minimizing these annoying issues.

“Bluetooth was designed from the beginning to be very resilient to spectrum congestion,” says Jim Katsandres, a representative of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the organisation that oversees the development of Bluetooth standards.

“For example, its use of multiple channels as well as the adaptive frequency hopping capability of Bluetooth that allows devices to avoid using the areas of unlicensed spectrum that may be congested at any given moment from other technologies like Wi-Fi,” he told Motherboard.

“Among wireless technologies using this spectrum band, Bluetooth is well recognized as the most robust,” he added.

Still, it only takes a few minutes on Reddit to find an ocean of users who say the technology isn’t quite robust enough to handle the simple act of walking around a crowded city.

“It’s like a street,” Jan Rabaey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California Berkeley recently told CNBC. “If you have a fixed street and you put more and more traffic on it, you’re going to get traffic jams.”

That said, Katsandres insisted that most companies claim it’s not a widespread issue.

“Our member companies are not currently reporting any concerns to the SIG regarding increased interference at intersections,” he said. “And it would be difficult to determine if an intersection has the potential to cause interference without testing in that specific environment.”

There’s some light on the horizon for users frustrated by wireless headphone interference.

The FCC is working to open up some additional frequencies to public use, which could help alleviate crowding on lower bands. Hardware vendors can also issue firmware updates to improve interference avoidance. For example, some Apple users claim the recent 6.3.2. AirPod firmware update improved things, though not everybody seems to agree.

Frustrated users who experience interference at home may be well served by buying a new wireless router that operates at higher frequencies. USB-C and Lightning to 3.5 mm headphone jack adapters are also inexpensive fixes letting you use older wired headsets on more modern phones and tablets, though may come with their own quality headaches.

Your other option is to simply embrace the past and avoid buying products without a traditional headphone jack, secure in the knowledge that sometimes dumber, older technology may be the smarter option.