A Tale of Three Earphones from Three American Retailers

By Patrick Avenell

When travelling, sometimes you pay three times for one simple mistake. My mistake was forgetting to pack my $12 Sony earphones that are surprisingly satisfactory, so when I found myself in San Diego with only a pair of cumbersome noise cancelling headphones, I headed out to storeland to buy a new set for Stateside music pleasure.

Because I needed a US SIM card in order to stay connected without incurring roaming charges, my first option was at a T-Mobile retail store. T-Mobile is a bit like Optus in that it is a mature telco provider with a sizable market share and a retail presence next store or across the road from every AT&T store (think Telstra).

Like the Aussie telcos, T-Mobile sells self-branded hardware and accessories manufactured by OEM partners in China. The salesman at this store, a man so impossibly friendly he made local telco sales staff seem like zombies from The Walking Dead, talked me into buying a pair of these headphones.

His pitch was simple: “They started at $25, then they were $10 and now they are $7”. He said their only defect was that they were purple. The right earbud on this set broke within seconds of me playing Until The End Of The World by U2 on my iPhone 4S.

The next day I decided to be a bit more professional in my electronics shopping, so I went to the Sam Goody store at the local Westfield (yes, the main shopping mall in San Diego’s CBD is a Westfield). Sam Goody is like JB Hi-Fi but with even less attention paid the appearance of the store and overheads cut to the absolute bare minimum.

The salesman that served me retained the insouciance of a JB employee, though he did surprise me when he carelessly said he once dated a very famous Australian musician.

The only earphone option available at this outlet, which is closing down to make way for an urban park, was the in-ear canal style that is so popular right now. Having made the decision to purchase a name-brand after my disastrous T-Mobile experience, I went with a blue pair of Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds that were marked at $40 but were 40 per cent off due to the inverted Big Yellow Taxi scenario affecting the store.

Earphones that lodge within the ear canal without support from the upper ledge of one’s earlobe are an eternal mystery to me. That anyone gets them to stay in their ears is a modern miracle as these Smokin’ Buds would become dislodged and fall out of my ears 2-3 times per song.

I can assure you there is nothing more irritating than having to continually push earphones back into your aural canals every minute while walking in 40° Celsius heat from the San Diego Westfield to the San Diego Zoo. Eventually I just gave up.

Day Three finally bought relief, though there was a hefty amount of contrition and shame involved. Having spent an entire career mocking, criticising or ignoring Apple, I decided to give in and simply purchase a replacement pair of Apple earphones — the ones I know are mass produced in Shenzhen factories and trashed relentlessly by audiophiles. Strangely, there is no Apple Retail Store servicing the San Diego CBD (Sydney has two on the same street), so it was at a premium reseller that I parted with US $30 for the new EarPods.

The young man that took this cash was your quintessential Californian fanboy — it was like he had stepped straight out of Samsung ad mocking himself to be in that store, complete with white t-shirt, Levi jeans and hipster glasses. He was incredibly friendly though he was totally wrong about what Apple would announce at its iPad Mini event (he predicted the Mini would be available in a range of colourful colours).

Although the EarPods can’t hit the max volumes that my $12 Sony pair cranks out, it is reassuring to have the full in-line iPhones controls back at my fingertips and the bizarre new shape of these earphones is only slightly uncomfortable. After three purchases and $59 I was just happy to finally own a pair of low-end earphones that could survive an entire U2 song without becoming dislodged.

The writer of this article travelled through San Diego 14-19 October 2012.

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