Stop trying to put touch controls on headphones

Beoplay H8

Touchscreens have taken over our world to the point where it’s probably harder for companies to procure physical buttons than it is to slap a touch panel on a new product. That’s the only rational explanation I can think of for the awful trend of putting touch controls on headphones. It’s a bad idea that works badly, and it should cease immediately.

Two companies have earned my displeasure recently by spoiling what are otherwise very good headphones with barbarically awkward touch controls. One is B&O Play, the maker of the glorious (and gloriously uncomplicated) Beoplay H6 wired headphones. Its Beoplay H7, H8, and H9 wireless models all use a touch-activated control scheme that requires you to do finger gestures on the right ear cup. Do a forward swirl on the cup to raise the volume, or a counterclockwise swirl to turn it down. Tap once to toggle playback, swipe up to turn on noise canceling or swipe down to turn it off. The only reason I know all this is because I read the manual.

Call me a caveman Luddite, but if I have to read the manual to understand how to operate a pair of headphones, I’m going to describe that as a suboptimal user experience. Sony, too, has an entire video dedicated to explaining its double-tapping and swiping gestures:

Learning all this interaction theory would be sort of okay if the practice of using the headphones was as a result smoother and easier, but that’s not the case at all. The Beoplay headphones have an annoying lag, stretching to almost two seconds, that means I never know if my pausing tap has been registered (so I tap again, then the music stops and restarts because I tapped twice, and so I have to tap a third time).

With Sony, a sloppy tap or imperfect swipe can result in changing tracks unintentionally. It’s also easy to forget that you need a double tap to play or pause, and then you end up spending 10 seconds single-tapping the side of your headphones expecting something to happen, and drawing bemused looks from passers-by.

Touch on headphones is a fundamentally broken concept. We replaced physical keys on smartphones not because a glossy glass surface is more tactile and pleasant, but because a touchscreen can present an endless variety of controls under our fingers. On headphones, the touch areas and gestures never change. They’re also typically not in front of our eyes, so sensing things by touch becomes even more important and useful. Ironically, when something becomes controllable by touch, it’s flattened out so it gives no information through touch. If you only need to control four or five things, why not use physical keys? Headphone makers manage to do that just fine with most in-line remote controls.

The alternative I’m proposing is to simply use hard, tactile buttons that a reasonable person can recognize and activate easily. You know, like we’ve been doing with TV remote controls, and old-school feature phones, and microwave ovens, and everything else that has an electronic pulse since forever. Touch lets you make sleeker headphones, but aesthetics shouldn’t cost us ease of use.

I feel a little bad for calling out B&O Play and Sony, because theirs are probably the nicest headphones to pursue a touch control scheme. But it’s because the H9s and 1000Xs are so good that I want to see them improve. Stuff like those headphones with an actual touchscreen and Android built into them? That doesn’t even merit me complaining about it.

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