When you're rocking out, the last thing you want to hear is "kerplunk."
That would be the sound of your fancy new wireless earbuds flying out of your ears and into a puddle, train tracks or the loo. Apple's AirPods, those white sticks dangling down people's lobes, jump-started a big trend in headphones with separate buds that connect wirelessly to each other and to your phone. They're liberating us from tangles and mismatched plugs. But after you cut the cord, what's keeping your headphones on your head?
I think we need a new way to judge this new kind of earbuds. Or maybe it's a very old-school way: headbanging.
I gathered three totally wireless earbuds with very different designs for staying on ears -- AirPods 2, the new Beats Powerbeats Pro and the Bose SoundSport Free. Then I sought help reviewing the wobble factor from someone very accomplished at headbanging: Sammy Hagar.
If anyone can shake loose a pair of wireless buds, it's the former Van Halen singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, whose album "Space Between" debuted last week. "I am notorious -- the little stick-them-in things don't work for me unless they have rubber on them and they can really grip," Hagar said. "I have large ears on the outside but small inlets."
Sure, sound quality, price and call quality matter for headphones, too. But not if the darn things won't stay in your ears as you bounce through life.
Our results surprised me, and offer an important lesson: Human ears are as unique as our feet. The outer parts of the ear vary in size by up to a third of an inch. Sometimes the left and right ears don't even match. Women's ears tend to be a little smaller, so Sammy's wife, Kari Hagar, who is even better at headbanging, kindly joined our test, too.
"Designing something that is one-size-fits-all is analogous to making a pair of shoes that fit everyone," says Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor of Otolaryngology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. One technique that might help earbuds better stay put -- going deeper into the ear canal -- would require custom fits. Other than that, it's all about adding stabilization from other parts of the ear.
"The ear canal is an unfriendly place for any kind of electronic device," says Robert Sweetow, a Professor Emeritus of Otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. It's a "rainforest" in there, he told me, at 98.6 degrees and filled with varying amounts of hair and wax. Sweating can cause plastic devices that normally grab on to the skin to slip right out. The older we get, the more rigid ear cartilage becomes, too.
All of this is why it's good we now have lots of choices beyond the one-size-fits-most AirPods. I included three of the most well-known brands in this rundown, but there are now dozens of models, ranging with prices starting as low as $60.
To pick the wireless earbuds that are right for you, approach them like shoes. Don't be afraid to ask to try some on -- just clean them with a wet wipe first -- or buy a bunch and return the ones that don't survive your own headbang test. Then also consider how you'll carry and charge them: these things all have to go somewhere else when they're not on your head.
Apple AirPods 2, $159 and up
What they look like: AirPods look like Q-Tips dangling out your ears, but they've also become a status symbol. In many offices, they're how you communicate: "I'm busy and would rather not speak with you right now."
How they stay in: If AirPods were shoes, they'd be flip-flops. AirPods break all the design rules: They come in just one size, and don't have adjustable tips that make a seal with the ear canal. To develop their shape, Apple 3D-scanned hundreds of ears to find an oval form that it thinks fits many. (They don't define many.) AirPods rest in between parts of the ear that stick out around the canal, and hold on through friction between the plastic and your skin. You do have to get the left and right side correct to use them -- and the labels could be clearer.
How they headbanged: The AirPods stayed put for all three of us during our most vigorous rocking, and were my panel's overall favorite. That's not what I expected, given how insecure they feel in my ears when I'm just walking around. But the AirPods prove earbuds don't necessarily have to make a seal on the ear to stay put. In terms of sound, AirPods don't block surrounding sound, but still manage to pump good-enough sound for pop music right into the ear canal.
Sammy says: "They felt like nothing in my ear -- they disappeared real fast." Adds Kari: "They were just easy to pop in."
How you carry them: The small charging case is perhaps the best thing about the AirPods. They slip easily into jeans. And the lid makes a satisfactory flick, like fiddling with a lighter.
How long they last: AirPods promise 5 hours of music, which increases to 24 hours with the charging case. Apple won't say how many months of use or charge cycles AirPod batteries can withstand, but some owners have reported they conk out as soon as 18 months. (Mine have lasted 29 months.) When the batteries do die, Apple will replace them for $49.
Beats Powerbeats Pro, $250
What they look like: Less silly than AirPods, the behind-the-ear hooks of the Powerbeats Pro say, "I'm busy running a marathon."
How they stay in: If the Powerbeats Pro were shoes, they'd be Tevas. A large loop tucks behind the ear and reaches toward the ear canal, where an acoustic nozzle pokes in with silicon tips (included in four sizes). Beats' focus is clearly athletes who want headphones that feel locked in. One advantage to the loop design is that the back of the ear can take more pressure than sensitive front parts (such as the bit right above the ear canal). I didn't have problems wearing them with glasses, but the hooks do have to share the same ear real estate.
How they headbanged: All three of us could have rocked all night long. The Powerbeats Pro felt by far the most secure in our ears, without feeling heavy. They're also the best choice for intense sweaters. They block more ambient noise than the AirPods thanks to their acoustic seal, but the bass isn't as deep as other Beats I've tried. One downside: They're a little bit of a hassle to get in and out of your ears, at least at first.
Sammy says: "Wouldn't come out even if you got hit by a truck!"
How you carry them: Not easily. The charging case is about the size of a scone and won't slide easily into jeans. You could go sans-case, but they started playing in my pocket when I did that. It's fine if you're just taking them out for runs, but less convenient for everyday. (Beats are owned by Apple, and the Bluetooth connection on these headphones work as seamlessly with iPhones as the AirPods.)
How long they last: Each earbud promises up to 9 hours of listening, and there's up to 24 hours if you include the case. Beats won't say how many months or charge cycles the batteries can withstand, and a battery replacement will cost you $79 plus $7 shipping from Apple.
Bose SoundSport Free, $200 and up
What they look like: If the SoundSport Free were shoes, they might be downhill ski boots. And they protrude from the ears, making you look a little like Frankenstein's monster.
How they stay in: Silicon tips (included in three different sizes) seal around the ear canal, and connected "wings" push up against an edge in the area just outside the ear canal. You twist them slightly to "lock" the buds in. The material is soft and pliable, but it definitely feels like you've got something in your ear.
How they headbanged: One bud went flying out of Sammy's right ear, while they stayed put for both me and Kari. Sammy's problem might have been one ear is too shallow for the wings to securely grip on to. (Bose says the smaller tips it includes in the box are the most appropriate for such people.) The design was divisive, but these headphones but also sounded the best -- when they stayed in.
Sammy says: "They're just too clumsy sticking out there like that."
How you carry them: The charging case is larger than it ought to be, but narrow enough you could stick in a deep pocket. The earbuds shut off when they're placed in the case, but unfortunately the music doesn't stop automatically just by removing one from your ear like with the AirPods and Powerbeats Pro.
How long they last: The buds promise 5 hours of play time, plus 10 more from the charging case. Bose says they're good for at least 500 full charge cycles, and there's no way to replace the batteries in them.