Good Products Gone Bad

April 17th, 2007

I love my Apple iPod Nano. This is a product that, even more than my first iPod, has changed my life. The combination of size, style, and ease of use make it so appealing that I’ve allowed it to become a major part of my daily routine. I rarely do a household chore without it, and I always take it with me when walking long distances or working out at the gym.

The product is so good, and I depend on it so much, that when my Nano recently went on the fritz, I wasted no time obtaining a replacement. The “lock” switch had stopped working, and being a geek I thought I might be able to crack it open and convince it to start working again. Pretty soon the whole thing was apart and I had irreparably broken it. OK, I’ll take most of the blame for that. The switch dying was annoying, but I haven’t exactly babied this thing over the past couple years.

I walked 30 minutes (painful, without the iPod!) to my local Apple store, avoided the bad genius, and plunked down muchos dólares for a replacement unit. Since the “black tax” didn’t exist when I bought my first Nano, I had to pay substantially more than before to match appearances, but I did so without hesitation. I learned at the register that I could have saved 10% by “recycling” my old iPod, but at this point the thought of another hour of walking was too much to bear. I’ll save the broken one for a future discount.

See what happened here? I bought a product, loved it, it broke, and then I bought another one. That’s good for Apple. My resilience with this product is high.

My love for the iPod is only possible because I’ve convinced myself to hold Apple mostly faultless for the fact that its standard headphones are utterly useless to me. I buy iPods without anger because I consider the little white plastic-coated electronics that come with the units to be disposable freebies, much like the poor excuse for a mouse that comes with today’s Macs. Little bits of disposable plastic are commonly bundled with products, but at least the little dolphin-threatening 6-pack loops do something useful before I discard them.

My perfect iPod experience is completed by perfect 3rd-party headphones. For the past two years, those headphones were the Sony MDR-A35G “Sport” headphones. See, I don’t like earbuds, because they inevitably fall out. I don’t like little hooks around my ear, because they are uncomfortable and look dumb. I don’t like big foam pads because they’re uncomfortable when running. I like the Sony MDR-A35G because they are light, water-resistant, block outside noise, can be folded up and stuffed in my pocket, and only cost $20.

(In a brilliant move, Sony puts a product code, “MDR-A35″ on the product itself which, when searched for at Sony.com, yields no result. Only by looking on the package did I determine it’s actually the MDR-A35G.)

A couple weeks ago my beloved headphones followed the iPod into the great electronics graveyard. After two years of being battered, folded, stretched, worn through rain and snow, and keeping me entertained through countless miles of running, the sound in the right ear went dead. No big deal – I got my money’s worth! I walked out of my way to the local Radio Shack, which is the nearest place I know that carries them. I grabbed a pair from the rack and marched up to plunk down my $20. On the way out of the store I threw my faulty headphones in the trash on Massachusetts Avenue. I was back in business.

The next day, as I widened the headphones’ reach to place them on my head, the plastic on one side snapped, rendering the product useless. (My head’s not that big).

Just bad luck, I was sure. Though I felt a twinge of wonder: was the product being made more cheaply, now? All the same, because I’m a loyal, happy customer, I walked straight back to Radio Shack and paid another $20 for another pair. At this price, it’s not worth quibbling over warranties. In fact I often wonder what the point is of a warranty on a $20 product. When my $2500 MacBook Pro acted up, you’re damn right I’ll wait on hold and ship the product back for repairs. When my $20 headphones disappoint, there’s no chance I’m going to bother. (Which makes it even dumber that Sony requires the odd customer who does apply the warranty pay shipping if they want a replacement).

This time, I was determined to be gentle with the headphones. Perhaps they didn’t “make ‘em like they used to,” but I still loved the product. It completes my iPod, after all. I wanted to be a happy customer again, even if it meant coddling the brittle plastic a bit. This was something I was willing to do.

Today, about a week into coddling them, I caught the wire on a doorknob as I was leaving the apartment. Snap! Another pair bites the dust. After two years of happily using a product, I go through two replacement units in little more than a week.

And just like the “snap!” of cheap plastic, so went my customer loyalty. A product that served an integral role in my daily lifestyle, as far as I’m concerned, is now no longer on the market. $20 is affordable, but not if I’m paying weekly! I’m convinced that the Sony MDR-A35G is now a cheap product. It’s possible that I just got lucky with my first pair. Perhaps the cheap breakable version is the standard, and mine just happened to be durable? Or maybe it’s just a huge crap shoot. Maybe some pairs are still durable today, and you need to get lucky.

In any case, I bought a $7 pair of stupid foam-covered headphones from Walgreens. They’re uncomfortable, they don’t block sound, and they look ridiculous. I find listening to my iPod to be joyless, now. Meanwhile, the Radio Shack is a 20 minute walk, and I could have my old lifestyle back for only $20. But I can’t afford to put my faith in a product gone bad.

Earlier today I whined about this on Twitter, and learned that at least two others, EcoChick and Dan Moren, have had similar disappointment with Sony’s headphones. Surely there must be a company that can make decent, comfortable, stylish headphones that don’t break within the first week of use. Any suggestions? I’m a headhones free-agent, now. (And desperately need my old lifestyle back).

Update 5/2/2007: I searched and searched for a “better choice,” but to my great disappointment I found nothing as suitable as the original Sony design. I decided I would try them once more, but take the advice from the comments and at least pick some up from a different shop. Maybe the ones at Radio Shack were part of a bad batch. I ended up buying a similar but slightly different pair from Newbury Comics in Boston. This pair is the Sony MDR-A34, and is in almost every way the same as my beloved A35, except $7 cheaper and in a stylish flat black. Best of all? The band is noticeably more flexible (this might equate with “cheaper,” but it’s working for me). I noticed immediately that they could be comfortably stretched over my head without the slightest fear of breaking. The “Sport” version I had been using before is supposedly good at deflecting liquid away from the earphones, but to me they look identical to these. I think this could be an instance of identical parts being used to build a cheaper and more expensive product.

The real test? I just pulled a majorly clumsy move with my headphones attached. I was kneeling down and stood up quickly, snagging the cord underneath my knee. I gasped as one side of the headphones snapped off. I was sure they had broken, like others before them. But to my great relief and surprise, the portion of the headphones had simply detached from the rest. I snapped it right back on and voila, good as new.

The Sony MDR-A34 are easily my new favorites. So Sony kept me as a happy customer after all, even if I had to waste $60 or so getting here.

34 Responses to “Good Products Gone Bad”

  1. Michael Dupuis Says:

    I have the same pair of headphones as your original pair, and I don’t think it was a fluke, they are well built, my pair from a couple of years ago is still going strong. Sad to find out that when these go to “headphones heaven” that I’ll have to look for another solution.

  2. Walter Underwood Says:

    My son likes his Sennheiser PMX 70 phones. They are $50 and lime green, either of which might be a deal killer. Apple sells them, so you might be able to try them on at an Apple store. According to the comments on the Apple on-line store, they fit some heads better than others.

  3. EcoChick Says:

    I dream of the day when a wireless headphone of some kind will exist – no more cords, no more plastic, just something that (1) works consistently and (2) lasts! But in our consumer culture of instant replacement, I’m not holding my breath on that one – or that wireless headphones would be affordable to the average iPod consumer.

  4. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Michael: Glad to hear yours are still bringing the joy. Want to sell them? :) Now I realize the part that broke in both new pairs was the non-electronic flexible plastic “top part” … wish I’d kept the first pair to attempt some kind of mutant combination pair.

    Walter: Yeah – the lime green and the “wrap around/behind the head” aspects of those are killers for me, but thanks for the pointer. By the way, Netflix is also a critical part of my happy lifestyle. Kudos to your contributions.

    EcoChick: I’ll happily pay $50 for the durable version of these $20 headphones :(

  5. Matthew Treder Says:

    Headroom (http://www.headphone.com/guide/) has a pretty good and authoritative guide.

    I bought the Sennheiser PX100 ‘phones and couldn’t be happier with them. If you want true geek cred, buy a pair of Grados. I went with Grado S80s for the sumptuous bass at a reasonable price. The look is ugly, retro, utilitarian. The sound is live, huge, killer.

    In-ear phones (not earbuds, but the kind that seal) from Shure and others have gotten very good. Downsides: You won’t hear much of what’s going on around you, and not everyone finds them comfortable for long stretches.

    If you want to peek in on otherwise healthy, normal adults arguing the relative merits of $100 and $1,000 cans, look no further than Head-Fi (http://www.head-fi.org/).

  6. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Thanks for the tips, Matthew. The PX100 looks a little foamy and bulky for my ideal everyday use. But that site looks like a great resource.

  7. PCheese Says:

    I also have a pair of Sennheiser PX100 headphones. Though not as small as your Sony ones, I personally find them nice, compact, and lightweight (and they fold up). They sound great, but I turn my iPod volume up to the maximum setting on airplanes because they don’t block outside sound. Perhaps you’ll be surprised if you get a chance to try them.

  8. Brian Warren Says:

    Totally a fan of the JBL Reference 220 earbuds. Not the cheapest of the bunch, but hands down the best I’ve used. If mine broke, I’d be hard pressed not to put down the cash to buy another pair on the spot. They come in a neat case that can hold your ipod, and have several different ear attachments, so they’re kinda customizable.

  9. Andy Lee Says:

    Daniel, I’ve had the same reactions to products, good and bad. I love it when a product or company earns my loyalty, but a bad experience can sour that loyalty pretty quickly.

    Wouldn’t you know, I too have the Sony MDR-A35{G} headphones. They’re reasonably priced, they sound great, they don’t fall out like the Apple earbuds, and they’re supposedly they’re designed so sweat (and rain, I guess) will drip off them instead of into your ears. Mine haven’t broken yet (maybe because I haven’t been to the gym in a long time…), but if and when they do I’ll be in a bit of a quandary. Offhand I think I’d buy one more pair and see if it lasts. Even after reading your story, I’d gamble another $20.

    My only problem with this form factor for headphones is that it’s inconvenient with hats. And so my other favorite earphones are a pair of Sony rubber earbuds, which I paid $60 for a few years ago. Those are the best things ever for blocking out noise, they’re very comfortable, and because they actually plug into my ears, they never fall out.

    Have you considered writing to Sony? They will certainly respond if you tell them why you were once happy and are now unhappy with their product.

  10. Ben Johnson Says:

    I’ve had good luck with the low-end Shure’s.

  11. DDA Says:

    Another recommendation for the Sennheiser PX100 headphones; I don’t use them for running and they do have a pad rather than fitting in the ear at all but they also fold and sound very good.

    Personally, I would have brought the pair that snapped on you right away back to the RS and asked for a replacement; no need to go to Sony yourself.

  12. Nick Says:

    I recommend the Shure E2C. In-ear design, comes with three different bud-types (foam, silicon, rubber) and different sizes. The best type I’ve found so far is the foam model, with the downside that they tend to collect ear wax over time (clean with a tissue). Perfect for a noisy office environment.

  13. Roguish Smurf Says:

    I have a pair of the Sennheiser MX75 sport. I find they’re pretty good for running, as they “twist and lock” into your ears. However, the wire they’ve used for the cord has an insane material memory. It will not relax from it’s tightly coiled, shipped, format. Even after hanging it stretched (by the weight of my nano) for hours at a time, if I put it on a counter, it immediately coils up into its original packaged state. It’s also just a bit too long.

  14. Kevin Lipe Says:

    I’m a really big fan of the cheap-ish Philips headphones. I had a $50 pair of noise-cancelling ones that I used for about a year until they broke (I stepped on them, hard–I definitely don’t blame Philips for their breaking). After that, I bought a cheaper pair with a twenty-foot cable and included 1/4″ adapter for listening to my LP’s, so… for running, they probably wouldn’t be so good.

    The ones I had that I loved for working out were also Philips, with the plastic piece running behind the head instead of over the top. They had a little foam on the earpieces, blocked out sound reasonably well, and sounded *really* good for being $20.

    All that rambling is to say, I’m a big fan of cheap Philips headphones. They make good stuff–why else would there be so many bazillion-year-old Magnavox TV’s still floating around?

  15. Morgan Says:

    I had this, login to apple’s website and raise a support request, they will send you out new headphones within 2-3 days, they may ask for you to return the faulty ones but that shouldn’t be a problem.

  16. Berle Says:

    I really like my Beyerdynamic 770. While a bit costly at 130 Euro they are durable, block the sound very well and sound wonderful. On top of that it seems, that every single part is replaceable.

  17. Conor Says:

    I have both the MDR-A30 (yellow) and the MDR-A34 (black) and they have lasted for a long time (with countless snags around my bike seat). The Sony sport headphones are the only ones I have used for many years. I suggest going to another shop and giving it another try, with the same model or a slightly different one with the same earbud design; it could be the Radio Shack that is cursed.

  18. stubblechin Says:

    Frustrated with my iPod’s earbuds falling out at the gym, and not wanting to spend a ton of money on replacements, I finally decided to try Griffin’s EarJams. I picked mine up on eBay for $10 shipped, brand new. They’re great! They just snap right onto your earbuds. Now my earbuds stay in my ears no matter how strenuously I’m exercising, and the sound is better, too. Check it out.

  19. Tom Says:

    The Sennheiser CX-300 in ears are the best headphones in that price bracket by a mile. If I was going to buy anything I would either get another pair of those, or jump up to the Etymotics ER-4p or Ultimate ears super.fi 5pro.

    Personally, I wouldn’t bother with anything except for the Sennheiser unless you want to spend $200 for a pair of buds.

  20. TC! Says:

    Another vote for the Sennheiser MX75, the twist and lock system is brilliant. I do a lot of running and these things never fall out, they’re also splash proof which is great for running. If you don’t need them for running then i think they do another version which are black just in case lime green isn’t your thing.

    To the guy having problems with the cord, mine finally stoped trying to coil around my neck after about 3 months of regular use.

  21. Nigel Kersten Says:

    I’d go to http://www.headwize.com and read their forums.

    I swear by two headphones now. The Koss PortaPro and the Koss KSC-75.

    Both offer unbelievable sound for the price. I’m now on my second pair of KSC-75’s, and have tried out a fair few headphones. Being a bedroom electronic musician in a past life, I’m pretty picky about headphones…

  22. richard Says:

    Well, I know you said that you didn’t like foam pads, but I love love love my Koss PortaPro and Sennheiser MX-50 headphones. They sound great, and they’re not too expensive. But I guess they don’t qualify :)

  23. Chris Patterson Says:

    I, too, spent a lot of time looking for replacement iPod headphones.

    But I prefer the in-ear or “canalphones”. But there are two things I won’t spend big money on: headphones and sunglasses. Why? Because I’m too likely to lose or break ‘em.

    My recommendation is any one of the following (all are basically the same headphones with different names):

    – Sennheiser CX-300
    – Creative EP-630
    – Razer m100 Pro/Solutions Protone

    The Sennheisers are the most expensive, but the others can be had for around $20. I recommend them to everyone I know, and no one has been disappointed yet.

    Woot.com had the Razers for $20 a couple weeks ago and sold out almost 3000 pairs in minutes.
    http://www.woot.com/Forums/ViewPost.aspx?PostID=1110818

    I have ordered 5 or 6 pair of these for myself and friends and family from the following page:
    http://www.coloripodheadphones.com/product_p/whitecreative.htm

    Yeah, that’s my customer review on the page, too. I’m not affiliated with the website in any way other than as a customer. They’ve raised the price on them since the first pair I bought, so they’re not quite as good a deal anymore. You might be able to find them cheaper by googling around.

    They do have the behind-the-neck, one-side-is-longer design, so if that’s a dealbreaker for you, that’s too bad, because they sound great for the price. I never understood why that is such a big deal.

  24. jburka Says:

    I’m another of those people whose ear shape makes buds (and particular the Apple buds) impossible to use. I’m also a big believer, as someone who walks around a major city with ‘phones on that the open ear design, which allows me to hear traffic, is the only sensible choice for anything but airplane use. As a result, I’m a huge fan of the non-folding version of your headphones, the MDR-W20G, which I’ve been using for, oh, I dunno, 15 years, maybe? They used to come with the old Sony sports walkmen which was my portable music maker of choice back then. Once upon a time you could get them at circuit city, best buy, and lots of other stores, but it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been able to find them in retail.

    And yes, they break. I use them heavily (1-2 hours of dog walking and commuting by foot and ~40 hours of coding/working a week) and generally after 6-9 months there will be one too many snags on a gate or a drawer pull or *something* and I’ll need to ditch them and grab a new pair. At 15 bucks a pop, I really don’t mind.

    Since I know that’s going to happen, what I do is place an order through sonystyle or another web retailer every year or so for two or three pairs so as soon as my current set breaks I just grab a new pair from the cupboard. When I’m down to one, I place a new order. My most recent order was from bhphotovideo.com and they only wanted $12.95 a pair.

    As for the foldability, I think the lack of it makes the frame of the ‘phones a llot more sturdy. I shorten the side extensions as much as possible, move the speakers together and wrap the cord around them and the result is small enough to tuck into the jacket pocket that holds the iPod…

  25. Aaron Harnly Says:

    I just want to salute you for walking to your various errands! Not knowing more about your life, I’m not certain whether that’s a conscious choice or a circumstance, but either way, it’s wonderful for you, your body, your community, and the world.

  26. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Wow! Thanks for all the feedback. This is really going to help when I go to buy something new. I think I’ll go someplace with a large audio equipment selection.

    Conor: You may be right, mayeb the Radio Shack just has a terrible batch. Maybe I will give the Sony’s one more shot. Also, I didn’t realize there were others in the same product line – might be nice to try something similar but slightly different.

    Aaron: walking is both a choice and a circumstance. I live in a semi-urban area (Cambridge, MA), where it’s reasonably easy to walk everywhere. Also, I commuted by car at least 40 minutes each way the entire time I worked at Apple. That pretty much took “driving” off of my enjoyment list forever. :)

  27. Leo Says:

    I have the PX100, KSC-75 and CX300.

    Sound quality wise, they all beat the Sony.
    Reading your post, build quality they’ll beat the Sony too, although the KSC75 does feel a little fragile.

    My choice:
    1-PX100. All you could want. Very durable, best sound quality-price ratio (extreme good sound quality), folds up and has an intelligently designed case (http://www.dansdata.com/images/3senns/cases280.jpg).
    http://www.headphone.com/guide/by-manufacturer/sennheiser/sennheiser-px-100.php – 5 out of 5 rating

    2-KSC75. For me: best wear (altough you say you don’t like clips…I don’t feel them but that’s up to you), slightly worse sound quality than the PX100 but still ridiculously good for its price. Durability would be the biggest con; all feels a little fragile. But Koss has a life-long guarantee so you basically buy once and can break all your life :)
    http://www.headphone.com/products/headphones/clip-on/koss-ksc-75.php – 4 out of 5 rating

    3-CX300. Good quality, but they go IN your ear, blocking all noise (including traffic about to run over you) and not too comfortable for all. Sound quality is ok but lacking in the high range, so if you’re a rock-lover, not the best choice. The are however tiny, and they will stay in your ear no matter what.
    http://www.headphone.com/products/headphones/all-headphones/sennheiser-cx300-b.php – also 4 out of 5

    To me the PX100 is really the obvious choice, since it has no down points. Couldn’t think of one and looking at the Sony’s you had, these would “fit you best” I think :)

  28. Johnmcl Says:

    Agree with you on the nano — It is a ‘change your life’ kind of device. Mine’s stuck in my ear if I have to be alone for more than about 5 minutes.

  29. Stuart Dootson Says:

    Shures!!!!! I’ve had E2Cs, E3Cs, both great – the E3Cs wonderfully so.

  30. Matthew Treder Says:

    I think what folks here are saying is, as good as your nano experience is already, it’s about to get a whole lot better. Many of the commenters here (I among them) have purchased and enjoy using more than one pair of headphones. For discreet listening or to wall yourself off from the world, sealed-ear phones are great. There are headphones ideal for physical activity. Most open-back designs sound very good for the money, and also allow you to hear what’s going on around you. I have noise-cancelling headphones (don’t go with the overpriced Bose) that I use primarily for airplane trips. My current favorites are a pair of huge and comfy imported Goldring DR150s. Hard to believe what $150 will buy in sound quality these days, if you don’t mind looking just a bit ridiculous. (Of course, anyone crazy enough to spend that kind of money on headphones probably don’t mind.) My next purchase will probably be a dedicated headphone amp like this one: http://stereophile.com/headphones/906ray/

    But that would really be crazy…

  31. Conor Says:

    I am glad I was able to help steer you towards the MDR-A34, now I only hope they perform as well for you as they have done for me.

  32. Bob Bridges Says:

    I just ran across this column while looking for a solution to, apparently, exactly the same problem you describe in the above column. I, too, owned a Sony MDR-A35 headset, and it worked for years until the sound went out on one side. I bought two more on the web through Radio Shack about a month ago. The first broke off after four days of use; the second went just last night. I’m looking for a replacement now, and they’re not easy to find.

    I don’t mind trying things that hook over or stick into my ears, but they DON’T stick — maybe my ears are the wrong shape — so I guess it has to be over-the-head. And I’m tired of foam and other coverings — I never dreamt until I used those for an hour how much heat a human radiates through his ears — so I much prefer something in the ear. (Besides, as jburka says, I don’t want to block outside sound, in the office or outside.) Quality of sound reproduction counts for very little with me; any old cheapie is good enough. I guess I’ll try those MDR-A34s.

    To Andy Lee: I tried writing a note about this to Sony, but when I press the Send button on their form, nothing happens. I found this column because I’m looking for a real email address I can complain to; I’m like Mr Jalkut, I prefer to buy a headset like this one, from Sony if I can, but without the trick snapping-headband, and I figure the best way for that to happen is to be sure Sony knows about the problem.

  33. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Bob: Glad you found the article! I am STILL pleased with the MDR-A34s. Very glad I stumbled upon them. They’re much more durable and cheaper, too!

    I’m again a Sony “fan” to the extent I think they have the best headphones. I wouldn’t want to have to navigate my way through their support, though.

  34. Bob Bridges Says:

    For the benefit of you and others: I Just did a little research and found a number of possible alternative models. All are Sony, over the head and in the ear:

    MDR-A35G $20 ;the reviewed model
    MDR-A34L $20 ;your preferred replacement
    MDR-W25G $16
    MDR-W20G $16
    MDR-W24V $15.50
    MDR-W14L $13
    MDR-W08L $10

    Since I don’t care much about sound quality, I’d be willing to try any of these. But I’ve a notion I might buy some toothpicks and super glue and see whether I can brace up the headband, first.

    Meanwhile, someone tell Sony they have a good product whose rep is going bad quickly. Surely they’d do something about it if they knew!

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