Apple’s AirPods Pro cleverly solves one of the trickiest parts of the earbud design with a unique button – even if it’s not technically a button at all.
Officially referred to as the ‘force sensor’ (a title that makes the button sound a lot more interesting than it actually is), it’s technically nothing more than an indented portion of the AirPods Pro stems, with some nice hardware that isn’t just capacitive touch. measures but also pressure. But the faux buttons solve one of the most annoying things about earbuds: how to control them.
The issue of operating truly wireless earbuds is relatively new. Older in-ear headphones often included a row of buttons on their cords, allowing the volume and playback controls to be placed in a place that is easy to reach and find. But in-ear wireless earbuds don’t leave much room for buttons, joysticks or control wheels to manipulate playback, forcing manufacturers to come up with alternative solutions.
Touch controls, used by headphones like the Galaxy Buds or the regular AirPods, have emerged as the most common answer. Tap, double-tap, or triple-tap your earbuds and you can play, pause, and skip your songs.
The problem, however, is that in-ear headphones – as the name suggests – already sit pretty firmly in your ear. And tap control means pushing those earbuds deeper into your ear (sometimes painful) or loosening them completely, at which point you run the risk of loss or damage when your expensive earbuds fall to the floor.
Apple avoids both problems with the force sensor. Rather than putting pressure on your ear, Apple lets users squeeze the stem of the AirPod. It’s a much gentler movement that doesn’t move the earbud as much, reducing both the risk of discomfort and loosening.
The controls are similar to the other headphone control methods: press once to switch between play / pause, two to skip forward a track, and three to skip back. There is also a fourth long press, which toggles between the different noise canceling modes.
The whole design also helps you in using it. The indented path makes it clear where to press to activate the “button”, while the requirement for a light force makes it difficult to activate inadvertently.
And while there is none physical haptic feedback from the force sensor, Apple does a masterful job of fooling your brain, through clever click sound effects passed through the earbuds to make it feel like you are pressing a button.
The controls may not take long for this world – Apple is rumor has it that a new version is being tested of the AirPods Pro that would completely remove the stem (and force sensor). It would be a disappointing change, as the force sensor isn’t just a great control method; the AirPod stems are one of the more recognizable parts of the product, so much so that most importantly, copycat designs tend to replicate.
Is it a lot of technical work for a relatively simple position? Doubtless. But it’s a critical part of using the AirPods – a seamless, aesthetic, and comfortable process. And what more could you want?