When I learned that Apple had filed a patent for a new AirPods case with an interactive display, I admitted to audible sniffles. “Oh, for God’s sake, another pointless gimmick from the same company that gave us the butterfly keyboard and iPod socks,” I whimpered in my own head. “What a pointless innovation. In any case, they’re not really going to do that to make It. That will never catch on.”
Of course, it was moments later that I realized that American audio manufacturer JBL had not only beaten its Apple rivals with the patent battle, but it had gone a step further and really made the flip thing. Yes, JBL’s new Tour Pro 2 wireless earbuds became the first to feature a charging case with a fully interactive touchscreen display, turning an idea that seemed like a ridiculous utopia into three-dimensional, scratch-resistant plastic. We have had the pleasure of owning the JBL Tour Pro 2 Which Hi-Fi? offices for a while now, and the same question always pops up when I stare at that new charging case: “Why”?
To some extent I understand the reasoning behind the decision. As is the case with almost any pair of wireless earbuds, most people carry their charging case with the earbuds not only as a means of storage, but also to make sure they stay snugly squeezed and well protected at all times. Having a pair of earbuds rattling around in your pocket is a recipe for disaster, and no one wants to see a not inconsiderable amount of money literally disappear down the sink.
And who doesn’t like the idea of more convenience within the audio market? On-ear controls are very widespread for easy access to basic playback controls, but using such facilities can be made cumbersome by the obvious drawback of how small and awkward the surface of the earbuds tend to be. Most companies have experimented with all sorts of squeeze, squeeze, and poke gestures to change tracks, change volume, or even change ANC settings, but the way they’re implemented isn’t always intuitive to all users. A physical touchscreen is always superior to jabbing the side of a 2cm pair of earbuds.
Here’s the rub, though: there’s already a device with a pretty nifty physical touchscreen of its own, and it’s just as portable and useful as JBL’s smart charging case. It is, as you have guessed, your smartphone. Yes, the vast majority of your earbuds’ use will come through the connected smartphone, meaning it’s hard to see exactly where a display fits on the case in terms of finding a niche feature that doesn’t yet exist.
The idea, presumably, is that you can just press a few buttons on the screen instead of having to fiddle with the on-ear controls or otherwise reach for your phone. But if you use your JBL Pro Tour 2 earbuds at home or work, for example, why is it easier to grab a charging case than to reach for your smartphone, the latter of which is more likely to be at hand in this modern world then the first?
And while you’re on the road, chances are you’ll be listening to your music on your phone anyway, eliminating the need to have another display on the case. I personally can’t imagine many situations where it’s more convenient, useful, or intuitive to reach for that case than the device that handles 90 percent of your life administration anyway.
So on top of this relative redundancy, JBL’s nifty new gimmick doesn’t really have anything to add to the party that your smartphone, and by extension the rather excellent JBL Headphones app, can’t do anyway. There’s a slightly weedy flashlight that illuminates the front of the screen but would be useless if you got stuck in a collapsing mine shaft not to mention some artsy paint splatter screensavers for you to enjoy but these are not exactly dealmakers in favor of the cause. It takes more than a paltry glowing front cover and a few slides from Jackson Pollock’s discarded back catalog to be convinced to buy JBL’s latest, rather mediocre earbuds.
It’s also hard to see what the capacity for other utilities might be. Again, if the smartphone has all the portability and usability you need to customize your JBL listening experience, it’s hard to see what future changes could bring to give the smart charging case its own unique selling points. More beautiful pictures? Nice on-screen text informing you that “Your earbuds are currently charging, zzz?” A much brighter flashlight?
So I’m sorry, but for now I don’t see JBL’s latest innovation as anything more than a flash in the pan, a fun gimmick for impressing your friends at parties (when those parties go extremely badly) and showing off at tech demos to easily impress audio junkies and baffled journalists. I really admire JBL’s commitment to doing something new, and Apple’s filing of a patent for a similar product could certainly give the innovation some leverage in the market, but I’m not convinced that this is something people will need have, or more importantly, want. in the future. A sad case indeed.
Read our full JBL Pro Tour 2 review
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