Apple is famous for their minimalist aesthetic, and infamous for occasionally taking the aesthetic too far and sacrificing usability. There’s the famous round mouse for the original iMac. There’s the symmetrical third-generation iPod remote control whose identical volume and previous/next buttons are impossible to distinguish.

While not as egregious as the previous examples, Apple’s iPod and iPhone earbuds have, to me, always suffered from just a tiny bit of this over-aestheticization. The earbuds are specific to your left and right ears, but are differentiated only by a microscopic and light-gray “R” and “L” to tell you which earbud is which. It takes a few seconds to figure out which ear each bud is intended to go into.

But for years I’ve had a solution. I’ve been using a little strip of tape to hack/solve the problem of undifferentiated iPod headphones.

A single wrap with a thin strip of tape, and viola! At a glance, or even by touch, it is now easy to tell which earbud is which: the one with the tape goes in the right ear. And design-wise it looks pretty good — simple, consistent with the Apple aesthetic, fairly subtle. Steve Jobs would probably have a fit over the asymmetry, but I think this solution is is something so obvious that every earbud manufacturer should do it, or at least something like it.


23 responses to “Apple in Stereo”

  1. to my mind, the iPhone solved this somewhat with the microphone controls on the right earbud wire.

  2. good design sometimes come in simple package :).

  3. The only downside is that it looks like your earbuds are in mourning ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Great solution. I thought you told me once that Apple’s earbuds don’t fit in your ears?

  5. @kyle: I agree, the remote/mic is a big help. I won’t stop taping my earbuds, however, and I still recommend it: Maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to looking for the black stripe… or maybe the remote simply doesn’t let you distinguish quite as quickly as the stripe does, perhaps because it’s the bud itself, not four inches down the wire, you focus on when choosing which ear to put it in.

    @Martin: That’s hilarious! I do have colorful tapes, too, but if I tried that Jobs would undoubtedly hunt me down. Perhaps a gray tape would be ideal? ๐Ÿ™‚

    @Khoi: Thanks. Actually, no earbuds stay in my ears very well at all, but Apple’s actually do a half-decent job (in particular the first iPod buds). I slip the little foam covers over my earbuds to make them stay in my ears. Obviously I spend too much time customizing my earbuds.

  6. Eloy Anzola Avatar
    Eloy Anzola

    I never know which earbud goes where.

    This is so simple and smart. Love it!!

  7. I’m reviewing headphones for Boing Boing this summer and I’ve seen this a lot. It’s hard to maintain aesthetic quality on such a small package and still make the ear indicators easy to find.

    I’ve seen two effective solutions:

    1. Varying cord lengths. Several manufacturers do this. The single-side cord to the left ear is substantially shorter than the right, so you can tell by feel where each belongs.

    2. Color-code. I have an old pair of Sennheisers that do this: the rubber base of the cord by the right ear is red. At a glance I know how to orient. Of course, this isn’t nearly as attractive.

    On most of them, though, I squint.

  8. Kathy Sierra Avatar
    Kathy Sierra

    I love this post… but while your tape *does* solve the problem of poor readability for the “R” and “L”, it doesn’t really answer the “Don’t Make Me Think” issue. The choice of taping the right or left is arbitrary, so unless you personally have a consistent strategy of “tape means right, no tape means left”, you still have to use neurons to try to remember what the tape actually means.

    My husband is really good at this — he has systems he just always always uses, including how to recall where he parked his car in an unfamiliar airport or mall lot. I end up installing a cue, and then forgetting what my cue was supposed to represent ; )

  9. Neil Wehrle Avatar
    Neil Wehrle

    Interesting solution – perhaps you can detect it with this, but I’d like something tactile so I can get the right bud in the right ear without even looking at them.

  10. This would definitely be a delight – having my earbuds fall out all the time – finding out its not in the right ear.

    Wondering how well this works in the dark.

  11. Nice move on using tape for identifying which piece goes where by touch.

    One option could be to engrave ‘ribs’ around the piece or add a depression (similar to the dimples in a golf ball) in place of the tape. Its less visually noticeable (both a good and bad thing) than the tape and allows identification by touch as well.

  12. @Kathy: Good point: The fact that I made the system myself is a big help. (I’m going to also guess that you’re a southpaw and that I am showing a dexter bias? :-))

    That said, “not thinking” as an objective is certainly asymptotic — we can aim for it and get as close as we can to it, but we will never reach it.

    @Neil and @Bojhan @SteveJB: As @kyle noted as well, the mini-remote on the latest buds solves the no-sight ID problem pretty nicely.

  13. Brian B Avatar
    Brian B

    Kathy Sierra pointed out the first thing I thought of : Which is which? Then I realized I already had the solution. Since I’m right-handed, I’ll most likely be using my right hand to manipulate the earbuds, and if the tape is on the right and I can feel it as well as see it, then the thing I’m looking for with my right hand will go in my right ear. I had already worked this out even before I was aware of it.

  14. It’s an intriguing design decision, I agree. But truthfully, it never bothered me as it works even when the earbuds are inverted. I think people don’t look for (and don’t read) the “R” and “L” to learn by experience that one way is more ergonomic than the other.

  15. As mentioned by Kathy Sierra, this doesn’t solve the problem. Using red and green tape on the left and right buds respectively (or just the appropriate colour on one) would do the trick.

  16. @kathy to get to the ‘not thinking’ level I think you’d need an inclinometer in one of the buds to determine placement in the ears and send feedback to the player to swap left and right as needed.

    I used a Sharpie to put and R and and L on the speaker surface itself since that’s where I look each time. And it stays hidden from others while in use.

  17. @valeska @Douglas: Actually, the earbuds are not identical — they each have a slight “foreward lean” to ostensibly fit the appropriate ear better. For me, switching them doesn’t just mess up the stereo sonic landscape, it actually makes them less likely to stay in my ears.

    Valeska, you are lucky that they work both ways for you. A parallel: I have the same contact lens prescription in both eyes (I am so lucky), so I don’t have any passionate thoughts about how to make contact lens cases that show which one goes in which eye because it doesn’t matter to me. ๐Ÿ™‚
    @paul: I don’t think I understand how using a color or two is any different from using a black stripe in solving Kathy’s example problem. I like the idea of having colored stripes, if only because colors are fun, but I also think that having only one bud sporting a colored stripe is better than having two different colored stripes.

    Kathy’s point, as I understood it, is that no color code can automatically mean “right” or “left” because there simply is no innate or accepted color-based symbology for left and right (unlike red and green, which in most cultures means stop/bad and go/good). Unless “black=right” is learned by the user, they’ll have to think. To which I simply say sure, maybe the first few times, but it will undoubtedly become a habit and eventually require almost no thought … the R & L text alone, on the other hand, requires the user to manipulate the buds in their fingers and carefully focus their attention for several seconds every single time, forever and ever.

    Although now that I think about the contact lens example, I imagine that the “right has the special marker” concept is probably conventional for many types of objects that come in difficult-to-distinguish left+right sets. Items intended for use on *just one side*, such as scissors, are likely to use the special marker for the lefty version, though, simply because they are the outliers.

  18. My suggestion was not simply to use any colours, but to use an accepted, international colour-based system denoting left and right.

    Obviously, it doesn’t help the colourblind or the landlocked, but for the rest of us, we can see at a glance, and without thinking, which bud goes in which ear.

  19. Rob Gilliam Avatar
    Rob Gilliam

    Christopher said: “there simply is no innate or accepted color-based symbology for left and right”

    Paul said: “My suggestion was not simply to use any colours, but to use an accepted, international colour-based system denoting left and right.”

    By which I’m assuming Paul means red for left and green for right, i.e. the internationally agreed system for lighting on ships/aircraft. I used to have earbuds with this coding on, although I forget which tape/CD player they came with.

  20. Rob Gilliam Avatar
    Rob Gilliam

    As there are geeks here, I should be more specific: red is “port” and green is “starboard”, which correspond to left and right if you’re on the the ship/plane and facing the front/nose/bow/prow/head.

    (This works as a general rule for headphones and other apparel as it’s rare that I’ll be facing my own backside)

  21. @paul and @Rob: Thanks for the suggestion and explanation. I suspect, however, that the “international” red/green system you are talking about is known by (at best) one in a thousand people. It may be international to the extent that pilots and sailors all over the world know it, but ultimately it’s an extremely arcane kind of code.

    What’s more, in the world of audio/video equipment (the world of headphones) there actually already exists a left/right color code, and you’ve probably used it yourself: red is right and white is left. Note that this is the exact opposite of the port/starboard system!

    It’s likely that more people are familiar with the audio/video color-coding system from their experience with stereos, DVD players, and Playstations, but I would still argue against relying on that system’s level of familiarity for spontaneous daily by the general public. It’s still an obscure and arcane kind of knowledge.

  22. Ahh BRILLIANT! Aging man – can’t see jack up close – then put a gently gray letter on a white shiny piece of plastic about 3/8″ wide = Huh?!?

    Now for the rest – I mix sound – as a monitor engineer (we’re the guys who mix the band to themselves…) and I’m constantly pulling my left “in-ear” bud out and back in to talk to the musicians. Why the left?! I don’t know. I think that would require medication and deep therapy to determine why left vs. right.

    So – go with the “forze” and let your subconscious make the choice for you – er – uh – BLINK if you will – – –

    Black tape – on my left iPod bud…

  23. Neat idea, so I wonder how I can twist it for me. As the owner a light-pink set of headphones, the last thing I want on them is black tape. Also, as a former radio and club DJ, I tend to feel my headphones rather than look at them. So right now I’m thinking that I should make either one have a small… bump of sorts. An agreeable bump ๐Ÿ™‚

    As a design suggestion to producers, the tiny ‘bump’ should already exist out-of-package, on the same headphone each time (the industry should decide whether left or right is default). This way it can be part of the product in looks and feel. More over, if painted in a different color than the headphones, it’d be of help to those who prefer a visual cue, too.

    Of course, this can then turn into a small market itself, with Swarovski and even diamond bumps, bumps as accessories to headphones, how-to-knit-your-unique-bump guides, etc. It sounds a bit crazy, even to me, but that would be the natural development, a proof of ‘acceptance’, and, ultimately, would make the world a better place.

    Thank you for making me think about it ๐Ÿ™‚