In an age in which our technological infrastructure is in a constant state of flux, a pair of wired headphones requiring Bluetooth to play music might seem like something out of the Twilight Zone. But it happened – and even some of the most tech-savvy people are stumped. Wired headphones that can’t play music without Bluetooth – it’s a story worth telling.

The Baffling Discovery by a Bluetooth Expert

A veteran of the Bluetooth business had walked into a shop in a tiny Chilean town to buy a cheap pair of wired Lightning headphones. They weren’t working. A half dozen conversations with the shopkeeper and his neighbours later, he was advised to switch on Bluetooth on his phone – which seemed gratuitously ridiculous, especially for a guy who had just spent an hour explaining to the local headphone-shop owner that his problem, namely wired headphones, was caused by the wrong type of wireless. Nothing wrong with wired headphones. That’s exactly the reason why they are wired.

The Confusion Unfolds at the Airport

The sorry story of the engineer played out in an airport gift shop. He found that the wired Lightning headphones he’d bought for the trip wouldn’t work. Not one. Not two. But three different brands would chorus their annoyance in the same way, if Bluetooth’s radio were not active. Soon, the visitors to the store nodding in assent – testament to its rightness. Nowhere else could you buy wired headphones that require Bluetooth. Where else would ‘unplug’ mean ‘switch radio on’? Where else would a plug be an antenna? If you find yourself writing ‘dongle’ or thinking ‘unplug to switch radio on’ or noticing that the cable of your wired headphones is a metal rod, then you’re living in a mobile-phone sealed realm. But you’re not a technologist.

The Quest for a Solution

Frustrated and stubborn, the engineer reached out for a workaround: he bought a pair of regular mini-stereo headphones, along with a Lightning adapter, fully expecting what he considered to be common sense: no Bluetooth, no nonsense. Only, it turned out that even that was going to be a Bluetooth experience.

The Uncovering of a Twisted Market Trend

When he got back to his bench and started Googling around, he found the problem: cheap ‘Lightning’ headphones and accessories started flooding the market, mostly from low-quality Chinese manufacturers, which got around Apple’s standards by using a Bluetooth chip inside the headphones that’s powered through the wired connection. Not only did this save manufacturers from the more expensive requirement of using Apple’s standards, but it created an entirely new category of wired/wireless hybrid headphones.

The Implications of Wired Headphones Requiring Bluetooth

This trend suggests a new role for the wired headphone, and raises questions about the evolution of the wired/wireless dichotomy. Until recently, the distinction has been clear. If you want reliability and a direct connection, or mainly prefer not to fuss around with power sources, get wired headphones. If you want to be free and don’t mind vulnerable links to your audio, get the radio-linked wireless ones. Bluetooth-enabled wired headphones complicate the distinction: they are hybrids, and they let end-users and manufacturers experiment with new ways of thinking about headphones.

The Convenience and Confusion of Hybrid Headphones

On the one hand, this innovation can be seen as a move towards versatility, as it allows the wired connection to make use of the advantages of Bluetooth technology. On the other hand, it adds an additional layer to the user experience, making the use of the headphones clumsier, especially for those who favour the simplicity and straightforwardness of wired headphones.


The humble headphones have come a long way since the early 1970s when models featured simple wired designs, compared with the sophisticated wireless devices of today that incorporate features ranging from noise cancellation to health monitoring. This evolution reflects broader technological and user trends for more functional and multipurpose devices. The fact that the once-obsolete Bluetooth is now considered necessary to purchase wired headphones demonstrates how the old has been grafted onto the new in an unexpected twist to the tale that defies the conventional wisdom.

The fact that the headphone market is still evolving shows that it pays to keep up with the latest developments. Consumers need to know what their headphones, whether wired, wireless or somewhere in between, can do – and how. As technology changes, the boundaries of those categories are likely to be blurred further. Agility and information literacy are both earmarks of the experience of living in our increasingly digital age.

Jun 06, 2024
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