Low End Theory

Headphones Redux: Banish Ye Cords


By Brendan I. Koerner

A few days before Yannick Noah's offspring and his Floridian chums waxed my mom's alma mater in the NCAA tourney, I conducted a little Final Four of my own, pitting some of the cheapest headphones that 125th Street has to offer against one another. Silly me, though, as I forgot to include a bracket for those wonders of jogging's 1980s heyday: cordless headphone radios. Immortalized in the roller-skating scene from Fletch—y'know, in that scene where he's disguised as a chrome-domed cheeba-squeezer—cordless headphone radios liberated an entire generation from the agony of Walkman tethers. They also weighed a freakin' ton on top of your noggin, and tended to get lousy reception.

So, how does an industry go about propping up a flawed product whose golden age has passed? By slashing prices, thereby turning the cordless headphone radio into a low-end product to love and savor. Tough to believe that my dad once refused to let me wear his set, contending that I'd mistreat them and cost him a minor fortune; I guess that was before you could scoop up a replacement for less than the cost of a Long John Silver's Value Basket Combo. After the jump, a rundown of what ultra-cheap AM/FM aficionados will be strapping to their skulls this summer. PLUS: Low End Theory offers some credit where credit is due.

Now, I will say this for manufacturers of cordless 'phone radios: they've definitely stepped it up in the design department, even as they've cut prices by upwards of 90 percent. The GPX HR2004SP (pictured above) is a case in point. There's nothing particularly impressive about the specs, which include such underwhelming features as "adjustable headband with rear safety strap" and "rotary volume and tuning controls." But there's something very Robotech-ish about the white-plastic sides, what with the orange racing stripe and all. You can totally see Lisa Hayes rocking these as she captains the SDF-2, calming her nerves with a little 2112 in the midst of a Zentraedi onslaught.

But I've got to question the sort of reception the GPX 'phones get. There's a noticeable absence of an external antenna, a staple of many of its competitors. Take this barebones unit from column favorite Coby, which features a rubberized antenna nearly long enough to double as a quarterstaff. The Coby CX-22 is no great looker, unless you were a fan of those clunky underwater cameras that Kodak put out in the 1980s. But at $4.36, beggars can't be choosers when it comes to aesthetic appeal. And, hey, the hype sheet touts "large comfortable earpads," to boot.

Low End Theory

Prefer to splurge on your cordless headphone radio? Fascinated by the wanton violence and fetid smells associated with the Hell's Angels, Bandidos, and Mongols? Got a strong neck? Check out this branded Harley-Davidson set, which I believe is manufactured by licensing behemoth Polyconcept USA (which also brings the world such can't-live-without-'em products as the M&M Voice Activated Phone). The specs here are similar to those of the GPX, but with two distinct advantages: a fold-down rubberized antenna, and digital tuning. The actual components seem to be housed in casings built to withstand a high-speed t-boning of a Mack truck, however, so don't be forking over your $28.99 unless you've got healthy neck ligaments.

Low End Theory

The common theme with all of the 'phones described above is their adherence to the traditional over-the-head approach. Leave it to Gear to Go, a sub-brand from cheap digicam vendor Sakar, to change the rules of the game with a wrap-around take on the tired formula. Tough not to love a company that understands the shape of the human head, and puts that knowledge to good use in crafting a comfy radio that costs less than $6. More power to these folks for realizing that even the cheapest scoundrels among us still appreciate some fine ergonomics. Hence a new Low End Theory maxim that I hope will soon become a mantra among the Cobys and jWins of the planet: Comfort is not just for the elite.

BELATED THANKS: In the course of slapping together this column on a weekly basis, sometimes I neglect to offer the appropriate praise to those who provide assistance. In response to a pair of firm-yet-polite e-mails regarding last week's column, I'm now gonna try and correct my credit-hogging ways.

First off, y'all should know that the roll-up piano image that headlined the column was pulled (sans permission) from Dan's Data. Dan alerted me to this fact with an e-mail slugged "Roll-Up Rip-Off," though his inclusion of a smiling emoticon at the end of his complaint makes me think he's actually an okay dude unlikely to beat me to a pulp. (Also, I'm pretty sure he's an Aussie, and they tend to be alright by and large.) Read his roll-up piano review here; he even cracks it open and takes a peek at the circuit boards.

Also, I snagged the photo of the zapper lady from here, where you can buy the bug-slaying racquet if you're so inclined (and have $8.99 to spare). SmartLabs honcho Isaac Sanz requested that I offer credit here, due to the fact that the zapper lady ("Jenny") worked pretty hard to keep her Pepsi from spilling while slaughtering insects. So noted, Isaac. So noted.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

Read more Low End Theory