Apple wants to buy Beats? It's one of the stranger Apple rumors we've ever heard and it would be Apple's most expensive acquisition ever by a long shot, but you better believe it's good business. And for regular folks, the deal has enormous potential to improve one of Apple's most flawed products: The EarPod.
Apple earbuds were the first Beats by Dre. Before everyone had smartphones, the iPod was the only digital music player anybody used, and every single iPod shipped with buds. The little white cables dangled from ears everywhere, a status symbol that told others you were hiding a glorious piece of industrial design in your jeans.
But the cultural love affair with Apple earbuds was short-lived. They are uncomfortable, they won't stay put, they sound terrible, and they're basically disposable. If you care about sound (or self respect) at all, you bought something else.
Then, after leaving the earbuds unchanged for nearly a decade, Apple decided its throwaway product needed an overhaul, and spent three years quietly re-engineering them into the EarPods it released last year. And, well, they still suck. EarPods remain a wholly unsatisfying mess that you only use if you flatly don't care about sound quality.
The trouble is that a lot of people do care, and Apple is pushing millions of these garbage headphones into the world with little regard for just how terrible they are.
If Apple buys Beats, it's buying the people who created a revolution in headphones in much the same way that the iPod changed digital music players or the iPhone changed smartphones. Beats by Dre filled the hole Apple left open with a very expensive, immensely profitable fashion statement. Setting aside the issue of sound quality—many people think Beats' bass-heavy sound is terrible—the headphones are a cultural and business grand slam. Beats owns a commanding share of the headphone market because it's selling two things: Cachet, and a heavy-handed sound that people can't get enough of.
Beats aren't necessarily the best headphones. In fact, they suffer from some of the same deficiencies as EarPods: They're basically disposable hunks of plastic. For the money, you can get much better and more durable products. Still, EarPods could greatly benefit from an injection of Beats influence. It wouldn't be the first time Beats invaded the cheap headphones space. In a short-lived partnership with HTC, the manufacturer's phones shipped with some Beats-branded sound enhancements and Beats earbuds. The buds were god awful—and it's almost certain that they weren't the product of Beats' engineers, but rather of HTC marketers who wanted to stick a logo on some off-the-shelf buds. The partnership ended before anything revolutionary happened.
But if Apple locked some of that Beats expertise in a room with the EarPod engineers, you might actually come out with something that makes people happier than EarPods—which is to say, something remotely satisfying.
We have no idea what Apple wants to do with Beats—or even if it plans to buy Beats at all, though at this point it seems likely. If it does, there's an incredibly boring reality here: Beats is a great business. Apple sells a boatload of its products to end consumers online and through its sprawling network of retail stores. Apple sees the numbers, and the company knows damn well how many Beats headphones it's selling. Why shouldn't those profits just go to Apple's bottom line?
And of course, there's the issue of the on-demand streaming service. Beats just launched a really good one, and rumor has it, Apple's in the market for one. iTunes sales have started to feel the pain of subscription music services, and sooner or later, it'll probably want to jump into that fray. (Though, let's not forget that selling music through iTunes remains brisk business.) Besides acquiring a very profitable accessory business, Apple would be getting a slick on-demand music platform that it can bake into the millions upon millions of products it sells.
But even these realities underscore that Beats knows what Apple doesn't: iTunes is a consumer disaster, and Apple is selling obscene quantities of other manufacturer's products. And when it tries its hand at accessories itself, it frequently misses.
Which brings us back to the worst thing Apple has ever made. To be fair, it's naive to think that Apple doesn't know how to make something better than EarPods—it's just trying to produce a plastic solution as cheaply as possible. When you buy an iPhone, are you really concerned with the headphones that ship in the box? Increasing the production price by even a small amount costs Apple millions, and it's hard to argue it's going to help the company move so much as one extra unit.
But lets talk about price. Apple sells EarPods on their own for $30, and I have a hard time believing it can't do better. In the last year, both Sol Republic and Shure have released solid in-ear headphones much better than EarPods for less than $50. Is the problem that Apple doesn't have the resources and brainpower to commit to the project of making a better bud that costs the right amount to make? Of course not. Apple's product strategy has always been an obsession with detail and perfection—if Apple put work into building a better bud, it would absolutely succeed.
If anything, Apple's headphones are weirdly out of character. So even if Apple is too cheap to ever make something better than EarPods, this Beats rumor has us hoping it will at least consider it.
Top art by Nick Stango