It's been a month of hard knocks for the computing department in my house. Late September, my trusty laptop stopped firing up, and a $150 battery brought it back to life briefly before it once again took a dirt nap. Diagnosis is pending.
To write this column, I asked to borrow my wife's '09 MacBook Pro for the day. She said something about it not working, but I thought she was talking about resources used and the fact that she runs multiple heavy bandwidth programs at once and usually has 50 Chrome tabs open.
So I sat down and cracked it open ... and I noticed the trackpad was pushed up. It looked like something was jammed in it, so I took it to a workbench to blow it out with the air compressor.
The case popped up like it was under pressure as I loosened the screws. Hmm. And then I saw it — massive lithium ion battery bulge! I thought it was funny, or at least not a big deal, until I showed it to an engineer coworker who immediately ran away in fear.
If you haven't seen it, check out lithium ion battery explosions on YouTube. They're terrifying.
The lesson here is that things in constant use will decay and eventually fail. I think my recent battery history is a coincidence, but it does highlight the issue of durability when it comes to heavily used gear.
Portable audio is all about heavy use. I just returned from Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the high-end audio show held last weekend in Denver. My head is full of new portable high-resolution music players, electrostatic headphones and self-tuning earbuds. Besides innovations in technology, as I perused the CanJam portable audio mini-festival on site, I also noticed features focused on durability.
Echobox Audio, a young company out of LA, makes its earbuds out of one piece of solid titanium. Chief commercial officer Sam McKinney can be found on YouTube directing a semi-truck driver to run over a pair of the Finder X1 'buds outside of the audio show. After the slow, heavy rollover, the buds aren't scratched and still sound great.
Astell & Kern's line of portable high-resolution players feel like they would withstand a similar assault and keep playing. Housed in machined aluminum enclosures, they also command some of the best reviews of high-res players.
A common fail point is not the buds or the player's chassis though — it's usually the wires, and specifically where they enter or exit the device. Tangle-free cables have come a long way, and there are some good options for runners and commuters alike now. Aesthetically, the ZipBuds are my favorite approach to this issue, and I've read good things about their sound.
But if you're in the market for a new pair of headphones or earbuds, my durability advice is to look for a set that allows the cables to be removed. Besides the ability to keep stress off the cable when stowed, this allows you to try aftermarket cables that may offer better sound or create fewer knots in the cord.
Remember that everything fails eventually when you're buying personal audio gear, or any everyday piece of electronics for that matter. And if you see your trackpad bulging, rush that thing to the laptop hospital!