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Why I'm thrilled that wired headphones are 'trendy' again

As someone who's been against wireless headphones since they first rose to prominence, I'm delighted.
Plugging back in ... so hot right now.
Plugging back in ... so hot right now.TODAY Illustration / Gotham / Raymond Hall / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Trendsetters are eager to declare wireless headphones uncool, from sleek earbuds to bulky over-the-ear headsets, and I couldn't be more thrilled.

As someone who's been against wireless headphones since they first rose to prominence, I was delighted to see a Wall Street Journal article suggest that the Bluetooth-enabled devices were no longer considered "trendy."

It felt like a victory after years of carrying around a barely functional iPhone just because it still had a headphone jack, and after multiple tries at buying a splitter that would allow me to listen to music and charge my phone at the same time. As I write this article, I'm wearing wired headphones (with a volume-adjusting bar and all), and I can't imagine using wireless headphones to get through my day.

"In short, AirPods have become too widespread to be cool," wrote the Wall Street Journal. "So, perhaps inevitably, contrarian trendsetters are reviving some ancient technology: corded headphones."

In September, one TikTok user dubbed wired headphones a "vintage accessory."

“It’s ... like the weird 2020s equivalent of how being into vinyl records was really cool and aesthetic in the 2010s,” said @thedigifairy in her late September video.

In recent months, dozens of videos have sprung up on social media calling wired headphones "vintage" or "retro," garnering tens of thousands of reactions. Lisa Z. Morgan, head of the apparel design department at the Rhode Island School of Design, said that a sense of nostalgia is part of what's fueling the revival.

"There's a very wistful look back to times that appear to be simpler, there's no doubt about it," Morgan said. "There's a sense of nostalgia (from teens) for a time that I don't think they've even experienced, which is quite curious ... I think they see these photographs and images from magazines and music and culture."

It's been a journey to this current wired headphone revival. In the 1960s and '70s, bulky headphone sets used built in AM/FM antennas to catch radio signals. By 2004, Bluetooth technology became more widely available, and in 2008, Beats by Dre brought celebrity style into the wireless headphone game. AirPods hit the market in 2016, and since then, wireless headphones and earbuds have been rising in popularity, boosted by leaps in technology and Apple eliminating the headphone jack on iPhones.

According to Shelby Hull, the creator and operator behind the @wireditgirls Instagram account, a page that chronicles sightings of famous celebrities wearing wired headphones, the soaring popularity is partially a fashion trend.

"I think people are bored of the minimalistic millennial tech, everything being sleek and clean," said Hull, 24, who started the account in October 2021. "I think maximalism is coming back. The same way Y2K fashion is back, so is Y2K tech. There's phone cases that make your phone look like a Motorola Razr. I think it's something that makes them look like they don't care: They're unbothered by keeping up with tech, they don't care to fit in in that way."

Hull said that she also thinks the wired version of headphones projects an "intentionally effortless" aesthetic inspired by celebrities like Bella Hadid, who made headlines for rocking wired headphones back in 2019, and Lily-Rose Depp. Morgan agreed, noting that wired headphones project a too-cool-to-care sense of effortless style.

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - August 15, 2021
Lily-Rose Depp is one of the pioneers of the wired headphones trend, according to Gen Zers. Gotham / GC Images

"I think Gen Z looks at this, and a lot of the things that they do, as a form of aesthetic expression," Hull said. "Everything has an intention behind it, whether that be to look cool or 'fit in.' ... (It's) very much intentional effortlessness, but as soon as the effort is noticed, it's no longer cool, you've failed in your feat to seem cool and chic and hot and unbothered."

My own reasons for shunning wireless headphones are more practical than fashionable — wireless headphones, especially earbuds, seem too easy to lose and too expensive to replace. It's also more obvious when someone is using wired headphones; just try attempting a conversation while walking through New York City or heading into a subway station.

Morgan said that wired headphones also tend to project a sense of trying to be left alone, noting that she's seen students wearing them while working on projects.

"I think it's clearly signaling that you're in your (own) world, which is difficult to do with the wireless," Morgan said. "With the wired ones, it can seem like you're taking a position to kind of be with yourself, consciously removing yourself from what's going on in a more proactive way, which might be connected to (presenting an appearance of) self-care and slowing down."

Wired headphones don't require charging, so you're never stuck with dead earbuds and you don't have to remember to plug them in. If you ask me, they're also a lot harder to forget and easier to keep track of (a single pair of headphones rather than two earbuds and a case).

Another reason why people are reconnecting the cord? Price. Wired headphones are usually more affordable than their wireless equivalent. Apple's corded headphones cost $19 and discount versions cost as little as $8. More expensive, over-the-ear versions cost around $50.

Meanwhile, the cheapest version of AirPods cost $129. Most Beats headphones cost more than $100, and other brands like Sony charge $50 or more for a pair of wireless earbuds. Discount versions of wireless earbuds can cost as low as $20, but they may need more frequent charging and may not have some of the features of their more expensive alternatives. One TikTok user joked that the sudden chicness of wired headphones makes it fashionable to go with the more affordable option.

As disconcerting as it is to hear wired headphones called "vintage," it's also an exciting turn. It's fun to know that a choice I don't think twice about is apparently the peak of "effortless chic," and there's always the hope that Apple will change its mind after almost half a decade and bring back the headphone jack to iPhone devices.

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - July 02, 2020
Bella Hadid, seen here in 2020, has donned wired headphones since at least 2019, setting the stage for the "trend."Gotham / GC Images

Morgan also emphasized how, just like any other accessory or fashion choice, what audio device we use can be a way to make a statement about ourselves and our values. And if that seems like too much weight to put on a pair of corded headphones, well, that's fashion.

"I think that comes back to the beauty of fashion," Morgan said. "...The degree to which (a wearable item) signals your tastes, identities, sensibilities, what you’re standing up for, is fundamental as to why it has worked so well and why it’s such a measure of what’s happening culturally."