Apple Headphones with Remote Replacement Program

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
April 20th, 2010 • 6:21 pm

When I bought myself an iPod touch back in November 2008, I quickly decided that I wanted better headphones than the cheap ear buds that came with it. But I also absolutely wanted a solution that included a basic remote so that I would be able to play/pause/skip and adjust the volume level without having to take the iPod itself out of my pocket.

At the time, there were a few solutions, and Apple had just announced its new in-ear headphones with remote and microphone. While not exactly cheap, the package sounded promising, with quality earpieces and the basic remote functionality I needed.

I had never used in-ear headphones before, so I was taking a bit of a gamble, but I guess I just put my trust in Apple to have come up with a good mid-range product that would meet my needs.

The first in-ear headphones started shipping early in January 2009 and I got mine with that first batch.

While there was a short period of adjustment for me, I ended up liking the headphones. They are not perfect. The earpieces tend to move a bit in my ears when I am exercising, so I occasionally have to adjust their position in order to get the full spectrum of frequencies. (When they move, I tend to lose the wider spectrum of low frequencies, which is one of the benefits of this particular type of headphones as opposed to regular ear buds.)

And I also find that, while the cords are made in a material that is quite good at avoiding getting entangled, they also tend to rub a bit again my ears while I am walking, in a way that produces a bit of friction noise in my ear that is noticeable during quieter musical passages. I can alleviate this somewhat by bringing the main cord in a more vertical position, but when I am walking outside and the weather is windy, the cord tends to move and lose its position. (And the in-ear headphones don’t cancel out the noise of the wind as much as I would like.)

The remote buttons, while they are quite tiny, work OK for the basic level of interaction with the device that is required in most situations.

So I was pleased with my purchase and ended up using these headphones all the time for listening to music with my iPod touch, especially while exercising.

But then all of a sudden a couple of months ago, the remote stopped working properly. The volume buttons no longer worked at all, and the central button only worked very intermittently for pausing playback. In addition, all of a sudden there were weird symptoms where the volume levels would drop off for no reason. I was quickly able to establish that all the problems were apparently due to a defective remote.

The device was out of warranty, and I was a bit disappointed that Apple had not produced something that was more durable than that. The in-ear headphones themselves were still working OK and I could work around the problems with the remote by controlling the playback and the volume levels on the iPod touch itself, but obviously that was a significant loss in convenience, and I figured that, sooner or later, I would have to buy a new pair of headphones. And I was not sure I was going to buy the same ones again, given their rather poor life expectancy.

Since this was in early spring and the weather was promising to become better, I wasn’t exactly in a rush to replace the headphones, because it is easier to get the iPod touch out of one’s pocket when the weather is nice and there are fewer layers of clothing to go through. So I decided to wait a bit and think about it.

It turned out that it was a pretty good idea. Just this morning, I saw this article at Ars Technica entitled “Apple to replace problematic headphones with inline remote.” Intrigued, I checked it out. The replacement program is mostly about the headphones with inline remote that were sold with the iPod shuffle in the February 2009 to February 2010 period, but the article also said:

Apple notes that Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic and Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic may also exhibit this problem, and are also covered by the replacement program.

I followed the link and, sure enough, I was able to confirm that Apple had indeed a replacement program for headphones with remotes, including my in-ear headphones.

The program page’s instructions were mostly for people with defective iPod shuffle remotes, so I had to figure out what I was supposed to do in a situation that didn’t involve an iPod shuffle, especially in a case like mine, where the closest authorized reseller is a 6-hour round trip away.

I tried to find out what the serial number of my headphones was, but of course there is no number on the headphones themselves, and an examination of the original packaging was inconclusive. (It has an SKU number and a couple of other numbers, but they don’t look like serial numbers.)

So I was unable to use the Service and Repair page that asks for your hardware’s serial number.

I also tried the Apple Expert page, which uses your Apple ID login to give you access to a list of your past purchases and select the one you want to get support with. Unfortunately, my in-ear headphones were not listed there, even though they were a separate purchase. So obviously the Apple Expert system was not available for this product either.

I ended up calling Apple Care. Unfortunately, the Apple Care phone line now uses one of those voice recognition systems that I positively loathe. It’s not just that these systems are not always very good at recognizing my less-than-perfect English accent. (My mother tongue is French.) It’s because these systems replace clearly defined options (associated with numbers that are easy to punch in unambiguously on your phone) with fuzzy questions that are supposed to give you the impression that you are talking to a real person.

I find it insulting, and it’s a system that is simply not designed for unusual requests. And of course mine was not a common request. It asked me to say what product I was calling about. I naively said, “in-ear headphones.”

Good luck with that one. In spite of the fuzziness of the question, the system obviously only recognizes a very limited number of words, like “iPod,” “iMac,” etc.

So after 20 seconds of cursing, I ended up being transferred to the waiting line. I was on hold for about 10 minutes with an atrociously distorted Stevie Wonder track and more unlistenable stuff, and eventually I got to speak to “Wendy.”

She was quite friendly and, much to my surprise, immediately recognized the issue. Given that this replacement program is a fairly new thing, I was expecting a randomly selected customer service representative not to know about it and I was prepared to give him/her the link to the Apple web page about the program.

Although she wanted me to give her the serial number of my iPod touch first (a separate purchase, and the iPod touch has no issues), she then immediately indicated that she knew what I was talking about, and asked me to describe my in-ear headphones. In particular, she wanted to know if they had “China” written on the main cord about 5 mm below the part where the two individual cords join up to form the main one.

Sure enough, I had “China” written on mine, although I had never noticed it before! She asked me to describe the symptoms, and immediately agreed that they matched the criteria set by Apple. She just said that, since this was not about a product with a serial number, she had to get a special authorization from her manager to put the case under the serial number of the iPod touch.

It took a few minutes, but she came back and set up the replacement process for me. They are going to send me a new unit, and when I get it I have to ship the defective one in the packaging and return it with the prepaid label. She asked for my credit card number, just in case I fail to return the defective unit. But otherwise there will be no charge, and the headphones will be replaced at no cost, not even a shipping charge.

She also said she would get the system to send me a confirmation e-mail with the case number and everything, and sure enough, two minutes after I hung up, I got the first e-mail in my mailbox. I got a couple of other e-mails later in the day confirming various things.

The thing will even be shipped by courier (FedEx), so I should get it within a few days. (That’s how fast courier delivery gets to us here in southwest Nova Scotia—if we’re lucky.)

All in all, I must say that, apart from the voice recognition system and the atrocious music, it was a first-class experience, and I am particularly glad that Apple has set up a replacement program for this, even though, according to them, it only affects a “very small percentage of iPod shuffle owners.” (They don’t say how many in-ear headphones owners are affected.)

I am also glad that I didn’t rush to replace the defective headphones, and that I didn’t throw them in the trash either. Obviously, some other Apple customers have had to do the leg work here and get Apple to recognize that this was an issue that was common enough to require a replacement program. I am grateful to them and for the fact that, for once, it wasn’t me.

There is speculation in the Ars Technica article that the problem might be related to sweat from your workout getting into the remote, but Apple does not specify the cause of the issue. Since they also mention a cut-off date of February 2010, it seems to indicate that they believe that they have solved the problem and that the new remote should be more durable.

We shall see.

Comments are closed.