Apple’s AirPods Pro cleverly solve one of the trickiest parts of earbud design with a unique button — even if it’s not technically a button at all.
Officially referred to as the “force sensor” (a title that makes the button sound far more interesting than it actually is), it’s technically nothing more than an indented portion of the AirPods Pro’s stems, with some fancy hardware that measures not just capacitive touch but also pressure. But the faux-buttons solve one of the most annoying things about earbuds: how to control them.
A smart solution for a more recent problem
The issue of controlling truly wireless earbuds is a relatively new one. Older in-ear headphones often included a row of buttons on their wires, which allowed for volume and playback controls to be placed in a spot that’s easy to reach and find. But in-ear wireless earbuds don’t leave a lot of space for buttons, joysticks, or control wheels to manipulate playback, forcing manufacturers to come up with alternate solutions.
Touch controls, employed by headphones like the Galaxy Buds or the regular AirPods, have emerged as the most common answer. Tap, double tap, or triple tap your earbuds, and you’ll be able to play, pause, and skip around your tracks.
In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month is a monthly column that explores the physical pieces of our phones, tablets, and controllers that we interact with every day.
The problem, though, is that in-ear headphones — as the name suggests — are already nestled pretty firmly into your ear. And tap controls mean that you’re either shoving those earbuds further into your ear (painfully so, sometimes) or dislodging them entirely, at which point you’re risking loss or damage when your expensive buds plummet to the ground.
Apple avoids both of those problems with the force sensor. Instead of putting pressure on your ear, Apple has users squeeze the stem of the AirPod. It’s a far gentler movement that doesn’t move the earbud as much, reducing both the risk of discomfort and dislodging.
Its controls are pretty similar to the other methods of headphone control: one squeeze to toggle play / pause, two to skip forward a track, and three to skip back. There’s also a fourth long press, which toggles the various noise cancellation modes.
The whole design guides you through how to use them, too. The indented pad makes it clear where to press to activate the “button,” while the requirement for some slight force makes it hard to trigger unintentionally.
And while there’s no physical haptic feedback from the force sensor, Apple does some masterful work in tricking your brain that there is, through clever clicking sound effects relayed through the earbuds to make it feel like you’re pressing a button.
The controls might not be long for this world — Apple is rumored to be testing a new version of the AirPods Pro that would remove the stem (and the force sensor) entirely. It’d be a disappointing change, given that the force sensor isn’t just a great control method; the AirPod stems are one of the more recognizable parts of the product, so much so that it’s the main thing copycat designs tend to replicate.
Is it a lot of engineering work for a relatively simple function? Undoubtedly. But it makes a crucial part of operating the AirPods a seamless, aesthetically pleasing, and comfortable process. And what more can you ask than that?