Will.i.am’s New Wireless 'Button' Earphones Beat Apple’s AirPods
“Dork, dork, dork,” Will.i.am recently muttered, teasing himself while thumbing through his phone. He sat on a velvet bench at a downtown Manhattan event space, impatiently searching for a particular video while a handful of journalists looked on.
“Dork, DORK, dork,” the aspiring tech visionary continued, self-conscious about going on a tangent. The musician—who remixed his legal name, William Adams, en route to co-founding the Black Eyes Peas and winning seven Grammys—found the video at last, a scenic landscape a friend had shot from behind the wheel of a self-driving car. The clip didn’t really have anything to do with what we were there to talk about, which was Buttons, the snazzy new gizmo from his tech company, I.am+. But it was typical of how he’s constantly thinking about how he can help shape the future of technology. And even his simple plans for something such as Buttons (tagline: “Bluetooth earphones for the dope”) directly relate to those grand schemes.
What Are Buttons?
The earphones are the latest tech gear from Will.i.am. Each set of Buttons features two earpieces backed by metallic circles. Slightly wider than quarters, the earpieces are connected to each other by a woven fabric cord and to your playlist by an 11-millimeter driver unit.
They harken back to his one unqualified success as a tech entrepreneur; Will.i.am was, with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, an equity partner in Beats Electronics, quiet but influential. (As Fortune noted two years ago, “the Beats logo is identical to the ‘b’ from the original Black Eyed Peas logo.”) In fact, not only has he launched an earphone brand before—he’s launched a wireless earphone brand already. In 2016. He tried a similar project in the spring with EPs, which were greeted with the immediate derision of the tech press (which has grown weary of chortling at Will.i.am+’s failures) and the near-total uninterest of the public (which, when thinking about Will.i.am and technology, mostly thinks about his hologram-like CNN appearance on Election Night 2008).
How They Came to Be
“The headphones that we had before, the EPs, were an accessory to our wearable phone,” he said. “Angela [Ahrendts, senior vice president of retail at Apple] saw them and said, ‘That headphone is a product of its own.’ When people whisper awesomeness—when inspiration comes—I take it seriously.” He went on to tick through the upgrades to the originals that are supposed to justify Buttons’ $230 price tag—the adjustable earpads, the amped-up battery life, the magnetic discs that shimmer like swanky tribal earplates.
In his press presentation, he didn’t mention the indefinite delay of Apple’s AirPods or the negative popular response to their design—two facts that will likely help Buttons’ commercial prospects. (Happily for Cupertino, though, four of the eight Buttons colorways are exclusive to Apple, chosen to match your new iPhone 7.)
That’s pretty much the only thing he left unsaid as the evening drew on. Will.i.am discussed the scheduled January debut of Gucci-designed Buttons. He offered some rather vague talk about the very concrete pending launch of I.am+’s AI system, a digital assistant named AneedA. He gabbed about the recent day in London when he and Bill Gates sat on stage at the Science Museum and talked about innovation. He discoursed about disruption and elocuted about education and followed far-flung thoughts into a projected future.
Are the Buttons Any Good?
In the days after, I used a demo set of Buttons to listen to my recording of the interview during my commute. The set up was easy, even for a geezer. Keeping the things tucked behind my tragus was hard—until I discovered my correct size among the package’s cornucopia of replacement earpads. They were, in fact, so secure that the cord draped across the nape of my neck was most useful when I need to fish the things out of my bag. To test sound quality, I played the two musical acts called out in an accompanying glossy booklet: The drone and rocking lilt of Stereolab came through loud and clear, while Drake sounded, as usual, totally adequate. To test visual quality, I walked around New York, where I attracted glances that combined admiration and curiosity in somewhat the way I.am+ aims to combine fashion and technology. I again heard Will.i.am say, “I could ramble on for hours and hours” and, walking, felt much the same.