Walk This Way

If you live in a town where most traveling to and from places is done by auto, you might not experience this phenomenon, but I see it every day: when I walk down the street I pass person after person plugged into a pair of white iPod headphones. In New York, this is almost a given feature of pedestrian life, a subtle way in which Apple has left a mark on the character of the city. The other day I started wondering how many iPods I actually see during, say, my walk from home to work in the morning, was it just a few that seemed like many, or was there really an iPod consumer on just about every block?

Below: Map quest. Thirty-two iPods (each in red) I passed on the way to work.

So last Thursday morning I printed out a map that covered my route from my apartment in the East Village to my office on 27th Street, and as I walked, I made a little dot every time I spotted someone wearing those telltale headphones. In total, I counted thirty-two iPods; not an insignificant number by any means. Assuming that the average cost of one of these things is, say, US$300, you could say that I passed about US$9,600 of Apple revenue in just a thirty-minute walk.

Map of iPod Law

Of course, using this count to measure the iPod phenomenon is hardly sound analytical methodology. You’d need a larger sample size and more rigorous controls in place to really derive any useful data — not to mention a theorem more interesting than iPod pervasiveness to work on. Still, I think it would be an amusing experiment to create an aggregate map of, say, twenty Manhattanites’ walks to work. That would make for an interesting if still unscientific information graphic — you’d see a city covered in little red squares. Granted, it wouldn’t necessarily be useful for proving anything other than that, yes, there are too many people with enough disposable income to spend on overpriced MP3 players. It’d be neat all the same, though.



  1. My brother and I kept a tally of iPods we saw on the subway when we were there last year. We both had iPods ourselves, but the phenomenon hadn’t really taken off in Melbourne at that stage, and we were shocked by the number of white earbuds. I can’t remember the exact number we saw, but it averaged out at around 11 per trip, and the record was 31 on a trip across to Brooklyn. I guess that’s why it’s called The Big Apple?

  2. I’ve been using non-Apple, non-white headphones for over 2 years now for my (oldish now) iPod. So you probably missed a bunch. They are approaching the everywhereness of those Ugg boots (which still haven’t completely gone away from last winter). I like not having the telltale ‘phones. Such an iconoclast, I. (that’s sarcasm for the sarcasm-impaired!)

  3. I can’t stand the sound (or the fit) of the iPod headphones, and like ToddG have been using a less conspicuous pair since my first iPod, 2-something years ago.

    Try the average college campus–it’d be a completely red map with only a few dots of black showing through!

  4. I was in NYC last week for the first time. I was amazed by the number of iPods, and I’m glad to see someone else found it as noteworthy as I did 🙂

    Being an Apple fan from way back, I was heartened to see the iPod pervasiveness. But I gotta say, having music blaring in your ears when a train is coming toward you and you’re surrounded by 1000 strangers is an odd feeling. I kind of preferred having all my senses available.

  5. Yeah, if you walk around NYU it is ridiculous. It seems like every other kid has them. I could barely afford AA batteries for my cassette walkman when I was in college!

    And no, the education discount doesn’t explain it – it’s like $30 off or so. There just seem to be lots of very wealthy NYU students.

  6. It does surprise me how many students can afford iPods. I was scrambling to put $100 together to buy art supplies at the start of each semester when I was a student; I can’t imagine how long it would have taken me to raise the capital for something as exorbitant as an iPod. Gawd, I sound like an old man.

  7. I know, us old fogies recalling the ol’ days. Tuition is like $40K a year or something, so you gotta figure they’ve either got loads of cash or some serious, serious debt. They also populate restaurants and cafes all over the area – again, my splurging on dinner was buying the more expensive marinara at the supermarket. Ah well. Good for Apple I guess (and hopefully us when they release some sort of IBM supercomputer desktop at a reasonable price.. ha! right!).

  8. iPods for students aren’t unreasonable:

    1) Parents got them for: a) graduation, b) birthday, c) Christmas

    2) All the money they save on no longer buying CD’s (through downloading) means all that money can be justified on an iPod to play said *free* music!

    3) The availability of used iPods for cheap, especially older generations, on Craigslist and eBay is staggering.

    4) The FreeIpods scam really does work.

    5) People use their student loans for something else or get a little bit extra thrown in.

    The sad thing is, that all of the above is all very very true. I know someone for every situation above.

  9. I wonder what percentage of iPod users use different headphones? I always thought that the original ones were terrible, I switched within a week.

    Incidentally, nice NYC street map, where did get the original?

  10. It’d be interesting to find out exactly how many iPod users switch headphones. I’ll bet that number will increase as people realize that they become targets for an iPod mugging. Or maybe that’s just a very young urban myth.

    The New York City street map was basically lifted from Google Maps. I should have given credit for it, right? Please don’t sue, Google.

  11. I, too, did the headphone switch. I use a pair of $10 sonys that sound much better… I know when I was in Chicago last December, the streets were littered with people and their white headphones…

  12. I feel sad when I see all the people with the white earbuds here in San Diego, as their sound quality really is rather poor; they could have a much better listening experience with little effort or outlay. I’ve been using Koss PortaPro headphones – pretty darn good sound quality, under $50, and they even fold up small, but they look a bit goofy.

    I think that the ubiqiuity of the white earbuds can best be explained by the idea that people want to be *seen* to have an iPod.

  13. Matt: Gawd, that’s totally true — the white earbuds definitely are a fashion accessory, a conspicuous signal of a conspicuous kind of technology consumption. I’m just as guilty as the next guy of this, but I am tending towards an investment in a new pair of earbuds. I like the earbud form factor, but I don’t know how to shop for a pair that’s higher quality and in my price range (US$50). Where’d you get those Kosses?

  14. I’m surprised you didn’t see more. I did a similar un-scientific experiment on my site a few weeks ago. I counted 41 iPod headphones (versus 17 ‘other’).. that’s a huge shift. Assume that what some users have said is true.. some of those 17 might even be iPods.

    ..they’re beyond a majority on this campus. Very nice map though.

  15. I still have my first generation iPod. I got it when it came out, my sophomore year at the University of Kansas. Now, in my last semester here, I have seen the campus go from no white buds to nothing but. Most people see me and figure I’m one of them, but I have a retractable pair of white earbuds – so just when they think I’m another drone, I hit a button and snap, the buds coil into my pocket. I love it, and I love my old, battered iPod.

  16. I switch between the ipods ‘phones and old walkamn ones and yes, if you get $200 noise canceling ones, your audio quality is better but for under $100 – not a lot of diffrence in a noisy city – if ou listen to 128 encoded rips, well, they will sound crappier and while nicer headphones will help slightly – if you encode at 224+ VBR, the ipod headphones work just fine – provided you are already deaf from blasting music in your ears :0

  17. You might want to change the link to your work site – it 404s when I follow it. Perhaps to ‘/about_us/’ instead of ‘/about/’?

    I don’t own an ipod – that’s why I have time to be pedantic instead. 😀

    [Thanks for pointing that out! It’s fixed now. – Ed.]

  18. I have an iPod, but the first thing I did was to get a decent set of in-ear headphones. Most people I know who have an iPod don’t use the headphones that came with it – we use those Fontopia ones… So the people you see with black and silver headphones might well be using an iPod.

    Besides, you can *buy* white earbuds now that aren’t made by Apple.

  19. I think my own results around the university where I work are roughly the same, though I’ve been paying more attention to the percent of white earbuds compared to other headphones. Interestingly, between 66 and 75 percent of the people with headphones that I walk past have the white Apple headphones. (I’ve gotten pretty good at telling which are Apple and which are just generic white.)

    It makes me wonder how many of the non-Apple headphones are still linked to an iPod. (Mine are non-standard headphones, because I, like Matt, prefer better sound quality. That and earbuds tend to hurt my oddly small ears.) Additionally, it makes me wonder how many college students would actually buy crappy Apple headphones and hook them up to something else just for the iPod status appearance.

  20. The revolution will really start once iPod’s can connect via wireless to the net and automatically collect new music, purchase new music instantly, as well as allow you to participate in online music communities while staying 100% mobile. You will be able to say goodbye to CD’s forever then. I’m looking forward to it.

  21. Spotting the white iPod headphones can mean several things:

    1) This person actually has ears that the buds fit comfortably inside of. In this case rush them as they probably work at Apple and might be able to get you an inside track on a Shuffle.

    2) This person has spent so much of their disposable income on the iPod that they had nothing left to get proper headphones (unlike Aegir):

    Fontopia soft buds (white even)

    or they live in Canada where these won’t be available until March (and aren’t me who goes to NY enough to have picked up a pair almost 2 years ago).

    3) They are a Tool of Apple.

    almost forgot

    4) They just don’t know any better.

  22. Hi, I’m a Native NYer and iPod owner. White earbuds are everywhere. It’s harder to find BLACK earphones in most “hip” areas of Manhattan than to find white earphones.

    I hang out a lot in Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Clinton Hill, etc., and the white earphones are LOT harder to find there. There are a couple in my gym, but walking around down the street, I’m normally only one with white earphones. Sometimes I’ll pass maybe 2 or 3 people with white earbuds in those areas. I guess because of their exhorbatant price tag, a lot of people that live in most areas in NYC but outside of Manhattan can’t afford one, or maybe they aren’t as vain or a bunch of fashion whores.

    BTW: I’ve been using the Apple iPod “In-Ear” Headphones for a year, NOT the stock earbuds which have the worst, thin, tinny, weak, bass-less sound I’ve ever heard from ANY earphones in my life! They’re so bad that I sold mine on eBay and only use the In-Ears (which are better than the stock earbuds but not by that much) or a pair of black Sony’s.

    When I see someone with white earphones, I immediately scan up to their ears to see whether or not they have the crappy stock earbuds or they actually care about their music and tried to “upgrade” to the Apple In-Ears or if they have white NON-Apple earphones.

    So far, all I’m seeing is a bunch of mindless drones with the stock earbuds that are either too caught up in the iPod look to care about sound quality, too strapped for cash after buying an iPod to afford a better set of headphones or just to ignorant/stupid to realize that the stock earbuds are complete CRAP! I silently go “Oh Man” and shake my head when I see some poor soul walking around with those iPod Stock earbuds because I know how bad they sound. It’s really a shame…

    I just purchased a pair of black Shure E2c’s ($$$) online and am eagerly awaiting it’s arrival. The Shure’s will be my main headphones. So I will join the growing group of iPod owners soley use black headphones. Although, as I mentioned prior, I do use a pair of black Sony’s, but it’s typically ONLY for jogging and exercise because the Apple In-Ears don’t stay in my ears during vigorous activity. I’ve been mistaken many a time as a Non-iPod-haver a few times. Oh, but the look on people’s faces when I’m using the black Sony’s and pull out my iPod to switch a playlist or adjust the controls is one of astonishment, sheer disbelief, then confusion, then anger, then accpetance. It’s hilarious!

    As more people realize that looks aren’t everything and want to actually get their money’s worth out of their iPods, you’ll see a LOT more iPod owners with non-white, non-Apple headphones. It’s starting to happen. Tons of people got iPods for Xmas and I’m sure tons of people are figuring out that the sound out of the stock earbuds are a complete joke… they’ll soon catch on and switch up… that is, if they’re not mindless fashion whores trying to show off.

  23. I think you guys have it partially right and partially wrong on the earphones here. I own a 40Gb, and a 1Gb Shuffle. (I’m selling a 512mb shuffle by the way). I own both Shure E3’s and the stock apple white earbuds. When I’m just listening to my music and don’t need to hear anything else I plug in my E3’s, they sound great and they block out everything else. If I need to hear the phone ring or someone talk to me occasionally I’ll go with the white apple earbuds. First of all you are never going to get the best sound from any earphones I don’t care how much money you spend. Secondly you aren’t ever going to get the best sound from an MP3 player when you are compressing your music. I think each headphone has it’s place and there is room for both. I walked around Chicago with my E3’s in my ears to block out traffic but I play poker with the white earbuds so I can hear what’s going on at the table. The E3’s are great on airplanes also. I think they all have a time and a place to be used.

    Besides, they are free and how much better sound are you going to get from any earbud in the $20- $50 range? I had Sony Fontopia in ears before my Shures and they were marginally better then the stock apple earbuds but not worth the extra $40. White apple earbuds are fine.

  24. In Los Angeles where nobody walks it’s a bit difficult to tell how big the numbers are, however there are two indicators.

    The first is the gym where I’d say at least half of the people at any givin time are wearing white earphones (it’s a large gym).

    The second is the car. Almost all of my friends have some sort of iRig for their SUV listening pleasure. In fact I plan on purchasing my next car based on its capability to handle my first generation 5-giger (that still rocks like I bought it yesterday – scratches, dings and all).

  25. there’s a new language developed, too: one ear hanging out means that the music really doesn’t matter much and i can still hear you / talk on a cellphone.

    it’s sick, if you ask me.

  26. I just got an ipod a little bit ago and was wondering if you guys had some suggestions on good earphones? I have ridiculously tiny ears, so unless there are earbuds out there in kid sizes those are pretty much not an option.

    And yep, here in Chicago the white headphones are everywhere too…although virtually everyone who commutes uses some sort of music device to tune out all the annoying people talking loudly on their cell phones

  27. hi i am from the uk, just read your comments about ipods, i have been looking in uk for decent pair of black headphones for my ipod as the white ones stand out and say mug me i have a ipod. in manchester everyone have got ipods but the rate of muggings have gone up and you feel not safe having your ipod on in public. apple should make black or white headphones so you have the choice when you purchase your ipod. we need to catch up with you we only have one apple store in london thats it.

  28. You know, I do LOVE my ipod!!! Its been forever that I wanted one…and I totally agree with the previous posts that yes, there are lots of people now a days that can spend that much money on ‘entertainment’. However, I must say…that for me, its not only for soothing my city life soul but also to study my jazz singing tunes and also I carry inspirational stories-read-by-author stuff plus career, business motivation/entrepreneurial stuff as well! So…when Im joggin in the AM I listen to (as annoying as he is at times…but heck, he’s got a point.) Tony Robbins, sometimes Kiyosaki stuff to Wayne Dyer/Williamson stuff to Astrud Gilberto! However…can anyone revive my ipod? It is SO on life support at the moment…about three days ago, while I was joggin on the beach (I live in Southern Cal) it somehow dropped on the sand and….in came the wave!!! 🙁 🙁 😮 I rescued it so was in the water for like 0.0001 second…but it died for a day and now the light comes on (amazing strength I say you little one!) but the text is not visible. Its salt water too…so im thinking that even if I dry it out or get it fixed at an electrical place…its not going to be good news either way for my little poor ipod….what do you think? If I send it in to Apple to fix, the support person told me that it would cost me around $250. I got my 20G ipod for $99! …was a special student discount when I bought my powerbook last september. I guess….I need to search on the web for a used one or get a brand new one?? Any suggestions??? thanks!!! Thanks for this fun post you guys too! 🙂

  29. As I got to NYC I had to buy an IPod ’cause I felt like the only stupid Italian girl without it…And I have to admit that it became my best friend during the eternal trips from one side to the other of the City…It’s an incredible,outstanding invention.Even if,by using it,we completely destroy our chances to meet people in this mess that is NY…

  30. Very interesting comments, everyone. . . Just received an iPod as gift. I quickly realized that I was going to need to get new earphones, because I am deaf in one ear, and different parts of the music were coming into each ear. As a result, I’m only hearing “half” of everything. . . Any suggestions for earphones? Do the ones that you’ve all already mentionned compensate for this problem?

  31. To the person above – stop by Radio Shack and get a little adapter plug that is mono (monaural) only or converts from stereo to mono. Then you will hear both stereo channels as one mono channel in both ears of the headphones.

  32. Using a mono adapter for ipods doesn’t work.

    I have tried. The adapter can break the ipod connector, as it sticks out. ANd, you need to “break” the headsets, or deal with a spare earbud hanging around.

    I bought a mono headset at Radio Trash, which lived up to its name, very poor.

    I just noticed C.Crane has a vox headset which is mono. Wonder if anyone has used it. I know Sony once made a quality mono earbud set, but I cannot find it.

    If anyone else knows where to get quality mono earbuds, please post. A noise cancelling one would be best, but I imagine that market is fairly small. 😉

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