Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for February 2022

Follow-up III: More on my current situation (and complaints about politicians)

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Early in the morning, I went grocery shopping—to find that my bank card did not work. (Fortunately, I had enough cash with me.)

Later in the day, my smartphone, used for my Internet connection, suddenly decided to spontaneously turn on WIFI and try to connect to a commercial WIFI network that I have not used in more than a year. This, of course, did not work, leaving my computer without an Internet connection; equally of course, the source of the problem was not obvious and I wasted minutes troubleshooting on my computer* before I concluded that something must be wrong with the smartphone and/or its connection.

*Which has been prone to lose the connection. (Otherwise, I might have been more suspicious of the smartphone earlier.) Both my old and my new computer tend-ed/-s to interpret a minuscule movement of the USB-connector as “someone has just pulled the plug and immediately re-inserted it”, with an ensuing loss/restart/whatnot of whatever service is involved.

After I turned off the WIFI bullshit, I found the USB-tethering interrupted and failing to automatically reconnect (which it should have done). Only after I physically detached and re-attached the USB cable did the tethering work again.

Nevertheless, on the whole, it felt like a good day, for some reason. I did not dare attack my mail, obviously, but spent a few hours watching old episodes of “Chuck”. The sun was, by the standards of February, shining, and it felt like spring. For the first time in several weeks (!), I found myself spontaneously smiling—and I realized that I had even forgotten the feeling of a spontaneous smile. I felt that everything would be alright, after all, that I was far enough in my recuperation from the construction noise and other problems that I would soon be OK.

I was very tired, as my sleep pattern was out of order, and I went to sleep sometime between 13 and 14 o’clock.

At around 14:30 I was torn out of my sleep by … construction noise.

It only lasted for around an hour this time around, but this was still enough to thoroughly ruin my sleep, my day, and my hopes, because now I do not know what will come next. This might have been a one time event, it might have been a once-every-two-weeks-event, or it might have been the renewed beginning of daily terror.

I managed to go to sleep again a few hours later—only to be awakened again by some type of ruckus from an idiot neighbor.

This is the worse as an involuntary awakening not only risks a further sleep disturbance, but also leaves the body in a very different state from a “natural” awakening, with a degree of tiredness and lack of energy that makes any type of intellectual activity (often even non-intellectual activities) harder or even, especially with an existing sleep deficit, impossible for hours afterwards.

Looking at just sleep, I realize that there can be no guarantees in the daytime. But: in this house, there are no guarantees at any time of day or night. The spans between midnight and 02 respectively 06 and 07 are particularly likely to see disturbances during the last few months. Note well: These are disturbances with a non-trivial likelihood* of waking a sleeper in another apartment (!) who wears ear plugs (!).

*I do not know what proportion of these disturbances have ruined my sleep, as I have not always been troubled when asleep at these respective times (if so, because I slept through a disturbance or because there was none?), but it is often enough. I have certainly often had stretches of consecutive days when I have not been able to sleep past 06-something-or-other because of some ruckus somewhere in the house.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 22, 2022 at 9:32 pm

Follow-up II: More on my current situation (and complaints about politicians)

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Concerning my previous text:

I have managed to print again through the pseudo-solution of removing and re-adding the printer object in “system-config-printer”. I have no idea what was wrong or how to fix it again without repeating the same pseudo-solution. I have no idea what might or might not cause the issue to re-occur, e.g. whether it will be with every printing, every unplugging of the printer, every reboot of the computer, whatnot. I do know that CUPS, or something CUPS related, has screwed up royally, as there was no valid reason for not printing (let alone pretending that printing had taken place)—the physical printer (and everything around it) was identical and identically configured before and after the re-add.

Of course, such a re-adding more than once-in-a-blue-moon would be unconscionable, as various manual settings now must be restored. Indeed, the document that I just printed was an A4 document destined for the A4 paper in the printer’s paper tray—but the default setting of the printer object in CUPS was the U.S. “letter”*, leaving me with odd margins and the spurious feed of a blank page after the two printed pages. I just hope that the config files that I backed up contain everything—and that re-adding them does not cause another malfunction. Actually having to go through the 1001 settings manually is not something that I wish to do again.

*I suspect that A4 dominates “letter” outside of the U.S. making this an odd default choice.

More generally, the delete-and-add-again, reboot-the-computer, reinstall-the-OS, whatnot school of “fixing” problems is a destructive dead-end, a sign that the “fixer” is not up to the problem. When it comes to professional IT-support, as with Chris O’Dowd’s mantra of “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”, it is an utter disgrace. In these cases, a true fix of the problem is avoided for the short-term convenience of the support—and often in a manner that indicates that the support worker knows too little about the topic at hand. (Indeed, my own knowledge of CUPS is far more superficial than my knowledge of, say, Vim and Bash.) The complete ignorance and the mania with rebooting, even among many Linux users volunteering as “experts” on stackexchange, can be disturbing. For instance, it is fairly common to see “advice” like “Add kernel module X to /etc/modules-load.d*. Reboot. If everything works, carry on. Else boot into rescue mood and remove module X again.”, where it should be basic knowledge that something like “Do modprobe X. If everything works, add X to /etc/modules-load.d* so that it will be automatically added again in two months time, when you next reboot. If not, do modprobe -r X.” is far better.

*Reservations for the exact directory. It has been a while.

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February 22, 2022 at 3:53 am

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Follow-up: More on my current situation (and complaints about politicians)

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Unfortunately, the problems continue and continue to block me, bring me to the point of fury, and whatnot. For instance, in dealing with my overdue (snail) mail, I naturally want to print. I have already set up printing for my new notebook—indeed, I did so well in advance so that I would not have to tackle any printer problems once I actually needed to print something. At that time, a few weeks ago, both a “print test page” from within “system-config-printer” and a manual test print with “lpr” worked perfectly.

Today, I tried to print a letter for the first time and … nothing works. Specifically, the print jobs appear in the queue, stay around for a very short time, and then disappear from the queue—without anything actually being printed. There is no error message anywhere with normal CUPS-logging; and even with logging set to “debug” nothing obviously helpful appears. On the contrary, every step mentioned is claimed as successful.

The Internet is not helpful either (so far), with most promising hits leading to someone asking a question about a similar problem but receiving no answers, a “please turn on JavaScript” page, a “too many requests” page, or similar.* Notably, the ill-conceived and does-more-harm-than-good stackexchange-network refuses to show any pages on approximately half my visits, which is horrifying in light of its near-monopoly on questions and answers. (Of course, this type of single-point of failure is yet another reason why stackexchange is a bad thing.)

*Note that I use TOR for most browsing, which could make the situation worse. However, until somewhat recently things usually worked. At some point in the last few months, these problems have exploded.

I have not dug down in detail, e.g. with “strace”, yet, but I suspect that the many indirections (for want of a better word) that CUPS has will make even that tricky—and I note that these indirections make for an over-complicated and unnecessarily error prone system for most single-user, one-computer-with-one-printer systems. I will not go as far as to call it a flawed design, as many systems have more complicated needs and there is a cost to maintaining several different printing setups. However, there are times when I really do wish that I could just pump a PostScript file into a device (in the “/dev” sense) and see printing without any middle-men.* (Maybe I can, somehow, but it is a well-hidden secret, if so.)

*Here we have a bigger problem than CUPS involved: The year is 2022 and it should be an obvious requirement that any and all printers support one of the standardized languages, notably PostScript and PCL. and/or otherwise provide a standardized interface. Instead, they continue to brew their own proprietary solutions. More generally, this attitude abounds in the hardware world. By all means, if something is not covered by a standard, a proprietary extension to allow additional functionality is fine, maybe even good, but any modern hardware should work out-of-the-box and with generic drivers for at least the basic functionality. This appears to still be very far from the case.

A similar problem happened with a tool with a simpler-but-more-clearly-flawed architecture: I use “udisksctl power-off” to ensure that occasionally used external hard drives (e.g. for backups) are safely powered down before they are detached. I set this up a few weeks ago and it worked like a charm. After a reboot, it failed to work. (I suspect, due to a not-yet-running dbus.) Interestingly, there does not seem to be any direct means of causing the same action. Instead, udisksctl goes onto the dbus, sends a message to a daemon and the daemon then powers-off the hard drive. That this is possible might be good, but why is there no direct access? A good developer would have provided a tool with the ability to directly do everything that udisksctl and/or the daemon can do in one step—if in doubt, because this would make the life for testers, debuggers, administrators, whatnot easier. This tool might be restricted to root or some other user/group of an administrative or ad-hoc character, but that is not a problem. Then write a daemon with similar capabilities/with the same API calls (or even a daemon that calls the hypothetical tool directly to ensure consistency*); then write a tool like “udisksctl” to handle per-dbus access for regular users.

*Disclaimer: Based on first principles, I suspect that this approach will often be superior to programming directly against an API; however, I have never tested the approach in real life and there might be complications that I have not considered. (Some overhead during runtime might obviously be present, but will usually not matter on a modern computer and/or with a great many tasks.)

As an aside, I very strongly suspect that use of dbus and similar mechanisms poses a greater security threat than suid programs do—and then it might be better to use the hypothetical tool above, with suid set, as the sole point of access. Certainly, it is far easier to understand who can do what with that approach–and, indeed, dbus-solutions often work on assumptions that are unnecessarily lax, that almost everyone should be able to do almost everything., which I strongly disagree with. Interestingly, when I have looked into the possibility of getting rid of dbus, the answers seem to fall into two categories: 1) “I did it, but it took days of work.” and 2) “It simply cannot or must not be done, because without dbus regular users will not be able to do X.”, where X is something that I never do, either at all or as a regular user.

More generally, many in the dbus/sudo/pkexec/whatnot camps seem to simultaneously reason that “You must never, ever, under any circumstances log in as root, because root can do anything and your system might become compromised.” and “We need dbus/sudo/pkexec so that any user can do [what amounts to everything that root can do].”—and they do not seem to see the problem with that reasoning. Looking at the above, do I really want a regular user (account) to be able to power off hard drives? Only under the assumption that the physical user behind the account is some type of administrator or other highly trusted individual. But, if so, it would be better to have him login within an administrator account or, on the outside, make him a member of a restricted group with this right.

Generally, there seems to be a strong drive to use dbus or some other client–daemon setup as a default solution, even when it is not really needed and where a single-tool solution would often be superior. Separation of concerns is a good thing, but, outside of enterprise solutions and areas where complications like networking play in, separation by means of e.g. a clean API is usually a better road than separation through e.g. client–daemon. “Let’s see. I want to write a ‘Hello, World!’ program. Hmm … I write one component that the user can call. This component sends a message by dbus. Then I have another component to serve as a daemon. It reads from dbus and outputs the text. Neat. Or … maybe I should have third component, so that the second only determines what string to print and the third does the actually printing? Oops, I cannot pawn off a mere command-line tool on my users. I’ll write a KDE application instead.”

Oddly, there seems to be much inconsistent thinking. On the one hand, when it comes to security, very many seem to work on the basis that every individual system has exactly one physical user—so why should we care about access controls? (Incidentally ignoring some arguments like lowering the attack surface and avoiding privilege escalation that apply even when there is only one physical user.) On the other hand, compare above, when it comes to tools like CUPS, very many seem to reason that the standard case is far more complicated—resulting in software that is often overkill, a top-of-the-line tractor to move a wheel-barrow’s capacity of dirt from one side of the yard to the other. (A wheel-barrow is certainly not to be underestimated.)

In a bigger picture, looking at my overall situation, it is the sheer amount of things going wrong that is problematic—and of which I have mentioned just a fraction. A great number of these fall into the category (as with e.g. CUPS above) of “should work as is, but for some f-ing reason does not”. To give an illustrative example: After my ANC-headphone issues (cf. earlier texts), I went through what various other headphones and whatnots I have available. While there were surprisingly many (at least six regular headphones, at least two “earphones”, and at least one “in-ear” set) they were not very helpful. What I really wanted to try was the in-ears, but I simply cannot find them. (They are included in the count on the basis that I know that they are somewhere in the apartment.) Earphones are fairly useless; and of the regular headphones only one set is really good (Sennheiser HD 598).* Unfortunately, these have a 6.35 (?) mm plug, while my notebook needs 3.5 mm. A search also found one adapter, but this low-quality product drove me up the wall—unless the headphone-plug and the adapter were aligned exactly correctly, the sound went monaural. That is, unless it turned into nothing or spontaneously alternated between states every few seconds. Of course, aligning it perfectly bought be very little time, because even a slight movement caused the perfect alignment to cease. Tired of this shit, I disassembled the adapter and rigged it manually. This works well—most of the time.** Usually, I get hours of sound without any issue, but maybe once a day, the sound goes and I have to re-rig it. Of course, this usually happens just when I have something ready to eat in front of a movie, which causes both the meal and the movie to be delayed. Worse, the re-rigging does not usually take on the first attempt, forcing some experimentation and repetitions.***

*I also have a good pair from Beyer, but the plug has been bent over the years and I want to avoid the risk of it breaking off inside my notebook.

**Follow my example strictly at your own risk.

***Chances are that I could find a better solutions, with no need to re-rig at all; however, when it works I have no thought on the matter and when it does not work, well, in my typical mood over the last few weeks, it is safer that I wait.

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February 21, 2022 at 10:08 pm

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More on my current situation (and complaints about politicians)

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Apart from a few hours on the 11th, there has been no construction works for some time. I am still bordering on being a wreck, however, between the accumulated damage from construction noise, countless other issues, and, of course, frustration with the anti-scientific, anti-democratic, anti-civic-rights, and anti-individual political climate that manifests again and again. Only over the last week or so have I moved away from having bouts of anger, sometimes to the point of shouting out loud, on a near daily basis.

Do not even try to tell me that COVID would be a problem in comparison.

To illustrate how viciously such prolonged* stress can damage someone: Yesterday, I read that Germany was finally caving and beginning to lift its destructive and scientifically unfounded restrictions of various kinds. This with the likely additional implication (knock on wood; there was no explicit mention) that the threatened forced vaccinations would be off the table for the time being. Truly good news! This is something that should have put a smile on my face and made my day. What happens instead? Within five minutes I am in fury over the situation until now, having to restrain myself from shouting out loud that Merkel should be thrown in jail and have her Ph.D. revoked.

*Note e.g. that the COVID situation has been going for close to two years and that the construction noise has, in bouts, covered more than an accumulated year of my total stay in this apartment. Also note that the COVID situation often has blocked escapes and “rest and relaxation” that would have been open to me during other times. Also see excursion on built-up tension.

It is that bad.

Indeed, I have begun to avoid some news sources, even when valuable, because the contents are too frustrating and slow the restoration of my own normalcy. Indeed, I have hardly written a word for my books since December, because I have not been able to gather the energy. (Blogging is easier.) Indeed, I have over a dozen unopened and unanswered letters lying around, the oldest from October—first because I wanted to wait until the construction works ended (but they went on forever), later because I feared that too bad news before I had reached some normalcy would cause me to snap to the point of, say, throwing my notebook at the wall. (But, no, that is not what happened to the old one.)

These letters include sources like my bank and various government agencies, notably the German IRS—exactly the type of letters that it can be harmful to neglect. Still, I have simply not dared the attempt.

Beginning today, I am going to (try to) take a few a day (with reservations for what happens). The two that I opened today were perfectly harmless, but my pulse was still raising due to sheer nervousness—what if this is some really bad news and my progress over the last week is ruined?* (Not to mention whatever the bad news might involve more directly.)

*I realize, of course, that most letters do not bring bad news—some might even bring good news. Maybe, they will all turn out to be harmless. Still, the risk is there, and, at least in Germany and at least where banks and the government is concerned, the risk is not trivial. Moreover, there might well be some item that has only grown to be a problem due to the delays.

Excursion on built-up tension, etc.:
As an extension to an earlier text, I note that any fit of anger leaves me more prone to have another fit of anger in the course of the same or even the next day. When there is no time to, to use the metaphor from that text, empty the basin, the risk of further fits increases, and when the stress is constant over weeks or months, e.g. through construction noise, it is a disaster. Positive events leave me almost untouched; negative ones, even minor, cause the basin to overflow. (Cf. above.)

Excursion on forced vaccinations:
A few weeks ago, I read a German article that loudly proclaimed that no-one would ever be forced to take a vaccine. (Bodily self-determination, and all that—we are not Nazis after all and any longer.) No, to speak of forced vaccinations would be horribly unfair towards the poor politicians, because no-one would ever be held down with violence while some physician stabbed him with a needle. No, all that would happen would be fines—honest. Well, from what has been suggested so far, and looking e.g. at Austria, these fines might have been very large, highly damaging to most and preventative to many. If that is not enough, barbaric German laws still allow for various forms of imprisonment for not paying government-proclaimed debts and whatnots to the government. An enforcement with bodily force would not be much worse, would at least be honest, and would expose the government to a greater resistance from the population. (The latter likely being the true reason for why bodily force is avoided.)

Excursion on the need for a reckoning (and Merkel et al):
In the last few weeks it appears (again, knock on wood) that the public opinion has finally turned enough that politicians begin to cave and (whether a separate event or not) journalists and government agencies appear to finally begin to report the actual science, instead of their own panic-mongering pseudo-science. This is not enough. To prevent repetitions, we need a reckoning, we need countermeasures, we need consequences for the main perpetrators—and, above all, we need the broad masses to understand how very thin the protection against another Communist or Nazi dictatorship or an Orwellian dystopia actually is. Among measures, we need more political transparency, “evidence based” politics, and a ban on politicians dictating to the people what the people should believe. (A complete discussion might take hundreds of pages.)

As to consequences for the main perpetrators: Above, I speak of wanting to shout that “Merkel should be thrown in jail and have her Ph.D. revoked”. While this, of course, was not a reasoned opinion but a “heat of the moment” thought, there is more than a little to it—and many others, including Biden, Fauci, Macron, and Trudeau, should be prosecuted.* Even if they are subsequently acquitted, this will set a warning to future leaders to tread more carefully; if they are convicted, the more so.

*Speaking from an abstract ethical point of view. Whether the current laws in their respective jurisdiction allows this is another matter.

Merkel has been a particular disappointment (for the umpteenth time!): Unlike many of the others, who have a comparatively weak education, say a bullshit bachelor and a J.D. for most U.S. politicians, she has a STEM Ph.D., she has research qualifications, and she has worked as a scientist. Nevertheless, her behavior has ranged from the un- to the anti-scientific. She has betrayed science, just like she already had betrayed the traditional values of her party (Christian Conservatives) to form repeated coalitions with the Social-Democrat archenemy and often seemed more Left than “Right”, herself. She might no longer be the chancellor, but she had done a tremendous amount of damage to Germany and her party even before COVID arrived. During the COVID-era, she has been a disgrace. Indeed, Merkel embodies the type of politician that I so loathe—and the reason that I once was a fan is that I assumed that her scientific background would make her the opposite of what she turned out to be.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 18, 2022 at 7:55 am

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Second set of ANC-headphones half-dead / Follow-up: Some UI problems and other complaints

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While the construction work has been absent for a while now (knock on wood), the stream of frustrations continues, preventing me from leaving the mire of anger and depression that the construction works brought on.

For instance, about two weeks ago ([1]), I wrote about the usability problems with (among other things) two ANC-headphones, one of which was destroyed through being the last straw on a breaking back.

This left me with only one pair and, due to COVID-restrictions, only a limited ability to buy new ones, should the need arise. But why should the need arise. Realistically, several years of additional life could be expected from the remaining set.

Today, two weeks later, need arose:

When I have trouble sleeping, or when I am very sleepy but lack the self-discipline to stop watching a movie/TV-episode, I like to put my laptop on my bed next to my head, lie on my side, headphones on, and watch something until sleep comes—which is usually quite fast, making this a good strategy from a sleep perspective.

I have done so, every now and then, for many years with several different headphones. Hardly ever has there been a problem of any kind. Today, I woke up to find that the headphone-side connector of my Bose 700s had broken off inside the headphones. Trying to listen to something, I now have either mono sound or no sound at all, depending on my luck. Even buying a replacement cable, even if possible to a reasonable price (which is far from a given), might not help, as pushing it in might be impossible or do some type of damage to the headphones as the broken-off piece of the old connector is displaced.

Now, why is there a headphone-side connector to begin with? Presumably, because Bluetooth is the preferred-by-Bose means of connection—and God forbid that someone using Bluetooth is spotted with a cable dangling from the headphones. Then again, cf. [1], I have no ability to use Bluetooth with my computer,* making this yet another case of expensive extra-functionality that I have no benefit from and which, de facto, lowers the value of the headphones to me. In this specific case, note that a fix connection with just continuous copper wire could not have broken in the same manner, because there would be nothing stiff to break (and often a smaller lever to break with).

*So far. As I am currently on a newer computer with a newer kernel, a newer set of drivers, a newer set of configuration programs, whatnot, I might be luckier this time around. (But I have yet to make the attempt. It might work trivially; it might cost me hours of time and further aggravation and, ultimately, not work—and I do not want to take that risk right now.)

After I detached the cable, the headphones played some insanely loud music and began to pester me about setup this and download that. (And what the hell for?!?) Realizing that I might have to cave and use the Bose app to have some sensible functionality without a cable (if and when I get Bluetooth to work), I had a look around on the Internet. First impression: there is no way to download it without registration and without activating JavaScript. User hostile bullshit! A customer friendly supplier had simply had a HTML page list direct links to various versions, to download simply by clicking on them—no registration, no JavaScript, no bullshit.

What I need and want are regular, over-ear, quality headphones with strong ANC—and compared to non-ANC headphones, it is the ANC that I pay for. What do I get instead and what do I actually pay for? Useless-to-me extras like Bluetooth, telephony functionality, smartphone functionality, Alexa/Siri support, whatnot. Then there are the secondary issues like on-ear instead of over-ear and that easily breakable connector that a non-Bluetooth set would not even have had.

For my own part, it is highly unlikely that I will buy another Bose product (of any kind) in the foreseeable future. Generally, I might go as far as letting my next experiment with ANC (depending on whether I can make Bluetooth work) be an in-ear one in combination with (when the need arises, e.g. during construction works) earmuffs. (To be contrasted with my previous approach of earplugs + headphones.) These tend to be cheaper and less over-loaded with functionality that I do not need and/or that outright hinders me.

This, however, seems to be a part of a bigger, negative trend, where the high prices make the manufacturers throw on as many features as they can in order to justify the price, but where these new features drive the price even higher. (By no means limited to headphones.)

I further fear that headphones have moved from something for audiophiles (or, for ANC, those who wish to reduce outside disturbances) to a status symbol, which drives prices up artificially. Much of this is likely to blame on Apple and Beats, with their image based sales-tactics. Beats, in particular, might have more in common with Nike than with Sennheiser (or, possibly, the Sennheiser of old).

Other trends do not strike me with enthusiasm either. Notably, the big buzzword today appears to be “true wireless”. This sounds impressive—like wireless-but-better. In fact, it is like wireless-but-worse, because the “true” part merely implies that there is no secondary ability to connect the headphones by wire.* Notably, the trend towards a “smartphone assumption” is quite strong—not only is the user supposed to own a smartphone and have the right app installed, but he is supposed to use the smartphone as the source of sound. Do not dare presume that your expensive headphones should be usable with, say, a computer, a CD/tape/record player, or a portable (non-smartphone) player.

*To avoid misunderstandings, I have no major objections against Bluetooth or connecting this-or-that per Bluetooth—except for the problems with Linux connectivity. However, there are some more general advantages to a wire, including that the headphones can be used with an empty battery, that the quality in poor conditions remains high, and that the risk of someone spying is smaller. Then there are all those gadgets that do not have Bluetooth to begin with.

Finally, above I said “Hardly ever has there been a problem of any kind.” and I can, indeed, only recall two instances of problems (prior to today). These two issues are very similar and add further concern as to the true quality of these expensive ANC-headphones. The first was with my Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC, where the covering of the earmuffs soon lost quality and eventually tore, leading to less comfort and (likely) a reduction in the noise isolation. In contrast, all other headphones that I have ever used in this manner had kept perfectly intact. The second? My Bose 700s, where the covering of the earmuffs soon lost quality and has already started to tear. Who said that newer, or more expensive, was better?

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2022 at 10:00 pm