Bluetooth is convenient AF when it works and annoying to troubleshoot when it doesn’t. Conceptually, it should just… always work. One device pairs with another, they communicate happily as long as they’re both powered up, and they save you from having to deal with annoying cords and cables. Simple, right?
Not so much, says Lifehacker Managing Editor Joel Cunningham in this week’s question for Tech 911. He writes:
“I’ve been coveting a pair of AirPods for years, but I also don’t trust myself not to lose $250 headphones, so I got a pair of one of the many generic imitators now available. I grabbed my Apple clones at Target for around $50, and I’m mostly happy with the build and sound quality, and they work great with my phone, but… I cannot get them to pair with my 2017 Macbook Pro. If I put the headphone in pairing mode and open up the Bluetooth setting on the laptop, they will show up in the list of nearby devices. Clicking on them changes the status to ‘connected’ and I hear a tone in my headphones, but then they immediately disconnect before they even begin piping through the audio of whatever I’m listening to.
I know there are a ton of knockoff AirPods out there, and I am sure you don’t have access to the same ones I have from Target, but I wonder if there are some standard troubleshooting solutions to try when Bluetooth headphones are giving you problems?”
Troubleshooting until you’re Blue(tooth) in the face
I totally get your frustrations. Again, connecting devices via Bluetooth should be simple, easy, and convenient—the entire reason why you’d want to use a wireless connection instead of a cable. Bluetooth should save you time and hassle, not create more of it. But here we are, stuck with a pair of wannabe AirPods that simply don’t work well with your MacBook.
My first thought is that Apple knows you’re trying to get around plunking down triple-digits for real AirPods. As a result, the company is punishing you for your insolence from afar.
In actuality, the issue is probably a lot simpler. Your $50 earbuds probably weren’t created or tested with compatibility in mind. They’re cheap earbuds. As a result, they’re a bit more “you get what you pay for.” Bluetooth is finicky enough as is, and I wouldn’t assume that every inexpensive Bluetooth device is going to work with everything else right out of the box. They should, theoretically, but there’s no guarantee (as you’re now finding).
Regarding your specific wireless earbuds, I actually found someone else complaining of a similar compatibility issue on Target’s website:
Before we get to any troubleshooting—if there’s even any to be had—I wanted to first call this out. It’s super-important to do your due diligence when purchasing new gadgets. That’s even more true if an item’s price is your primary motivator; or, to phrase it differently, if you’re looking for cheap gear, you’ll want to put in a little extra work to make sure you’re not wasting money.
There’s nothing wrong with inexpensive tech gadgets. Before I were to pull the trigger on something cheap (or a blatant knock-off of a more expensive product), I’d scout every review I can find from places such as Amazon, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, et cetera, to confirm that I’m not buying a crappy product with compatibility issues.
I realize that it can be hard to get an overall picture of a gadget’s stability from reading online reviews. These can often be a bit more doom-and-gloom, since people are more likely to shit on products that annoy them than praise products that have worked well for them. But you can certainly get a general idea of problems others have encountered with a gadget. That’s important data you can then use to evaluate the amount of risk you’re willing to accept with your potential purchase. You can also usually see if people with a similar setup have problems using whatever it is you’re looking to buy. If you’re seeing a lot of reviews like that, you might want to steer clear of the item—especially if there aren’t any obvious steps others used to get it working.
What you can do about a fussy Bluetooth gadget
My first thought is that you’ll want to make sure your MacBook Pro is fully updated with the latest operating system Apple offers—macOS Catalina, as of this writing. And, of course, you’ll want to follow your earbuds’ instructions to put them in pairing mode, then search for them via both the Mac’s taskbar icon for Bluetooth and the Bluetooth section of System Preferences. It’s possible that pairing is messing up in one scenario, but will work fine in the other.
You can also try resetting your Mac’s Bluetooth module. Hold down Shift+Option and click on the Bluetooth icon in your taskbar, which should pop up a screen that has a Reset option. (This might also be under a “Debug” menu, depending on your macOS version.)
Click on that and try the pairing process again once the reset finishes. With luck, that might help your Bluetooth earbuds get connected.
If not—and I suspect you’ll be in this camp—you can always try the generic “reset the PRAM and/or SMC” advice that everyone gives. One of these might help, but I suspect the flaw is more with your earbuds than with your MacBook. Still, it never hurts to turn over every stone when troubleshooting.
Have you tried unpairing your Bluetooth earbuds from all other devices? Perhaps there’s something funky going on whereby your Mac (or your earbuds) can’t see one another if the latter is already paired to, say, your iPhone, iPad, or other device. This is another long shot, but I’d give it a try just in case. Also, you’re not using any other Bluetooth devices with your MacBook at the same time, are you? That could possibly be a source of your issue; I’m not convinced it matters, but we’re in last-ditch territory at this point.
Finally, you could bite the bullet and try getting an aftermarket Bluetooth adapter for your Mac. Yes, you’ll have to spend a little extra—somewhat defeating the point of purchasing cheap earbuds—but this might be all you need to successfully get them paired with to your MacBook.
I’d order said adapter from a retailer with a great return policy and delicately open that box when you get it, in case this doesn’t work and you need to return it. And you might lose some default functionality with your Mac, like AirDrop and/or Handoff, when using the adapter. If it works, your newfound adapter might cause some other annoying trade-offs, which almost makes your cheap earbuds not quite worth the hassle? But that’s just me. Slack me if you get these working!
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