I’ve been using the heck out of the AirPods
It’s fair to say these are more than just EarPods with the wires cut off.
Making the cut
“Describe yourself in three words.” This famous question is as old as job interviews themselves. Interviewers favour it for the brief and simplistic response that follows, while also opening up the interviewee. What do they think of themselves? Are they humble? The good news is that AirPods don’t have to choose their characteristics. That’s my job, and hence I can throw away with typical, humble responses to the question. Three words which accurately describe AirPods are:
As is the case with any human interviewing for a job, there’s more to the story than a mere three adjectives.
The Purpose of AirPods
Many argue the Apple Pencil was the most transformative Apple product of the last few years. Combined with iPad Pro, it changed workflows and allowed once devout Mac users to use iOS almost exclusively. That said, Apple Pencil is still a niche product, and iPad Pro is just a faster and bigger version of the iPad we’ve had since 2010. Apple Watch was a new product category for Apple - a wearable computer. Since the original Pebble I’ve been convinced of the utility of a smartwatch and, while they aren’t for everyone, have found them to be useful in many aspects of life. Describing wearable technology back in 2013, the CEO of Apple Tim Cook called it ”Profoundly interesting.” Apple Watch wasn't announced at this time, but I find it hard to believe it was the only wearable product in the pipeline.
AirPods were announced by Apple back in September, alongside the iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2. Much of the focus of this event was on the new iPhone and the removal of the ancient headphone jack. At the time I was surprised so many people were talking about AirPods as “wireless earphones” and not as a “wearable device.” After spending the last few days with the AirPods, it rings true that their significance lies more in the latter than the former. These are more than special earphones. They’re a new category of wearable device. By design, they are the type of product that can passively stay in a wearer's ear regardless of if audio is playing. Apple Watch is worn all the time, whether a user is actively using it at that moment or not, while iPhone and the Mac get used deliberately, an explicit action is taken to use them. Even picking up a device and unlocking it is a definite action. Not unlike the Apple Watch, AirPods are worn passively. There is social a stigma surrounding AirPods for the moment, but the potential is abundant once people are used to them and not afraid of wearing them in public. (Yes, I am that guy who did his Christmas shopping walking around with one AirPod in.) Just like an Amazon Echo or Google Home brings a voice assistant to the home, AirPods bring Siri directly into the ear of a wearer. The “always on” approach is different to how most people I know now use earphones. Putting in earphones expresses an intention to listen to something then and there, and taking them out means you’ve finished. I believe that with time, as good wireless earphones emerge, this won’t be the case, and it won’t be uncommon for people to leave earphones in regardless of whether they’re listening to something. AirPods are modern, wearable technology at its finest.
Apple chose the same white bud design as we’ve seen them use for the EarPods since 2012. EarPods are almost certainly the most popular earphones in the world because of the sheer amount of iPhones sold. You can’t get on a bus or walk down the street without seeing a pair. EarPods have always been a comfortable fit in my ears (who would’ve thought having relatively large ears is a good thing?), and the AirPods are just the same. They haven’t once felt like they’re going to fall out and this includes while at the gym doing all of my regular exercises including running, weights, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups; you name it. They’re hardly noticeable in the ear. More on the sound quality later, but I think they’re enough to make me ditch the pair of Bose earphones I used to use while running and at the gym. Without wires, the AirPods don’t get caught on things, don’t get tugged out of ears, and most importantly don’t get tangled in your pocket, making them fantastic for moving around. The charging case is a necessary part of the AirPods package, and it’s ideal for ensuring they aren’t misplaced when out of your ear. My one problem with it is that it’s noticeable in a pocket. With previous earphones, I could throw them into a pocket with my iPhone and couldn’t tell they’re there. The same can’t be said for the charging case. It’s somewhat bulky and noticeable in a pocket. I’d recommend keeping it in a separate bag or pocket if possible.
The marketing departments at earphone companies have been a few steps ahead of the product for the last few years. The term “wireless” has been used to describe any earphones that connect wirelessly to another device (typically over Bluetooth). However, most of these earphones have a wire going between the two earbuds. Sure this is a nitpick, but it’s the truth. It’s been a couple of years since I first heard about Earin - a similar product to AirPods in the sense that they are also truly wireless. Earin has only just come to market this year after years of media attention, which proves just how complicated truly wireless earbud technology is. Not everyone wants real wireless, either. There are already products on the market that introduce a cord between the two earbuds. In the case of the AirPods, the decision to adopt an entirely wireless design was a good one and adds to the uniqueness of the product. Going wireless allowed for each AirPod to be incredibly lightweight - 4 grammes (or 0.14 ounces). They are so light that I often forget they’re in my ear when nothing is playing.
Initial setup and pairing
The W1 chip inside of the AirPods promises to simplify the pairing process and ensure the “clunkiness” of regular Bluetooth is no longer an issue. The pairing process was simpler than I could have imagined and went something like this:
- Open AirPods case
- Hold near iPhone
- Press Connect button that magically appeared on iPhone screen
That was it! AirPods were connected to my iPhone and every other device on my iCloud account. The next time I sat down in front of my Mac, I could pair to the AirPods. The option to connect also appeared on my iPod touch and even my Apple Watch recognised them. By default when AirPods are taken out of the case they connect to your iPhone, but the switching process is just as easy. To connect them to another iOS device the switch can be made in Control Centre with just a few taps. On the Mac, you can connect to the AirPods from the Sound menu bar item. I like the way Apple have implemented the switching, as it is a significant improvement over the typical "un-pair then pair" method of switching connections on a regular Bluetooth device.
There’s been a lot of talk about the “special sauce” used by Apple in the W1 chip that allows for brilliantly fast pairing and incredible Bluetooth range. I don’t have any other Bluetooth earphones to compare the range to, but I am impressed. I can walk around the entirety of a relatively large house with my phone in one corner of the house and the AirPods in my ears across the other side of the house, and the sound is as clear as ever. My experience is similar at the gym. My phone can be left in a locker, and I can be using equipment 15 or so metres away through multiple walls and the connection holds. I’m not sure if it’s normal for Bluetooth, but it sure is impressive.
As mentioned in my initial impression, I’m no audiophile. Whether they’re better than EarPods or not, I can’t say. It’s too close to tell. That said, I do appreciate good sounding earphones (to an extent). Up until now, I’ve used Bose SoundSport earphones while running and at the gym. I do notice the sound quality is better on these than AirPods, but at this stage, I don’t think they’re better enough to warrant choosing them over the AirPods when at the gym. Only time will be able to confirm this, but I think the convenience of AirPods will be enough for me to use them 95% of the time.
As a proud Millennial, I rarely make phone calls. The couple I had the misfortune of making while wearing AirPods went fine. They were uneventful. I could hear the person I was talking to, and they could hear me. I’ve nothing more to say here, move on…
Battery life and charging speed
The battery life and charging speed of the AirPods go hand in hand. Although battery life isn’t fantastic for “wireless” earphones, my early usage suggests 5-6 hours on a single charge - in line with Apple’s estimates. They charge so fast that I don’t see this as an issue. By design, when finished listening to AirPods they go straight back into the case where they start charging again. A 10-minute break in usage might charge the AirPods nearly 50%. Apple says a quick 15-minute charge will give 3 hours of listening time (equating to a 60% top-up) and my tests have all either matched or bettered this figure. Having to charge so frequently might sound in conflict with what I said earlier about wearing them constantly. However, that isn’t necessarily so. Future models will undoubtedly achieve “all day battery life”, but until then I imagine most wearers - even those who want to wear them all day - will be able to find a few 10-15 minute blocks to top them up. The result of which is almost all day battery with little worry. As an example of my workflow, I might have them in for 3 hours of my morning while I work at my computer, two of which I’ll be listening to something. At this point, the battery is around 70% when I leave for the gym before lunch. The 5-minute drive to the gym is enough for the AirPods to almost top up completely to 100%, and the same goes on the way home, so I start the afternoon at 100% again. They charge so quickly that I see battery life being a non-issue.
Apple says that a fully charged AirPods plus a fully charged charging case will total 24 hours of battery life. I haven’t done any formal testing, but it seems about right. I went 72 hours between the initial charge and the first recharge of the case. It’s hard to say how long I used them for each day, but either way, a wearer will have no trouble getting a full day of heavy listening on one charge. Remember I was using them an awful lot over these few days for testing, so I’d say an average user will manage to go close to a week between charges of the case. As an aside, charging the case does feel a bit like charging a pack of Tic Tacs. Now let's move right along.
I mentioned before that the AirPods charge quickly, however, the same can’t be said for the charging case. As an example, the left earbud was at 9% battery, the right one had died at 1%, and the case was also on 1%. Plugging the case into charge brought both AirPods to 80% after 15 minutes, and to 100% only 7 minutes later. After an hour of charging, the case was at 64%. It took a little over 120 minutes to bring the AirPods charging case up to 100% battery. While you can expect the AirPods themselves to charge quickly, my recommendation is for wearers to get in the habit of charging the case overnight alongside your iPhone, as it takes about as long to charge.
AirPods know when they’re in your ear, and when you take them out. If you take just one AirPod out, the audio you’re listening to will pause and resume upon the replacement of this AirPod. This handy feature and has worked reliably every time I’ve tried it. Double tapping on either AirPod will toggle Siri; however, this control can be changed to play/pause the audio as required.
Siri on AirPods has been a disappointment for me so far. The way to active it is to double tap on either bud and then talk. It feels clunky and is less than ideal while out in public where others can hear you. It’s weird to talk about apparently nothing to nobody, asking to play, pause, skip, or turn the volume up. In my experience, it hasn’t worked reliably either. I would tell Siri to “play”, it would respond with “okay”, and then nothing happened. It’s also just an inefficient way to control whatever audio is playing, as it’s time-consuming, and results in paused audio while speaking to Siri. Controlling audio from your phone is much more efficient. Pressing the play button is going to work 100% of the time on your phone. But having to carry a phone around just to control AirPods isn’t perfect, as it defeats the freeing wireless ideal of not being weighed down by anything. One of the greatest advantages of AirPods is that my phone can stay anywhere in the house, in the locker at the gym, or in a bag and I can still listen to the audio. There is a solution, however.
Apple Watch as an accessory to AirPods
Just like the Apple Watch is an accessory to your iPhone, in many ways it is an accessory to AirPods. To truly be free from your phone while using AirPods, a smartwatch with audio controls of some kind is necessary. It doesn't necessarily have to be an Apple Watch, but for the sake of this paragraph, I’ll refer to the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch allows for the best of both worlds - control over the playback from the AirPods but also the freedom to walk around without a phone in reach. The “Now Playing” app in watchOS allows for basic play, pause, and skip controls, as well as volume adjustments. The Music app allows more detailed control over what album or playlist is playing, and my Podcast player has a watchOS app that allows me to change what Podcast is up next without having to unlock my phone. Interfacing with the audio through the Apple Watch is far superior to Siri, and for that reason, if you are at all interested in freeing yourself completely from your phone I’d strongly recommend the Apple Watch as an accessory to the AirPods. It’s strange to call it an accessory to a device that’s a third of its price, but that’s what it feels like after a few days of use.
AirPods are a transformative product. As a new kind of wearable device, their use in the immediate and long-term future are two different things, and I’m excited about the possibilities. As a product itself, they are more exciting than both this year’s iPhone and MacBook Pro. Their truly wireless deign sets them apart and contributes to the uniqueness of the product. The way they connect via Bluetooth is innovative and perhaps a little bit magical. I’m excited to use them daily going forward and to see where future generations of the product go. I’m prepared to make the prediction that these will replace almost all Bluetooth earpieces that are commonly worn by business professionals trying to look important, and drivers who spend long days in trucks and need to make a lot of phone calls while on the road.
There is currently a six-week wait on AirPods across most of the world, so it’s unlikely you’ll find a pair before Christmas. That said, they will make a great present for anyone who might’ve ordered them already. Should you get a pair? It comes down to a few things. If you’re someone who cares a lot about audio quality, then perhaps they aren’t for you. If you wear an Apple Watch, then you’re someone who already likes Apple accessories and new tech, and should probably check out the AirPods, both for the convenience as mentioned earlier and also because you’ll probably like the new tech inside of the AirPods. Finally, it comes down to whether or not they fit in your ears. As great as they are, the unfortunate reality is that AirPods won’t be very useful to you if they don’t stay in your ears. For anyone who is unsure, I’d encourage you to order a pair and take advantage of Apple’s 14-day return policy in the case they don’t fit. If anything I’ve mentioned in this review excites you, then AirPods are probably for you. So try them out, and let me know what you think.