Can we all agree not to get too jaded about tech? Sure, there are a lot of superfluous gadgets out there, but there’s also a fair amount of stuff that’s actually pretty cool: high-flying camera drones, virtual-reality headsets, Web-connected devices you can chat with. Surprisingly enough, Apple’s new AirPods fit squarely in this category.
Bluetooth headphones are not new. They have become increasingly common as sound quality and connectivity improve. And Apple itself forced the issue by leaving the headphone jack off the iPhone 7 completely, meaning users have to plug into the Lightning port or make the leap to wireless. This category has been dominated by large over-ear headphones or smaller in-ear models that are still tethered to each other by a cord that has to drape clumsily around the neck. Truly wireless earbuds (nothing but what sticks in your ear) began showing up earlier this year, and while they were an interesting peek into the future they were mostly plagued by flaws that made their steep price tags hard to swallow. The Apple AirPods – announced in September and then mysteriously delayed for nearly two months – have managed to eliminate almost all the flaws. We’ve spent some quality time with them and this is what we’ve found.
It’s become sport for some people to bash Apple’s every move and the AirPods got their fair share of abuse. Most of it centered around the design, and we don’t get it. They’re almost identical to the standard Apple earbuds included with all iPhones, just without the cord. A bit of the device does extend away from the ear (in part to house the microphone), but it doesn’t look as strange as early critics argued, and wearing them around town I felt a lot less self-conscious than I do with huge-ass over-ear headphones. Most surprisingly the fit was much better than the those standard ear buds, and although they feel as if they could fall out of your ear they never do. They stay planted better than the old earbuds – possibly because a cord isn’t pulling on them. But the truly elegant part of the design lies in their dental floss-sized case – it’s classic Apple: slick, simple and highly functioning. In addition to keeping the AirPods safe, it has an built-in battery that provides an additional 24-hours of charge power (the earbuds themselves hold a 5 hour charge).
Setup and Sound
If you’ve ever tried to set up a Bluetooth device you know the experience ranges from painful to excruciating. The AirPods by far clock the quickest time from out of the box to fully functioning of any device we’ve ever used. All you do is open the case in the vicinity of an iPhone (running iOS 10 or later) and a window pops up asking you to connect. Voila, they’re paired for life. You don’t even have to navigate to the Bluetooth menu deep inside your Settings. Immediately you can start playing music from your phone, and low and behold it sounds excellent – crisp and clear with a wide audio range that leans towards the treble end but has adequate bass (for a tiny earbud). There’s one big caveat: this assessment applies to listening indoors. Walking around town or riding in a loud subway, the subtlety of that audio disappears since there is no true noise-cancellation because of the open air design. Good if you want to be partially engaged with the outside world, bad if you want a pure sonic experience.
The AirPods are more than just earphones. As a companion to an iPhone, iPad, and even an Apple Watch, they are also a Siri machine. Instead of grabbing your phone to chat with the virtual assistant you simply double-tap on the outside of either AirPod and you summon her powers (get the weather, send a text, find a Starbucks, etc). Unfortunately, finding that sweet spot to tap was sometimes harder than it should be. And this gateway to Siri is sadly the only control built directly into the headphones. You can’t just skip a song or adjust the volume with a physical tap or button press. You have to literally ask Siri to do either task. And when it comes to music she will only assist if you are playing music through a streaming platform that has Siri compatibilty built-in. Apple music sources are, of course, no problem and Spotify also worked. Unfortunately, I use Napster (yes, you read that correctly), and that service’s app doesn’t communicate with Siri at this time, so I was forced to pull out my phone to adjust volume the old fashioned way. Taking calls (also with the same double-tap) on the other hand is always a hands-free delight. The microphone is very clear, and we were even able to carry on a conversation while riding a bike. Also notable is how infrequent the AirPods drop the Bluetooth signal. While it does occasionally happen – Bluetooth is far from a perfect technology – it’s a much rarer than with similar devices on the market. The AirPods are also cheaper than other wireless earbuds too. And while $159 is still a pretty penny to spend on far less than audiophile-grade headphones, it’s a bargain for the experience of walking around, totally wire-free, with a personal soundtrack pumped directly into your brain. In a nutshell: pretty fucking cool.