By Jason Snell
September 9, 2016 4:46 PM PT
The Magic of AirPods
Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.
Let me start with an admission: I’ve never really liked Apple headphones. I didn’t like the original iPod earbuds, and while the next-generation EarPods were clearly better, I still never found them particularly comfortable or good sounding. Ever since I first tried a set of in-ear monitors about a decade ago, I’ve been unable to go back.
I am also in the minority. Most iPhone owners use stock Apple headphones—if they use headphones at all—and they like them just fine. Most of those people won’t care about Apple’s new wireless AirPods, either.
But these new AirPods… I think they’re going to be an extremely successful product, and more than that, I think they’re going to create an avalanche of competitors that try to match or beat Apple at their game. This is a product that really does feel magical, in old-school Apple style. It’s a thoughtful application of a bunch of different technologies, largely learned by spending a decade building miniaturized components for smartphones. Apple wasn’t the first company to create this sort of product—Bragi has been there for a little while—but it’ll be the one to popularize them.
What I’m saying is, I got to use a pair of AirPods for a few minutes on Wednesday and was incredibly impressed.
The case for easy pairing
AirPods come in a storage case that looks like a somewhat outsized dental-floss dispenser, right down to the flip-up top. Inside the case is a battery that you charge via a lightning jack on the case’s bottom. Apple says AirPods will last about five hours on a charge; plop the two AirPods into the case and in 15 minutes they’ll charge for three hours of playback. Apple claims the case will recharge them for up to 24 hours of play time. (Depending on how often you use them, that could be a few days or even a week.)
When you flip the case open, it starts the pairing process. The iPhone detects the AirPods, and—here’s one of those great advantages Apple has in controlling all the different aspects of its products—automatically slides up an AirPods pairing sheet from the bottom of the screen. No trip to the Settings app is required, just a single tap.
That pairing information is also synced via iCloud, which means that once you’ve paired AirPods to a device associated with your Apple ID, it should automatically be paired with all of your other compatible Apple devices—Macs, iPhones (iPhone 5 and later), and iPads (iPad mini 2 and later).
(And yes, the AirPods are Bluetooth devices underneath the surface. Apple has added a whole layer of secret sauce to make it easier for them to connect—sort of like the plug-to-pair trick they did with the latest generation of its Magic input devices.)
The magic’s in your ears
Apple’s attention to detail, and to how people use their headphones, extends to the way that the sensors on the AirPods and the software on the iPhone work together. If you’ve got audio playing on an iPhone and then you pop an AirPod into one ear, the iPhone automatically switches the audio input to that AirPod—in mono mode, no less. Put an AirPod in the other ear and now you’re hearing everything in stereo.
Without a cable, there’s no clicker to play or pause your music, but if you pull one of the AirPods out of your ear, the iPhone pauses automatically—a cue that you’re removing an earbud because you want to hear something in the real world, or are talking to someone. Pop the AirPod back in and the audio begins to play. Take both of the AirPods out and the iPhone switches its audio output back to its own speakers. On my current pair of Bluetooth earbuds, when I’m done with a run I need to take the earbuds out and then mash on a button for a few seconds until it finally turns itself off and disconnects from my iPhone. This is better!
Hey, Siri, make it louder
However, losing those physical buttons does mean you’re more limited in what kind of control you can exert without pulling your phone out of your pocket. Tap one of the AirPods twice and they’ll trigger Siri on the phone, and since the AirPods feature embedded noise-cancelling microphones, you’ll be able to issue any Siri command you want.
This also means that if you want to adjust the volume or go to the next track, you’ll need to do it by voice. If you’re a compulsive volume adjuster or track skipper, you’ll need to get used to asking Siri for help—or if you’re like me and also an Apple Watch user, maybe get used to controlling your playback via the watch instead.
Unfortunately, my time with the AirPods was in a really loud room, so I can’t vouch for how they sound—which, for some people, is a make-or-break proposition. If they’re anything like Apple’s EarPods, they’ll be fine—not great, but also not terrible, and good enough for most.
(If you’re used to wired audio, you should know that wireless audio is compressed. In the case of the iPhone and the AirPods, Apple’s using AAC audio streaming. I sort of assume that if the audio it’s playing back is already in AAC format—in other words, Apple Music files or the sound track for most movies—it simply passes the audio through. I doubt that most people will be able to discern the difference on a pair of AirPods, but if you’ve got a collection of lossless music that you currently listen to via wired headphones, be aware: going wireless means your audio will be compressed into a lossy format before it’s transmitted.)
I was encouraged at how the AirPods fit my ears. Their actual shape seems to be identical to those of the old EarPods, but there’s one key difference: the AirPods don’t have cords stretching downward, constantly pulling your eardbuds out of your ears. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes, but it does seem to make a difference. As a result, AirPods could be more comfortable and fit better than EarPods. I hope Apple finds some way to let people try them on in Apple Stores, just to get a sense of the fit before they buy them. (And yes, my colleague Susie Ochs at Macworld reports that she even did some headbanging in the demo room and had no issues with the Air!)
One serious concern I’ve heard from people regarding the AirPods is the ability for them to get lost. The existence of the battery case should reduce them getting misplaced around your house a bit, but let’s be serious—these are small and they’re going to get dropped or misplaced from time to time. I haven’t heard anything about a “Find My AirPods” feature, though it sure would be nice if they could make a ping sound on demand. (I’m also unclear just how asleep the AirPods are when you take them out of your ears, and if you might be able to force them to output sound even if they’re not currently in someone’s ears, as a way of trying to find them.)
Magic at a distance
So am I going to buy a pair of AirPods? Probably not, because they don’t fit into my ears that well and I’ll probably complain about their audio quality when it comes to music. But even a complainer like me is tempted.
I’m excited, too, for the prospect of Apple dragging many other headphone makers into this sort of approach. It’s not hard to imagine that in a couple of years, there will be dozens of similar products, designed to appeal to all sorts of different budgets and desired audio quality. It seems to me that the AirPods are going to make listening to music on our smartphones (and other devices) better for everyone, eventually. That’s the sort of magic trick that Apple has gotten quite good at.
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