By Jason Snell
December 21, 2016 8:45 AM PT
AirPods Review: Hearing is believing
Wireless headphones aren’t new. Individual wireless earbuds aren’t even that new. But the profile, power, and prowess of Apple make the AirPods special. These are the wireless earbuds that people will notice and talk about—and probably buy in large numbers. The good news is, they’re worthy of the attention.
Time to go wireless
A cynic would say that Apple removed the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 as a way to push users toward wireless audio products like the AirPods. In fact, wireless headphones have been around quite some time. And they have distinct advantages.
A couple of years ago, tired of having my headphones yanked out of my ears by a stray kitchen knob while cooking, I bought a set of Jaybird Bluetooth earbuds and have been using them ever since, mostly for listening to podcasts while walking the dog, running, or working in the kitchen. Not having cords to flap around or get caught is definitely a freeing experience.
Yes, there are drawbacks—having to plug the headphones in every so often to recharge their battery is the biggest added annoyance—but in general the move to wireless was a good one. The only problem with those earbuds is that they’re not truly wireless, because the earbuds are still wired to one another. The wire can hang down in front like a necklace, or you can bind it up and wear it around the back of your head, but neither configuration is ideal.
Fundamentally, earbuds deserved to be treated as individual objects, not tethered together. That’s the premise of the AirPods as well as several other wireless earbuds of this type. Each earbud is its own separate entity, so you can stick one or both in your ears and truly say goodbye to dangling wires.
In form, the tips of the AirPods are quite similar to the EarPod design Apple’s been using for several years. (They appear to be a bit more tapered at the ear end.) While there are no attached cables, the stems of the earbuds extend further away from your ears, all the better to pack in an antenna, battery, and microphone. Since there are no ports in which to plug charging cables, each pair of AirPods comes with a small carrying case, roughly the size and shape of a packet of dental floss. The case has a Lightning port on the bottom, and it will charge the AirPods when you drop them in. (They drop in with a clear, pleasant magnetic click, and a small light indicates charging status.)
According to Apple, the AirPods will last about five hours on a charge, and 15 minutes in the case will recharge them enough for three more hours of playback. In my usage these seemed like reasonable estimates—it took a lot of effort to wear down my AirPods, and even a brief visit to the charging case would revive them. Apple says that all told, fully charged AirPods and a fully charged case will provide 24 hours of listening time.
Given the average length of my old public-transit commute, I wouldn’t have even needed to bring the case with me, but given the size of each AirPod earbud, the case is more than just a charging system. It’s also an important organizational tool—because if you leave these earbuds floating around, you will probably lose them. Keep the earbuds in the case when not in use and everyone’s happy. (And yeah, the case adds another item you need to carry around with you—but on the positive side, these headphones won’t ever get tangled cords.)
The secret sauce—okay, magic—of the AirPods comes in the details that Apple has sweated in order to make the AirPods more than just a generic set of Bluetooth headphones. (Though they can be that if they must—I was able to pair them with an Android phone and they worked just fine.)
Pairing them with my iPhone 7 couldn’t have been easier: When I flipped open the AirPods case while they were next to the phone, up slid a screen showing AirPods with a large button marked Connect. That was it. The information synced across iCloud to my other Apple devices; I could switch the AirPods to my iMac running macOS Sierra by or my iPad Pro by choosing “Jason’s AirPods” from the sound output selector.
When you put an earbud in one ear, you hear a pleasant chime to let you know that the earbuds are on and connected to a device. (If you switch devices, you’ll hear the chime again.) There’s a similar, sadder tone that plays when you’ve just about drained the batteries down.
Perhaps the best single feature of the AirPods is their infrared proximity sensors, which is how they know to chime when you’ve placed one in your ear. More importantly, this sensor forms the basis of a natural and useful interface gesture: removing one earbud. When you remove an earbud, which is generally the universal signal that you’re trying to hear something happening in the outside world, the AirPods will automatically pause your audio. When you pop that earbud back into your ear, playback resumes.
The first day I wore AirPods out in the world, I was walking my dog down a dog path when another dog and person came toward us from the other direction. I popped an earbud out, said hello, and when we moved past one another I popped the earbud back in—and my podcast resumed. (The AirPods only resume your audio playback in this specific context—when you take out one earbud and then replace it. If you pop both earbuds out, it assumes that a listening session has ended, and you’ll need to press play to get your audio started up when you return.)
As clever and humane as that interface is, its flip side is the weakest feature of the AirPods: their reliance on Siri for just about everything else. You can summon Siri with two taps on either earbud, just as if you held down the Home button or said “Hey Siri” out loud. (If you want, you can deactivate this gesture entirely or have it merely represent a play/pause control.)
If Apple’s strength is integrating various technologies together, it’s also a weakness. In this case, a pretty terrific bit of hardware is let down by a software feature of only middling reliability. Too many of Siri’s commands still seem to direct responses to a screen, which makes it inappropriate for voice-only use.
But I’m not sure I’d blame this all on Siri. The fact is, the AirPods come with only two gestures—a double-tap and removing an earbud—when headphones with traditional clickers offer three buttons and an array of double- and triple-taps and press-and-hold gestures. Because the AirPods only have two available gestures, Apple has used Siri as a catch-all, figuring that you can adjust volume and skip tracks and do all of the other stuff you need to do from Siri, so it’ll be okay.
That’s a mistake, for a few reasons. First, Siri control is only functional when there’s an Internet connection. If you want to adjust the volume of your AirPods when you’re in an area with no service, you’ll need to pull out your phone or launch the Now Playing widget on your Apple Watch to do it. Why Apple doesn’t allow Siri to gracefully degrade to a few basic hardware-oriented commands when there’s no network connectivity is beyond me. The Internet doesn’t need to exist for me to tell my phone to skip to the next track—but that’s how Apple has apparently built this feature.
Then there’s the difference in convenience between a few clicks or taps and having to tap, say a phrase, and wait for it to be interpreted. There’s a lot of extra baggage there, which is great when you need a pocket supercomputer to interpret a complex phrase like “Play the playlist ‘Best of Alternative 2016’.” But it seems a little sillier to do all of that just to say “decrease volume.” (Also, if you’re on the subway, people will think you’re a weirdo. Or that you’re telling them to shut up.)
Apple has packed so much into the AirPods that it’s understandable that this first-generation product would have some limits. That said, even without adding buttons or touch surfaces, Apple might have been able to do more with this technology. Imagine the ability to customize double-taps per earbud, so that a double-tap on your left ear can perform a different task from the right. Add in support for a triple tap. Now you’ve got a wider palette of gestures to choose from. But, at least for now, this is what we’ve got.
In my use of the AirPods, I tried very hard not to use Siri when at all possible. My Apple Watch was a pretty good remote control, and I could always resort to the classic “squeeze the iPhone in my pocket” maneuver to adjust volume. This is the price of minimalism.
But how do they sound and fit?
Everybody’s ears are different, inside and out. A sound you find pleasing might be awful to someone else. And I’m sure AirPods won’t please audiophiles. But as someone who has been using good in-ear monitors with custom-molded silicone tips for years now—in other words, someone who at least has a passing familiarity with pretty good sound—I can tell you that, at least to my ears, AirPods sound just fine.
I have spent very little time with Apple’s EarPods over the years. The fact is, the original iPod earbuds were so awful—they didn’t sound good and they didn’t fit my ears well—that I quickly switched to third-party headphones and never looked back. But the AirPods (and, yes, the EarPods) sound surprisingly good, for both music and podcasts. I was impressed with the depth of the bass and the clarity of the treble. As a skeptical listener, I came away believing that the sound of the AirPods was not a limiting factor. They sound good. I’m sure they will not sound good to some people, but the vast majority of people will find them pleasing.
Likewise, ear shape can be an issue. I know someone who tried the AirPods and said they kept falling out of their ears. My right ear started hurting after about half an hour of use, until I repositioned the stem of the earbud to point a bit more in toward my neck, at which point it was much more comfortable. Some people, just by the luck of the shape of their ears, will not be able to wear AirPods comfortably.
In many hours of use, an earbud fell out of my ears twice. In both cases, the fall was caused by brushing against the stems with another object, namely the sleeve or hood of my sweatshirt. Otherwise, they stayed in my ears despite several attempts to shake them out. I never felt this way with a pair of wired earbuds.
The big difference is probably the lack of wires coming out of the bottom of the stems. You may not notice the force that wires exert, constantly pulling against your ears and trying to coax those earbuds out of position, but compare the feeling of wearing EarPods to AirPods and you will realize that those wires really do have an impact. I never felt that EarPods were reliably seated in my ears, but AirPods stay in my ears even if I simulate enthusiastic headbanging or shake my head wildly from side to side.
Now hear this
AirPods feel like a classic Apple product. Its custom hardware and tweaked software interact to create a product that’s packed with high technology but never feels complicated or flaky. They are exactly what you’d imagine if I told you that Apple was making a set of completely wireless earbuds. You pop them in your ears and go—they really do just work.
They’re not a perfect product, for sure. If there’s any way for Apple to add more tap gestures via a software update, I hope the company will consider that. I’d like to see Siri to stop requiring an Internet connection to perform basic tasks. And if Apple can find a way to create next-generation AirPods with more tap gestures or on-device buttons or touch-sensitive gestural areas, they’ll be that much more effective.
But if you’re the user of any Apple device and you are in the market for a pair of headphones, the AirPods deserve serious consideration. Once you’ve cooked a meal or run a mile with no wires coming out of your ears, you will wonder how you ever lived without this product. And isn’t that the most Apple-like feeling of all?
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