The Apple AirPods looked cool and convenient when the wireless earbuds were introduced. Actually using them has shown them to be a lot more to this reviewer.
Hype about a new Apple product is nothing new. The company has built its considerable success partly on the excitement it generates when launching products.
When it introduced AirPods wireless earbuds in September, they looked very cool: small, convenient, and imbued with special technology for improving communication between the pods and your iPhone or other device.
But they were based on Bluetooth, a short-range wireless protocol that has been in use for quite some time and can be quirky. I’ve owned a pair of over-the-ear Bluetooth headphones from another company for almost a year, and while I appreciate being untethered from my iPhone when listening to music (or watching TV without waking up the rest of the house via my Apple TV), the connection seems to be more fragile in areas with a lot of wireless interference.
I didn’t see a compelling need for AirPods.
And then, when they started to trickle into the market in late December (after a delay), I began to see something unusual for modern Apple, with its deep marketing prowess and industry clout: enthusiastic word-of-mouth.
People were excited to use AirPods, and not just the ephemeral type of excitement that comes with buying something new.
Really? About Bluetooth headphones?
Let’s start with the exterior. AirPods are the roughly the same dimensions as Apple’s wired EarPods, but with a thicker post. They fit well in my ears; if EarPods have never felt comfortable to you, then AirPods likely won’t either.
The surprise about the design is that since there’s no cord attached, they stay in your ears better than EarPods. It seems counterintuitive, since they’re such small things hanging down against your earlobe, but with nothing pulling on them, they’re quite secure.
The small flip-open case that holds the AirPods when not in use doubles as a battery charger. The case itself is a battery bank, which you can top off by connecting to power via a Lightning cable. In everyday use, it’s almost as if the battery power is infinite. (Apple says the AirPods last five hours on a charge, and with a case you can get 24 hours of use before you have to recharge everything.) The case is so small that you can keep it close at hand in a pocket, purse or bag.
What’s truly great about AirPods, though, is the technology inside. Apple created its own wireless microchip, the W1, that provides a special level of interaction beyond Bluetooth.
Case in point: AirPods have the best first-use experience of any Apple product in recent memory. When I took the case out of the box and opened it, I moved it close to my iPhone 7 and the devices immediately paired. That’s it.
And because all of my devices are linked to the same iCloud account, the AirPods were instantly paired with my MacBook Pro, iPad and Apple Watch. No messing about with special pairing modes or codes. If I want to listen to something on my iPad, I swipe from the bottom of the screen to bring up Control Center and choose the AirPods as the audio destination; I never had to manually pair them.
Curiously, the current fourth-generation Apple TV doesn’t benefit from this magical pairing. I had to pair the AirPods manually using the case, which is the same procedure for getting them to work with any other Bluetooth-enabled devices.
The W1 chip and sensors embedded in AirPods allow more interactions. The best, and most natural, is to pause playback when you remove one AirPod from your ear, just as you’ve no doubt done dozens of times when listening to earbuds and someone starts talking to you.
As soon as you return the AirPod to your ear, playback resumes. If you remove both AirPods, it’s assumed you’re done with them and playback is paused until you start it again manually.
Another unexpected surprise: With no cable connecting the two AirPods, it’s much easier to share audio with someone, even when you’re not in close physical proximity. While my wife and I are at our daughter’s gymnastics class, we each take an AirPod and listen to a favorite podcast that we used to enjoy last year when we had a shared commute.
AirPods contain microphones, and I’ve used them often during phone meetings. The microphones let you interact with Siri, which has its good and bad points.
Double-tapping either AirPod invokes Siri on whichever device is currently connected (including Macs running macOS Sierra). I’d say this gesture works about 90 percent of the time.
The downside is that Siri is the only method of controlling playback volume wirelessly. It ends up being much easier and faster to make the change using my iPhone’s physical volume buttons.
I also — painfully — ran across a great tip: When the Siri volume is at maximum, as it was for me, the only way to change the volume of Siri itself is to invoke it and adjust the level while Siri is waiting for you to talk. A slider in the Siri settings would be a welcome addition.
And what about audio quality? I find them to be good enough to listen to music and podcasts fairly regularly, but not fantastic. If I want to really dig into the audio quality of something, I’ll use different headphones or speakers. But AirPods certainly don’t sound poor.
At $160, AirPods aren’t a casual purchase, one of the reasons I wasn’t initially excited about them. However, the convenience and pure absence of hassle has changed my mind.