Audacious Fox

AirPods

These are my first Bluetooth headphones. There are things I like about AirPods that are probably true for any wireless headphones. That said, I think AirPods distinguish themselves in two important ways: a convenient and slim charging case for when you’re on-the-go, and the best wireless pairing process I’ve ever experienced, hands-down, bar none.

Case & Charging

The case is made of smooth, white plastic, reminiscent of the plastic MacBooks or Magic Mouse. My case is starting to accumulate some scratches, but it’s held up remarkably well, considering I routinely toss it in my bag with keys and spare change. The hinge is sturdy, and once closed, the case has a low profile that’s easy to slide into your jean or coat pockets. Opening the lid reveals the AirPods and a single, pinhole-sized LED, which communicates the current charge level or pairing status. Magnets keep each AirPod securely in place and help ensure the lid stays closed.

The case also helps prevent misplacing AirPods. When I take the AirPods out of my ears, they always go straight back into the case. Apple charges $69 for lost AirPods (another $69 if you lose the case, too), and you have to supply proof of your original purchase. Cheaper than buying new, but an avoidable outcome.

Apple claims the case holds more than 24 hours of battery life, with each pod capable of running for 5 hours on its own. I’ve found that to be true, if not understated. Additionally, charging AirPods for 15 minutes equals 3 hours of battery life, which proves useful, as you can charge up in the same amount of time it takes to get ready for a run or a trip to the store. Since I’m not using my AirPods every minute of the day, I’ve found I can easily make it 3 to 5 days without needing to charge the case.

The lasts-longer-than-a-day metric is important, because it means you simply don’t think about running out of battery. AirPods last a few days between charges, which means I’m highly likely to passively plug them in during that time, which means I’m almost never caught with dead AirPods.

Unless we have some breakthrough in lithium-ion battery capacity, gadget power anxiety will be solved one of two ways: 1.) increasingly smart power management, so most devices for most people can last at least 24 hours; and 2.) charging technology that is either ubiquitous or fast. For ubiquity, we’re already seeing conductive charging stations make their way into furniture, and there’s some motion in the truly wireless charging front. For fast charging, which seems more realistically attainable, look at what Apple’s doing with AirPods, Samsung with the Galaxy line, or Tesla with their Superchargers. If you can get a full, multi-day charge in minutes, no one cares what the actual battery capacity is.

Wireless

I’ve run over 60 miles with my AirPods, and I haven’t had one problem with them falling out or jostling loose. For my ears, the fit is snug and similar to the EarPods before them. If you find EarPods comfortable, there’s little change here.

Each AirPod comes with a speaker and a mic. Having individual microphones is useful, because you can choose to use one AirPod at a time without compromising on functionally. Not true with EarPods. If you didn’t keep the right-side EarPod in, the mic and control buttons would dangle.

Wires may not be long for this world, but I liked the way a string strung between two music lovers would literally and visibly connect the two. AirPods eschew this connected metaphor, but the benefits of wireless audio simply outweigh whatever nostalgia I have.

Going wireless, in combination with each AirPod having its own microphone, opens up some new use cases I hadn’t thought of. My wife and I now have a habit of sharing AirPods during phone calls, and we particularly enjoy wandering around the grocery store, listening to the same song or podcast. At times, it can feel somewhat magical.

However, the real magic comes when you first connect AirPods to your iPhone. Whatever experiences you have in setting up Bluetooth devices, discard them immediately. The AirPods pairing process is so fast and painless that I had the same “are you shitting me” reaction from when my home upgraded dialup to broadband. It’s that good.

To pair AirPods to an iOS device:

  1. Open the AirPods case.
  2. Tap “Connect” on your iOS device.

Two seconds later — seriously — you’re done. There is no better example or encapsulation of Apple’s “it just works” philosophy than the pairing process for AirPods. Every other Bluetooth setup now looks archaic.

The reason pairing is so smooth relies entirely on a new wireless chip Apple’s engineered: the W1. Debuting in AirPods, the W1 makes Bluetooth user-friendly and fast. Aside from helping pair devices, the W1 chip also brings some smart capability to AirPods. For example, when you’re listening to music and remove one AirPod, the music pauses; when you put the AirPod back in, music resumes. These features won’t be limited to AirPods, either. Remember that tiny headphone maker Apple purchased in 2014? It’s a safe bet we’ll see the W1 work its way to other wireless devices in the coming years.

Siri & Playback

Wireless freedom is not without annoyances. Wires serve as a convenient place to put physical buttons for playback and volume, and you will absolutely miss those physical controls. AirPods have a small amount of configurability; you can set the double-tap actuation to trigger Siri, toggle playback, or disable the controls entirely. To compensate for this lack of buttons or controls, Apple excitedly directs you to control audio playback and volume with Siri.

Needing to talk to Siri as the recommended way of controlling audio playback feels like an antithesis to the reason I’m using headphones in the first place. When I have my AirPods in, I’m most likely in a quiet place with other people (library, open office) or in a loud place with lots of ambient noise (grocery store, coffee shop). In either situation, needing to say, “turn up the volume” or “go to the next track” aloud is either rude or woefully inconsistent.

Finally, although AirPods remain secure and comfortable while running, here is yet another situation where activating Siri proves problematic. I consider myself in good health, but even with lightly belabored breathing, getting Siri to register my commands mid-run is arduous or impossible.

For me, I quickly gave up on using Siri for controlling audio playback, instead opting for my iPhone’s volume rockers and onscreen UI. Pressing the volume rocker on an iPhone adjusts the current volume by 1, out of 16 possible grades. Saying “turn it up” to Siri is the equivalent to two clicks of the volume rocker, which means there are 8 volume levels Siri can set. Your ears are different than mine, but I almost always change the volume up or down by about 4 rocker presses, which means I’m activating Siri twice to accomplish the same thing.

This is more a critique of Siri than AirPods, but when Apple so tightly integrates the two, the performance or shortcomings of one implicates the other. In this case, in five months of owning AirPods, I’ve used Siri to control music playback or alter volume fewer than 10 times.

Closing

My two biggest concerns with purchasing wireless headphones were (a) dealing with batteries in yet another device and (b) working around the the inconsistencies of Bluetooth. With the AirPods’ case and W1 chip, Apple has delivered elegant solutions to both issues, in a way that makes AirPods feel like the most Apple-y device they’ve built in quite a while.

After five months of near daily usage, AirPods are still a joy to use, and I have no desire to look elsewhere.

Saturday, June 3, 2017