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AirPods: Ushering in a Wireless Future

AirPods were announced at Apple’s September keynote, accompanied by a video introduction in which Jony Ive proclaimed: “We believe in a wireless future, a future where all of your devices intuitively connect.” In other words, a future that goes beyond getting wires out of the way by creating experiences that are only possible with smarter inter-device connections.

AirPods entered the world on the heels of a controversial decision to remove the standard headphone jack from the iPhone. Connecting wired headphones to an audio source is a decades-old practice we’ve all grown used to, and while this type of connection is still possible on the iPhone via a Lightning connector, AirPods represent Apple’s efforts to move forward into a wireless future.

Though wired headphones are dead simple to use, no one can deny that they do get in the way in a material sense. We’ve all experienced the frustration of cords that tangle, tug, and keep us tethered to our devices. Even the most passionate wire-supporters among us are familiar with these challenges. Wireless AirPods were designed to make such issues ancient history, while simultaneously mitigating the negative trade-offs that are typically associated with Bluetooth headphones.

Technology is at its best when its net gains make you forget about any net losses. Traditional Bluetooth headphones have done a relatively poor job at this, plagued by poor battery life, unstable connections, and often, high cost. So Apple’s challenge with AirPods was to achieve what its competition had not: create a device whose benefits over wired earbuds greatly outweighed its drawbacks.

After nearly a month with AirPods under my belt, I believe the company succeeded.

Case and Setup

When I first opened the AirPods’ box, I was immediately surprised to find that the case was larger than I’d expected. Likely this is only because my expectations had been shaped by others’ comments that the case was smaller than they’d expected. It still fits comfortably in my pocket as I’d hoped, but it is bigger than I imagined. One other early disappointment about the case was that it can’t stand upright on its own. In the long run this likely won’t bother me, but if it does, I’ll use the Hackett solution.

Initial disappointments aside, the AirPods’ case is still a neat little product. Besides simply looking beautiful, it’s the small touches that make it unique. Magnets are employed in a delight-infusing way, both for closing the case and securing each AirPod in place. A small metal strip on the back makes it easy to identify the front of the case from the back. The battery charge indicator inside the case is useful as well. Overall, the AirPods’ case, and the AirPods themselves, very much follow the design aesthetic of the Apple Pencil – glossy white with touches of metal, and a clever use of magnets. Now if only Apple’s team could find a way to keep that glossy white finish from being such a lint magnet.

Pairing AirPods was as easy as in Apple’s initial demonstration. I opened the case, and with one tap of the Connect button on my iPhone, they were paired – not just with my iPhone, but with my Apple Watch and iPad too.1 The pairing process is a perfect demonstration of Steve Jobs’ old mantra: “It just works.”

Pairing AirPods is dead simple.

Pairing AirPods is dead simple. (View full size)

I was never too concerned about the possibility of AirPods not fitting in my ears because Apple’s wired EarPods fit just fine, but it was good to confirm that my assumption held true. They not only feel comfortable, but also seem substantially more snug than wired EarPods; I’ve never had one of them fall out. I did, however, learn the importance of taking care not to hook the AirPods’ stems when changing shirts. I don’t consider this a problem though; I’d given up on trying to change with wires hanging from my ears, and AirPods allow me to do something I couldn’t before.

Tether-Free

The example of changing clothes highlights one of my main takeaways from several weeks using AirPods: they free me up to go about my normal life in ways that I couldn’t before. I’ve gotten in the habit of changing clothes and brushing my teeth with AirPods in, and doing chores around the house listening to podcasts while my iPhone stays on the office desk. I’ve even taken the trash out back while my iPhone remained indoors. The connection cut out for a brief second, but then resumed right away as I started walking back toward the house. Overall, I’ve quickly grown to use AirPods in more situations and places than I would have ever used wired earbuds. While some of these benefits are shared by any set of Bluetooth headphones, the AirPods’ strength of connection and range is unique to Apple-owned headphones thanks to the W1 chip.

Apple’s W1 chip contains what the company calls its “secret sauce” layered on top of a traditional Bluetooth connection. It represents the next step in letting users untether from an iPhone. Though in most cases you’ll probably have your iPhone on you, the AirPods’ W1 chip provides you freedom to leave the phone off your person when walking short distances away – a freedom I’ve enjoyed each day.

AirPods and Apple Watch make a perfect pair.

AirPods and Apple Watch make a perfect pair. (View full size)

For those occasions when you do want to completely disconnect from your iPhone, coupling AirPods with an Apple Watch is the way to go. AirPods connected to a Watch can be used to play music, and in the future I have no doubt we’ll see Apple’s Podcasts app move to the Watch as well, enabling podcast listening sans iPhone. Unfortunately, Siri can’t currently be invoked via AirPods when only an Apple Watch is present, but it can still be activated using the Watch.2

Taken as a pair, Apple’s wearables make the strongest case yet for a post-smartphone future.

Siri

Siri is accessible by double tapping on one of the AirPods.3 Likely you’ll find the gesture a bit uncomfortable. I find myself caught in a minor dilemma every time I want to invoke Siri via AirPods – do I tap lightly and risk Siri not activating, or do I tap harder and feel a little discomfort? Maybe my ears are just sensitive, but it’s hard to imagine no one at Apple recognized this as an issue.

Aside from the clever play/pause gesture I’ll detail later, Siri is the only built-in interface for controlling AirPods. You can use a separate device to control them – Apple Watch is my favorite method – but Siri is the only option otherwise. This decision makes a lot of sense, as there really isn’t room for physical controls on the AirPods themselves. If Apple simply made AirPods bigger so they could fit controls, I likely wouldn’t be as impressed by the product. Their size allows easily carrying them around in a pocketable case; I wouldn’t want to lose that.

Siri in AirPods is mostly the same old Siri in function; the experience is where it differs. Siri in your ear feels different than Siri in your pocket or on your wrist. It feels more intimate, ever-present. It also seems to work better thanks to beam-forming microphones built into AirPods which help improve Siri’s accuracy.

The discomfort of a double-tap gesture aside, AirPods are my new favorite way to interact with Apple’s digital assistant. They provide a glimpse into the benefits of an AI-dominated future.

While Siri succeeds in many ways, there is one major change I’d like to see in the future: improvements to the way Siri handles successive queries. When Apple added “Hey Siri” activation as a feature of the iPhone 6s, it helped make interactions with Siri feel more natural. That is, unless you had to ask follow-up questions. “Hey Siri” breaks down as an imitation of human interaction when you have to say it over and over again in succession. People don’t say “Hey person” to start every sentence in a conversation.

Unnatural as it is to repeat an activation phrase, I’ve found that repeatedly double tapping an AirPod is no better. If anything I’ve found it more disappointing; not because the method of activation is worse, but because the potential for Siri in AirPods isn’t being realized. As I said, Siri in your ear feels more intimate and personal. But that promise of more human-like interactions is frustrated by the need for repeated double taps.

A more natural conversation could take place if Apple made a simple change: keep Siri listening for ten seconds after it answers each query. I wouldn’t want to hear the Siri chime again, but just keeping it actively listening for that short time would cut out nearly all needs for repeated double taps. Whether this adjustment would be well-suited for Siri’s other platforms, I’m not so sure. But for AirPods that stay in your ears and are uniquely equipped to pick up your voice alone, this change could make a world of difference.

Something I’m sure Apple is working on already is adding new domains of knowledge to Siri, which will increase its usefulness in AirPods. At WWDC last June, SiriKit introduced the opportunity for developers to use Siri in their own apps, provided the functionality fit within certain domains. There is plenty more work to be done in this area, though. Personally, this past year I’ve begun listening to a lot more podcasts than ever before. My current app of choice is Castro, but using Siri with AirPods made me briefly experiment with Apple’s podcast client again. The experiment didn’t last more than a couple days due to some features I missed, but the ability to start new episodes entirely by voice was great; passing this feature along to third-party clients is at the top of my SiriKit wish list.

Experience

The W1 chip and Siri-first interface are two standout features of AirPods, but it’s a separate technology that makes the AirPods’ play/pause gesture possible. Infrared sensors built in to the AirPods know when an AirPod has been placed in or removed from your ear, so removing an AirPod pauses playback, while putting it back in resumes playback. This gesture is quintessential Apple – it feels so natural and obvious, I’m now amazed that every pair of earbuds doesn’t work the same way.

The amount of tech packed into each AirPod is impressive, but it is ultimately the experiences made possible by that tech which make AirPods so special. I’ve mentioned the freedom of leaving your iPhone behind while walking around at home or work; here are a few more good experiences I’ve had because of AirPods.

Phone

AirPods have quickly become my favorite way to talk on the phone. One evening I was listening to Audible when the audio paused. I checked my Apple Watch, saw that my wife was calling, and answered from the Watch, which fed audio to my AirPods.4 My wife said she was coming home from work, and I knew we would need to quickly head out together once she got home. I was able to get changed and ready for our night out all while keeping a conversation going on the phone. I know this hands-free approach isn’t unique to AirPods, but it is easier than ever because of them.

I’ve taken a number of calls using AirPods, and no one has ever remarked that they had trouble hearing me, or gave any other indication that they noticed a difference. I’ve enjoyed using AirPods for phone calls so much that even if I’m not wearing them already when I get a call, I’ll answer on my iPhone, then stick an AirPod in one ear and continue the conversation that way. Audio instantly routes to the AirPod, and my hands are free.

Work

During an average weekday, I’ll be at work on my iPad while listening to podcasts or music on my iPhone using AirPods. When I come across a video I want to watch on the iPad, I simply take one AirPod out of my ear, pausing playback on my iPhone, and enjoy the video through the iPad Pro’s great speakers. Alternately, if I’m in an environment where speakers aren’t an option, I pull up Control Center on the iPad and select my AirPods as the source for routing audio. Without delving into Bluetooth settings at all, I can then watch the video while listening through AirPods. When the video’s finished, Control Center on my iPhone makes AirPods the playback source again. There is a momentary delay when switching devices this way, but it’s light years ahead of the mess that is switching devices using other Bluetooth headphones.

Gym

I go to the gym four days a week at the end of my workday, and AirPods make that entire part of the day better. Once I’ve finished working, I pop in the AirPods and begin listening to something as I change into my workout clothes. After I’m out the door, I keep the AirPods in on the drive, but my car automatically routes audio to its speakers through Bluetooth. So I can keep my AirPods in, but without being distracted from anything that may need my attention in the outside world.

When I get to the gym and stop the car, I hit play in the Now Playing screen of my Apple Watch to resume playback through AirPods. I’ve placed Now Playing and the Workouts app side-by-side in my Dock so I can easily switch between them. Once I’m in the middle of a workout, Now Playing makes adjusting volume or skipping forward easy without the awkwardness of using Siri in public. And wire-free workouts are better in every way – no untangling before listening and no accidental tugs while jogging. If I see a friend, I can quickly pop an AirPod out and have a quick conversation; no need for fumbling with playback controls. When I head back home, I leave my AirPods in my ears and get some chores done around the house before showering. The shower is the only place I have to take them out.5

Audio and Battery

You may have noticed that I’ve gotten near the end of my review without answering one of the most important questions about a pair of headphones: “How is the sound quality?”

Before answering that, I’ll join the ranks of nearly every other reviewer of AirPods in saying that I’m not a so-called “audiophile.” But disclaimer aside, the AirPods sound good. Certainly as good as Apple’s wired EarPods, but I think actually better. Podcasts unsurprisingly sound fine, but I was especially impressed the first time I used AirPods to listen to music. Bass sounds better than I expected, and overall I have nothing negative to report.

Similar to the audio quality, I’ve found AirPods’ battery life to be fine – better than expected even. That’s not to say I’m a battery expert or that I’ve conducted scientific tests, but in my normal daily use the AirPods have never died on me and I haven’t had any semblance of battery anxiety. I use my AirPods when I want to use them, and when I’m not using them I stick them in their case. Whenever it feels like it’s been a while since I charged the case, I plug it into one of the several Lightning connectors at my desk. I’m sure at some point in the future I’ll run into a scenario where I wish battery life was longer, but I haven’t had that problem yet.

Entering a Wireless Future Today

All technology, no matter how beneficial it may be, comes with compromises. Particularly with devices as small as AirPods, every design decision is a series of trade-offs – balancing thinness and lightness versus adding more battery or other features. How important are physical playback controls? Which features make the cut, and which aren’t feasible without compromising on size? Not every choice will suit the needs of every user.

AirPods are not without some kinks to work out. As I mentioned, it would be great if I could activate Siri with less forceful taps. A volume up/down gesture by sliding up or down on an AirPod would be nice.6 Occasionally, I’ve had issues with audio in one AirPod cutting out for a split second, then quickly fixing itself. It hasn’t happened often enough to bug me, but that’s something that could be improved. Separate, configurable double-tap gestures for each AirPod would be useful too.

Despite these areas that are ripe for improvement, AirPods are about as good a 1.0 device as anyone could ask for. They accomplish Apple’s goal of ushering in a wireless future in a variety of ways.

Removing wires altogether should be a given when discussing wireless devices, yet many other so-called “wireless” earbuds aren’t truly free from wires. AirPods are wireless in every sense of the word, and come with a compact charging case to reduce any worry of losing them. They’re exactly the kind of product I want to have.

Intuitive connection is another trait of AirPods that lifts them above their competition. It’s not just the easy pairing process, it’s how AirPods connect to your devices in a way that enables new experiences. Your iPhone or iPad can be across the house, yet Siri can be invoked directly from your ear to create a Reminder, send an iMessage, or check your calendar. Playback of music or podcasts can continue issue-free despite being away from a source device. Phone calls can be answered without searching for your phone. You can even go for a stroll around the neighborhood with nothing but your AirPods and Apple Watch. These connections are only possible in a wireless world.

Apple’s first wearable, the Apple Watch, was created in part because the iPhone, amazing as it is, was getting in the way of our lives.7 The Watch represented an effort to get technology out of the way, while at the same time bringing it physically closer to us than ever before, as a device we wear. Apple’s second major product in the wearables category, AirPods, follows in the Watch’s steps.

Apple has created a device that allows greater connection with other Apple devices while simultaneously granting greater freedom from them. The end result: AirPods represent what many people love most about Apple. They make possible an assortment of delightful experiences you just couldn’t have any other way.


  1. I don’t use a Mac anymore, and unfortunately the Apple TV isn’t currently included in the list of devices that AirPods instantly pair with. They can be paired through a standard Bluetooth pairing process though. ↩︎
  2. When AirPods are connected to nothing but an Apple Watch, rather than activating Siri, an AirPod double tap acts as a play/pause option instead. ↩︎
  3. Optionally, you can change the double-tap gesture to serve as a play/pause function rather than activating Siri. ↩︎
  4. I could have also answered the call with a double tap of an AirPod. ↩︎
  5. Here’s to waterproofing in version 2. ↩︎
  6. Though this isn’t as necessary for me as an Apple Watch user. ↩︎
  7. From the linked Wired article: “We’re so connected, kind of ever-presently, with technology now,” [Apple’s Kevin] Lynch says. “People are carrying their phones with them and looking at the screen so much…People want that level of engagement,” Lynch says. “But how do we provide it in a way that’s a little more human, a little more in the moment when you’re with somebody?” ↩︎

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