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.
Update: Apple has posted an additional video featuring the AirPods called ‘Stroll,’ which is a longer version of the Siri video described below. You can watch the video at the end of this article.
Apple posted three 15-second advertisements featuring AirPods. Each video is black and white, except for the screens of the iPhones that make an appearance in two of the clips. All three also features the single ’Down’ by Marian Hill.
Two of the videos start with a man walking down the street of a city. In the first spot, the lead character taps his AirPods twice to activate Siri and says ‘Play Marian Hill,’ which starts the music. The second spot opens with another person flipping open his AirPods case to pair his AirPods, then immediately cuts to him dancing down the street and horizontally along the side of a car. Both ads close with the taglines ‘AirPods on iPhone 7’ and ‘practically magic.’
The third ad substitutes musical notes on a staff with AirPods scrolling by as ‘Down’ plays. The clip concludes with AirPods emerging from their case and the pairing interface opening on an iPhone 7.
These are the first advertisements to focus on AirPods. The first two ads do a great job of quickly showing off a feature then focusing on the freedom of movement afforded by AirPods. The final spot that substitutes musical notes with AirPods is more focused on showing off the product, delightfully linking the AirPods with the music they play.
Some interesting thoughts about the AirPods by Steven Aquino. In particular, he highlights a weak aspect of Siri that isn’t usually mentioned in traditional reviews:
The gist of my concern is Siri doesn’t handle speech impediments very gracefully. (I’ve found the same is true of Amazon’s Alexa, as I recently bought an Echo Dot to try out.) I’m a stutterer, which causes a lot of repetitive sounds and long breaks between words. This seems to confuse the hell out of these voice-driven interfaces. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that if I don’t enunciate perfectly, which leaves several seconds between words, the AI cuts me off and runs with it. Oftentimes, the feedback is weird or I’ll get a “Sorry, I didn’t get that” reply. It’s an exercise in futility, sadly.
Siri on the AirPods suffers from the same issues I encounter on my other devices. It’s too frustrating to try to fumble my way through if she keeps asking me to repeat myself. It’s for this reason that I don’t use Siri at all with AirPods, having changed the setting to enable Play/Pause on double-tap instead (more on this later). It sucks to not use Siri this way—again, the future implications are glaringly obvious—but it’s just not strong enough at reliably parsing my speech. Therefore, AirPods lose some luster because one of its main selling points is effectively inaccessible for a person like me.
That’s a hard problem to solve in a conversational assistant, and exactly the kind of Accessibility area where Apple could lead over other companies.
Steffen Reich ran some tests to determine range differences between AirPods, W1-equipped Beats headphones, and older Beats models:
Much has been said about the virtues of the W1 chip Apple started baking into their latest wireless Beats line-up and of course the AirPods. By now we know for sure that W1 facilitates a much faster pairing process, as do we know that the chip significantly amplifies both battery life and conservation techniques. What’s less prominently talked about – at least from official sides – is the operating range of these wireless headphones and the presumed effect the W1 chip addition has had on that benchmark.
Obviously, walking a straight line in a park is no replacement for the kind of wireless interference you’d have on a train, in a crowded street, or in an office with walls and other Bluetooth devices nearby. Also, the AirPods are a new category altogether – I’m not sure how relevant a comparison to non-wireless Bluetooth buds can be.
However, these base results are in line with the excellent range I also experienced with the Beats Solo3, which makes me wonder how impressive (range-wise) future Studio Wireless headphones will be.
I keep wishing Apple would license the W1 chip to third-parties – especially on large headphones, it makes pairing and range performance so much better than regular Bluetooth.
Ben Bajarin makes a strong point on using Siri with the AirPods:
There is, however, an important distinction to be made where I believe the Amazon Echo shows us a bit more of the voice-only interface and where I’d like to see Apple take Siri when it is embedded in devices without a screen, like the AirPods. You very quickly realize, the more you use Siri with the AirPods, how much the experience today assumes you have a screen in front of you. For example, if I use the AirPods to activate Siri and say, “What’s the latest news?” Siri will fetch the news then say, “Here is some news — take a look.” The experience assumes I want to use my screen (or it at least assumes I have a screen near me to look at) to read the news. Whereas, the Amazon Echo and Google Home just start reading the latest news headlines and tidbits. Similarly, when I activate Siri on the AirPods and say, “Play Christmas music”, the query processes and then plays. Where with the Echo, the same request yields Alexa to say, “OK, playing Christmas music from top 50 Christmas songs.” When you aren’t looking at a screen, the feedback is important. If I was to ask that same request while I was looking at my iPhone, you realize, as Siri processes the request, it says, “OK” on the screen but not in my ear. In voice-only interfaces, we need and want feedback that the request is happening or has been acknowledged.
Siri already adapts to the way it’s activated – it talks more when invoked via “Hey Siri” as it assumes you’re not looking at the screen, and it uses UI elements when triggered from the Home button.
Currently, activating Siri from AirPods yields the same feedback of the “Hey Siri” method. I wonder if future Siri will talk even more when it detects AirPods in your ear as it means only you will be able to hear its responses.
Apple revealed AirPod wireless headphones at its iPhone event in September. Initially, they were slated for release in October, but Apple subsequently announced that the product would be delayed.
This morning Apple updated its online store opening orders for AirPods. I ordered a pair and at least in the Chicago area, they are set to arrive by December 21st.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Apple said that it is delaying the introduction of AirPods:
The early response to AirPods has been incredible. We don’t believe in shipping a product before it’s ready, and we need a little more time before AirPods are ready for our customers.
Beyond the statement to TechCrunch, Apple has given no indication of the reason for the delay. Perhaps we will hear more during the Apple event tomorrow.