When Apple introduced the iPhone 7 along with the AirPods in September, a lot of people around the world were excited for a new, wireless life. Then the new iPhone was released but we all would have to wait a while for this fascinating new pair of cordless earbuds. Then we had to wait even longer because the AirPods were ”delayed”. In the meantime I tried out the PUGZ Leaking Earphones and liked them for the most part, but they had a few drawbacks that I didn’t appreciate. Then, when most people though that Apple would completely fail getting the AirPods out the door during 2016, they put them on sale a week before Christmas. I was lucky enough to notice this right away and had them delivered right in time for a short vacation over the holidays. I haven’t been this impressed by an Apple product in a very long time. Let me tell you why.
Design & fit
You’re all familiar with the design, because they look pretty much exactly like the EarPods but with the cords chopped off. It will definitely take some getting used to seeing these things in the ears of people, but I think they look just fine. Some have compared them to having two electric toothbrush heads in the ears, and some think they look like earrings. They will all get over it and within a year people probably won’t even notice them anymore. Now, when there are so few in use, I get the feeling that quite a few people look at them while I walk around in town. I could be mistaken, but I would probably stare at them myself if I hadn’t been lucky and got a hold of them early.
The EarPods never did fit my ears very well, they were too loose, but I added some standard foam buds to them and this made the fit at least acceptable. This made me a bit worried about how the AirPods, with a lot of sensors that I couldn’t cover up with my foam-hacking technique, would fit me. It would be a lie to say that they sit tight in my ears, but it works fine because there are no cords that pull the pods out of my ear. I have had a long-lasting cold over the holiday break so I have not yet tried running with them, but they have never fallen out even once while doing everything else with them. I ordered a pair of EarHoox that I plan to use for running, and they make the AirPods sit really snug in my ears. A cheap add-on that will help greatly. They can not be used together with the charging case though, so I would not recommend using them full-time.
After inspecting the look and feel of the AirPods you will want to pair them to your iPhone, and this is when the fun really begins. When you pop open the lid of the charging case a dialog box appears on the iPhone screen. One tap and the Bluetooth pairing is done. The pairing even syncs over iCloud so now every iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch and Mac using the same account are also paired to the AirPods. It is like a dream compared to everything you’re used to, and it’s all thanks to the new W1 chip.
Before the AirPods, the best experience I have had with Bluetooth headphones was with BOSE QuietComfort 35. They have a reliable connection that works almost every time and with very good Bluetooth reach. The AirPods seem to come close to the reach of the QC35, and that is more than I need. But while the Bose headphones can only be paired to two devices, my AirPods are paired to all my Apple devices via iCloud. I’m not sure if there’s a limit but I for sure haven’t hit it yet.
AirPods work with Android and other devices, but then you need to go through the normal type of pairing process. According to Apple, the W1 chip improves pairing, sound quality, connectivity and battery life. The sound switches seamlessly between iPhone and Apple Watch, and it’s very easy to connect them to a Mac or an iPad. Switching between devices has worked well for me and I can’t recall a single time that a connection has failed or timed out. I can recall hundreds of times this has happened with other Bluetooth devices in the past. W1 is the only way forward from here for me.
I am by no means anything close to an audiophile, but I think the sound quality when listening to music and talking on the phone is fine. If you’re OK with the EarPods then you will probably be equally happy with the AirPods. I even believe that they sound a bit better than the EarPods, but it could be imagination. There are products, even wireless ones, with far superior audio quality, but you kind of know what you’re getting into when you buy tiny Bluetooth earphones that are leaking, not in-ear.
One big difference compared to most other similar products is that each AirPod has a microphone, and iOS/macOS will let you configure automatic switching or to just use the left or the right one. At first I had it set to automatic switching, but then some people complained about poor sound quality during phone calls in windy conditions. So I recently changed the setting to use only the right AirPod and so far it seems to work better. Knowing which mic is used lets me cover it up a bit when needed. This is something I used to do all the time with my EarPods, and it was much easier to cover or cradle the mic on the EarPods remote.
Charging & battery life
Apple claims that the battery life is about 5 hours and that seems pretty accurate to me. Today I took the fully charged AirPods out of the case at 11:10 and used them pretty much without interruption until 16:15. The battery was then 4% on the left bud and 3% on the right bud. I played music from Spotify on my MacBook while working and listened to podcasts while walking around town between a meeting, lunch and a café. I had the AirPods in my ears all the time and did not put them in the charging case a single time. So that’s 5+ hours of heavy use.
If more time is needed then Apple claims that 15 minutes in the charging case will add 3 more hours of battery life, and that you can get more than 24 hours of use with the charging case. That should be more than enough for most situations. Since the case charges with a Lightning cable it’s not hard to top up the power even more through a wall charger, a MacBook or a portable battery pack.
The charging case looks great but is quite slippery. I dropped mine on the street within 30 minutes of unboxing it. Considering the amount of extra power the charging case packs I actually think it is pretty small. I would prefer if it were less thick because it doesn’t sit very flat in the front pocket of a pair of jeans or chinos. But because of the size of the earbuds I think that there is not that much that can be done to reduce the thickness. This is definitely something that could annoy people, but compared to something like Earin it’s at least a bit better.
The top of the case snaps open in a very pleasant way that is hard to describe. The same can be said of the way each AirPod magnetically snaps in place when inserted into the case. If the case is held close to your iPhone when opening the lid it activates a pop-over screen on your iPhone that displays the battery life of each AirPod and that of the case.
Controls, or lack thereof
The AirPods have no buttons whatsoever and this is perhaps the main drawback. After using headphones with a remote for years I tend to reach for the play/pause button and the volume controls without thinking, but there’s just nothing there. Thanks to some clever engineering and useful sensors, the AirPods know when they are in your ears and when you remove them. If you’re playing music on your iPhone and put your AirPods in your ears then the audio is automatically transferred to the AirPods. Remove one and music pauses, then put it back in to resume. Very clever solution and it works so much better than I could imagine when I first heard about this feature.You can also double-tap either pod to activate Siri, but I have changed this in the settings to instead play/pause since I use that much more than Siri. Also, it’s not always convenient to remove one of the AirPods to pause whatever I’m listening to. Double-tapping works well in most cases, but I have had some hiccups while wearing gloves. It’s quite cold (-4°C) in Sweden right now, but I guess the engineers in California don’t have that problem.
So what about controlling the volume? Apple think you should ask Siri to change the volume, but this is something I will never do. Turns out you can’t even rely on it because Siri doesn’t work without an internet connection. I use the volume controls on my iPhone, iPad or Mac and this works just fine most of the time. In some situations it’s really frustrating though. A touch-enabled strip on the AirPods that would let you swipe up or down for volume control would be great, but I’m not going pretend that this never crossed the minds of the people at Apple. These tiny devices probably can’t be packed with much more technology than they already carry.
Hopefully Apple will introduce some more customization options for the tap controls in the future. It should be possible with software updates of the AirPods and iOS I guess. One obvious feature would be to allow different commands to be assigned to the double tapping of the right or the left one. Maybe a triple-tap could be introduced? I miss having quick access to Siri but I’m not willing to sacrifice the playback controls to get it.
I have been using the AirPods heavily for a few weeks and here are the key facts and thoughts I have at this point:
- Fit is similar to EarPods but no cords means less likely to be pulled out.
- So small and lightweight you almost don’t notice them.
- The fit can be secured a lot with third-party accessories like EarHoox.
- Pairing is easy and it syncs to all iCloud devices.
- Quick and rock-solid switching between devices.
- 5 hours is a great battery life for such small device.
- Battery lasts more than 24 hours if used with charging case.
- Only a Lightning cable needed to charge case and AirPods.
- Senses when you remove an AirPod and pauses audio.
- They just work, all the time.
- Wireless Apple earphones will take some getting used to for people.
- Not cheap, but a lot of value for your money if you’re willing to spend it.
- Audio problems in windy conditions are harder to prevent compared to EarPods.
- No volume controls, except talking to Siri like a fool.
- Siri doesn’t work without an internet connection.
- Slippery charging case that is a bit too thick for my taste.
- More customization options for tap controls would be useful.
The AirPods are so small and so lightweight that you almost forget that you’re wearing them. This fact, combined with the way they just work, all the time, makes them the first devices in a long time that actually feels a little bit like using a piece of the future, but now. Apple have been using the word magic so much it has become almost comical, but I’d say that the AirPods are the closest Apple have come to a magical product in a long, long time.
➤ Get the AirPods from Apple – $159