The iPhone 7 is half of a vision for a future without wires.
Apple’s AirPods are the other half of that vision.
It’s a future where headphones are no-longer tangled up in your pocket, and are instead a three piece system of two earbuds and a charging case that has its own battery and keeps them topped off throughout the day.
You connect the AirPods to your iOS 10 device by opening up the charging case while it is nearby. A dialog pops up that asks if you want to connect them and once connected they become available via Apple’s iCloud to every other iOS 10 device and Mac you own.
Each earbud is smart enough to know if they’re in your ear or not and pause your music accordingly when removed. When you pop only one earbud in and hit the play button, the device is intelligent enough to downmix both stereo channels into one monaural channel.
They’re the pinnacle of convenience, but there are some significant drawbacks with the first generation of AirPods.
The AirPods are yet another thing that needs charging. It’s less frequent charging than a phone because they come in a special case, but about once a week or every few days, depending on how much you’re listening, you’ll need to charge the case the ear buds rest in.
The earbuds themselves last about five hours and according to Apple they get three hours of charging in 15 minutes resting in the case.
My old Bluetooth headphones lasted just about forever on a charge, but required me to dig out the specific kind of USB cable to charge them. The AirPods charging case uses a USB-A to Lightning adapter. It’s kind of odd that for $159 you don’t get an AC adapter, although you do get the cable in the box.
Each AirPod earbud is comparable to the regular Apple EarPod earbuds in terms of style, but a bit longer in length of the stem that extends out of the bit that goes in your ear. This extra room is where the battery hides inside the AirPods.
There are more little spots on the AirPods than the EarPods had for sensors to know when they’re in or out of your ears.
This elongated EarPod design kind of falls apart for me when you get to the tip of the stem. At that point, furthest out of your ears, is a shiny spot that holds the microphone you can use for talking to Siri or making phone calls.
The shiny microphone spots at the bottom of the AirPods look kind of like earrings or other ear-mounted jewelry, which look kind of goofy to me.
The AirPods are a bit less goofy than the old giant Bluetooth devices we all used for hands-free talking but might get you some funny looks until people get used to them. They’re also not as large as some competing earbud headphones that have large rectangular dinguses sticking horizontally out of your ears and floating there like little matchbooks.
The microphone works well enough for my usage when talking to Siri or on calls, I just wish Apple had styled the tip differently.
I’ve had a few times where when I was listening to a podcast or some music with just one earbud, and put the second one in, the new earbud took a few moments longer than I would like to start working. There have also been moments where I’ve accidentally triggered the sensors that tell the AirPods they’re in my ear when I was picking them up or putting them down.
Without a connecting cable to your devices, the AirPods lost the control module on other headphones that lets you change volume, play or pause whatever you’re listening to, or do extra nerdy commands via tap codes on that button like skipping songs.
Photographers also used that module to trigger the camera shutter without introducing minute vibrations to the phone that could cause pictures to be a little blurrier.
A tiny Bluetooth controller might be nice to replace that functionality, or these controls could be on the AirPods charging case. I’ve been getting out my iPhone or using my Apple Watch to control volume and whatever program I’m listening to.
Siri is available at any time by double tapping the side of the earbud. She can raise or lower the volume and pause or resume playback. It feels kind of weird to do this, and I’ve heard complaints that the double-tap is an uncomfortable gesture for some people. Roughly equivalent to getting old wired earbuds yanked out of your ear when the cord gets caught on something. If you really hate the gesture, the “Hey Siri” vocal gesture (which is normally disabled when using the speaker) is enabled while using the AirPods. I didn’t feel any discomfort while using the double-tap gesture, but thought it was worth mentioning that other people might have a problem with it.
You can change the double-tap gesture to be a play/pause control in your iOS device’s Bluetooth settings if you prefer that over Siri. I just took one earbud out and used that to pause my music but it might be better to have the gesture if you want to pause while cooking or cleaning without digging out another device or speaking with Siri.
As far as fit, I have huge ears and the AirPods get nestled in there about as well as the EarPods did. Though the AirPods do feel a little bit looser than I would like, I’m glad they don’t make a complete seal so I am not entirely obvious to what is going on around me. Apple has a 14-day return policy if they don’t fit you, I’ve also heard that you can try them on in some stores.
Because they don’t form a total seal of the ear canal, like in-ear monitors or rubberized earbuds would, bass isn’t perfect and sound quality is almost exactly the same as the EarPods. You can tell how much work the little porting cutouts are doing by pressing your finger over one on the back of the earbud and listening as your music suddenly changes from high-quality FM to tinny AM.
The charging case is a simple white rounded rectangle box with the single button I mentioned above for pairing with non-Apple Bluetooth devices. There is a tiny, shiny metal, hinge that folds open the top of the case up very easily when you want to retrieve the earbuds or put them back. Tiny magnets grab the earbuds and hold them in or guide their safe return. A small light gives you an indication of charging status when the lid is open and also helps to see inside when it’s dark.
It would be nice if the case were thinner, but it’s a small price to pay for about 24-hours of additional listening via the case’s internal battery. I’ll note that I haven’t rigorously tested Apple’s battery life claims, some people have reported that the charging case had been rapidly discharging. I wasn’t able to reproduce that issue, but Apple replaced the charging case for the one incident I heard of.
I’ve been wanting truly wireless earbuds like this for a long time and other Bluetooth earbuds I’ve read about have been disappointing enough with technical hazards that I haven’t bothered trying them.
At $159 these are the most expensive headphones I have right now, but they’re cheaper than other comparable Bluetooth earbuds without cables and have more intelligence to them. If you lose one AirPod then Apple will sell you a replacement for $69. The case itself is replaceable for $59.
Despite the look, the extra dingus to charge, and the loss of the wired control module, I very much prefer going totally wireless with the AirPods over using regular earbuds or my other Bluetooth headsets.
It’s that good to not have to manage untangling a wire from your pocket, or dealing with traditional Bluetooth syncing, or having headphones yanked out of your ear when they get caught on something or grabbed by a kid. Of course since the iPhone 7 can’t charge and use wired headphones at the same time, there’s also the benefit of being able to listen to something on headphones while charging my pocket computer.
I hope that competition brings the price of all truly wireless headphones down and iteration might find new ways to resolve the other issues.
If you travelled back in time about 20 years and showed these to me I wouldn’t believe they could exist. As the first version of this device they’re not perfect, but I am onboard for the wireless future.