Connectivity Issues with AirPods and the Mac
But… connecting and disconnecting AirPods on the Mac is so much more frustrating than on iOS. While iOS 14 brought more intelligent connection and disconnection of AirPods, Big Sur can’t get with the program. It can take a long time to connect the AirPods, and they seem to disconnect at the drop of the hat.
Typically I use a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones with my Mac, connected through a USB audio mixer and both those devices are a little more than a decade old, but when I need to make a video call on my Mac I use my one working Powerbeats Pro (it’s the left one, the right one turns off after about 10 minutes of usage) and trying to determine that it is connected, the default microphone, and the microphone whichever app I’m using actually selects is a nightmare.
I don’t want to go back to switching which device (my Mac or my Windows computer) has a physical microphone attached and my experiences otherwise match Snell’s in this article. My wired Sony headphones are more than a decade old and work great even if they have some signs of wear at this point — I’ve replaced the ear pads four times now — nothing beats the reliability and consistency of actual headphones. In that same time I’ve gone through several pairs of AirPods with warranty servicing, and now these PowerBeats Pro that don’t have an extended warranty and I wasn’t able to get serviced during their first year. You can’t beat the convenience of AirPods and their cousins from Apple’s Beats brand, but they do not last at all and are not convenient to use with a Mac.
Apple also recently released a pair of over the ear headphones called AirPods Max and they are completely ridiculous. $550 just for the headphones and the included “Smart Case” doesn’t cover the entire headphones but at least they have replaceable ear pads… oh wait those are $70! The most expensive ear pads I’ve ever gotten for my Sony MDR-7506 headphones are $20. The Apple AirPods Max ear pads look like they will be much easier to replace, but they also look like they are more wasteful, there is a hard plastic part in the replacement, not just the foam mesh ear pad I replace on the Sony headphones.
The AirPods Max headphones also do not include any kind of wire for connecting directly to a device, just a Lightning to USB-C Cable for charging and no charging brick. Without a direct wired connection here will be audio latency that makes the AirPods Max unsuitable for editing video or audio, or doing any other kind of low-latency work like playing video games. Apple does sell a cable that will directly connect the AirPods Max for $35, but you can’t charge while you’re using that adapter. There are plenty of other lightning to 3.5mm cables but they apparently won’t work.
From the Apple Watch series of devices, the AirPods Max have a digital crown in order to change the volume, access Siri, and so-on.
Topping off the design of the AirPods Max is the weight, 385 grams. That’s heavy. My Sony MDR-7506 headphones are 229.63 grams which is completely comfortable. Even Gruber noted the weight in his review, titled “Heavy Is the Head That Wears the AirPods Max:
The AirPods Max headband does seem to distribute the weight as comfortably as it can, but the weight is all in the ear cups, and heavy ear cups are, well, heavy. When you remain motionless, you can forget they’re there. But when you move around, the AirPods Max have inertia. They move a bit when you shake your head side-to-side, and they move a lot when you nod your head up and down. Look down at your feet and look back up and you’re instantly reminded, Oh yeah, I’ve got heavy cans on my ears. You feel a bit bobble-headed with them on. The heaviness of the AirPods Max doesn’t make them uncomfortable, per se, but it definitely feels like they’re intended for stationary use. Their lack of water resistance aside, the weight keeps them from being the sort of headphones you’d want to use while exercising any more vigorously than a brisk walk.
There are plenty of headphones that cost $550 or more, but after my experiences with the regular AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro I would definitely not recommend anyone spend this much on these. When my Sony MDR 7506’s eventually become irreparably broken, I will get another pair of them. A decade is plenty of life for headphones that cost less than $100. For my iPhone, iPad, and video call use I’m going to get the cheapest pair of regular AIrPods I can. The other features of the AirPods Max sound great, 20 hours of battery life, active noise cancellation and a transparency mode that let you hear what is going on around you… but the inconsistent experience of using AirPods with a Mac, the ridiculous Smart Case, and the high price of both the AirPods Max and their replacement parts make it both out of reach for me now and completely unserviceable over time. Replacing the ear pads on my Sony headphones has cost about $60 over ten years for four replacements. Replacing the same AirPods Max earpads four times over a decade would have cost $276. Hopefully those Apple ear pads are more durable and last longer.
As a complete counter to their most expensive headphones, Apples’s Beats brand now has a $50 pair of headphones called Beats Flex that are Bluetooth earbuds connected to each other by a wire that is meant to go around the back of your neck when worn and the earbuds magnetically connect when you’re done with them. They don’t have a case, and at 12 hours they last longer than typical AirPods on a single charge which get 5 hours until you put them back in their charging case. The Flex are also available in a variety of colors (black, yellow, blue, gray) compared to the white AirPods and AirPods Pro. But the $50 price tag only gets you the first generation of AirPods chip, the W1, instead of the newer H1 in the 2nd generation of AirPods and AirPods Pro. The aforementioned AirPods Max have an H1 for each ear. The older H1 chip has more latency between the device making noise and the headphones receiving them, hands-free Siri access (which is almost entirely terrible if you call anyone in your life “Sweetie” preceeded by “Hey”). The H1 is also incredibly slow to pair to a device. The only thing the Flex have that AirPods don’t is that you won’t be as likely to drop one into water, due to the cable connecting the two earbuds together, and they charge via USB-C. The Flex also won’t sense they’re out of your ears and don’t pause podcasts or music until you magnetically link the earbuds. Apple also has an Android app for updating the Beats Flex firmware, something they don’t make available for their AirPods line of products.
The Verge’s Chris Welch liked the Flex for what they are. I don’t think I’d really recommend Beats Flex for anyone who wants to use them with a Mac but it is incredible that Apple makes competent bluetooth headphones that cost less than replacement ear pads for the AirPods Max.
Supposedly new AirPods and AirPods Pro designs are coming this year with shorter stems and new charging cases. I hope this doesn’t mean all of the new designs will be in-ear. One of the reasons why I’d like to go back to the regular AirPods is that they are more comfortable for my ears.