Apple’s Headphone Lineup as 2021 Begins

Connectivity Issues with AirPods and the Mac

Jason Snell writing for Macworld:

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.

AirPods Max

Airpods max silver witb

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.

Beats Flex

Beast FlexAs 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.

Rumors

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.

New AirPods

Updated AirPods are finally available. Announced way back in 2017, alongside the still absent AirPower oval charging mat. Apple says the 2nd generation of AirPods have a new H1 SOC that replaces the W1 chip in the first generation, faster connection times, support the “Hey Siri” wakeword/hotword without having your iPhone out, and have longer battery life but only for “talk time.”

The physical appearance of the AirPods hasn’t changed beyond a new light on the front that is only on the Qi-compatible Wireless case.

I loved the AirPods when I got them, but as a first generation product they’re not without issues. I have a few more issues now than I did two years ago.

  • These days I am frequently wondering if the batteries are wearing down, as all batteries do over time, when I have to plug in the case to charge it more often than I used to.
  • The process of connecting them to a Mac is so poor that various third-party utilities have been made to smooth things over. I use one, it isn’t great, because you have to put both AirPods back in the case and then open the case before the utility will give you a chance to pair them to your Mac.
  • I don’t know if it’s because of the humidity here or what, but the case is also absolutely disgusting on my set. There’s a rim of grossness around the top of the case that is difficult to keep clean.
  • You can use the Find My iPhone app to locate missing AirPods, but only if they’re out of the charging case. They once fell into a little nook in the back of my office chair only to be lost for two months because who would ever think to look there and they were in their case so I couldn’t use the Find My iPhone app to make them make noise.
  • I don’t know how often it is, but I sometimes have issues connecting the AirPods to my iPhone. Sometimes it seems like the entire Bluetooth stack has gone off the deep end and the only way to get them to pair is to turn off Bluetooth and then re-enable it. Which you now have to do in the Settings app because the control-center widget only disables new Bluetooth connections instead of halting the entire stack.
  • Rarely, I hear the “connection ding” alert sound but I have no idea what the AirPods have connected to because the audio I’m trying to listen to comes out of my iPhone’s speakers.
  • Finally, anyone that has ever dropped the AirPods case is happy with how durable it is, but unhappy because it has a tendency to open the lid and eject the AirPods.

The new AirPods could fix many of those issues, but I don’t see any big reason for me to upgrade yet. The only Qi chargers I have access to are at an angle that wouldn’t work with the wireless charging case, which requires more of a lay-down mat. If you haven’t gotten a pair of AirPods yet, there’s no reason to wait, but if you’re considering upgrading I would wait for reviews of the 2nd generation.

The new AirPods come in at two price points. $160 without the Qi compatible charging case, or $200 with the ability to charge on any Qi charging pad. The new wireless charging case is also available separately for $80 and is compatible with the original AirPods.

AirPods Review Update

The AirPods box.

There were a few things that I’ve noticed since I posted a review of Apple’s AirPods back in December, so here’s a quick update.

  1. The range is ridiculous. I can leave my iPhone downstairs and the AirPods carry on delivering audio to my ears.
  2. The sound the AirPods make to let you know they’re running low on battery is kind of surprising because it isn’t accompanied by anything onscreen to let you know what’s going on. Midcall I kept hearing the sound and trying to figure out what it was until finally the AirPod I had in turned off. Switching to the other AirPod is easy, and it’s a mistake you should only make once, but it seems boneheaded to not let people know what’s happening when they look at the device that their AirPods are connected to.
  3. There are a few tiny issues with the case. It’s too loud when it snaps shut. There’s an audible clicking sound when you close it and although it’s fine in many situations in a few it is absolutely not fine. These headphones are slick as hell but waking up a sleeping baby when you switch out one AirPod for the other and shut the case isn’t. You might think you could more gently close the case to prevent this, you can’t unless you have both hands free.
  4. The same goes for the charging status light inside the case. Way too bright in some situations without an ambient light sensor to detect that it should dim.
  5. As an incredible bargain compared to other truly wireless earbuds it feels a little like nitpicking, but, why does Apple include a charging cable without a wall adapter? These cost $159. Include the darn wall adapter.
  6. AirPods are very comfortable. I can forget if they are in or not. A few times I’ve gone to listen to them and wasn’t able to tell if I had them in or not without checking the charging case or my ear.

Finally, there are silent firmware updates for the AirPods when they’re in their charging case and near an iOS device. There are a few issues I’ve had that might be fixed by this firmware but it is impossible to tell since there are no release notes. Of course these are tiny computers so getting updated software isn’t completely unexpected, but it sure would be nice to know what is changing when we skip through a few versions very quickly. This update went from 3.3.1 to 3.5.1.

I’m still very onboard with our wireless future, there are far cheaper bluetooth headset options with better battery life, and some have better sound quality, but none are as smooth and they’re the best for calling our senators.

AirPods Review

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.