You can’t separate the story of Apple’s AirPods from the decision by the wizards of Cupertino to get rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack that had been a standard on just about every smartphone since Day One. When Apple announced that it was removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus there was consternation among those of us who had long since abandoned the supplied EarPods in favor of higher end headphones. Apple offered up a dongle that would allow you to use your phones with its Lightning port. But that too came with problems. First off, it’s really easy to lose. Secondly, it meant that if you were on the road there was no easy way to get juice into your iPhone while listening to your headphones. The real story here is that Apple wanted to push its ecosystem towards wireless headphones. So it announced the $159 AirPods. However, there were manufacturing problems and the new devices were not ready for the initial shipment of the iPhone 7.
Now the AirPods are shipping, and yes, Apple has once again created a great product. Let’s start off with the most important question. How do they sound? In a word, great; a lot better than I expected. There’s no tinniness at the high end, something that’s often an issue with in-ear devices. And while it’s not quite a booming bass, it’s full and quite respectable, plus the AirPods do a very nice job reproducing the mid-ranges. Even though the AirPods are not positioned as being optimized for Hi-Res audio tracks, we put them through their paces on Pioneer’s XDP-300R Hi-Res player. The results were just terrific.
But given all the hype around this product, you’d think there might be more to the story. And there is. For starters, there’s the pairing. Pairing has always been the weak link with Bluetooth devices. If you have an iOS device, these will pair automatically thanks to a new chip from Apple, the W1. Open up their charger/case and immediately there’s a screen on your iOS device showing that they’ve paired, and also the amount of power in the AirPods’ battery, as well as in the charging case. Give Apple credit for coming up with a brand new chip just to accomplish this task. The case is pretty slick too. In just fifteen minutes it will give the AirPods three hours of battery life – three-fifths of its full capacity. The case is white, so it won’t get lost in your bag, and it’s small, so it will fit in any pocket.
The AirPods don’t offer much in the way of controls. A double tap on either Pod will activate Siri, and that’s how you adjust volume and go forward or backward in your playlist. While AirPods will pair with an Android device you won’t have the Siri functionality, but you can program the tap to take you through the playlist. You’ll need to go through the hassle of the Bluetooth pairing menu, but it works. The case is well-crafted and uses magnets to firmly hold the AirPods while they are charging. Even turning the open case upside down and shaking it didn’t dislodge the Pods.
The AirPods are smart. They know when they are in your ears. Or not. And they will stop the music if you take them out.
Unlike many in-ear devices, Apple takes a “one size fits all” approach so there are no interchangeable ear tips of different sizes. As a result, you do not get a tight seal. And some reviewers complain they’ve fallen out of their ears. While many people do use them while running or biking, I’m still a little nervous about ear-jarring vigorous activity. One other thing you’ll notice is that AirPods are strange looking. They have stalks where you might think the wires would attach. But there are no wires. Ostensibly this means the microphones can be closer to your mouth. But they do look unusual.
Should you buy them? At $159 they are not cheap. But if you can get over the notion that Apple is steering you down its own vision of the Yellow Brick Road, these are actually quite good. Sound quality is top notch. The instant pairing with iOS devices gets around one of the biggest Bluetooth hassles. So, why not, go ahead and stick some in your ear. Just one suggestion – try them out to make sure you’re not among the minority who just can’t get them to stay in.