In early September 2016, Apple announced that the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus would not come with a 3.5mm headphone jack. But this is not surprising, is it? Apple has been committed to big push the bluetooth audio and wireless headphones. To accompany that direction, the AirPods were announced. The good news is that a lightning port to 3.5mm headphone dongle is still supplied in the retail packaging.
We all know the AirPods did not go on sale with the iPhone 7 family of handsets. But in the week before Christmas, the AirPods have arrived in Apple Stores across the world (in limited numbers) and online orders have commenced shipping. Which leads to the question, what do people think of this new way to listen to audio? Does it work? Is it practical? Do they fall out? Let’s find out:
Wireless headsets come with many challenges, and Apple can’t break the laws of physics. Instead it built the W1 chip to deal with issues such as audio synchronisation, lag, and increasing the usability of the pairing process. The Verge’s Sean O’Kane looks at the W1 solution:
“Each AirPod is actually receiving its own Bluetooth channel independently at the same time, and it’s the W1 chip that handles the syncing. The result is very low latency and also a very reliable connection. This is an approach that every other wireless earbud company avoided, and yet Apple found a way to make it work very, very well.
W1 is Apple at its best — it’s a proprietary technology that solves real problems, helps open up new use cases, and pushes the industry forward. The trade-off is you just have to submit to some ecosystem lock-in.”
Steve Kovach addresses the issue of audio quality. The AirPods unsurprisingly match the EarPods, but there’s still room for improvement:
“While the AirPods don’t sound as good as high-end, over-the-ear headphones, they sound just about the same as the wired EarPods that come with your iPhone. For me, that’s good enough. But if you’re a hardcore audio nerd, you probably shouldn’t be using earbuds anyway.”
You’re going to find issues with the AirPods if you rely on the ‘tap for Siri’ interface. While all your media controls on your iPhone, iPad or MacBook will still work, the ability to keep your phone in your pocket is one that headphone manufacturers take to heart. Apple’s solution is a tap to awaken Siri and drive everything though voice commands. Greg Emmanuel taps the AirPods into Rolling Stone to see how they cope:
“Unfortunately, finding that sweet spot to tap was sometimes harder than it should be. And this gateway to Siri is sadly the only control built directly into the headphones. You can’t just skip a song or adjust the volume with a physical tap or button press. You have to literally ask Siri to do either task. And when it comes to music she will only assist if you are playing music through a streaming platform that has Siri compatibilty built-in.”
The use of the AirPods for hands-free calling is actually more practical than listening to music… just take out one AirPod to pick up an incoming call, as Chris Davies relates for SlashGear:
“For calls, you can just use one AirPod; if the battery runs out, I was able to swap the earbuds over without dropping the call or even interrupting my conversation. It’s worth noting that, currently, macOS doesn’t do the same auto-pausing if you’re listening to music from your MacBook.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is nothing in the AirPods that is user-serviceable. Once the AirPods went on sale, iFixit begun its customary tear-down to look inside the desirable hardware. Even with Apple’s current approach of sealing up its hardware, the AirPods pick up a rare zero out of ten for user repairs, but also a potential issue for the future:
“Accessing any case component is impossible without destroying the outer casing. Glue is the only external fastener used in the case or earbuds.
…Our X-ray imagery shows some quality issues in this chip’s solder joints. Empty spaces, known as voiding, could be evidence of low quality standards, or a rushed product release. Could issues with the AirPod case be what delayed release?”
As to the big question of their ability to stay in the ear under strain, MacWorld editor Susie Ochs isn;t worried:
“Nope, I’m really not! The way these perch right in my ear opening, they feel totally secure no matter what I’m doing. Headbanging, dancing, bending over, running up stairs, jogging, you name it. They stay put.”
With a one-size for all approach from Apple, and no silicon or foam inserts to increase the ability to fit an ear, your mileage will vary. The Verge’s Lauren Goode manages fine, but Sean O’Kane has trouble:
“Apple says that they’ve tested thousands of ear shapes and they think this design is robust enough to please most people. The Verge’s senior editor Lauren Goode has almost no problem with them — she’s even been able to work out with AirPods with no troubles. But I can’t bring myself to be happy with AirPods because of this issue, and I’ve been looking forward to wireless earbuds for a while.”
Apple’s AirPods are clearly first generation devices with a number of teething issues in the hardware and software. These are likely to be addressed over the next year or two, partly through user feedback and software updates and partly through the release of BlueTooth 5.0 to improve audio connectivity.
With the forced move to wireless (or lightning cable) on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, more people will consider the $159 AirPods over the $29 cabled EarPods. It’s easy to see the appeal for Apple in pushing everyone to wireless, it’s less clear why the general public will be happy to move over with this generation of AirPods. Apple’s gamble is that by forcing the issue there will be a greater acceptance of wireless audio, an increased market for the product, and significant levels of feedback and adoption to contribute to an improved second generation.
Right now the AirPods feel like the answer to a question that nobody felt was urgent enough to address, apart from Apple.