by David Nason, January 2017
The launch was far from perfect, but the product itself is a winner. Apple have knocked it out of the park with AirPods.
In September 2016 Apple announced the iPhone 7 which controversially had no traditional headphone port. As part of their justification of this move, Apple promoted the growth of wireless technologies, and in particular wireless headphones. They proceeded to introduce us to their own take on wireless earbuds, called AirPods. Looking virtually identical to their wired EarPods, and connecting to Apple devices with a simplicity that only Apple themselves could implement, AirPods were arguably the star of the September iPhone event.
"Available in October 2016" we were told and I for one had every intension of being at the front of the queue. I love the idea of removing the wire and had tried third party bluetooth earbuds before, but like just about every other half decent earbuds on the market, those simply wouldn't stay in my ears. In addition the bluetooth connectivity could be touch and go, though I didn't use them enough to make a clear judgement on that. I also own a pair of Jabra Move bluetooth over-ear headphones. These are great when watching a movie or something, but for day to day use I tend to prefer a nice pair of earbuds. Apple's EarPods are the only decent earbuds that I've ever found to stay in my ears, and they do this extremely well, so their new wireless cousins were always going to interest me.
October came and went, as did November, with no word from Apple on where the AirPods were and when we could expect them. Debate raged in the Apple universe. For me this was one of Apple's low points in 2016, and something of a concern. While I of course agree that Apple was correct not to release the product until they were sure it was ready, this goes without saying for me, the point is that Apple chose to announce the product with much fanfare in September and Apple chose to give us an October release date. If they were not sure, then they could simply have told us to expect them later this year, as they have done in the past with other products. Then they failed to give any updates, until they just appeared in mid-December. That being said, once launched and since I ordered, I have been a very happy customer.
I ordered my AirPods on 13 December, receiving a two week despatch expectation and an estimated delivery date of 04 January. To my delight, the AirPods arrived at my door just a week later on 20 December, a nice pre-Christmas treat. As I unboxed my new gadget, which was of course as well packaged as we've come to expect from Apple, I was first struck by the AirPods magnetic case. The small plastic case is durable and extremely portable. The two individual AirPods slot in and out easily and are magnetically held in place, and the magnetic flip lid of the case is a throwback to Zippo lighters, great fun to open and close over and over again!
The AirPods themselves were pitched as being the same as EarPods but without the wires and they are exactly that. The stem is a little thicker but no longer, and the earbud looks to be identical in size. How they fit all that technology in there I'll never know. If EarPods fit well in your ears, then I would be very confident in saying that AirPods will do so too. That's certainly the case for me, a perfect fit. Even if I shake my head around intentionally, they don't fall out.
Understandably there is talk about the possibility of losing one or both AirPods, and I do share that fear. For that reason I haven't ventured outside with them a huge amount in these first couple of weeks that I've owned them. Being visually impaired, it's natural that I am a little more nervous at the prospect of trying to find one of these if it fell on the ground. As I mentioned above, I'm not too worried that they will simply fall out of my ear, but I do still know there is scope for them to be knocked out, or for me to drop one as I put them in or take them out of my ears. This being said, I do believe I will find the confidence to start using them more and more outside the house in the coming weeks and months, they're just too cool and convenient not to.
In terms of the sound quality, I have no complaints. I'm no audio expert admittedly, but have always been happy with the sound from the wired EarPods, and have found that AirPods sound every bit as good. Equally the microphone quality seems just as good. I was sceptical about whether it could be so, but have had no complaints from anybody at the other end of a phone call, and Siri is working just fine.
One thing I was very curious to know, and you may well be wondering too, is to what extent there is an audio lag, common to bluetooth devices, or whether Apple's W1 chip magic has somehow mitigated this effect. While the lag isn't horrific, it is certainly there. A sighted user is unlikely to be greatly effected by this, but a VoiceOver user will notice it. While listening to audio it's just fine and I'm very happy, but navigating around the screen with VoiceOver, or typing on the on-screen keyboard is slower and more error prone than when using wired earphones. It can be done though, it's not so frustrating for me that I give up altogether or anything, but I do often disconnect if typing anything longer than a couple of sentences. This has got better over the years as bluetooth technology has improved, so I expect it won't be a problem in the long term.
I eluded earlier to magical connectivity and magical is exactly how it feels. When you open the AirPods case for the first time in the vicinity of your iPhone, a dialogue box pops up on the screen, you select connect. Your AirPods are now paired with all of your iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches or Macs that are signed in to your iCloud account, simple as that. Now whenever you pop the AirPods in your ears, they immediately connect to your iPhone or last used device. Take them out and they disconnect again. Remove one AirPod while listening to audio or playing video and the playback pauses automatically, return it to your ear and it starts up again, it makes life incredibly easy! If you don't like this feature however, you can switch it off in Settings. Switching the connection to another device is just a matter of pulling up the control centre on that device, or going to the Menu Extras bar in the case of the Mac, and selecting AirPods. I've experienced occasional bluetooth weirdness when switching devices, but nothing serious, on the whole connectivity has been great. There are no physical buttons on AirPods, but thanks to accelerometers inside, you do have some controls through a double-tap on the side of either AirPod. By default this double-tap will invoke Siri, allowing you to ask it to pause, skip back, skip forward or change volume for example, as well as the usual array of Siri commands. One downside I've found to this as a VoiceOver user is that it tends to wake up the screen, making VoiceOver start chattering over whatever I'm listening to. I have similar frustrations at times when using the remote control on wired EarPods though to be fair. If you don't like the idea of talking to Siri, you can opt to have the double-tap simply act as a play/pause function instead.
Of course with any bluetooth earbuds or headphones battery life is going to be a concern. Whether you find you get enough from AirPods is going to be subjective, but I've been happy and believe Apple have come up with a very clever implementation. The AirPods themselves hold approximately five hours of playback, but the small portable case holds twenty-four hours of charge. When your AirPods are in the case they are charging, and in my experience re-charge very quickly indeed. The case is easily re-charged by lightening cable and fully charges in a few hours. It's early days but so far I'm reasonably happy on this front.
Good as these AirPods are, there is always scope for improvement and I have no doubt Apple will update the product in the future. One improvement I would like to see, and it may in fact be possible through a software update only, would be more capability for controlling playback with tapping gestures. Perhaps a double-tap on the left ear could act as the play/pause control for example, while a double-tap on the right ear invokes Siri. Could triple-taps be introduced, allowing the user to skip to the previous or next track? As bluetooth technology continues to develop, I'd like to see future generations of AirPods eliminate that lag I spoke about entirely. While I understand why Apple chose it's signature white colour for this product, I'd very much like to see more colour options for AirPods, perhaps jet black to match my iPhone, or a nice midnight blue. Bring some fun to the product Apple!
Would I recommend AirPods? If they fit your ears well, and that's a very individual thing, then absolutely I would. They sound good, are extremely portable and work seamlessly with all your Apple devices. AirPods for me are an example of Apple at it's best.