Two years ago I decided I was done with wired earbuds. I was tired of the wires getting tangled in my bag or getting caught on something and unceremoniously yanked from my ears. I jumped into the world of Bluetooth headphones with the Jaybird BlueBuds X – sporty earbuds connected by a wire. I loved the convenience and freedom of the Jaybirds, and have been using Bluetooth earbuds and headphones exclusively ever since. Unfortunately my Jaybirds fell victim to the washing machine earlier this year, by which time the tech world was buzzing with rumours about completely wireless earbuds from Apple. It should come as no surprise that I was practically salivating when the AirPods were unveiled back in September.
I finally got my hands on a pair of AirPods last Monday, December 19th, and they were absolutely worth the wait.
Apple’s W1 chip provides the AirPods (and the latest Beats headphones) with the simplest pairing method of any Bluetooth earbuds: hold the AirPods in their case next to your iPhone, pop open the lid, and tap the big “Connect” button that slides up from the bottom of the screen. That’s it. At the same time, iCloud will pair your AirPods with your iPad and Mac, too. Pairing the AirPods is simple, intuitive, and works exactly as advertised. That said, despite the “magic” baked into the mysterious W1 chip, the AirPods still rely on Bluetooth to function, which is far from a perfect technology. I have experienced a few audio drops and crackles, though never for more than a second. On a few occasions, I hit play and sound starts playing through one AirPod before the other, but they sync up a split-second later. I haven’t yet succeeded in getting the AirPods to connect to my Mac, but the Bluetooth on my aging 2012 MacBook Pro has always been a little temperamental. All told, the AirPods work as best as Bluetooth earbuds can, and even better when pairing and switching devices thanks to the W1.
The “one-size-fits-all” design of the wired EarPods carries over to the AirPods. To the human eye, there is no discernible difference in the size or shape of the AirPods compared to the EarPods. If the wired EarPods have trouble staying in your ears, or you find them uncomfortable to wear, the same will probably be true of the AirPods. I was surprised to find that the AirPods fit my ears pretty well. I attribute this to the AirPods being slightly heftier than the EarPods, and the lack of a cord constantly tugging down on the buds. However, I wouldn’t exactly describe the AirPods as having a secure fit; the Left AirPod definitely fits me more snugly than the Right AirPod, but both have a very “airy” fit. I’m used to wearing in-ear earbuds with rubber tips on the ends, which form a comfortable seal inside my ears. By contrast, the AirPods perch softly on the outside of my ear canals, pushing sound inward. That does make the AirPods comfortable in the sense that after a while you forget they’re even in your ears, however I find the secure, snug fit of rubber in-ear buds to be more comfortable. I’m also pleased to report that despite my best efforts the AirPods have never fallen out of my ears on their own. I’ve worn them on buses, streetcars, and subways, outside in the bustling winter wind, while cooking dinner, and while cleaning my apartment, and they’ve remained perched in my ears through it all. Still, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Apple might eventually decide to make an in-ear version of the AirPods. It’s a shame that third-party rubber tips and wings will prevent the AirPods from fitting in their perfectly-moulded case.
My daily listening habits consist of about 75% podcasts and 25% music, but for both I’ve found the AirPods sound perfectly fine. Better than expected, in fact. It’s been a long time since I’ve worn and used wired EarPods, but when comparing the two I find the AirPods actually sound better; they’ve got more noticeable bass than the EarPods. If you use the EarPods that came with your iPhone you’ll be perfectly satisfied with the sound produced by the AirPods. If you’re an audiophile, you likely own an expensive pair of headphones already and shouldn’t even bother with the AirPods. To me the AirPods sound great for Bluetooth earbuds; slightly better than the Jaybird BlueBuds I owned for years, and on-par with my Beats Solo3. My only complaint about sound quality is that the AirPods provide practically no noise cancellation due to their fit. That’s been a problem for me when even max volume is drowned out by noisy subways or loud Toronto streets, and it has me considering where the AirPods are most appropriate to use. I may switch to my Beats when out-and-about, and wear my AirPods at home and at the office.
The other big downside to the AirPods is the loss of the inline Remote, more affectionately known as the “clicker”. The AirPods offer a single physical interaction: a double-tap to invoke Siri, or play/pause audio (your choice in Settings). Other than that, there’s no way to adjust volume or skip backward/forward without using your iPhone, Apple Watch, or asking Siri. Nobody wants to ask Siri to “turn up the volume” in public. Furthermore, Siri can’t adjust volume or skip tracks without an internet connection, for whatever reason, meaning voice-commands are unavailable on an underground subway for example. I’ve found the lack of physical controls on the AirPods to be an inconvenience, but not a deal-breaker. Apple could introduce additional tap options for the AirPods through a future software update, and I hope future hardware revisions might make the AirPods touch-sensitive so you could adjust volume by sliding up and down on the stems.
I’ve managed to have a few phone calls using the AirPods – one while walking outside through downtown Toronto – and both callers have had no trouble hearing me. Double-tapping either AirPod will answer or hang-up a call.
Battery life has been no concern so far, thanks to the charging case keeping each AirPod topped up when not in use. You can check the battery life of the AirPods with the iOS Battery widget or by opening the case next to your phone. The case itself is brilliant, with a satisfying metal hinge and magnets that suck the AirPods properly into place to charge. My favourite feature is that the AirPods automatically turn on when you take them out of the case, and turn off when you put them in the case. Every other pair of Bluetooth earbuds I’ve owned needed to be turned off manually, and if I yanked them out and forgot, they’d stay connected and slowly drain battery. It’s delightful not having to think about that with the AirPods.
Owning wireless earbuds has changed my life, and the complete wireless freedom the AirPods provide has taken that one step further. I love not having a cord connecting my ears to my pocket, and with the AirPods I don’t even have a cord between my ears. The tech industry is jumping on wireless audio, meaning we’ll only see further improvements to sound quality, connectivity, and form factor over the next few years.
For a first generation product, Apple has built something really great with the AirPods, a gadget that feels all at once simple and extremely futuristic. I watched a friend of mine open and try his AirPods for the first time, and saw his eyes light up when he removed one from his ear and the music paused. That’s the kind of surprise and delight we’ve come to expect from Apple products, which has been sorely lacking over the last few years. If you’re interested in trying wireless earbuds, the AirPods are reasonably, competitively priced and I highly recommend them. Try them on at an Apple Store first, if you can.