Apple AirPods


Apple AirPods

Tech — I’ve owned a pair of Apple’s elusive, impossible to buy AirPods for around 5 days now.

Ever since I bought them for a slightly inflated price on Gumtree I’ve waited for the wave of regret to hit. I barely ever buy something expensive without feeling dumb at some point.

With the AirPods that feeling never hit. They’re everything I could have hoped for and then some. In just a few days they’ve transitioned away from being exotic and now they’re just a normal part of my life.

In saying that, AirPods are still a generation 1 product, and there are some things to pay attention to if you plan on buying a pair for yourself. Here are notes I’ve taken through my week of jogging, cycling and living with Apple’s AirPods.

Let’s start right at the start. Setting up AirPods for the first time is almost too simple. I pulled the AirPods out of the box, flipped open the charging case lid and my phone immediately paired with the buds. That was that. And with iCloud the AirPods now show on every device: Mac, iPad and iPhone.

When you flip open the case with the AirPods inside this battery status screen will show up. It works almost every time, which is something that surprised me considering Apple’s spotty wireless history (I’m looking at you AirDrop).

When you pop the buds into your ears a ring will sound, letting you know that you’re 100% connected and ready to go. You can see the battery status of each bud, as well as the charging case, from the old AirPlay pane and as a widget in the iOS Notifications screen. On a Mac you can see battery information from the volume menu in your top OS menu bar.

At first I worried about the promised 5 hour battery life of the AirPods. It sounded weird to think of my earphones, which had previously been powered through nothing but a 3.5mm cable, as separate devices with their own batteries and far more complicated internals. Yet in use this has so far not been an issue.

For one, I can’t remember a time when I’ve used any pair of earbuds non-stop for 5 hours. With AirPods if you’re not using them they’re in the battery case charging. 15 minutes later they’ll be back with another 3 hours of charge. The case itself comes with 24 hours of charge, which could last multiple days, depending on your usage.

That means over lunch, while eating on a plane or while driving you can charge the AirPods quickly, easily and naturally in their case without thinking about anything. If they’re in the case they’re charging, quickly and efficiently.

One question most people have regarding AirPods is a simple: why? What’s so bad about 3.5mm jacks?

Honestly, not much. In a way Apple is throwing out the baby with the bathwater by removing the 3.5mm jack so prematurely, especially considering the current drawbacks of wireless.

Wireless headphones, including Apple’s AirPods, aren’t yet perfect. I’ve experienced occasional literal hiccups where one AirPod will cut out for a millisecond. Other times I’ve noticed that the AirPods don’t pair automatically with other devices and I’ve had to manually remove the buds from my ear for the background handshake to figure itself out. One time my AirPods were receiving a stuttery feed from my Mac but not my iPhone. A re-pair fixed the issue, yet thinking back my 3.5mm jack wouldn’t have had this issue at all.

There’s also latency with AirPods, but it’s usually not noticeable. While watching video, for example, iOS and macOS generally make the process seamless by delaying video playback for a few milliseconds. Snapchat videos, too, sometimes pause very quickly before playing back, meaning the AirPods stay in sync with what’s happening on the phone’s screen. I’ve only seen this process fail once in the Facebook app, with the audio not matching the video. It was a little unsettling, though it’s genuinely rare, surprisingly so. This was my biggest fear yet it seems that years of Bluetooth experimentation has contributed to a standardised system of bypassing any delay between video and audio, even on non-Apple devices.

Latency is still problematic in some more time-specific, audio-centric situations. On my Mac, while using Ableton Live, I could barely use the audio-editing app with my AirPods. The delay between my computer and what the AirPods were receiving forced me to re-listen to a snippet of audio a few times to correctly edit it. I still figured it out, but in the long-term I would need a wired pair of headphones if I really needed to edit audio efficiently. Meanwhile an app like Final Cut Pro X works fine with AirPods, somehow matching the audio to the video.

Effectively there needs to be a carrot on this stick for Apple to successfully transition people to a ‘wireless future’. And the simplicity of the AirPods is that carrot.

The two separate buds are remarkable in their own way. For example they have never fallen out of sync with one another. Not even once.

Wireless audio also means you can really move around in ways you just can’t with tethered traditional buds. I unpacked the groceries with my phone on the kitchen table and the AirPods moving with me. Despite layers of brick and other plausible limits to the range in my house the AirPods very rarely cut out. In fact they didn’t at all. Of course, wireless being wireless, your mileage may vary. Again though, at the gym this is even more liberating. I can put my phone on the pocket next to the treadmill and move around without thinking about wires or what snag my headphones will find.

The meme of losing an AirPod, while still possible, was also a little overblown. At best I’d worry about losing the charging case along with the AirPods inside it. I have noticed that the slipper, glossy plastic case can blend into your pocket and it’s like having another wallet with you at all times. Sometimes I’ll panic and think that the case has fallen out, though it hasn’t yet. The earbuds themselves, though, usually stay in the case or in my ears when not in use and I haven’t lost either bud for even a moment.

For me, the portable nature of wireless earbuds makes Apple’s AirPods worth it. It’s so nice being able to not worry about where my phone is at all times. I can carry things in two hands and leave my phone behind without losing audio and it’s perfect.

The flaws of the gen-1 AirPods are also not really an issue to me. A lack of playback controls, for instance, just made me realise that I rarely used them with my EarPods. That observation is likely a very different one to most other people, but I really don’t mind that omission. Siri isn’t a replacement and I still haven’t even used it with the AirPods in, though, again, I’m usually still close to my phone when using the AirPods so can control playback and volume from that. With that said, the experience of double-tapping the AirPods is a weird one. It doesn’t feel great to tap an object so close to your ears. It works, but I just found removing one AirPod was a better way to pause the audio from my phone and some macOS apps like QuickTime and iTunes.

In closing AirPods aren’t perfect, though they are still remarkable. I genuinely hate rubbery in-ear buds and also the strap that most Bluetooth buds use to connect each ear.

With AirPods they are simply EarPods with the wire removed. The long antenna gives AirPods a huge range, they fit my ears perfectly, battery life is great and they’re a treat to use. If you use EarPods like I do, you’ll love love love AirPods. With that said, if EarPods don’t already fit you, you might be better suited by the more gross rubbery in-ear alternative. As for me, I’ll happily hang onto these. Also there’s nothing cooler than taking an AirPod out of your ear, placing it on a desk in front of you and walking away, knowing that it’s paused the music playing on your phone. It feels futuristic as hell.