AirPods: A Review

I, like many people, am constantly using my iPhone. The most common thing that I am doing with my phone is listening to audio. I can be listening to podcasts, audiobooks, or even just music. If you encounter me out and about, there is a 90% chance that I will have headphones in my ears. Headphones are one of the things that I will most likely have on me at all times. This has been the case since around 2005 when I got my first iPod; the iPod Mini.

That is not to say that I did not use headphones before, far from it. I used to listen to cassettes as well as CDs, and I even had a 32MB, yes, 32MB, Diamond Rio MP3 player. Since cassettes, CDs, and the Diamond Rio MP3 player were all around well before smart phones, I had to use wired headphones in order to listen to my music. Given that I am constantly listening to something, a good and comfortable set of headphones is an absolute must for me.

I should go without saying that I have had a slew of different headphones over the years. This does include a couple of bluetooth headphones as well. As with many people, once I find a pair of headphones I like, I will continue to buy them until they are no longer available. Luckily, my headphones of choice are Apple’s EarPods. Even though I have always had a phone that has AppleCare with it, I have not always gotten my headphones replaced under the warranty and instead opted to buy additional pairs.

History

One of the items that almost any Smart Phone needs is a way to listen to audio. All Smart Phones have at least one speaker in order to provide audio feedback. Most Smart Phones include a pair of wired headphones in with the phone. Apple’s iPhone is no exception. Apple has been including headphones with some of their products since 2001 with the introduction of the first iPod. Apple has modified their headphones in the intervening 16 years.

The second set of headphones that had a different shape were the Apple In-Ear Headphones that were introduced in September of 2008. The In-Ear Headphones consisted of three different size inserts that would allow the user to determine the best fit. The In-Ear headphones differ from the Earbuds by being ones that provide a seal inside the ear.

The shape of Apple’s earbuds remained the same from 2001 until September 2012, when they introduced the EarPods. The EarPods were developed by scanning thousands of ears and creating what is a shape that would fit the largest number of ears. It does not fit every year, but they do fit most.

With the release of the iPhone 5, Apple introduced a new connector, the Lightning connector. This connector is the one that is still on the iPhone, as well as the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPod Nano. With the release of the iPhone 7, Apple announced a radical change, the removal of the headphone jack; a staple that had been there since the release of the original iPhone in 2007. Headphones are still included in the box, as they have been since 2007. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus now include EarPods that have a lightning connector instead of the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack.

AirPods

At the same event as the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus introduction, Apple also introduced their first Apple-branded wireless headphones, the AirPods. The AirPods have the same shape as the EarPods, just without the wires. This is actually a bit of an understatement, the AirPods are actually much more than just a simple pair of wireless headphones.

Wireless

Traditionally, when one thinks of wireless headphones, they picture a set of headphones that do not connect directly to a device with wires, but still have a wire connecting the two different earbuds. That is not the case with the AirPods. Many headphone manufacturers provide Bluetooth headphones, but they have a wire connecting the two ear pieces together. This is not the case with the AirPods. There is not even a charging cable that connects to the AirPods. The AirPods are truly wireless.

The Wireless aspects to the AirPods are provided by a custom chip that Apple has designed; the W1.

W1 chip

The AirPods incorporate some proprietary hardware, Apple’s W1 chip. The W1 chip, as I explained in my review of the Beats Solo 3 Wireless headphones:

The W1 chip is an Apple designed chip that is specifically for being able to quickly pair with any iOS 10 or macOS Sierra device. The W1 chip also enables is the syncing of the pairing information between all of the devices using the same iCloud account.

The synchronization with iCloud is designed to allow your devices to automatically switch, without having to go through the tedious, “un-pair”, “re-pair” dance that is typical of Bluetooth enabled devices.

And this is entirely the case for the AirPods as well. Both the Beats Solo 3 Wireless headphones and AirPods use the same W1 chip; as does the Power Beats 3, and the Beats X will as well, when they are released. As mentioned, the W1 chip is more than just a standard Bluetooth chip. The W1 provides some new functionality; particularly the ability to more easily switch between devices.

The W1 Chip does more than just provide easy syncing. The W1 Chip is also able to relay to an iOS device how much battery power is left on each individual AirPod.

The W1 Chip is responsible for the ability to take an AirPod out and have the audio that you are listening to pause. This functionality is not possible if using the AirPods as a traditional set of Bluetooth headphones. However, the double-tapping of Play/Pause does work while using the AirPods as traditional Bluetooth headphones.

The AirPods are still traditional Bluetooth headphones and can be used with devices that are not running iOS 10 or macOS Sierra. As a matter of fact, they can connect to anything that supports Bluetooth. In order to sync with a non-iOS 10 or macOS Sierra device, perform the following steps:

  1. Enable Bluetooth on the device.
  2. Open the lid on the AirPods case.
  3. Press the synchronize button on the back of the case.
  4. On your device tap on the AirPods.
  5. The AirPods should connect to your device.

The Case

One of the things that is most needed for any pair of wireless headphones is the ability to charge. How would you charge a pair of wireless headphones? With the AirPods, they are charged within their own case. The AirPods case provides more than just charging. It is also the mechanism for synchronizing the AirPods with your device.

The synchronizing of the AirPods with your device. The pairing process is simple.

  1. Place the case within a few inches of the device
  2. Open the lid of the case.
  3. Wait a few seconds, a popup will appear. The AirPods are now paired

The pairing is really that simple. The pairing information for the AirPods is synchronized to all iOS 10 and macOS Sierra devices that are attached to the original paired device.

There is one thing to note, the case itself is not enough to be able to check the charge of the AirPods. At least one AirPod must be in the case for the charge of the battery case to be visible. This is true whether the AirPods are connected to an iOS device or a macOS device.

The AirPods case has a few magnets inside of it. Two of them are to pull the individual AirPods into the case to allow for charging of the AirPods. The second magnet is on the front of the case and is used to close the case, and doubly secure the AirPods inside of it. When you snap shut the case, it makes a satisfying click.

Battery Life

Besides being the pairing mechanism, the case is also how you recharge the AirPods. The headphones have up to five hours of charge. The headphones can be used independently. Once the AirPods reach 10% of battery power left, they will chime to indicate that they are low on power. When they are low on power, you can put the headphones in their case for fifteen minutes. When this is done, the AirPods will get another three hours of charge time.

During my usage, I was able to get about four and half hours of listening time out of the AirPods before needing to recharge. Since I keep the charging case with me at all times, it is not an issue to be able to quickly charge them up.

The total time need to fully charge the AirPods is approximately an hour. The case is capable of charging the AirPods for a full 24-hours of listening time on a single charge of the case. If the AirPods are inside the case when charging the case, the AirPods will also be charged at the same time.

At any point, you can check the charge of your AirPods. On your iOS device, simply use the battery widget to see the current charge. On a device running macOS, you go to the Bluetooth settings in System Preferences, or the menu bar if you have Bluetooth in the menu bar, and the charge should be visible.

Alternatively, if you have an Apple Watch, you can also check the battery levels of the AirPods with your Apple Watch. If you have the Battery complication and if the AirPods are connected to a paired iPhone, you can tap on the Battery complication and the AirPod battery life should be shown.

Switching Devices

In order to switch devices with the AirPods, you simply go to the Bluetooth menu, and select the AirPods, they should connect. During all of my usage, there were a few times that the AirPods did switch between devices. This includes going between an iPhone 7 Plus, 12.9-inch iPad Pro, 2016 MacBook Pro, and 2011 iMac. The only time that the AirPods did not switch was trying to connect to my Apple Watch Series 2.

It should be noted that you do not have to pair the AirPods to other iOS and macOS Sierra devices, provided all of the devices are on the same iCloud account. Once they are paired, the AirPods should be available on your devices.

Controls

One of the aspects of the AirPods is that they have no wires. The lack of wires means that you have limited control. There is actually only one function; double-tapping on one of the individual AirPods. With an iOS 10-enabled device, you can set what action the double-tap gesture performs. To select which action the gesture initiates perform the following:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Tap on to Bluetooth.
  3. Click the information button next to the paired set of AirPods to open the settings.

Here you have a few options that you can set.
You can set the name, the double-tap gesture, enable or disable the automatic ear detection, and you can set some microphone options.

For the double-tap gesture you have three options:

  • Siri
  • Play/Pause
  • Off

The default action is to use Siri, but if you want to change the double-tap gesture, simply tap on the one that you want to use.

The Automatic Ear Detection is an option that allows the AirPods to automatically pause when they are removed and resume playing when they are put back into your ears. The play/pause functionality of ear detection can be triggered by removing just one AirPod. The microphone settings are the last option. On this screen you can choose which AirPod is used for the microphone. The default option is “Automatically Switch AirPods”. You can also choose to always use the left or right AirPod, depending on your preference.

Issues

As mentioned above, my experiences with the AirPods has not been 100% perfect. I have experienced a few issues with them. The biggest has been that they will not, no matter what I do, pair with the AirPods. After messing around with the AirPods for a while, I was able to the AirPods to Connect. The only way I was be able to do this was by disconnecting the AirPods from every device and then pairing with the Apple Watch Series 2. At this point, they were finally able to connect.

The most common issue that I have experienced has been the few times that the sound has cut out entirely. This happens for no explicable reason. I was listening to some music when out of the blue, the AirPods disconnected. They were not low on power, they had plenty of charge left.

While listening to a variety of audio, I sometimes get distortions in the audio. During these times, I am not more than a few feet away from my iPhone when this happens.

Feature Requests

There are a couple of things that I would like to see for a future software or hardware upgrade of the AirPods.

Additional gestures. Besides the current double-tap, a triple-tap gesture could be implemented. The only possible downside is that sometimes the current double-tap gesture is not always recognized.

This request is one that could be implemented a bit more easily; Next track. This could be added as an additional option, even with the existing double-tap gesture. Some might wonder what would happen with the Play/Pause option. Well, the Play/Pause function is already taken care of by removing an AirPod. This option could be easily added with just a software update.

Final Thoughts

The AirPods have actually made listening to audio much easier. Instead of having to worry about getting wires tangled wherever I am, I am able to leave my iPhone in one place, and walk all over the house without needing to have my iPhone on me.

Overall, the AirPods are the best earbuds that I have ever used and easily the best Bluetooth-enabled earbuds as well. I have not compared them to the Beats Solo 3 Wireless headphones yet; that may be another comparison post in the future. If you have any mobile device that can support Bluetooth, the AirPods will work. You will not get some of the benefits, but they are still some of the best wireless headphones that you can buy.