When it was announced that the iPhone 7 wasn’t going to have a headphone jack, I honestly didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Incorrect. It has turned out to be a significant pain in the butt using some of my “old" accessories. The sleep headphones I use nightly now require a dongle to be plugged in, and I use a second $40 dongle to charge while listening. It’s an absurd setup, for sure, but the cool part of this new wholly wireless future Apple is trying to get us on is there have been some really neat (and really expensive) headphones released. I’ve got a pair of Beats Solo 3’s which look and sound just like my old Beats, but have a battery in them that last so long I find myself charging them every week or two more because I feel like I should rather than because I need to. The magic of the Solo 3’s is Apple’s new W1 chip, which also is the star of the show in the Apple AirPods which just arrived via FedEx at my house about an hour ago.
It seems like the meme masters of the internet have been making fun of the AirPods since they were first announced in September along side the iPhone 7. The laundry list of things that were worth mocking included how silly they look, how you’ll lose them, how expensive the are, and other typical complaints new Apple things typically find themselves the target of. Sure, I’ll concede they look silly, but so do most Bluetooth headphones and earbuds. The $160 price point definitely puts them in the upper echelon of wireless earbud pricing, but I’d argue having the W1 chip makes that price premium worthwhile, provided you use multiple Apple devices and switch between them.
Prior to getting my W1-enabled Beats, I really didn’t like using Bluetooth headphones that much. I regularly use an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook. Switching which device my headphones are paired to was an arcane process of trying to remember which button to hold down to get them in pairing mode, navigating to settings and hoping they pop up to pair, etc. It was one of those things that were just enough hassle that I’d typically just use any wireless headphones I had with my iPhone, then just plug in to use my MacBook or iPad with other headphones. The whole iCloud-enabled W1 pairing process is so fast and simple it’s just like selecting a AirPlay output source. It takes less than a couple seconds, and always works.
If you don’t use a lot of Apple stuff, the W1 loses a lot of its luster as the primary benefits then are wireless range and battery life. AirPods have incredibly impressive range, as I’m able to walk anywhere inside of my modestly sized single-story ranch house without losing connectivity to my iPhone. (It is unbelievably cold and snowy outside right now, but I’ll do some real range testing outside this week.) Comparatively, I’ve got a pair of Jaybird bluetooth earbuds that I used to use for work out that had a wireless range that was so bad that I needed to have my phone on an armband facing my head to not experience signal drop outs.
Apple is advertising five hours of battery life on the AirPods, and given my experience with the Beats Solo 3’s, I don’t have any reason to doubt those figures. Given how small the AirPods are, five hours feels like magic. The case they come in, which looks like a rounded container of dental floss and is about the same size, also has a battery which charges up the AirPods when you’re on the go- allowing for 24 hours of listening (again, according to Apple).
As far as the concern that AirPods are going to get lost, after fiddling with them this morning, I’m really not sure how realistic that is. First off, I’ve been walking around my house shaking my head, bouncing up my stairs, and using the gym equipment I’ve got in my basement that I use to work out every day – vastly exaggerating all head movements – and can’t get them to come loose. Even if you bump them a bit, the way they’re shaped seems to cause them to just slide back down into position in your ear. If you do manage to dislodge them, playback immediately stops. I’m not saying it’s an impossible scenario, but I feel like you’ve got to be a supremely unobservant person to not realize that both your music stopped and the thing you have in your ear is no longer there.
Really, the only likely way I see of losing one of the AirPods is by not putting them back in the case when you’re done, but considering that’s how you charge them, putting them back in the case should become habit for anyone who owns them. I’m sure people will come up with crazy scenarios that resulted in AirPods getting lost, but them just randomly falling out of your ear without you noticing simply isn’t something that’s going to realistically happen.
Sound quality and comfort seem to be on par with the old wired EarPods, which I personally always found to be incredibly comfortable for ear buds. Ear sizing is going to be different for everyone, but if you like the freebies that come with your iPhone, you’re going to like these. I doubt the sound quality of the AirPods are going to sway any hardcore audiophiles over to the world of wireless listening, but much like the wired EarPods, the sound quality and volume are both fantastic for my day to day use of listening to Spotify, a few podcasts, and maybe taking a couple phone calls.
I find myself needing to get pretty pedantic to find things I don’t like about the AirPods in my initial impressions. For instance, it’d be really cool if the AirPod case had some kind of mechanism similar to extractors in an over under shotgun that slightly lifts them up out of the case when the lid is opened. It’d also be nice if they had any kind of external battery life indicator on either the AirPods themselves or the case. (My Beats Solo 3’s, for instance, have a series of LED’s that show charge level. Your iPhone tells you how much battery is left, but it’d be nice to be able to see when you grab your AirPods case.) Other than that though, I’d really need to be reaching for things to complain about.
Basically, I liked the wired EarPods a lot, and these are wireless versions of those. If Apple’s battery claims turn out to be true, they’ve got a winner on their hands here. An expensive winner, but being on the bleeding edge of Apple hardware is never for the budget-minded. I’ll post another followup on Friday to see if any of these first impressions changed, so stay tuned.