I have been looking forward to trying out Apple's AirPods since they were first announced on September 7, 2016. Originally scheduled to ship in October, Apple finally shipped a very small quantity in late December, and a limited number have been released since then. The pair that I ordered online in mid-December arrived at my office the morning of January 5, and according to the Is In Stock website, around 220 Apple Stores around the world briefly had limited inventory on January 5, although many stores ran out of stock after just a few minutes. (Apparently, the factory in China sent out one big shipment last week on the morning of January 4.) AirPods are still very hard to obtain, but it is slowly becoming more possible to get them (if you are lucky), and hopefully it won't be long before they are more widely available. So that leaves one question: should you get them?
Yes. Yes you should. If you ever use headphones for anything on your iPhone — phone calls, music, podcasts, videos, you name it — I think that these are the best headphones that you can get. More than that, they are a perfect demonstration of what makes Apple such an amazing company.
Wireless is better
The marquee feature of this product — the "air" in AirPods — is that they are wireless. This makes them better headphones for numerous reasons.
First, it is a lot less hassle to not have a cord running from your head to your iPhone. You don't need to keep your iPhone reasonably close to your head, such as in your shirt pocket, so that the cord can reach. And you don't have to worry about pulling the cord by accident or having it catch on something. You also don't have to worry about the cord swinging around when you are exercising or even just taking a long walk. Good riddance to cords.
Second, you don't have to worry about your headphone cords getting tangled while they are in your pocket, briefcase, purse, etc.
Third, wireless means that you don't have to keep your iPhone on your body to listen to it. You can leave your iPhone in one location in a room and then walk around, listening to the sounds through the AirPods. Indeed, while there is always a limit to how far you can go with a Bluetooth speaker of any kind (usually not much more than a room), the range of AirPods is impressive. I have other Bluetooth headphones that stop working once I go outside and hit a certain point in my yard, but the AirPods let me go much farther.
Moreover, if you own an Apple Watch and you load music onto your Apple Watch, you can even leave your iPhone at home and just use your Apple Watch and AirPods to listen to music while you are on the go. This is great for a run around the neighborhood.
Even though the AirPods are wireless, they sound really good, and better than the iClever wireless headphones that I reviewed last year. Music, phone calls and podcasts all sound great. And with the microphones on the bottom of each AirPod, others tell me that I sound fine when I am talking on the phone. If you are happy with the quality of the EarPods that come with your iPhone, then you will like the sound of the AirPods too.
I read lots of other AirPods reviews to see if others were as happy with the sound I was, and I'm not alone. For example, David Pogue of Yahoo says:
These earbuds sound great. Easily as good as the wired EarPods, maybe better. Easily as good as Bluetooth earbuds costing $200 or $250 from other companies—so no, $160 really isn’t a gouging price. Partly that good quality comes from the seal of your ear canal, and partly that’s because of that extra layer of wireless goodness that Apple added on top of the standard Bluetooth signal.
If you want something with overemphasized bass, like some of the Beats headphones, then you probably won't like the AirPods for the same reasons that you don't like the wired EarPods that are included with the iPhone. And if you want to cancel out all of the outside noise (like the background noise on an aircraft), the AirPods are not made for that. But for most folks and most types of uses, the audio quality is excellent.
Comfortable and secure
AirPods are better than most other wireless headphones, such as the ones from iClever, because there is no cord connecting the left and right AirPod. A wire behind your neck between each ear can get uncomfortable, especially when you are working out.
Not only does the lack of a connecting wire contribute to the AirPods being comfortable, the size and shape also make them very comfortable in my ears. Your mileage may vary based upon the size and shape of your own ears, but if your ears fit the EarPods which are included for free with every iPhone, then the AirPods will fit too because they are the same size.
Even though each AirPod looks similar to the end of an EarPod in size, shape and color, it is amazing what a difference it makes to not have a cord pulling down on the tiny speaker in your ear. Normal EarPod headphones will sometimes come out of my ear — sometimes because I tug on the cord by accident, but also because they just get dislodged and fall out. When you look at AirPods, it is easy to assume that they will frequently fall out of your ear. But they don't. I used them when jogging on a treadmill, and they stayed in fine. I used them running through Audubon Park in New Orleans, and they stayed in fine. If I were to thrash my head back and forth, I'm sure that I could eventually get them to come out, much like the same motion would eventually cause my glasses to fall off of my face. But in normal use, including the up-and-down motion associated with walking, jogging or running, they don't appear to fall out.
Other reviewers have reported the same thing. Caitlin McGarry of Macworld reported:
These things don’t budge. I ran on a treadmill at 6mph to see if the impact would dislodge them, but to no avail. I hit the elliptical to keep the sweat momentum going. Gross, I know, but I had to see if the AirPods would slip out. Nope.
Then I headed out into the elements for my usual 3+ mile morning run through Brooklyn on a mix of sidewalks and park trails. There’s wind to watch out for, New Yorkers to dodge, and hills to jog up and then back down. The AirPods are so lightweight I barely felt them as I was running, but they didn’t move an inch. In fact, the only time an AirPod has fallen out of my ear is when I knocked it out with my own hand
Similarly, Geoffrey Fowler of the Wall Street Journal said:
The AirPods have never fallen out of my ears. I can go for a run, or head bang like Metallica, and they stay in there. They also stayed in every one of my colleagues’ ears. If Apple’s standard earbuds fit you, AirPods will, too—except possibly better, because these aren’t weighted down by a cord.
I've worn my AirPods extensively since I received them last week, and they remain comfortable to wear even after hours and hours of use. In my office this past Friday, I spent most of the day drafting an appellate brief. I rarely listen to music while I work, but I decided to listen to some music without lyrics on Friday, ranging from a variety of calming George Winston songs to some Star Wars soundtracks when I needed that extra kick. I barely could feel the AirPods in my ears even after wearing them all day long.
Normally I wear both AirPods at once, but you can listen to just one at a time if you want. If you do that, all sound is sent mono to just the AirPod that you are using. Start using the second AirPod to hear stereo. Using just one AirPod also works great for taking a phone call. It is also nice for causal listening. If I am using my iPhone or iPad and occasionally play a short video, I like having just one AirPod in. That way, I can still easily hear the world around me, but if I play something with sound on my device, I won't bother anybody else with the noise.
The design of the AirPods is fantastic. Who knows how many iterations the smart folks at Apple had to go through before ending up here, but they really hit the sweet spot on this one when they designed the AirPods to fit into a charging case.
The case is so small and light that is easy to carry around. It is about 2" tall and about 1.75" across, and about 1" deep. But the curved edges and corners make it feel even smaller and make it feel incredibly comfortable in your hand or in a pocket. It you are wearing jeans, the case is small enough to fit in that tiny coin pocket. And the case is so light that you barely notice you are carrying them.
The top of the case flips open, much like a floss container. But unlike the floss, this case uses magnets so it stays closed until you flip them open. The magnets also make the case close with a satisfying click.
Magnets also keep the AirPods inside of the case, so they won't fall out even when you open the case. When you do want to take each AirPod out of the case, it is fast and easy to do so. Just put your index finger in the middle of the case where the light is located and slide your finger slightly towards the AirPod to make it pop out.
Storing the AirPods in a case is a genius design decision. The worst part of the AirPods is that, because they are so small, when they are not in your ears and just in your hands it is easy to drop them. I haven't done so yet myself, but I'm sure at some point I will, and when my 11 year old son tried them out he must have dropped them five times in five minutes. Ugh. Thus, when they are out of your ears, you will want to immediately put them someplace where they are safer. The case is perfect for that.
The case is also a great way to extend battery life. All wireless headphones have a limited battery life. The AirPods themselves last about five hours before they need to be recharged. But because the case is a charging case, as soon as you put the AirPods in the case, they start to recharge. And they do so very quickly; just 15 minutes of charging the AirPods inside of the case gets you three hours of battery life. Because, as I noted above, you'll always want to put the AirPods in the case as soon as you remove them from your ears, the charging feature of the case has meant for me that virtually every time I take the AirPods out of the case to use them, they have 100% charge.
I always hated being in the middle of a workout or a long walk only to have my wireless headphones die on me. I don't think that is ever going to happen with the AirPods because of the charging case. What a great feature.
The charging case itself gives the AirPods around another 20 hours. Apple's claim is that if you start with fully charged AirPods and a fully charged charging case, you will have 24 hours of battery life. My tests bear that out. I started last Thursday with both fully charged, and then I used the AirPods extensively on Thursday and Friday without ever plugging in the case. By 8pm on Friday night, I was down to 10% power in my case and 100% charge on my AirPods, so I probably could have continued to use them until after midnight but then by the next morning I would have needed to plug in.
While my AirPods + case lasted about two days when I used them extensively, I suspect that with more normal use patterns, I will only need to charge the case about once or twice a week.
Charging the case is simple. There is a Lightning port on the bottom, so you just plug the case in, much like you would plug in an iPhone to charge it. (When you buy AirPods, a USB-to-Lightning cable is included.)
In my tests, it took one hour of charging for the case to go from 10% to 90% power, and then one more hour of charging to get up to 100%.
If you want to see how much power is left in your AirPods, you need to first put the AirPods in the charging case. Then flip open the case and keep the case within a few inches of your iPhone, and a box slides up from the bottom of the screen to show you how much power is left in the AirPods and the case (as shown in the above images). You need to have at least one AirPod in the case to get this display on the iPhone screen because the case itself lacks Bluetooth and cannot talk to your iPhone on its own. Note that sometimes the screen shows a single power percentage for both AirPods; sometimes I see individual power percentages for each AirPod, as shown in the below picture. I'm not quite sure what triggers the different pictures.
You can also get a very rough sense of battery charge by looking at the light inside of the case that you see when you open it up. If there are no AirPods in the case, the light is green when the case has over 50% charge, and red when the case has less than 50% charge. If there are AirPods in the case, then the light works the same way but it indicates the power in the AirPods.
Finally, if you put the Batteries widget on your lock screen, you can also see the battery power on that screen.
There are currently two gestures that you can use to control things on the AirPods. The first one is brilliant: you can pause the audio by removing one AirPod from an ear. Each AirPod has an infrared proximity sensor so that it can see whether or not it is in your ear. I love this gesture because whenever I am using traditional headphones with a cord and I want to hear something else, I virtually always do the same thing — pull one out of my ear so that I can hear. To have the AirPod sense that it is removed from your ear and automatically hit pause is just fantastic. And if you replace the AirPod within a short period of time, it automatically resumes playback. This feature works great and I love it.
The second gesture is to double-tap on either AirPod to launch Siri so that you can tell your iPhone to do something. There are microphones on the end of each AirPod. Apple says that "when you’re on a call or talking to Siri, an additional accelerometer works with beamforming microphones to filter out background noise and focus on the sound of your voice." It my tests, it worked well, and I never had trouble with Siri understanding me (or with someone on a phone call understanding me).
If using Siri doesn't interest you, you can change the double-tap to instead be a play/pause control. Just go to Settings -> Bluetooth -> AirPods (tap the i button on the right) to make the adjustment. On this same screen, you can turn off automatic ear detection if you don't like it.
I don't like this second gesture nearly as much as the first one because it doesn't always work for me the first time. Thus, instead of a double tap, sometimes I'm tapping four or six times before Siri activates. Maybe I'm tapping on the wrong spot and I'll get more accurate over time? We'll see.
Pairing to devices
Connecting a Bluetooth device has always been somewhat of a pain. You need to go into a pairing mode, wait a long time, look for a device name that is often just a bunch of letters and numbers, enter a code, etc. Pairing AirPods to an iPhone could not be faster and easier, and makes every other Bluetooth pairing experience seem archaic. All you do is simply open up the case on your AirPods when you are next to your iPhone (with Bluetooth turned on). The iPhone will see the new AirPods and you can just tap a few buttons on the iPhone screen to complete the pairing process.
Better yet, once you have paired to one device (such as your iPhone), your AirPods are automatically paired to other devices that are signed in to your iCloud account, such as your iPad, your Mac, and your Apple Watch. You can switch between devices by going to the Bluetooth part of Settings of a device and just tapping the AirPods name. (You don't have to disconnect from the prior device before connecting to a new one.)
Note that although you can use the AirPods with an Apple TV, they are not automatically paired. But fortunately, you can also do traditional pairing to connect AirPods to an Apple TV, Android phone, etc. Just hold down the button on the back to put the AirPods in traditional Bluetooth pairing mode.
When the iPod was new, I noticed it when people had white headphone cords coming from their ears. But nowadays, so many people use the signature Apple white headphone cords with an iPhone that I barely notice when I see it in public.
The AirPods are still so new that people may notice when they see you wearing them. In just the last few days, I've had two complete strangers see me wearing the AirPods and stop me to ask me what I think about the AirPods. (I was surprised they even knew what they were called.) Presumably other folks noticed them too without saying anything to me. Did they think I looked silly? Cool? I don't know. Many folks dislike wearing a traditional Bluetooth earpiece to talk on a phone because of the way it looks. AirPods are far more attractive than those older devices, but you'll need to decide for yourself how you think you look before you walk around in public wearing them. As AirPods become more popular, they will stand out less.
Apple at its best
A few days ago, Apple celebrated the 40th anniversary of its incorporation (January 3, 1977). Apple has had its ups and downs over those forty years, but when Apple has been at its best, it has typically been because it entered an existing product category and came up with a brand new, sometimes revolutionary way to rethink the product. The first Macintosh showed the world that a personal computer could use a graphical interface controlled by a mouse. The commercial for the first iMac said "there is no step three" because everything was self contained and ready to go; just plug in the power and the modem, and you are done, unlike PCs of the day that had a tangled mess of cords. There were MP3 players before the iPod — I used a Rio that could hold about 10 songs total — but the iPod revolutionized the category with its wheel interface and tiny hard drive. And of course the iPhone and iPad forever changed the phone and tablet markets. Not all Apple products fall into this category, but when Apple comes up with a new interpretation of a product that just works, it can sometimes be magical.
The AirPods are a perfect example of Apple at its best. Everything about them is so much better than any other headphone than I've used, wired or wireless. The product is a delight to hold, and a delight to use. Jason Snell of Six Colors (who has been reporting on Apple technology for decades) called AirPods the best Apple-related gadget of 2016 on his Upgrade podcast. M.G. Siegler of GV (Google Ventures) calls them "the best new product Apple has done in years. ... They’re so seamless to use it’s honestly frustrating to think about using anything else." As an indication of Apple's success with the AirPods, I have no doubt that, like many other great Apple products, we will soon start to see other manufacturers copying features and design from the AirPods in their own products.
Like many of Apple's breakthrough products, the first version of the AirPods is not perfect. Every once in a while, music or a podcast will stop playing. I then need to hit play again on my iPhone or Apple Watch to resume. I've had the same thing happen with other Bluetooth devices, but it would have been nice if Apple had found a way to solve that. And it is also unfortunate that you cannot currently change the volume on the AirPods. I've seen some folks suggest that maybe a swipe on the right AirPod could increase the volume and a swipe on the left AirPod could decrease it? I don't know what the best solution would be, but if there is a solution out there, it would be a nice additional feature. For now, I just change the volume using my Apple Watch or the volume buttons on the side of my iPhone.
At $159, AirPods are not cheap. But I think that they are worth it. AirPods are something that you will want to carry around whenever you might listen to something on your iPhone. The audio quality is great, being wireless makes them much better than corded headphones, and numerous features make them better than other wireless headphones. Apple has created another fantastic product.
This article won the BlawgWorld Pick of the Week award on January 18, 2017. The editors of BlawgWorld, a free weekly email newsletter for lawyers and law firm administrators, give this award to one article every week that they feel is a must-read for this audience.