When Apple first announced the AirPods there was a lot of hyperbole in the media about them being Apple’s next big ‘wearable’ device. For a company that famously said that speeds an feeds did not matter, there was a of emphasis on the fact these headphones contained a “W1” chip that could do all sorts of smarts other headphones could not.
I use Bluetooth headphones extensively: at work I have a pair of over-the-ear noice cancelling headphones that double up as a headset for making calls. They are excellent at both cancelling the noise around me so I can’t hear it when listening to music, and also at removing external noise so other people can’t hear me when I’m phoning them. I also use a different pair for running – they are average sound quality, but they are sweat proof and let in external noise making them safe for road-running. Both these headsets have an onboard chip: The big ones I use in the office are able to tell me if I start speaking and my microphone is muted, alleviating the frustration of sharing your greatest idea on a conference call and wondering why nobody even acknowledged you. The sports pair aren’t as sophisticated but can tell me how much battery life I have left, telling me there is some smarts going on inside the headphones. So having ‘smarts’ inside a pair of headphones is nothing new. I’m sure they could come up with a brand name for their silicone chips to, but to me, the W1 in the AirPods is meaningless in of itself.
So what makes the AirPods better than any other headphones? It’s the integration between hardware and software – Apple’s usual strength. In this case not only the integration between hardware and software on the AirPods themselves, but also between the AirPods’ software and the iOS device they’re paired to.
My biggest frustration with existing Bluetooth headphones is that they stay connected to my phone when I’m not wearing them. How many times have I tried to use Siri, and realised after 3 attempts that it’s not working because I’ve left my Bluetooth headphones on and they’re still connected but in my gym bag. AirPods solve this beautifully.
The other big problem with Bluetooth that AirPods solve is pairing. Recent Bluetooth headphones are not difficult to pair: there’s no passcode (it was always 0000 anyway so it seemed pointless) it’s just a case of putting the headset into ‘pair mode’ and then choosing it from the Bluetooth menu. Unless you’ve paired it with another device since you last used it with the one you’re trying to use it with now, in which case you need to un-pair and re-pair. Usually you need to see a few error message before you realise this is the case. This of course means if you want to use them with that other device again you’ll need to repeat the process. Not a big hardship, but a small piece of friction that meant I rarely bothered to use my headphones with other devices. AirPods make switching devices as simple as selecting ‘Marc’s AirPods’ from a menu. No pairing, no need to remember about which device I used last. It’s not quite as magic as I had hoped for – it doesn’t just know I’m using an iPad now and so switch automatically, but hey you can’ have everything.
So overall I am impressed with my third set of Bluetooth headphones. The AirPods won’t replace my headset at work for calls, because I need noise cancelling at work. I will use them for running, walking and working out however. They are especially good around the house while doing chores etc. Their frictionless nature means I’ll use them whenever I would have just use the phone’s external speaker before. The quality of phone calls is surprisingly low, making me think Apple’s switching to a different Bluetooth profile or something. Hopefully this will be fixed in a firmware update.
Some other random thoughts:
– Siri is pretty unreliable, it’s generally not worth the hassle. In the rare case that it understands what I meant, the phone will often respond by displaying an answer on the screen, defeating the point of using the headset.
– They seem very secure in the ears.
– They look silly, but so did white earbuds when they first came out.
– i sometimes feel a bit self-conscious when wearing them, especially if I’m on a train wearing an Apple Watch and reading on an iPad. I feel like I’m in an Apple advertisement (though I’m not good looking enough to actually be in one).
– It seems weird that if I go for a run with my Apple Watch, and my iPhone, and use Siri on the AirPods, I can’t start a workout using AirPods because they’re connected to the phone. This says more about Siri’s inconsistencies than the AirPods.
– Opening the case near an iPhone causes a menu to show on the phone with details about the AirPods’ battery life. It doesn’t do this on iPads and Macs, presumably because it needs NFC, which they don’t have, but I’m not sure.