So your new iPhone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack. You know it, I know it, people who weren’t even paying close attention know it. And whether you agree with Apple’s design choices or not, here we are, dealing with the fact.
Now, you could use the included Lightning EarPods, a set of Beats, or any old headphones you have (using the supplied Lightning to Headphone adapter), but there’s a new pair of Apple headphones that seem tailor made for an iPhone without the venerable (100 years old by some measures) port: Apple’s AirPods.
At the basic level, AirPods use Bluetooth to transmit wireless audio. They’ll work with any Bluetooth compatible device including Android devices and Windows PCs. In a world full of Lightning cables and a market struggling to make USB-C standard on PC peripherals, Apple’s adherence to the virtually universal Bluetooth is welcome. However, the details where AirPods excel most are only active when paired with Apple hardware.
Inside the box, you’ll receive the AirPods in their charging case and a charging cable. There’s also a quick start guide, of course. For the impatient among us (so then, everybody) both pods and case come with a useable amount of battery charge. This is where the magic happens.
When you flip open the magnetic clasp on the case, a little green LED glows in between the pods showing that they’re charged and ready to go (it also changes to amber or white to indicate charging or standard Bluetooth pairing mode). Then comes AirPods’ most impressive trick. Just unlock your phone, and a UI slides up asking if the AirPods are yours. One tap and not only does your phone pair with them, but so do any of your other iCloud connected Apple devices. Setting up AirPods gives the distinct feeling that your phone has known about this particular set of headphones the whole time; you just needed to bring them together and remind them that they’re friends.
It sounds cheesy, but that’s what makes it great. There’s a humanness to the connection process, affordances for how something like this should work rather than a series of steps designed around how it can work.
For those who follow closely, this magic happens thanks to Apple’s W1 chip inside the AirPods themselves. The same chip helps increase audio quality and lengthens battery life. For most though, W1 works the way Apple’s best innovations do — without the user noticing — and by trading tedious and irritating for effortless.
With the pairing process complete, AirPods work nearly seamlessly. I did have some difficulty getting my iPad to recognize them without manually pairing via Bluetooth in the Settings app.
I listened to music for a couple of hours, testing a varied range of genres. Acoustic, jazz, classic rock, and musicals all performed extremely well. I was able to hear detail in a few test tracks that I know very well that escape me on the stock EarPods. Naturally, the more bass a track has, the less satisfying AirPods will be. Hip-hop, modern rock, and metal suffer the most, though AirPods do a good job of pushing a sense of bass instead of simply dropping the tones altogether. These are not studio quality over-the-ear headphones, of course, but they should not be expected to be.
In use, controls and playback are great as long as you have your iPhone close at hand or an Apple Watch set to the Now Playing app. Volume up and down are best controlled through the Watch’s digital crown, but with a couple (firm, distinct) taps on either AirPod, you can summon Siri and use AirPods’ built in microphones to give her a volume percentage to set to (or simply say to turn it up or down). Siri will pause and resume, but the commands that first come to mind often don’t do what you’d expect. When I told her to “Press play” after going into a store for a few minutes and coming back out, she told me that she could play movies. I learned my lesson and now say “resume” which has worked without fail ever since. Not ideal, but functional once you know what to say, like anything with Siri in its current iteration.
The microphones (two in each pod) work well, and noise cancelling on voice calls is particularly effective. I’ve been using them as a Bluetooth headset while driving instead of the car’s built-in system, and Siri’s accuracy — as well as the sense of a need to shout when on a call — is drastically improved. Siri is as good with AirPods in the car as it is with my phone on the desk in front of me in a quiet room. It’s impressive (though all the usual caveats concerning Siri’s general usefulness still apply, of course).
Battery life is as advertised: five hours with the AirPods playing music from an Apple device and less with standard Bluetooth. I, for one, never have headphones in for this long at a continuous sitting. For those who do, simply pop the pods back into the magnetic case (it carries 24 hours worth of charge on its own) and take a break for a few minutes. You can read Apple’s marketing materials for their estimates, but in practice, a short break with the pods in the case gets you hours of playback when you return. It’s a clever, versatile, and practical design decision that has Apple written all over it.
As for standard Bluetooth performance, on my gaming PC for instance, the pairing process worked like any other Bluetooth device and sound quality remained high, unless using the microphone. This caused the AirPods (or Windows itself) to switch to Bluetooth headset mode, dramatically reducing sound quality so much that I gave up trying to replace my wired setup for games. Had the mic worked without destroying sound quality, AirPods would have been perfectly acceptable for use while gaming for short periods (battery life was also much shorter), though they predictably lack the bass range of an over the ear pair of headphones. It was my hope to replace all of my headphones with Apple’s solution (as well as my gaming mic) but though they’re close, AirPods aren’t quite up to the task.
Finally, the price: $159. Here is where it’s still somewhat difficult to recommend AirPods to everyone. For Apple’s usual, less price conscious early adopters, AirPods are a no-brainer instant buy. If you’re considering them and know that you usually like Apple gear, just get them. You’ll love them (and be frustrated with all the same things you are with Apple these days). If you tend to find the best deal on peripherals that will work with the iPhone or Mac you carefully saved to buy, AirPods just aren’t worth their current price tag. You can get a better sounding pair, or a pair with longer battery life (sans case charging), or just use the EarPods that came with your phone. At $99 I’d recommend them to almost anyone, and at $79 there would hardly even be a reason for a review at all.
For now, AirPods are a great (though a little pricey) wireless solution that will keep you from coiling, uncoiling, and untying cords every time you want to listen.