Apple has a grand history of making great-bad products. From the iconically troublesome G4 Cube to the more recent dead-in-the-water Mac Pro trashcan, they have an uncanny ability to create bad products that people must have.
Well, fear not Apple fans, they’ve managed to do it again! Amongst all their success from the iMac, iPhone and iPods, Apple have managed to engineer what may be their very best great-bad product to date; the Apple AirPods.
Released late last year (and still frustratingly out of stock today) AirPods are Apple’s answer to their self proclaimed “bold” move in removing the headphone jack from their phones. A spruced up version of the 2012 introduced EarPod the new AirPod earbuds do little more than cut the cord – largely maintaining the same design and features of its tethered predecessor.
Unfortunately in keeping things much the same it means you have the same issues with them fitting people’s ears along with their vented design, which supposedly produces better bass but really doesn’t and just annoys everyone around you that then listens to what you’re listening to. There’s also zero certification for waterproofing or even sweat resistance – although they are proverbially said to be so.
…the AirPods have consistently stayed in my ears better than any in-ear headphone I’ve worn
The biggest issue of those, for me, is fit. Apple’s EarPods, and now the AirPods, just don’t sit as I want them to in my ears. They don’t fall out of my ears either though, which is the crazy thing. In fact the AirPods have consistently stayed in my ears better than any in-ear headphone I’ve worn! Be it at the gym, running 5km outdoors or just riding the train to work they stay in there despite constantly feeling like they’re about to fall out at any moment.
The difference is for Apple “in-ear” doesn’t mean in your ear canal, instead it means having them hooked and hanging from your ears. They more “sit” than fit in your ear. Sure they stay there but then rely on an often exorbitant volume level (in my case) to eventually have the sound end up in your ear canal. Nearly every time I looked at my phone whilst using the AirPods the volume levels were 50%-75% louder than what I would use with any other normal in-ear set. The volume also needed constant attention to remain audible as the environment changed introducing an entirely new problem; controls – or their severe lack of.
AirPods have absolutely no physical controls on them to be seen. Inside each bud is a very cleverly placed infrared sensor that, used in conjunction with an accelerometer, can determine if the earbuds are in your ears or not. Removing a single earbud pauses your track, putting it back in resuming it. It’s a really nice feature and a courteous one that I applaud. I have a pet hate for people who leave headphones in whilst talking to others, yes even if you’re buying gum at the 7Eleven, it’s extremely (I’m-an-old-man-ranting) rude.
The accelerometer also, through some trickery, provides the only tactile control the AirPods have, allowing the buds to be double tapped to activate Siri. As they’re not an actual touch sensor I found it took a little getting used of before understanding the exact amount of pressure and pause between taps required to consistently activate the feature but it seemed to commit to muscle memory after a solid week. What’s missing is then, quite idiotically, supposed to be controlled via Siri. “Siri turn the volume up”, “Siri, skip track”, “Siri, pause music”. It’s a complete farce.
Siri works just as it does with any set of headphones connected to your phone. In activating Siri any audio paying is paused, there’s a lag waiting for Siri to then be ready, a tone played, you say your request and after a round trip to Apple’s servers to figure out what you said only then do you finally have the command executed. Increasing volume on your favourite track while jogging now becomes an awful experience that removes you from the song by pausing it, making you wait five to ten seconds and then resume it once its done. The alternative is of course to pick up your phone and change the volume or control your tracks from that but isn’t the whole point of wireless headphones to not have to do that?? Instead, you’re made to look like an even bigger wanker – asking your headphones to increase their volume while wearing a set of electric toothbrush heads in your ears.
Instead, you’re made to look like an even bigger wanker – asking your headphones to increase their volume while wearing a set of electric toothbrush heads in your ears.
The double-tap “button” can have its behaviour changed but that too is limited. Either it does the default in activating Siri or it can be used to play and pause a track. The same behaviour the AirPods do through their ear detection (which can also be disabled if you wish). There has to be an update coming to introduce a triple tap or the ability to set different behaviours based on which ear you double-tap or something because as it stands it absolutely destroys any credibility the AirPods have.
The earbuds each have a “beamforming” microphone packed into their little dangly bits too. From all reports the tech does a decent job in focusing the microphone on your voice and reducing background noise. Siri, too seems to like my requests better through them and is far more accurate than yelling at my phone on the desk.
In addition to the earbuds themselves the AirPod name encompasses their case-cum-charger that looks remarkably similar to a pack of dental floss. The case extends the AirPods battery life from five hours to twenty four and impressively completes a full charge in of both the buds and its own battery in under twenty minutes using (of course) an Apple lighting connector found on the bottom of the case.
The lid of the case flips open to begin the easy pairing and connection with your current iOS device via Apple’s W1 chip and snaps itself closed with the help of some well placed magnets. The AirPods can of course be used with any Bluetooth transmitting device, just as the Beats Powerbeats3 can, which also use Apple’s W1 chip. Unlike the Powerbeats3 though the AirPods integrate even more deeply into iOS and I’d be remiss to recommend anyone invest them that lives outside of Apple’s tight ecosystem.
Cleverly the case’s perfectly moulded homes for each earbud also serves as a blatant reminder as to which bud goes in which ear. As you hold the opened case in front of you the one on the right goes into your right ear the other the opposite. An “L” & “R” is of course written on each but that’s hidden whilst in their case and this takes any guess work out of it at all by forcing you to open the case so they’re facing towards you in the right position. It may seem insignificant but it’s the little things like that which can make a good product great.
How they sounded
Not to sound like a broken record but they sound as good as the EarPods did, because really, they’re just EarPods with no wires. For me, that means not particularly great as they don’t sit in my ear canal, but for others that could be enough or they just don’t know any better having used and re-bought the same Apple included headphones over and over.
Normally when I listen to each of the test tracks I do so with the volume set to the same level but in the case of the AirPods if I had done that none of them would’ve scored higher than a C at best. Without the extra volume almost every track was flat, the lack of a proper seal and the vents added to allow better movement of the internal drivers just allowed more environmental noise in, washing out any real emotion to them.
Increasing the volume from my standard 40% up to 65% changes everything. Everything is audible for a start, but all the ranges become rich, mids and highs especially. The bass is actually present and for many of the tracks become as close to perfect as I could imagine from such a small set of headphones. That is of course, in a perfectly quiet environment.
AirPods are the perfect Tom Yorke delivery device.
AirPods are the perfect Tom Yorke delivery device. Listening to Paranoid Android was like having the man singing in the dead centre of my brain with a symphony of sounds orbiting his tortured melodic moans. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was also a very similar experience and whilst it didn’t blow me away quite as much as Radiohead it was still a beautifully well balanced reproduction scoring equally as high.
The other, and surprise, high performer was The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die. Where other headphones can confuse the full range of sounds and turn it into an almost assault on the senses, this particular style of EDM seems to be right at home on the AirPods.
All the more acoustic and mid to high level tracks faired pretty well. Dreams, Love Me Harder and even Go With The Flow were perfectly adequate at the raised volume, but there was a lack of body to their deeper tones. In the case of Ariana it could be interpreted as a blessing, slightly toning down the over produced bass of today’s pop.
Sadly there has to be a genre that suffers and that is one that’s close to my heart. JayZ & Kanye in Paris on Apple’s AirPods is without a doubt the worst rendition I’ve ever heard. Flat and what I’d call clipped at both the top and bottom ends it sounded so flat it was like listening to them from the other side of an empty warehouse. Childish Gambino and Bonfire suffered the same fate fairing only slightly better with a bigger focus on top end accentuation. Even with their vented design bass is never going to be right on the AirPods.
AirPod - Audio Scorecard
|Moonlight Sonata - Beethoven||A|
|Ni**as in Paris - JAY Z & Kanye West||D|
|Dreams - Fleetwood Mac||B|
|Annie Mae - John Lee Hooker||C|
|Bonfire - Childish Gambino||C|
|Ariana Grande - Love Me Harder||B|
|Paranoid Android - Radiohead||A|
|Go With The Flow - Queens Of The Stone Age||B|
|The Prodigy - Invaders Must Die||A|
|Pilot X (Audiobook) - Tom Merritt||B|
Apple’s AirPods are a beautifully designed, well crafted and extremely intelligent set of wireless earphones that manage to destroy that praise with an insidious wonderment of a distant future.
I love how easily they connect to my phone when I open their dental-floss case, I love how they have no cord at all, not even between each bud, but heir lack of a solid control scheme and reliance on Siri is almost enough reason alone to not touch them.
Add to that a poor implementation of a true “in-ear” fit, the resultant sound leakage and splotchiness in complimentary genres, the AirPods come up lacking in too many important areas for a A$200+ set and leave me in want of a more solid version two.
Just like any Apple product really.