Light as air

When Apple released the iPhone 7 without (gasp!) the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, casual observers might have thought that the sky was falling.

The web was alight with articles castigating Apple’s decision as arrogant, clueless, even downright disrespectful to its customers.

Two things: the sky did not fall; and Apple provided its customers plenty of support to adapt to the change.

Provided in the iPhone box were both wired EarPods that would plug directly into the Lightning port and an adapter for standard 3.5mm headphones.

Wireless world

Nonetheless, Apple didn’t apologize for removing the headphone jack. As Apple has done repeatedly over the course of its history, it is accelerating the inevitable obsolescence of an aging standard: the 3.5mm headphone jack, which has been around for 40 years or so.

Most of us are behind the curve when it comes to Apple pushing the industry forward, and we kick and scream a bit before we just suck it up and get on with life.

With the benefit of hindsight, Apple’s been right in virtually every one of their technological choices, and other manufacturers generally have followed Apple’s lead.

I can say that there’s only been one time when I missed the 3.5mm jack on my iPhone 7. That was early on, and only a minor inconvenience. I had brought my wired earphones with me, but forgot the Lightning adapter.

After that, I made sure I had the Lightning adapter with me, or just used one of the Bluetooth wireless headsets that I already owned.

Another salvo in Apple’s wireless vision

Now, I’ve added a new option to the mix: Apple’s $159 AirPods. After a few weeks of use, I can declare that all of my other headsets are going to be gathering a lot of dust.

The AirPods are nearly perfect. The pros so outweigh the cons that I can say unequivocally that Apple has delivered a winner. And there’s a lot of Apple’s signature innovation in these buds. For example:

  • Comfort. The AirPods are very lightweight and comfortable. No other headset I own can be worn more than several hours without some discomfort. I’ve not yet felt this with the AirPods, even after many full days of use.
  • Fit. The AirPods fit just snugly enough in my ears. I can walk around, exercise on my elliptical machine, do yard work, and pretty much anything else, and the AirPods maintain their position.
  • Sound. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the audio quality while listening to music or watching web video. Certainly as good or better than any wireless earphones out there, given the price.
  • Connectivity. Apple put a lot of work into making sure that the AirPods pair seamlessly with Apple gear (iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV). The first time I took the AirPods out of their case, a pairing screen appeared immediately on my iPhone 7. They also can pair like any other Bluetooth headset with non-Apple gear. The AirPods also stay connected. I haven’t experienced any unexpected dropouts, and the AirPods still play loud and clear even when my iPhone is located in another room.
  • Phone calls. You can use Siri to make and answer phone calls, and the sound is quite good for me when listening, and for the people at the other end who have remarked that my voice is loud and clear.
  • Security. It’s early yet, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to lose the AirPods. When they’re in your ear playing music or some other type of audio, they stay in securely. However, if one were to fall out, the music stops playing immediately, so you would be alerted pretty quickly. Also, like any small thing of value—jewelry, watches, thumb drives, etc.—a little care goes a long way. Put the AirPods away in their case, and put the case in a safe place. Apple is offering a Find my AirPods feature in an upcoming iOS release, so that should provide even further peace of mind. If one of the AirPods is lost, Apple will replace it for $70.

Room for improvement

The AirPods have been called the most Apple-like product in years. That is, they offer a boatload of innovation, even a little magic. For a Version 1 product, they are very good.

Nonetheless, there are some areas where the AirPods can be improved:

  • Color options. AirPods are available only in Apple’s iconic white. A black color option is essential I think, and other color options would be nice, as well.
  • Tactility. For me, the AirPods are slippery, and that problem manifests in several ways. It’s a bit of an adventure pulling them out of their carrying/charging case. They are held in place by magnets, but these same magnets make pulling out the AirPods a little difficult. Not a huge deal, but manual dexterity is not one of my strong suits, my finger tips behaving like they’ve been fine-sanded over the years. Even just in handling the AirPods, I’ve dropped them a few times. Needless to say, I’m very careful when handling them around water or in areas where  I might lose one.
  • Controls. Unlike most other wireless headsets, AirPods have no buttons or other physical controls. You can use Siri by simply double-tapping on either AirPod and speaking the control: “volume up” or “skip song” or “play Stormy Monday”. Response time is not instantaneous, though, as the command has to be conveyed to, and executed by, the iPhone (or other device to which the AirPods are connected). Through settings on the iPhone, you can override Siri in favor of having double-tap mean “play/pause” instead, but that’s about it. If you have an Apple Watch (which I do), you can control music volume and music selection through its Music app. And, of course, you can always pull out your iPhone and control the AirPods, but that’s a bit of a hassle. Going forward, I hope Apple adds other tapping controls for things like “volume up/down” “play/pause,” and “skip song.”
  • Battery life. Apple states that AirPods will last about five hours. For me, fully-charged, I’ve gotten almost six hours from the AirPods. When the battery levels are at 10%, the AirPods deliver a unique sound, and again at 5%. When you hear that sound, you still have a few minutes of battery left, but it’s best to take them out, put them back in their carry case, and let them charge. In my experience, 15 minutes in the carry case charges the AirPods to about 80%, giving you another several hours of listening pleasure, so that’s a plus. When fully charged, the carry case has about 24 hours of power that it can impart to the AirPods through multiple charges. Still, I’d love at least 8-9 hours of continuous AirPod use before they need to be recharged. That would at least get me through a work day without having to recharge.

Apple’s W1 chip

With the AirPods, Apple has, once again, demonstrated the advantages of controlling the whole widget. Developing all the hardware, firmware, and software that went into the AirPods, Apple is able to provide a better experience.

Central to the design of the AirPods and that better experience is the proprietary Apple W1 chip. Apple knew that the Bluetooth standard was less than perfect, and set out to improve on the experience.

The W1 chip does so by improving the speed and reliability of the Bluetooth connection between the AirPods and Apple host devices (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV) through iCloud.

The chip was a well-kept secret, which in itself is unusual, given Apple’s leaky supply chain. Rumors of Apple products usually emerge long before a new product is announced, and they’re usually fairly accurate.

The W1 chip also appears in Beat’s latest line of Bluetooth headsets, and it’s entirely possible that Apple will license the W1 to other manufacturers, adding an entirely new revenue stream and potentially creating a new accessories industry.

Is it any wonder why Apple is a cash machine?

Other thoughts

The AirPods fit snugly in your ear but do not block out external noises. That’s probably a good thing if you’re out for a walk or a bike ride. You want to remain somewhat in touch with your surroundings.

However, on an airplane, while mowing the lawn, or doing anything accompanied by outside noise, the AirPods are less than ideal.

For those times, I’ll continue to use my Shure 215Ks, which have rubber form-fitting inserts that do a very good job of sound isolation.

But for so many other applications, the AirPods will do nicely.

It wasn’t immediately apparent how to hook up the AirPods to my Apple TV, but a web search yielded a nice procedure, and I was off and running. Basically, it involves having the AirPods in their case, placing the case near the AppleTV, then pressing the little pairing button on the case. Voila.

Watching TV with the AirPods in yielded some other benefits. Over the years, I’ve experienced a little hearing loss, and sometimes have difficulty hearing all the dialog unless I turn up the volume. That problem is solved with the AirPods in. Plus, I don’t have to disturb the entire household while listening late at night.

As for connecting with non-Apple devices, I haven’t really tested that feature yet, but the AirPods are supposed to connect like any other Bluetooth device.

Happy listening.

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