AirPods

Cool Story, Bro

Last Sunday, I was doing chores around the house. I popped in my AirPods, pulled up Overcast on my Watch, and started playing a podcast. I didn’t know where my phone was, and I didn’t need to. I wandered all over the house doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning up my kids’ messes. The AirPods never lost signal. Not a single drop-out. I consider this some sort of devil magic. I didn’t have to think about anything. It all just worked. I’ve never used a Bluetooth device that has the range of AirPods. Forget all the other cool features of these earbuds. This alone makes them worth owning.

Review

Fit and sound quality have been covered in great detail everywhere else. I agree with the general sentiments of other reviews[1]. I will note, however, that I heard a marked improvement in sound quality over EarPods while listening to the Beats 1 launch of the new Nine Inch Nails EP just before Christmas. The mids are particularly nice. Lows are solid and clear, but bass-heads should look elsewhere. Most reviews claim the sound quality is on par with EarPods. I disagree. Overall, they sound better than EarPods to me, and after nearly a month of use, I don’t think this is some sort of placebo effect.

If I put on my Steve Jobs hat and look at them with a critical eye, I notice a few things about the design.

  • The lid, while fun to open and close[2], is wobbly and feels loose. This may be a defect with my unit; I haven’t handled another case yet.
  • Seams on the earbuds are very noticeable and stand out as garish black lines on an otherwise unblemished surface.
  • Likewise, the seam around the pairing button on the back of the case is wide enough to collect dirt and become visible with use. It was nearly invisible when I got it, but it’s very visible now.
  • The FCC info printed inside the lid makes it look dirty, and I keep wanting to clean it.
  • The lightning cable plug doesn’t fully cover the charging port on the bottom of the case when connected. Feels like an oversight at best and a lack of attention to detail at worst.
  • The display craziness that happens to the iPhone’s status bar when the battery card appears or disappears is janky as hell. Stuttery animation, flickering in and out, shifting sizes. Just bad. Someone should have noticed this.

These issues make the AirPods feel rushed. I hope some or all of this will be ironed out in version two, but none of this makes them unusable or a bad product. In fact, they’re the best headphones I’ve owned, and they’re a joy to use[3].

However, the first time my wife saw me wearing them, she laughed at me. Which I can understand, but it’s still worth noting.

The Software

There have been many complaints about controlling playback while wearing AirPods. It is troublesome; however, I think Apple’s unstated position here is that you should own a Watch if you want the full AirPods experience. After all, the AirPods will switch automatically between your iPhone and Watch when audio starts on the device they’re not currently connected to. They will not switch automatically if you start audio on a Mac or iPad–only iPhones and Watches are first-class citizens.

Not everyone wants, needs, or can afford a Watch, which is likely why Apple hasn’t declared the Watch a necessity or even a nice-to-have. It would be great if AirPods had better–or any–on-board audio controls.

Using the Now Playing Watch app to control volume and track switching does make the AirPods far easier to use, though. But again, the Now Playing app won’t report what’s being played on your iPad or Mac, so you’re forced to listen to music on your iPhone if you want convenient controls. It’s a fair limitation given that the Watch only pairs with your iPhone, but I’ve found myself wishing that Now Playing could tap into whatever device I’m currently listening to. I suspect Apple could use the same iCloud-based syncing that automatically pairs your AirPods with all of your devices to pair your Watch with your devices, too. With that in place, the Now Playing app could gain a lot more functionality.

It would also be nice if triggering Siri to do something the Watch can handle would hand off the task to the Watch instead of your phone. Take, for example, setting a timer with Siri using AirPods, which starts the timer on your phone, causing you to have to fish out your phone to silence the timer when it goes off. Why not just set the timer on the Watch?

Also, Siri really, really wants you to be looking at a screen. Start a timer from AirPods while listening to music, and the music will pause while you ask for the timer to be started. Once it’s running, the music never comes back. Your phone waits for you to dismiss Siri before your music continues, which sends you grabbing for your phone again. Why wouldn’t I just go straight to the phone instead of using the AirPods to trigger Siri?

Update – 1/19/17

I just tried using Siri again, and the outcome was somewhat different. Siri started my timer and returned me to my music automatically. When the timer went off, the music paused, my phone and Watch buzzed, and I was able to dismiss the timer using my Watch. The music, however, didn’t come back after I dismissed the timer. So, better, but not perfect.

The software for AirPods feels half-baked. The hardware is fantastic and represents Apple at its best–they solved a difficult problem in such an elegant fashion that the end result works so well that it might even come off as boring.

The problem, as with much of Apple’s stuff these days, is the software. Siri-based workflows are particularly troubling (especially when using Siri screenless via AirPods, an interaction model that Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home get right), and integration with the Watch seems like both an afterthought and a primary focus, which is confusing. Luckily, all of this could be remedied in the current generation AirPods, as workflows can be rethought and software can be patched. I hope Apple’s working on this.

Overall

I hate having stuff in my pockets, but I’ve started carrying my AirPods with me everywhere. That’s a ringing endorsement—I really hate having stuff in my pockets. The design is a bit flawed if you’re feeling nit-picky, but they sound great and work fabulously. If you’re on the fence, and you have the spare cash, and EarPods fit your ears, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a pair.


  1. If EarPods fit you, these won’t fall out. The sound quality is good. The pairing process in magic. The case makes battery life a non-issue. Etc.  ↩
  2. I’m a fidgeter. Twitchy. I fiddle with stuff. Especially in meetings and on phone calls. I backed this Kickstarter because how cool is that? I fiddle with my Apple Pencil. Pop the cap off on off on off on, spin spin, point, wave, gesticulate. The AirPods case is great for fidgeting, too. Open close open close, spin spin, etc. Can’t stop.  ↩
  3. I am not an audiophile.  ↩