Review: AirPods may be a bit ahead of their time
Apple is trying to push consumers to a wireless future by eliminating the headphone jack. And the tip of this particular spear for Apple are the AirPods, its new set of wireless Bluetooth earbuds.
Apple provided me with a pair to use while I reviewed the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. The AirPods look like Apple's normal earbuds, but without the wires. They pair to Apple devices particularly well, thanks to a special chip that lets you easily sync to Apple devices and switch between them. You can also pair them as normal Bluetooth headphones with non-Apple devices, though you lose both of those features when you do.
Apple promises five hours of battery life for the AirPods themselves, which fit with my experience. They also come with a carrying case that doubles as a portable battery, which gives you more juice if you drop the EarPods into it when you're not using them. With the carrying case, you can get up to 24 hours of listening time.
In terms of comfort, they were about the same as Apple's normal earbuds, which stay fairly well in my ears. The AirPods stayed in about as well. I slept with them in my ears overnight, falling asleep to podcasts, and one was still in my ear in the morning. (That's more than I can say of my normal corded headphones, which can tangle around me in my sleep.) Losing one AirPod in the night, however, did mean that the headphones had automatically paused what I was listening to overnight.
The automatic pausing feature was perhaps the most impressive part of these earbuds. When paired with an iPhone, the AirPods can sense when they're in your ear. Apple's designed them to pause when you take out one side to have a conversation or listen to an announcement. (Yes, you can still share earphones with a friend -- in fact it's easier with one Pod per person.)
It is slightly awkward to hold the earbud rather than letting it swing from a cable, but with a price tag of $159, I was not about to let myself drop one in the airport. That said, the AirPods can be a little difficult to hang on to, being slick and made of glossy plastic. I started to think of putting them in as I do my contact lenses -- one at a time and hovering over something that can catch them if they fall. But that may change over time as I get more comfortable using them.
There were things I missed about the old earbuds, however. Because the AirPods are so minimalist, there are hardly any controls on them. Users can double-tap to call on Siri, but lose the volume and track skipping controls. Sure, you can ask Siri to do those things for you, but it's hardly subtle.
Music quality was nice, though not appreciably different from the corded Lightning earphones that come with the new iPhones, or Apple's standard analog headphones. It was nice to be able to walk away from the phone -- the connection reached out the front door, to just before the sidewalk of the house where I was staying, maybe about 40 feet.
The design and performance of the AirPods make them a tempting buy. But, as I said in my earlier hands-on piece, I'm still worried about the AirPods on a practical level -- namely, losing them.
I'm not terribly forgetful, but I have a habit of losing headphones, and the very compact design that makes the AirPods so aesthetically appealing is what makes them such a likely candidate to be lost. Even searching through my sheets after listening to them overnight, I was pretty worried that I'd already lost half of my loaner pair.
In some ways, too, the AirPods are a bit ahead of their time, in that not everything that you want to use headphones for has a Bluetooth connection. Frequent fliers, in particular, will have to keep a spare pair of normal headphones in tow.
That said, if this is the future of headphones, I think it could be a fairly good one -- certainly a less tangled and arguably more comfortable one. That is, once I break my old habits for using earbuds and fix these butterfingers.