(Note: This article first appeared in the BCAB Newsletter, January 2018)
Price: £159.00 (See end of article for price update)
What’s in the Box
2× earbuds (marked left & right respectively).
1× hard shell carrying/charging case.
1× lightning to USB Cable.
Bluetooth headphones are everywhere these days, and the 3.5mm audio jack is increasingly being phased out. When more & more phones are ditching the traditional audio jack in favour of lightning or USB C ports, there is a greater push by phone manufacturers for people to go wireless to meet their audio input and output needs on a Smartphone or tablet. Although there are countless Bluetooth headphones on the market from various vendors, in form factors ranging from tiny in-ear ones to giant over-the-ear sofa sets and everywhere in between, from £10 to thousands in price, a new kind of wireless technology is now making its way into this crowded space, called “True Wireless”. This technology comprises of two wireless earbuds which are connected to a device, and to each other, via Bluetooth, and no cord, cable or metallic structure exist between the two earbuds. In other words, the two earbuds can be worn together or independently of one another, and when worn by themselves, or together, can act as a single Bluetooth entity to provide mono or stereo audio in/out.
Apple is not the first in the True Wireless market – that honour goes to the Errato Appolo AP007. Nor is it the most expensive or feature rich on this list; those distinctions, at the time of writing, belong to the Bragi Dash In Ear Wireless Waterproof Edition Custom Design by Kat. However, Apple at this time, has the most stable connection wise, easy to use, and easiest to pair set. These also have Apple’s proprietary W1 chip, with a brilliant trick up its sleeve. As it turns out, Apple’s offering also has the best battery life on a single charge, and the smallest case; although the dental floss like case design may/may not be to your taste.
The Wireless AirPods come in a white case that looks like a dental floss, and opens up from the top. There is a small button at the back of the case, which is used to pair or reset the headset. At the bottom of the case, you find the female lightning port to connect the lightning cable. Inside the case, you find the two left and right earbuds, which look like what you have on a traditional set of wired earphones that come with any iPhone 5 and higher. The only difference is that there is no cable between either of the two ear pieces. The earbuds have a left and right ear canal respectively, and a tiny hole at the bottom where the wire would have otherwise existed. This hole is the microphone part of either earbuds.
The earbuds can be charged by inserting them back into the case, where they magnetically connect. The case itself also has a battery. On a full charge, the AirPods have a playing time of about 5hrs, and the case provides up to an additional 24hrs of playback. The whole case, earbuds and cable are white in colour – sadly no other colours at this point. Each earbud is about 4g in weight and the case is 38g. A 15min quick charge allows about 30mins of playback time.
Sound and Fit
The sound on the AirPods is surprisingly balanced and clear, but not the loudest in the grand scheme of things. There is no noise cancellation, and although there is some noise isolation, I found some amount of leakage of sound at full volume at the louder end of the volume range. The bass heavy profile means that listeners of electronic music would not be put off. However, these are not the headphones I would choose to indulge in a pure music listening session. Instead, it is the convenience of carrying a pair of cord free wireless earphones in my pocket that wins the day here.
Convenience aside, the earbuds are reasonably comfortable to wear for a length of time. However, they may not be a sturdy fit for you, and the tips are prone to falling and slipping out of ears for some people. I have heard that for even sighted users, there have been instances of one or both tips falling during exercise, running or strenuous work. To remedy this, especially if you are blind or partially sighted, you need to be extra careful as to where you store your tips. Third party AirPods straps are also available from Amazon and elsewhere. Fortunately, I have not yet lost a tip yet that was difficult to recover. Worst case scenario: Apple will sell you a replacement tip for £69.
Setup and Use
The AirPods come with the new Fast Pair Bluetooth technology. This allows users to easily enter pairing mode to the first device they connect to, just by opening the case and waiting for 15 seconds. Thus, when I first opened the case in front of my iPhone, the device was automatically detected and a Pairing Wizard popped up. I double-tapped the pair button and that was it: sound started to flow from my iPhone into the earpieces. If the automatic Fast Pair does not start (currently only allowed to one initial device), or if you want to pair it to a different iPhone, a Mac or PC, or an Android or Amazon Fire device, just close and reopen the case, and press the small pairing button on the case to manually pair the device. The pairing pop-up was a self-explanatory, accessible experience with VoiceOver.
If you go to Settings >Bluetooth on your iPhone, you will see the AirPods listed under devices. Double-Tap the More Info and you can see the AirPods Control Centre. Here, you can rename the AirPods, select what each earbud does upon double-tapping with two fingers, and enable/disable automatic ear detection. You can also choose the behaviour of the microphone. The default is automatic, but you can choose to fix the mic to be fixed to either left or right earbud. It is possible to enable each earbud to do different things when double-tapped with two fingers. Your choices include activating Siri, Play/Pause audio, previous track or next track, or you can choose the same function for both your earbuds.
Of particular note is the automatic ear detection: turning this on allows sound to automatically start coming out of the earbuds as soon as you put them on. The moment you take the earbuds off, sound automatically transfers back to the phone’s speaker. Additionally, several other very interesting possibilities arise; if you decide to put just one of the earbuds on your ear, the sound would just play from that ear. You can then choose to add the second earbud and sound would magically transform into both ears. Take anyone off, and sound switches into the remaining ear. The same goes for the mic, provided that automatic is selected as explained above. The switch-over of sound in Apple’s AirPods is instantaneously seamless, and surprisingly flawless … nearly, but the occasional glitch does occur, which is easily fixed by briefly opening the case, and/or taking the earbud off your ear and putting it back on the ear again. As I mentioned above, True Wireless is still a new technology, and although competition from other players is starting to enter the market in 2018, Apple by far at the time of writing has been the best at such audio switching without losing Bluetooth connectivity between the earbuds themselves, or the case or phone. In my testing of comparable pairs from Sony, Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Bragi and Liberty Zolo powered by Anker, I have found many problems with battery life, gesture input, range, connectivity, audio or reliability of connection, or a combination thereof. However, True Wireless is new tech, and will only get better with the passage of time.
Unique Features And Neat Tricks
The reason that Apple has become a market leader in such a technology – (it surprisingly even out-performed the competition when paired to my Android devices, without Siri or Fast Pair of course) – is due to its own designed proprietary W1 chip. This chip allows the automatic ear and mic detection described above, plus a few neat tricks. One of them includes Bluetooth mirroring. With this, you need to pair the AirPods just once. After that, the Bluetooth pairing is automatically available to any Apple device, including any Mac, iPad, Apple TV or AppleWatch that is signed into the same iCloud account. Thus after I paired my iPhone to the AirPods, I just needed to select the playback destination within my iPad and under Sound Settings on my Mac to select the AirPods as the playback destination. I found this to be especially accessible, particularly with my Watch, when I could use just one earbud to navigate a route along GoogleMaps while having my other ear open to my surroundings. Doing so was a much louder and audibly clearer experience compared to, say a bone conducting headset like the Aftershokz Bluez 2S. However, your mileage may vary, (no pun intended)!
Speaking of maps, another neat feature found due to the W1 chip is the ability to track the AirPods on a map with Find My iPhone. Not only can you see the AirPods Case’s last location when opened, you can also play a sound in one or both tips if you have misplaced your earbuds and if you are still in range of the case. This for myself has been a life saver, since I do not always need to ask my partner where I misplaced a tip at any time. The sound gets louder with time, until you stop it from your phone. The system also emails you if you ping the AirPods. When the sound is playing, there is also the option to mute the left or right tip if you are trying to locate both tips. Sadly, I have not been able to use these buttons successfully as they do not respond to VoiceOver on an iPhone8+. The feature would also fail if the tips are out of the case’s range. Furthermore, the Apple Maps interface on Find My iPhone is busy, overwhelming and not my favourite, since it places the device list and device actions at the bottom of the screen. Also, when you double tap the AirPods, sometimes it shows them as offline, prompting you to open the case and try again. Nonetheless, in my own house, college and my partner’s car, the feature comes into call more than I care to mention. Additionally, in case of theft, or lost and found situations, you would be able to pinpoint their location, which is more than what anyone else offers.
Though not the first, the most feature rich or the most expensive, Apple has somehow perfected True Wireless with the release of its Wireless AirPods. A greater than five-hour battery life per tip, a very compact design, a 24hr battery charge case, simple gestures to invoke Siri or control playback,and most of all the W1 chip are great starts to a first attempt which I have now used for the last few months. Fast Pairing, Bluetooth mirroring via iCloud, plus the ability to locate them on a map are features above and beyond the competition. These AirPods may not be the best sounding overall, and their design may not always be to everyone’s taste. However, compared to the competition, it seems like this is probably the most sensibly priced Apple product yet, and give us glympses into what the future of audio without wires and the 3.5mm audio jack are going to be in 2018 and beyond.
“Further Note: This product has evolved since the article was written, and a typical price for “AirPods with Wireless Charging Case” appears to be £199.00 on the Apple Website.)