It’s been a little over two years since Apple unveiled the AirPods, which marked the company’s foray into the personal wireless audio space (not counting the Beats products). The AirPods design felt totally weird at the time, as if someone had snipped the wires of Apple’s EarPods and left them to dangle from your ears, like two spoons without the handles.
The Internet of course showed no mercy and the inevitable jokes and memes came flooding in. To make matters worst, Apple’s shiny white ear hooks faced production delays and they finally went on sale in the US only in December 2016, three months after they were announced.
Fast forward to 2018 and it’s very clear that Apple is having the last laugh as the AirPods have been a huge hit, despite their relatively high price tag of $159 in the US and Rs. 12,900 in India. In a recent earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook — echoing his earlier comments — said that the AirPods have been a “runaway hit”. That’s no surprise given it’s now commonplace to see people trotting around the city with AirPods in their ears in the US, and this trend is catching up in India too.
AirPods have become an integral part of our lives here are Gadgets 360, so much so that after our smartphones, this is the next piece of tech many of us don’t leave our homes without. We’ve been using them for a long time now and we feel it’s a good time to take a closer look at what makes them so special.
AirPods design and features
The design of the AirPods might have been the butt of many jokes when they debuted, but it’s safe to say now that they are easily one of the best — if not the best — designed truly wireless earphones around. The fact that the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer only recently announced a blatant copy of the AirPods — with another Chinese company following as well — is testament to the design’s success. This success hinges on a couple of things.
First, is the form factor. AirPods are incredibly light thanks to the all-plastic construction, but this doesn’t make them any less durable. Our AirPods have survived multiple drops over the years and surprisingly, they haven’t picked up many noticeable scratches or scuffs marks either. The capsule-like charging case they ship with is also minuscule and easily fits into your pockets without creating an unsightly bulge.
The plastic case is equally durable and has survived many drops too, though it does pick up scratches rather easily. To avoid this, you can dress up you AirPods case with a skin or a little rubber jacket to keep it shiny and scuff-free, though it’s definitely not something you need to do.
The AirPods rest along the crest of your ear canal, which makes them very comfortable even for long durations
The case has a Lightning port at the bottom, which is used to charge the AirPods as well as the case’s own battery. Apple claims the AirPods can last for up to five hours, and with the charging case you can expect more than 24 hours of listening time, which sounds impressive for this form factor — we will get to our real world experience in a bit. The case has a magnetic flap which snaps in place with a reassuring click and the metal hinge for this feels just as solid today as it was the day we first started using the AirPods. There’s a discretely hidden button at the back of the case which is used during the initial pairing process.
Second, is the way the AirPods sit in your ears. Most wireless earphones stick to the in-ear formula, which involves a silicone ear tip that goes into your ear canal. The general advantage of this design is good bass response, lesser distractions from ambient sounds, and a snug fit. On the flip side, such earphones also cause quite a bit of fatigue after a couple of hours of continuous use.
Apple’s AirPods, on the other hand, have a design similar to its EarPods wired headphones that ship with the iPhone. This means the ear buds sit just outside you ear canal, which makes them more comfortable. But what really amazes us is how well they stay put, even with vigorous use. We’ve used them during workouts at the gym and even when running and we’ve never found them budging even the slightest. Yes, we’ve all heard about people who’ve had issues with the in-ear fit of the AirPods, but none of us at Gadgets 360 — we have nearly half-a-dozen AirPods between us — have faced that problem.
The AirPods might look very simple, but they are packed to the gills with tech, including Apple’s custom W1 chip which is the brains behind the operations and manages everything from the Bluetooth connection, battery consumption, handling gestures, and the audio processing. Each AirPod also has optical and motion sensors, which, in conjunction with the W1 chip, can do things like automatically pause/ resume audio as you take out/ put back the AirPods.
Each earphone also has a pair of beam-forming microphones that help filter out external noise when you’re on a call. This means you can use either of the earbuds — and of course, both — to answer a phone call. This is an improvement on most of the competition that restrict calling functionally to just one of the earbuds.
The earphones snap into place in the case with the help of magnets so they don’t accidentally fall out if the lid is open. There’s a single LED inside the case, which glows white when in pairing mode. When the AirPods are in the case, the LED indicates the battery status of the earphones, otherwise it shows the status of the case — green means charged, while amber means less than one full charge remains.
The charging case tops up the AirPods’ battery, which is supposed to extend usage time to about 24 hours
The AirPods also support the AAC audio codec, which is a step up from the default SBC codec used for audio transmission over Bluetooth. They lack support for higher resolution audio codecs like aptX and aptX HD, which is usually found in other products around this price bracket.
The AirPods can only connect to one device at a time, unless you pair them with an Apple Watch and an iPhone, in which case they can dynamically switch between the two. In other words, if your AirPods are connected to your iPhone and you start playing something on the Apple Watch, the audio will automatically stream to the AirPods.
Throwing an Apple Watch into the mix also offers other conveniences like tapping your Watch’s screen to answer an incoming call, something that can also be done by double tapping the AirPods themselves, though we have to admit doing so is a rather unpleasant experience. The AirPods — and indeed other Bluetooth earphones — work great with Apple Watch LTE variant to listen to music or answer calls on the go, even when your phone is not with you.
The AirPods retail packaging is simple. The small white box contains the AirPods, a Lightning cable for charging the case, and some instruction leaflets.
AirPods performance and battery life
Pairing the AirPods with an iPhone or iPad is a simple process. Simply bring the AirPods (in the case) near your device and open the lid. Almost instantly, you’ll see an image of the AirPods pop up on your screen. Simply follow the on-screen instructions and you’re all set.
If you have multiple Apple devices — iPads, iPhones, Macs, or Apple Watches — associated with the same iCloud ID, the AirPods would be automatically added under Bluetooth devices on them as well, eliminating the need of manually pairing with each one individually. This in itself is a major win.
Once paired, the AirPods really begin to shine. Both earbuds have a touch sensitive area along the base of the neck, which can be programmed to do different functions. By default, a double tap will summon Siri but you can change this to play/ pause, previous track, next track track, or simply not do anything at all. What we really miss is physical controls for adjusting the volume. Technically, you can ask Siri to do this, but it’s not the quickest solution especially when there’s ambient noise around.
However, the really cool bit is having the ability to assign different functions for the touch gestures based on the Apple device you’re connected to. For instance, we typically use gestures for controlling music playback when connected to the iPhone, and have Siri summoned when we’re connected to the MacBook. That’s because these settings are remembered on individual devices and not on the AirPods themselves.
The music or video playback stops when you take off one of the earbuds, which is also super useful, and something we find ourselves using a lot whenever someone walks up to us to have a quick conversation. If you take off both the earbuds at the same time while connected to a MacBook though, the audio stops playing from the AirPods and switches over to the built-in speakers of the laptop