Hardware Notes: AirPods

For a while, I’ve been publishing what I call “book notes.” I think of these posts as “not reviews” of books I’ve read; quick takes on what I think makes each book special. By definition, this means I only write about books I enjoyed and which I think you’d benefit from checking out. I thought it’d be fun to do the same with things other than books. Here’s the first one.

I’ve been using a Bluetooth headset as my primary means of listening to music/podcasts/audiobooks/etc. since 2012. I say that upfront because your experience of AirPods will be different than mine if they’re the first wireless headset you’ve experienced. (I suspect that’ll be the case with many people; while AirPods aren’t the first wireless headset in the market, it’s the first with broad popular appeal and brand recognition.) If AirPods are your first wireless headset, you’ll be blown away. You don’t know how much the wires in your headset get in the way until you’ve experienced a wireless headset.

As I said, that’s not my case. I came to AirPods from another Apple wireless headset: BeatsX, which has the same internals as the (first generation) AirPods. So my experience is tempered by the fact that I’ve already been enjoying some of the advantages of this technology, albeit in a slightly less convenient form factor.

I bought the BeatsX when they first came out (at the same time as the first AirPods) because I didn’t like how bud-type earphones (like the AirPods) fit my ears. They’re always a bit too loose. Given how small and light AirPods are, I was concerned about having them fall out. BeatsX, on the other hand, have silicone tips that fit snuggly inside my ears, which keeps them from falling out and also isolate external noise. (More on this below.)

So while I was aware of AirPods, at first I opted for a different product. But when the second generation was announced, I reconsidered my decision. The Beats headset is okay, but it suffers from a few problems. For one thing, it doesn’t sound very good. (To me; sound quality is subjective.) That’s not such a big deal since I mostly listen to podcasts an audiobooks. But still, I’d like better-sounding earphones.

Another issue with the Beats headset is its form factor; while the earphones are wireless in the sense that they’re not wired to my iPhone, the two earphones themselves are connected by a wire that hangs behind your neck. This can be an awkward arrangement; I’ve come close to losing my headset a few times when removing a jacket. As with traditional wired headphones, they can also become tangled when I store them in my backpack. That shouldn’t be a problem; the Beats come with a small silicone pouch. I assumed that this pouch is for storing the headset while not in use.

However, using the pouch revealed the third complaint I had with the Beats headset: it’s fragile. I had to replace mine three times since I bought it for the same problem: when coiling it up for transport in my bag, something would snap inside the headset rendering the left channel inaudible. (This happened twice while the device was still under warranty. The third time I had to pay for a replacement.) This fragility meant I had to be very mindful when using the BeatsX.

Other than these issues, I was happy with the BeatsX headset. But after the announcement of the second-generation AirPods, I decided to give them a try. I was especially drawn to the faster pairing and re-pairing process, another aspect of the BeatsX experience that could’ve worked better. In any case, this long preamble is to say: I came to AirPods with lots of experience not just with wireless headsets, but with a wireless headset that has almost the same internals as AirPods. As a result, I’ll focus my comments on the difference between these products. I’ll also be more critical than I’d be if AirPods were my first wireless headset.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve grown to enjoy my AirPods. But for the first fourteen days — Apple’s return window — I contemplated asking for a refund. Why? Because their functionality isn’t that different from what I enjoyed with the Beats. And in some unexpected ways, the AirPods are worse.

Let’s start with the fit. AirPod’s earphones are very similar to those on Apple’s standard wired headsets, which have always felt a bit too loose on my ears. I can’t wear the wired headphones for extended periods without having them fall out of my ears. I’m happy to say that’s not the case with AirPods; they mostly stay put. I attribute this to how light they are and — especially — to the fact they don’t have wires hanging from them getting caught on things. I’ve had the AirPods fall out while exercising, but this may be a good thing since it discourages me from using them in this scenario (and potentially ruining them by getting them wet.) I’m keeping the Beats headset around for that use case.

The upside is that I can barely feel the AirPods when I’m wearing them. I’ve done double takes when listening to music because I’ve forgotten I have them on, and have been tricked into thinking that the music is playing from my computer’s speakers instead. Which is to say, my biggest apprehension going into the AirPod experience turned out to be a plus.

The main problem with the AirPod earphones’ form factor is that it doesn’t do a good job of isolating external noises. The silicon tip on the BeatsX earphones seals the ear canal. This makes them excellent in noisy environments. Walking next to cars on the street or (especially) riding on BART can be very noisy. I hadn’t realized how much because the BeatsX were plugged into my ears. With AirPods, I must crank up the volume to drown out the outside world. I’m concerned with what this will do to my hearing, so I’ve stopped using them in these contexts. This is a big downside for me since commuting is where I most use earphones.

Another issue with the AirPods form factor is that they lack physical controls. The BeatsX has four physical buttons: an on/off switch, volume up, volume down, and a play/pause button that serves various other functions when double- and triple-pressed in various combinations. Instead of physical buttons, the AirPods have gestures: taking them out of their case, putting them into/out of my ear, double-tapping the left or right earphone. While these gestures aren’t as convenient as the Beats’ physical buttons, they still allow me some measure of control over the device. One measure they don’t allow is volume control, which is essential — especially since, as I mentioned above, they don’t do a good job at sound isolation.

This lack of physical controls is mitigated by the fact I can control the AirPods from my Apple Watch. Using the Watch I can raise and lower volume, pause what I’m listening to, change tracks, etc. This sets up a curious chain: the Apple Watch is dependent on the iPhone for many things, and the AirPods are dependent on the Apple Watch. You’re going to have a much better experience with AirPods if you’re fully bought into Apple’s ecosystem. That said, I prefer the physical controls on the Beats headset.

Let me tell you now about things I like about AirPods. The most obvious is how AirPods’s batteries are charged. With the BeatsX, I had to constantly be plugging them into a Lightning cable. More to the point, with the Beats I always had what electric car owners call “range anxiety”: the concern that they’d run out of juice while in the middle of a conference call or during my commute. Not so with the AirPods, which charge while they’re stored in their case.

That little case is essential to the product’s success. The case not only protects the (tiny!) earphones and keeps them from getting lost, but, as I mentioned above, it ensures they’re always charged when I want to use them. As long as the case itself is charged, of course. And that, too, is more convenient with AirPods: I got the “wireless” version of the case, which means that in addition to charging using a Lightning cable, they can also be charged using a Qi pad. I have a couple of those at home and have gotten into the habit of laying my AirPods case on the one on my desk whenever I sit down. The result: no more range anxiety.

The other aspect of AirPods I like — and which has taken me by surprise — is their sound quality. As compared to the BeatsX, AirPods sound great. In addition to podcasts and audiobooks, I also like to listen to classical music, which tends to have lots of dynamic range. To my (untrained) ears, the AirPods do a much better job of rending the details of the music than the Beats earphones, which always sounded a bit muddy to me.

Finally, I must call out how easy it is to switch the audio source with the latest generation of AirPods. I can switch from listening to audio that’s playing on the iPhone to audio playing on the Mac in a few seconds. This is one of the selling points of the second-generation AirPods, and I’m happy to report that it works better than the Beats. (I bought an app on my Mac called ToothFairy that makes the switching process even easier.)

To summarize, I’ve grown to really enjoy AirPods. They’re not perfect. I’m not happy with how much external noise they let in. They could also fit better. (I wish Apple made a version with silicon tips on the earphones, which would solve both problems.) That said, they sound great and are light and convenient. And they’re especially useful if — like me — you have several Apple devices. (Especially the Watch, which is essentially their user interface.) Even though I’m a longtime wireless headset user, I lamented the loss of audio-out ports on iPhones and iPads. But the AirPods have convinced me of the viability of fully wireless headsets.

AirPods with Wireless Charging Case are $199 on Apple.com