Hands-on: First impression with AirPods

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AirPods are finally here. And while I was a bit frustrated with the initial launch of them. (The initial promise, delay, and the setback for anyone who wasn’t up at 6AM pacific.) While mine weren’t set to ship until January 12, I headed to my local Apple Store, in 30 degree, raining weather, at around 8:15AM this morning and was able to get my hands on a pair. So how do I like them?

Presentation

Before even trying them on, I like how the charging case looks, simple as that. It’s simple and elegant, though there is a metal hinge on the back to open the lid up top. Otherwise, it’s white plastic all over with a cutout for the lightning port at the bottom. Once you open up the lid you are presented with the actual AirPods sitting in the case, charging. The AirPods sit magnetically to the case so if you flip the case over they won’t fall out. There’s also an LED indicator in between the two cutouts for the AirPods which indicate whether they’re charging, on, or are in pairing mode. Green indicating that they’re in use, pulsating green indicating they’re fully charged and are ready to be used, orange indicating that they’re charging, and pulsating white indicating that they’re in pairing mode and can be paired with non-Apple devices.

The only downer to the presentation of the AirPods is that they come with a Lightning to standard USB cable in the box and not a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box, just like the iPhone 7.

Design

These look identical to the EarPods minus the cable if you look from afar. Look a little closer, and you’ll notice that they have proximity sensors to detect whether or not they’re in your ear. There’s also a cutout for what may possibly be a microphone on each of the AirPods which I presume is used to cancel out noise on the outside. As well as a microphone on the bottom of them, obviously. They’re a bit larger than the EarPods but not by much. So if you have smaller ears, these may be a no go for you.

Like I’ve mentioned earlier, the box feels sturdy and looks clean. There’s nothing that’s there that doesn’t have to be there. While white isn’t the ideal color for something that’s likely to be in a pocket the majority of the time. Though, choosing hard, shiny, plastic was the right move as lint and dust can easily be removed.

One fatal flaw with these is the lack of native Apple TV support out of the box. With the latest generation Apple TV, it’s clear that the Apple TV still is a hobby for Apple. This is further proven with the AirPods. Unlike the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, you’ll have to press and hold the pair button on the back of the AirPods charging case and put them into pairing mode. You’ll have to then navigate to your Apple TV, go to Settings > Remotes and Devices > Bluetooth and pair them that way. Luckily, you don’t get an ugly “verify this four digit code” screen, but this can and should be improved.

Function

There’s not much to say about them. They’re earbuds at the very core with some neat tricks up its sleeve. If you live in the Apple ecosystem, the W1 chip inside these things should interest you.

With W1, the AirPods are able to pair with your iPhone by simply opening the AirPods charging case lid and pressing an on-screen “connect” button that appears on your iPhone. A few seconds later, they’re connected.

With the aforementioned proximity sensor in the AirPods, they’re able to detect when its in your ear and when its not. This means that if you take one off, audio will pause automatically, and when you put them back in they’ll resume. This also means that you can have only one in your ear and switch between both and they’ll just play both channels through the one AirPod. I’ve found this to work every single time. There is a small delay sometimes when taking them out but it’s not enough for it to be bothersome.

The AirPods have a total of 5 hours total in terms of battery life but I can’t attest to this just yet as I’ve yet to have them for over 24 hours. They do go in a low power state when they’re not in your ear but not in the charging case either. I presume they use Bluetooth LE in those situations.

The charging case, obviously charges the AirPods when not in use. Apple claims you’re able to recharge the AirPods for up to 24 hours of additional playback. Again, I’d need to test this.

Unfortunately, the AirPods ship with a Lightning to USB-A cable. This means that you’ll need an adapter if you own one of the new MacBook Pros or a 12-inch MacBook. And to add insult to injury, these don’t come with a power adapter either which means you’ll need to buy one if you plan on charging these from a wall outlet.

You can also double tap either bud and bring up Siri (this can be changed to activate play/pause instead in the settings). I’ve found that this is pretty useful and works most of the time though it’s something that I’ll definitely have to get used to. You have to do a pretty hard press on them to activate. Unfortunately the AirPods don’t have support for Hey Siri. But if your iPhone is in range and hears the command, it will route the audio through to your AirPods if you have them on. It will also use the built-in mic on the AirPods to listen as well.

That brings me to my next point. The microphones on these things are pretty incredible. I was walking outside with heavy traffic on the road while on a phone call and the person on the other end was able to hear me even under those conditions. My iPhone 7 Plus or any previous iPhone wouldn’t have been able to achieve this as the person on the other line typically says they can’t hear me using the built-in microphone on the iPhone.

Sound quality

I’ll try to keep this short and simple. They sound much better than the EarPods, but don’t go throwing out your audiophile-grade headphones for these. There’s an emphasis on bass, and it does sometimes overtake the mids and trebles creating a muddy sound in some occasions, but they’re bearable. To put it simply, I wouldn’t mind using these if they were the only thing I could afford. Soundstage is obviously not that great because they’re earbuds but that’s to be expected. But don’t let that discourage you, I love the AirPods and they have a sound that will be amazing for the general consumer. I’m not a general consumer when it comes to headphones so keep that in mind.

Conclusion

I’ve been blown away and the AirPods have exceeded my expectations. This may be a first impression, but it’s left a really good impression on me. All of the convenience features plus the exceptional audio quality has gained my seal of approval. Though, I’d appreciate it if Apple started shipping Lightning to USB-C cables for their devices. Right now, that count is 0.

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  • Tony Nof

    Great write up, almost makes me want to get my own pair!