A truly unfair comparison by Jim Fricker.
I was in Hollywood, and about to get my ears 3D-scanned.
I’d waited almost a year before finally deciding to pull the trigger. Apple had just come out with its wireless headphones, the AirPods, but who had time for that? I was about to pay $1000+ for a pair of custom-made noise-isolating audiophile in-ear monitors, and my travels were my justification for the splurge. As an AV guy, they were a business expense.
Admittedly, I’m not your typical headphone consumer. I need sound isolation (not to be confused with noise canceling). I need uncolored frequency balance. I need my name printed on a metal cylinder that houses my insanely-expensive headphones. I’m an audio engineer after all.
When my fancy monitors finally came in the mail, they didn’t disappoint. I found that not only could I do my job better while traveling with them, they also did a great job of drowning out crying babies on airplanes and noisy neighbors in hotel rooms.
But they have cables. That meant any time I wanted to listen to a podcast, meditate, or exercise, I’d need to have my phone in my pocket. It also meant dealing with that stupid adapter that comes with the headphone-jack-free iPhones.
Every time I see that god-forsaken adapter, I think about the prototyping process Apple must have gone through when designing it. I imagine an Apple worker walking up to Jonny Ive saying “here’s the new prototype headphone adapter, sir.” Jonny’s response could only have been “Yes, but can you make it even flimsier?”
Cables, and therefore adapters, seemed like a necessary evil. I never imagined life could ever be anything other than a tangled mess of cables… at least, until I started looking more seriously at the AirPods.
What if I could exercise and not have to have my phone in my pocket, or use one of those silly-looking phone armbands? What if I could wake up and pop wireless headphones in my ears, so I could meditate without ever having to turn on a light to find the stupid adapter?
I decided to buy the AirPods. I’d heard they were expensive, but $159 for a pair of headphones didn’t seem unrealistic if they lived up to all the hype. I justified the purchase as an investment in better productivity.
The Big Selling Point
Yes, the absence of a cable is a big deal. You don’t realize how awful cables really are until you no longer have to deal with them. The extra freedom and mobility I suddenly had while listening to podcasts and audiobooks made it so much easier to listen to them. And listen to them I did.
The amount of new information I was ingesting on a day-to-day basis tripled with the mere convenience of using the AirPods. I tore through audiobooks, devoured my favorite podcasts, and meditated more often.
Before buying them, I had a hunch this would be the case. To me, if I could get through an extra book per month, the AirPods would easily justify their cost. So far, so good.
Untethered Fitness Freedom
Exercising with the AirPods is a joy. Not having my phone and cabling rattling around as I move makes it much easier to focus on the task at hand.
There’s no shaking them out, either. Whether I’m head-banging to Slayer (ahem) or doing a handstand, they stay put. Your fit may be different, of course — ears vary in size and shape considerably, or so I’ve heard.
I was also impressed by the distance I could be away from my phone and still stay connected. I’ve been two floors away from where my phone is, and the Airpods still didn’t miss a beat. If getting 30-40 feet away without losing signal isn’t freedom, I’m not sure what is.
The battery life of the AirPods is phenomenal. Apple claims you get five hours of listening time on a single charge, which is about right in my experience. That might not sound like a lot at first, but it’s only part of the equation.
The case you store the AirPods in charges them as well, which means you’re carrying over 24 hours of listening time around with you. Importantly, when you’re out of juice, it only takes a 15-minute charge to get another three hours of listening time. Even on long travel days, I always have plenty of battery left when I get to where I’m going.
These are not the right headphones if you want to block out ambient noise. They’re not noise-canceling, and the amount of isolation you get from them is minimal. It’s about the same as having a beanie hat on. There is a difference, but not enough to drown out crying babies.
The quality of audio you get from the AirPods isn’t enough to impress anyone who calls themselves an audiophile, but it’s decent for the casual listener. I knew what I was up for when I bought these, and they matched my expectations.
If you’ve ever used the standard EarPods that ship with an iPhone, you know essentially what you’ll get with these. The AirPods sound slightly beefier in the low end than those earbuds, but they’re almost identical in the mid-range and higher frequencies.
I can’t recall having an easier time setting up anything electronic. Connecting them to my phone involved nothing more than a tap. I opened the case, and the Airpods were instantly recognized by my iPhone 7+. I tapped the screen to connect, and that was it. All done.
The only connectivity problems I’ve had are when I try switching between my MacBook Pro and the AirPods. This is advertised as being quite easy, of course, but it hasn’t proven quite so straightforward for me. My trouble might have something to do with the fact I’m using a MacBook Pro from the Dark Ages (aka, early 2013.)
Connecting the AirPods to my laptop is as easy as selecting them in my audio settings, but getting them to reconnect with my phone afterward can be tricky. I usually end up having to turn off Bluetooth on my computer and phone, put the AirPods away, and then re-enable Bluetooth on my iPhone.
Since I tend to use my other headphones when I’m working on the computer anyway, I’ve stopped trying to connect the AirPods to my laptop to avoid extra hassle.
Using them solely with my phone is a very simple experience though, and most of the time, they’re connected before I can even put them in my ears.
The functionality of the AirPods is underwhelming, considering the free earbuds you get with your phone can do almost as much. There are no buttons on the AirPods, but they do respond to double-taps when they’re in your ears. Each earpiece can be programmed for different functions, so I have mine programmed to play and pause on the left side, and activate Siri on the right.
The other neat feature is how they automatically stop playing when you take one out of your ears, and resume when you put it back in. This is a nice feature if someone approaches you when you’re out somewhere, especially since it gives the impression you didn’t hear them to start with, and now they have your full attention. When you’re done chatting, just put the AirPod back in your ear, and you’ll pickup wherever you left off.
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The Apple AirPods have become a staple in my everyday life. They fit perfectly in that weird tiny pocket in my jeans, and the extra boost in productivity I get from them makes them well worth the price I paid.
For me, they’re for hands-free phone calls, podcasts, audiobooks, and meditation. If I want to get real work done, I still use my $1000 headphones. They provide the isolation and detail I need while working, getting me into the zone faster, and keeping me there longer.
For most travelers, though, the AirPods may well be the only headphones they need. Recommended.