The headphone jack is dead, but Apple giveth as it taketh away, and what it gives are AirPods. Well, it gives them if you cough up an extra $159 on top of the $649+ for your shiny new iPhone 7: otherwise you’re stuck listening to music like a peasant with the wired, Lightning-connected EarPods bundled as standard with the new phone, or rocking it old-school with the ugly little Lightning to 3.5mm adapter that’s also nestled in the box.
Do your ears deserve an upgrade to complete wireless freedom? Having spent some brief time with the AirPods this morning, after Apple’s iPhone 7 event finished, I’m only partially convinced. Apple has certainly made some of the most straightforward and thoughtful wireless headphones I’ve ever tried, but there’s a big caveat.
They’re small enough that losing them – even in the little case – is a legitimate concern. The box is much smaller than that of the wired EarPods (which, admittedly, never really seemed as small as it could’ve been) with Apple Pencil matching white glossy plastic and a little chrome detailing on the hinge.
The case also acts as a charger, with enough juice for a full day of listening. That’s not constant, of course: each AirPod holds enough power for five hours playback, after which point you need to nestle them back inside their individual silos.
Pairing Bluetooth headphones can be a nightmare, and it’s where Apple’s legendary push for simplification is most obvious. Press the button on the back of the AirPods’ charging case and it’s in pairing mode; hold it near to your phone and a dialog pops up.
Hit the button on-screen and the connection is established; you even see the battery status of both case and each individual earbud.
Is it going to be resilient to the wireless morass that can give AirDrop such problems? That remains to be seen, though even in a demo hall with many AirPods trying to do their individual thing the sets I used seemed to be holding up okay.
Sensors in the buds themselves recognize when you put them into your ears and automatically re-route playback from the current device they’re connected to. Remove one, meanwhile, and playback resumes on your phone or Mac.
Long-tap on the body of the AirPod and you get Siri, handy for asking a question, dictating a message, or just skipping the track. Get used to her, though, because otherwise there’s no way to control volume: you have to ask for it to raise or lower.
I didn’t have much opportunity to test the beam-forming microphones, though despite being surrounded by loud journalists the AirPods could hear my simple commands for playback.
Similarly, audio quality assessment will have to wait until I’m in less congested circumstances, though they’re definitely capable of loud playback.
My problem – and one, I believe, which I’m not alone in suffering – is that Apple’s preferred earbud design just doesn’t like staying in my ears. Without any sort of rubber tip or loop, it’s basically a case of hanging the EarPod from my ear and waiting for it to inevitably fall off if I move at more than a brisk walking pace.
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The AirPods seem no different, and though they don’t have a wire pulling them down, they also have no safety tether: I can all too easily envisage one accidentally popping out of my uncooperative ear and getting lost. Yes, you can listen to music or make calls with just one bud in place, but that’s not much consolation when you’ve lost half of your $159 purchase.
Stylish, then, and simple to use, but this isn’t quite the panacea to Apple killing off the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 that we were promised. I’ll be curious to see how they hold up in the wild.