Apple AirPods Explored and Explained
Launched on 16th September 2016, Apple's iPhone 7 was notable for the absence of a headphone jack socket. Yes, the enclosed earphones had a Lightning connector. And, yes, included in the box was a 3.5mm to Lightning convertor lead.
Also announced was Apple's new wireless AirPods, their wireless earphones to connect to the iPhone (and other Apple devices) via Bluetooth.
Hearing but Not Seeing
Despite their announcement at the same time as the iPhone 7 launch, the AirPods were not available for sale for some three months due to Apple sorting out software issues, or manufacturing issues, depending on what story you choose to believe in the tech press.
Apple AirPods are compatible with the following Apple devices and operating systems:
- iPhone running iOS 10 or above
- iPad running iOS 10 or above
- iPod touch running iOS 10 or above
- Apple Watch running watchOS 3 or above
- Mac running macOS 10.12 or above
Whilst Bluetooth, as a technology, has been a part of our lives for the best past of the last two decades, it's not always been a painfree experience.
With Apple's AirPods, Bluetooth finally appears to have come of age. The set up process itself is simple and elegant, though it only appears to work with iPhone and not iPad.
To get going, it's as simple as opening the AirPods case next to an iPhone. You'll be given an opportunity to pair the AirPods and iPhone and, this is the clever bit, the AirPods appear as an audio output option on other devices connected to your AppleID.
That means you're ready to go with AirPods on an iPad, on a Mac and on the Apple Watch. In Apple-speak the process is magical.
AirPods in Use
Place an AirPod in an ear and you'll hear a tone. That's it, it's ready to play audio. No switches, no buttons, no power on or off.
It's not necessary to use both AirPods, you can use just one. Through the use of an optical sensor, the AirPods detect when you're using both of them or one of them. Stereo sound is then either true stereo to both or fed entirely to the single AirPod in use.
I like to go to sleep listening to a podcast. Prior to the AirPods I could end up as a tangle of earphone wires if I fell asleep before the end of the podcast to which I was listening. This happened often.
Now, with AirPods, I can lie on my side, head on pillow and an AirPod in my free ear. I no longer end up as a tangle of wires and the AirPod will be there, somewhere, if I fall asleep before taking it out.
Starting and Stopping Sound
The optical sensors and accelerometers in each of the AirPods means that they can sense being taken out of your ears or being placed back in them.
Here's an example of where Apple sweats the details.
By sensing whether they are in or out of your ear, they can pause and automatically resume what you are listening to.
For example, if someone speaks to you and you remove an AirPod the music pauses.
Replace the AirPod and the music resumes. Be aware, though, that if left out for more than a short time, you'll need to manually resume the audio by pressing play on the source device.
This isn't just for iTunes. It works on other audio and video apps such as BBC iPlayer, All4 and BBC iPlayer Radio apps.
A consequence of no wires mean that there's no volume control or buttons to skip tracks, as there are on conventional EarPods supplied with iPhones.
Neither are there any control buttons on the AirPods themselves.
Control is by voice.
Tap twice, lightly, on an AirPod and the accelerometer recognises this to prompt Siri to listen. Then give Siri an instruction, for example:
- Turn up the volume
- Increase volume to sixty per cent
- Call my mum
- How to I get to the railway station
- Play Peter Gabriel
Of course, it's not always entirely practical to change the volume by talking to Siri. In fact, it can be quite tedious. It's often much simpler, and quicker, to change the volume on the source device be that an iOS device or a Mac.
Storage and Power
The pair of AirPods come in a special storage case that doubles as a charger to keep the batteries in each AirPod topped up. The battery life of the AirPods is said, by Apple, to be good for up to five hours of listening.
I'm not sure I could keep the AirPods in for anywhere near that long, so that should be more than sufficient.
I've heard others complain about the battery life citing battery drain when the AirPods are not in use and are left outside of their storage case.
Seems obvious to me. There's no on/off switch. And why would anyone leave the AirPods outside of their storage case, anyway, when they could get lost so easily?
There is a battery in the storage case and charging If via a lightning connector. A fifteen minute charge is good for three hours of listening.
The battery in the storage case provides up to 24-hours of power for the AirPods.
Using AirPods for Phone Calls
Apple says that the AirPods have a voice accelerometer that detects when you are speaking. The AirPods have "beamforming" microphones that focus on speech and filter out ambient noise.
On the face of it, this sounds like good marketing, from Apple, with them inventing new words to complement their magical technologies.
In practice, I've found the performance to be excellent, with those I am talking to unaware that I'm using an external microphone (on the AirPods) rather than speaking directly into the iPhone.
I did have some concerns whether these things would stay in my ears. To my surprise, and despite their gloss white, smooth finish, they have.
Even by shaking my head or engaging in exercise they've not fallen out. That said, they often feel as though they're just hanging on in there.
For the risk-averse, Spigen makes a wire specifically to connect the two AirPods together.
Whilst some might question why anyone would make a wire for wireless earphones, I can see the use-case scenario for this for runners where, if one AirPod falls out, it is saved by the other.
Resetting and Re-Pairing
Should the case arise, you may wish to pair the AirPods with someone else's iPhone and AppleID.
To do this is easy. On the reverse of the AirPods storage case there is a discreet button. Press and hold this for a few seconds.
Then open the case next to the new iPhone, ensuring Bluetooth is discoverable, and complete the pairing process.
When originally announced, I didn't see the appeal of wireless earphones other than that they were a shiny new gadget. Even with the delay between announcement and launch I just did not get it.
Now, having lived with the AirPods for just a short time, I get it. They just work, the technology is so good it is invisible to the user. The AirPods perform as I expect them to without my having to consult user manuals for set up and operation.
AirPods are an example of Apple employing complex technology to make a consumer product that is simple to use. I don't have to think about them, they're just there and they just work.