Review: AirPods, and liberation

I use headphones a lot. All my calls are done with headphones, unless I blunderously forget them at home in the morning. I also seem to have lost my tolerance to hold up a phone to my face for more than 30 seconds.

I know Bluetooth headphones have tons of potential; I really enjoyed using the Parrok Zik phones with gesture support during my review a while ago, although I’m more an in-ear guy. But Bluetooth isn’t the easiest to use, pairing with multiple devices has been a pain, and there’s the lag problem. I can’t watch videos over my speaker bar using Bluetooth (I’ve noticed this with my car Bluetooth as well, but one doesn’t watch videos in the car to care enough really).

I’ve used the standard Apple headphones — I mean they do as advertised. I’m no audiophile so I can live without bass in general. It’s just, I have to untangle them multiple times a day. I usually shove my headphones into a pocket or a bag so it’s an ongoing battle.

What I’m rather obviously leading to is that the AirPods were an interesting announcement to me. There’s the obvious advantages: the W1 chip promises better connectivity & pairing, true wireless — each ‘pod’ collects and plays sound independently while in sync with the other. I’m also mainly on Apple devices so pair once, use on all your iCloud devices definitely caught my eye. I don’t own an iPhone 7 mind you — I’ve made it through the I-want-to-upgrade-but-my-phone-works-just-fine phase successfully with some difficulty, but I think I can wait until the 7S comes out next year. #firstWorldProblems

Back to the review. I’ve had the AirPods for over a week now and they’re a delight to use. Well they’d better be considering the price tag. After some serious underpromising — 3 weeks expected shipping, followed by a Jan 3 delivery date, revised to Dec 20 — the AirPods arrived 8 a.m. Dec 19. Took all of 10 seconds to pair the iPhone and iPad. My MacBook (is old, and doesn’t support Bluetooth 4) didn’t pick it up, but a quick regular Bluetooth pairing process later, we were good to go. I also attempted to pair the AirPods with a Windows 7 PC — they did pair but Windows couldn’t find a driver for them, so I haven’t been able to use them as of the time of writing this review. I also have no idea if the behavior is different on Windows 10.

They do take a bit of getting used to, and I’m still getting the odd stare when I walk with them on (which is nearly all the time). They are incredibly light and you don’t realize how much having a wire tugging at earpieces adds weight to your ears … I have yet to drop them or send my phone catapulting to the floor because the wire got caught in something.

You suddenly don’t feel bound to your phone and it’s very easy to forget inside your ears if there’s no music playing.

Battery

Battery life has been very comfortable.

As a full test, I charged the pods + case on a Tuesday evening around 9 p.m. I forced myself to use the AirPods all day Wednesday between music and calls upto about 6 p.m., stopping just to charge the pods in the case when they ran out. If I wasn’t on calls, the pods ran for 5+ hours. At home, I watched about an hour of Netflix on the iPad with the pods and took another call.

On Thursday I didn’t force their use and listened to music as I would normally, with more interruptions compared to Wednesday. I returned the pods to their case when I wasn’t using them.

I took a conference call around 3 p.m. on Thursday with the pods themselves already at about 12%. When they touched 10% (a little beep sounds to inform you of this), I placed one pod back in the case to charge while using pod 1. In about 5 minutes, pod 2 had reached about 32%, so I swapped pods, continuing the call on pod 2 alone. Since I could go longer, I waited about 15 minutes before I swapped again, this time pod 1 was at a healthy 70-something. Once pod 2 touched 50%, I used both pods until the call was over. (I did have a lightening port available to me, but I didn’t want to re-charge it until absolutely necessary). So basically:

  • The pods naturally lose battery faster when you’re on a call than just listening since the mic/noise cancellation are at play.
  • The pods charge much faster than they discharge (and this was while I was on a call). This allowed me to charge one when I was low on battery enough to swap this couple times and have 50%+ charged AirPods available to me without interrupting my call.
  • Even if you have about 5 hours per pod, if you’re short on case charge, you could technically get about ~10 hours with using just one at a time before anything needs to be charged. Since the case charges with the same lightening port though, I haven’t yet been in this situation yet.

I recharged the case late Thursday evening. My overall experience is that the only difference in usage of the wired vs wireless is that the wireless ones are charging in their case when I’m not using them while the wired ones are shoved in a bag or across my nightstand.

Video

There also hasn’t been any lag at all. I’ve watched a decent share of netflix and YouTube since getting the AirPods. I’ve watched a video on my iPhone, then switched to the iPad and watched an episode and the only stop is changing the output on the iPad to pick up the pods. It is as seamless as advertised.

Range

Reports say you can go as far as 150m away from your phone. I haven’t measured this, but I can happily walk all over my room without losing connectivity, and I’ve walked around the office around corners and it takes a while to lose connectivity. It also picks up as soon as I’m back in range and keeps playing. Yes, removing a single pod instantly stops music or video; returning the pod resumes music but doesn’t do the same with say a Netflix video. I did this with my wired ones all the time to have a quick talk or to place an order and not having the music continuing in your other ear without having to fidget with the phone is nice.

Problems?

Apple is allowing you to buy pods individually it seems, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about my fear of losing one. With some conditioning, I generally return them to their case when not in use. I’m also hoping battery life won’t drop too drastically over time. But I’ve enjoyed a feeling of not being bound to my phone — both literally and figuratively. I can actually leave my iPhone behind and take my weekly stroll for example.

What do I miss? Easily skipping tracks. I’m not much of a Siri user, and using Siri to change tracks is far too slow. Siri’s voice capture has either improved over time, or is just better with the AirPods mic though. The AirPods obviously have a restrained surface area to support gestures, but I wouldn’t have minded a slide to skip or such. As opposed to just a tap to receive calls aka Bluetooth dongles of er, 2007.

The lack of wires and how light the AirPods are almost feels like music is playing in your head. It’s oddly liberating. I’ve also dropped my phone less when the wire would get caught in something; or get yanked out of my ear. In fact, the AirPods did not drop out of my ears once, doing anything one would normally expect to do: sit, stand, get under the table to sort out wires, walks, light jogs, sideways tilts. As I mentioned, I almost forget they’re there if music is not playing. I suppose it feels more odd to the person you’re talking to; I’m not being rude, I have genuinely forgotten I’m still wearing them.

Chirag Desai @Chirag