Sunday 23 October 2016

Listen up: Apple's AirPods offer practical, discreet and stylish alternative to clunky headphones

Published 13/09/2016 | 12:35

The new Apple AirPods are shown during an event to announce new Apple products on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in San Francisco
The new Apple AirPods are shown during an event to announce new Apple products on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in San Francisco

They’re small, wireless and probably the most talked about new product by Apple in some time.

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But what are the company’s new AirPods earphones like to wear? Will they stay in your ears? Will you lose one of them easily? And how do they compare in audio quality with normal wired earphones?

The new Apple AirPods are demonstrated during an event to announce new products on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in San Francisco
The new Apple AirPods are demonstrated during an event to announce new products on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in San Francisco

After a week’s testing, I have a better idea about whether I will use these as go-to audio sources in the immediate future.

First, some personal context. I use Bluetooth headphones a lot. As in, every day. It’s not just that wireless headphones have huge ergonomic advantages over physically tethered ones. Or that they also have the built-in feature of a hands-free microphone (as the AirPods have) which lets you make and take calls without holding your phone up to your mouth.

It’s that digital audio signals are now becoming much more stitched in to my daily life. There’s music. And radio. And messaging and alerts. My phone has now muscled its way into my daily out-and-aboutery. So headphones have become far more central than they once were:  they’re part of an ‘always on’ existence.

This is where the AirPods score highest in practicality. They’re relatively easy to stick in and just forget about them as you go about your day.

This, at least, is how I have been using them: as a basic digital companion to the phone.

Each AirPod has a microphone as well as any in-ear speaker. As a basic level, that means that you can use them as hands-free accessories for phone calls (which they worked pretty well for, even walking into the wind on Amiens Street).

But this microphone also sets the AirPods up for something potentially more transformative over the long term: a permanent voice-control assistant. Tapping the the back of either AirPod automatically kicks off your (still pocketed) phone’s Siri voice command system. That means that you now have the potential for searching, calling or messaging without ever touching your handset. This is probably the holy grail for most tech companies and if Apple can pull it off with the AirPods, it will have stolen a major march on its competitors.

For me, switching to AirPods wouldn't be without its compromises. Up to now, my choice of headphones has usually been with the overhead variety. Not only are these the most common, highest quality, safest variety of wireless headphones, but they also have the inordinately useful feature of noise-cancellation. That means peace and calm on a busy street, a cackling bus or a noisy office.

So jumping from this type of headphone to a smaller, in-ear wireless version like the AirPods over the last week has meant a slightly noisier commute to work.

On the other hand, the AirPods' ergonomic practicality over bigger headphones is attractive. Walking around with a set of large cans is still a bit ostentatious. It’s also borderline anti-social. You’re sending out a message that you don’t want to engage or that you’re not open to the serendipity of conversation with another.

The AirPods significantly lessen that socially disconnected message. This week, for example, I’ve worn them in the office non-stop. No-one has backed away, thinking I'm busy.

That’s not to say that I haven’t gotten some quizzical looks or been questioned as to what they are and how they work. But there’s definitely less of a 'presence' barrier now between me and others.

But enough of the social commentary. Are the AirPods any good?

I have no complaints whatsoever with the audio quality. One occasional drawback to Bluetooth-connected wireless headphones is that they don’t quite match wired models for technical audio prowess. But this used to be a bigger problem than it is now: current Bluetooth transfer technology has advanced a lot in recent years.

The AirPods reached a decent -- but not overpowering -- maximum volume level, while the bits of the songs I know best bounced through just fine.

Probably the biggest question most people ask with regard to the AirPods is whether they’ll fall out and get lost. All I’ll say is that I walked around with them for several days, almost non-stop, and didn’t come close to one slipping out.

I did, however, feel the need to bring the small recharging case with me. The way the AirPods’ power work is that the carrier case automatically recharges them when you put them into it. (That case, in turn, can be recharged with any ordinary iPhone or iPad Lightning cable.) The battery life on the AirPods is between four and five hours on a full charge, which is comparable to other wireless headsets. However, 15 minutes in the carrier case gives you around two hours forty minutes of additional battery life in the AirPods. This means you shouldn’t get stuck for more than a few minutes on, say, a transatlantic flight.

Speaking of the recharging case, this is one of the highlights of the AirPods from a design perspective. The moment you open the case, the AirPods look to connect with your iPhone: a message on your screen prompts you to connect and you’re all hooked up. There’s no messy manual three-second pressing down of a button or waiting for the correct sequence of beeps -- it just works out of the box.

(By the way, the AirPods don’t just work with the iPhone 7, or even just with Apple devices: they work with almost any Bluetooth audio source.) Another nice touch is the inclusion of the accelerometers and sensors, which stop a live audio connection if an AirPod is removed (or falls out) from either ear.

I’m continuing to wear the AirPods for now, because I can see their utility. And besides, the audio quality is pretty good.

In time, I’ll have to see whether I miss the noise-cancelling qualities of bigger overhead cans.

But this is a decent, pragmatic everyday audio option.

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