By Nick Place
Something amazing happened over the last month or so (well, for iPhone users): Apple AirPods actually started sitting on shelves around town.
If you remember, the AirPods were announced as a fancy, breakthrough in wireless connectivity with iPhones around the time of the launch of the iPhone 7, but they basically never arrived. I’ve asked repeatedly, especially when I’ve happened to see somebody walking past with the distinctive, slightly dweeby white stalks sticking out of both ears.
I was even in Seoul in June this year and asked a tech shop there, but nope, they were out. It was as though Apple had over-reached at the launch, simply couldn’t deliver the technology, then finally did but only in such tiny numbers that they were gone, snatched by the early adaptor diehards who know how to play delivery games, before the rest of schmucks could get near them. Meanwhile the iPhone 8 and the X were announced and launched, and still the AirPod remained an unavailable mystery.
But then I walked into a J&B HiFi recently and saw at least a dozen small white AirPod boxes on the shelf.
So I bought some. To test whether they are something a 45-60-year-old man about town should consider, assuming you’re not an Android user.
Here’s what I’ve found so far:
Comfort and fit:
Surprisingly good. Having had the white wired Apple earbuds, and a Beats pair as well, fall out of my ears forever, I was no fan of earbuds but somehow these stay in. Maybe it’s the lack of wires tugging on them? But I’ve had zero issues with them even threatening to fall out of my ear. (You can get a cord to keep them together, but the way, but doesn’t that defeat the whole point?)
For phone calls in the office, or car, which is my main use of the Pods, they’re great. I’ve done interviews wearing them, with my hands free to write notes, and it was fantastic. Clear, easy listening and nobody seems to have had trouble hearing me.
On a train or (in Melbourne) a tram, no worse than the old wired Apple earbuds.
Sound for music:
Again, no worse than the old wired pods, although clearly we’re a long way short of Bose noise-cancelling headphones or other, design-built headphones. When walking in a breeze or stronger wind, the sound is not fantastic. They seem to sit reasonably loosely against the inner ear, so there’s room for wind to whistle.
Bike helmet test:
This was a big one for me, especially with the roughly 2 cm stalk hanging down like a bad earring. Perfect for a bike helmet strap to dislodge mid-ride, but no, the AirPod sat safely through two rides. I even made a point of really swinging my head around to look for traffic or to test out straps v pod, but the pods sat tight. This is where the whistling wind was an issue but I don’t have music up loud when riding, for safety, so it’s just a matter of finding a balance you can live. Background music, under a slight breeze, is still nice while cruising on the pedals. I guess if you were going to go the connector cord, this is where you’d use it, to be sure.
Heat test (left in car):
I was testing on 33 degree+ days and when I left the AirPods in the car, they were hot to touch when I got back. I’m not sure if this was necessarily bad for them, technologically wise, but it worried me. Even sitting in their case (more in a minute), I worried they were cooking.
I discovered this one by accident. My office has a kitchen and toilet a good 20 metres or so from my desk and I wandered off to make a coffee, and then realised my music was still playing in my ears. No distortion at all.
I know this article is about somebody living in the Apple world – and I’m sure it’s equally as good for Android folk, whatever their equivalents are – but I do love how Apple deviced work together. I didn’t bother with any instructions. I just pulled the AirPods out of their packaging, put them in my ear, heard a chime, hit the bluetooth button on my phone, selected AirPods and that was it. Similarly with my MacBook Pro and my iPad. Now they’re synced, jumping between the devices – say, when I need to hear the audio of a video I’m editing, but then I don’t, so I want to jump to music on my phone, and so forth – is a one-button move.
So far, I’ve used the AirPods a lot and haven’t come close to draining them. This is where their whacky little white case comes into play. The case looks a lot like ones that dental floss often come in, shorter than a matchbox, but a bit wider. It’s solid and has a fliptop, with readymade housing for the AirPods when not in use. And the case charges them. You can charge it, by connecting it to the usual iPhone/iPad charger, and then it carries current to charge the pods while they’re sleeping. It’s actually a really slick set-up. The attendant at the Apple shop where I bought them told me I’d get five hours’ use from the AirPods at a time, or 20 hours, if they’re within range of the case. I haven’t pushed either of those timeframes to the line yet to see if it’s true. I still haven’t worked out how that all works, but they seem fine for a lot of use, from my usage until now.
Personally, for me, it’s low. I don’t think having white sticks hanging out of your ears is a great look. What is the Apple obsession with white? So the ear wax shows up more clearly? If the stalks were black or something, they’d be much less obvious, but then Apple has never really been about subtlety. But then, now I think about it, I kept being reminded about the AirPods by seeing people with those white stalks, so it is definitely a distinctive advertising feature, like it or not.
Hilariously, Apple’s insistence on white has led to one of those Apple phenoms where other companies profit from the gap. In this case companies saying, yes, we will give you exactly the same thing but in the 58 colours of your choice. The prices are in American dollars and sound expensive even before you get to conversions or shipping to Australia. Presumably, some garage-based start-up is on it here, if you go searching.
In the car or the office, I couldn’t care less if they look dweeby (surprise-asked a co-worker how they looked? She paused awkwardly, clearly not wanting to tell me the truth), but sitting in a café, I feel self-conscious. Perhaps that’s where my Bose noiseless headphones will still kick in, so I can just be in a better music/obviously-wearing-headphones world. Maybe in today’s digital landscape, it’s nuts to think you’d have one pair of earpods/headphones to do everything.
The AirPods are actually better than I thought they’d be, from comfort and stability in the ear, to hearing phonecalls and music – out of the wind – to battery charge. Given the old wired Apple earbuds cost an always-eyebrow raising $A45, I don’t mind paying a lot more for such a superior product. Now I just have to not lose one of the little bastards. I’m still worried about that. They just feel like they could go missing, because they’re small and expensive, but we’ll see.