My new Apple Airpods arrived a week ago. I must say they are a bold piece of hardware and they have evoked very strong emotions of love and hate within me. In many ways they are a beautiful piece of engineering and design and on the other hand they are a complete failure in some important ways. I love them and I hate them and here’s why.
I have to start with what is good about the Apple Airpods because they are beautiful. I want to write about how I’ve never had a case that looks and feels so beautiful to open. I want to write about how beautifully and seamlessly they interface with the iPhone. But they are a set of headphones so firstly I need to talk about the sound quality.
1. Audio Quality as headphones
The sound quality of the audio is amazing. I love listening to music. I listen to a lot of music. I listen to classical music. I listen to 80s rock. I listen to modern music. I used to you work in audio hardware design at ABC radio in Sydney. I was trained as an electrical engineer in digital audio. I have been involved with sound mixing and acoustics for over 20 years. So it is with all that experience and expectations of a quality product from Apple that I say that the Apple Airpods sound beautiful.
The sound is clear but not harsh. The bass is powerful and tight, but not muddy and not overpowering. I have read several reviews that say the sound quality of the Apple Airpods is comparable to the Apple earbuds – the wired headphones supplied with the iPhone. This is certainly not the case. The quality of the sound in the Airpods is significantly better than Apple’s wired earbuds. Compared to the Airpods, the earbuds sound thin and harsh. There are certain high-frequency sounds on the wired earbuds that start to irritate your ears after long periods of listening. There are no such frequencies on the Airpods. The bass on the Airpods is much clearer. They may not sound more ‘bassy’ but if you compare the two headphones and listen for a bass guitar riff or a kick drum you will notice that the clarity of the air pads is much better. They are in a different league to the old Apple earbuds. I would be comparing them more to my Bose quiet comfort headphones and they stack up pretty well. I would happily use the Apple Airpods as an In-ear Monitor for a band. They sound great.
Overall I am very impressed with the sound quality of the Airpods.
If you are looking for a ‘wow’ factor the AirPods certainly deliver. They look and feel beautiful. I can’t describe how soothing it is to open and shut the lid of the case. There is the slightest bit of resistance to opening it which allows it to stay shut but once it starts to open it opens almost effortlessly with a small spring that helps counteract the weight of the lid.
I think there are some serious ergonomic issues that I will describe later, but in terms of looks and feel the Apple Airpods embrace everything good about Apple’s design philosophy.
The Airpods are captured into the case by a magnet, and then charge from the battery that is in the case. They detect when you put them in and out of your ears. They are remarkable.
Amazing. I get really irritated by wearing headphones. I could wear the Airpods all day. I have sensitive ears and a sensitive head. In-ear headphones usually make my ears ache and over-the-ear earphones give me a headache. The cable from regular headphones annoy me when I am running. Somehow these things fit my ear perfectly and yet they also fit the ear of my seven year old daughter just as well. They feel loose not tight, and yet they don’t feel insecure if I shake my head or go running. they are a great design in terms of the shape and weight.
I can understand why Steve jobs was hesitant to go for battery-powered headphones – he said that the last thing that a user wants is another’s device to recharge. But having tried these, if I had the choice, I would not go back to using regular headphones again. The freedom of not having wires hanging off your head and not having wires to get tangled far outweighs the inconvenience of having to charge them occasionally. The inconvenience of charging is mitigated by the wonderful case which automatically charges them as well as giving them a place to be stored safely and keep them from getting lost.
4. Connectivity and ease of use.
I can’t quite remember how it all worked but it was completely effortless and intuitive. Somehow I opened the case and my iPhone automatically found the earbuds and gave me this little screen:
I cannot fault the integration between the iPhone and the Airpods.
I already mentioned that I have a love hate relationship with the Apple Airpods. Here are what I think are the biggest problems.
1. EMF output
The EMF output of the Apple Airpods is so large that I have written a completely separate article about it here. I think this is such a big issue that Apple should not have released the Airpods until they resolved this. The Airpods are continuously transmitting a high level of EMF not only when you are on a phone conversation, but also when you are listening to music, and even when you are doing nothing! I can only guess that this is because the Airpods need to constantly transmit what you are saying to the iPhone in case you say ‘Hey Siri’.
Based on my own measurements, the level of EMF that the earbuds transmit seems to be approximately 10 times the level of a normal cellular mobile phone call. That means if I have one Apple Airpod in my ear I am receiving roughly 10 times the EMF that I would be receiving if I was simply holding the phone up to my ear and talking on a cellular phone call. The levels of EMF that the Airpods are transmitting a more in the order of the level of EMF from a Wi-Fi base station. Combine this with the fact that you are probably only on a phone call for a few hours a day but it is feasible that you might have the Apple Airpods in your ears perhaps for 10 or 12 hours a day. 10× the EMF level for 10x the amount of time in use means 100x the EMF exposure in a day. This is massive!
Before I considered this I would have assumed that when I was talking on a phone call the Airpods would-be transmitting via Bluetooth but I also assumed that while I was listening to music the device would essentially be passive and not transmitting anything. But when I started my EMF measurements I discovered that the Apple Airpods are transmitting all the time – and I mean all the time. They only stop when you put them in the case.
This makes sense because they obviously do not have any speech recognition built into them. They need to transmit everything you are saying to your iPhone. To me this is the death knell of the Airpods. Apple need to put a chip into the Airpods that recognise ‘hey siri’ and only then transmit to the iPhone when you are issuing a command or on a phone call. I don’t think this is possible with today’s technology. The only other option is to get rid of voice initiated Siri altogether and put some kind of a button on the Airpods. I can’t see Apple doing this.
In summary using the Apple airports results in a massive increase in EMF exposure because the Apple air buds are constantly omitting high levels of EMF.
2. One handed operation is impossible
You don’t have to use the Airpods for very long before you realise that you can’t get them out of the case with one hand. And there are many times when you need to get them out of the case with one hand. For example, you are on a phone call on the iPhone, and you want to put the Airpods into your ear while you are talking on the phone. If you pick up the Apple Airpods with one hand it is almost impossible to get one of the Airpods out of the case and into your ear.
If you try and hold the case in your hand while you remove one of theAirpods, you can’t get enough friction on the side of the case to overcome the magnetic force that is holding the Airpod in the case, not to mention the lid keeps flipping shut when you try to use it one-handed.
On the other hand, if you try and put the Airpod case on a table to open it, there is no way to position it so that the lid stays open.
This was so funny that in our family we started having competitions to see if anyone could open the case one-handed and pull out an Airpod, and this has led me to launch the one-handed Apple Airpod competition here.
3. Hard to control via Siri
There are no controls on the Airpods which makes it very hard to change the volume or pause a song. If you have your iPhone out then of course you can easily control iTunes from the iPhone itself but if your iPhone is in your pocket or backpack the Airpods are practically useless when it comes to controlling iTunes.
For example, if I want to turn the volume up, I need to say ‘ hey Siri, turn up the volume’, and Siri will turn up the volume one notch. If this is not enough then I have to say ‘hey Siri, turn up the volume’ and Siri will turn up the volume another notch. If this is still not loud enough then again I have to say ‘hey Siri, turn up the volume’, well, you get the idea.
The ‘double tap’ feature of the Airpods is next to useless. I don’t know how Apple are detecting the double tap, but if you lightly tap the Airpods they don’t respond, so you have to give them quite a big double tap, big enough for all vibrations from the tap travel to through to your ear. Ears are a sensitive part of the body so it is uncomfortable and annoying to be tapping the Airpods all the time.
Not to mention, there is a delay after the double tap before Siri starts listening. So if you double tap the Airpods and then immediately say ‘next song’ Siri completely ignores the command. You have to do the double tap, then wait for Siri to reply, then give the command ‘next song.’ Needless to say the whole process is so tedious it is impractical for real use.
Can you imagine being in a public library or on a bus with your phone in your backpack and you have to be yelling ‘Hey Siri, volume up’ to turn your music up. It’s a major stuff up by Apple. I would have liked the surface of the Airpods to be touch sensitive, so that perhaps you could swipe down on the right Airpod to turn the volume down or swipe up to turn the volume up. Then perhaps swipe down on the left Airpod to skip to the next song. I’m not sure how Apple could have done it better, but anything would be better than the method of control they currently have of ‘hey Siri’ or tapping your Airpods..
In summary, they work well when you are controlling iTunes from your iPhone, but the double tap and Siri control is more of a novelty than anything else.
4. Bad sound quality on microphone.
While the audio quality for listening is exceptional I would describe the sound quality of the microphone for recording as barely acceptable. It is nowhere near as good as the sound quality of the microphone on the wired apple headphones and it is much worse than the built-in microphone of the iPhone. It might be acceptable for a phone call but that is about it. You would not use them for recording an interview.
Have a listen for yourself. I have kept this recording in high-quality format so that the problems you hear with the recording are Airpods themselves, not the result of any audio processing or compression I have added.
If the audio box appears black and you can’t see the play button, click to the left of the 00:00 on the left of the bar.
There was also another strange problem with the audio on the Airpods in that I could hear a slight hiss either side of Siri being invoked. It was barely audible but enough to be irritating.
I tried to use them for speech recognition on my desktop computer but Dragon Dictate would not recognise them as a microphone. I did manage to get them to appear on my desktop computer as a Bluetooth microphone but the moment I did that the audio quality of the headphones themselves completely dropped so that I could no longer listen to music nicely on them. I am not sure if this is a bug or some kind of a feature, but when you turn the Airpods on as a microphone source on OSX the audio quality that you hear in the Airpods drops significantly.
The Apple AirPods show some incredible good design and engineering, yet there are some major issues that need addressing. I can thing of some specific situations where the AirPods will be very useful and you can use them for short bursts: on stage as an in ear monitor, in your motorbike helmet on a road trip, under industrial earmuffs to listen to music while you are on the ride-on mower. They sound great and work well. But I would steer clear of using them for general everyday music listening until Apple can reduce the bluetooth emissions, fix the the case and provide a simpler way to control them.
As for me, I would love to use them as wireless headphones if there was a way to use them as headphones without bluetooth transmitting constantly. This would both extend the battery life and stop the EMF exposure. Surely it would not be hard for Apple to allow you to turn off Siri and the microphone and use them in headphone mode? Until then I won’t be using them, despite their nice look and feel.