Apple Sets a Baseline for Hardware in 2017 With the AirPods

January 13, 2017 by Gabe | [mmd] |

Sure, I'm a little down on the AppleTV and the new MacBook Pro. But already in 2017 Apple has released one of their very best products, and it only costs $150.

Street Cred

I own way too many headphones. I have closed-cup, open-cup, noise canceling, expensive studio monitors, and cheap ear buds. I'm not an audio-quality-phile but I do listen to an inordinate amount of audio during the day. By my estimates I listen to audio a minimum of 12 hours a day and most of that is done with headphones. So, while I may not be an "audio professional" I do have plenty of experience with build quality and functionality.

Wired v.s. Wireless

For comfort, my favorite headphones are my Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros. The supple cups are like two minks sitting on my ears. But they are big and the cord feels like I'm carrying a spool of ethernet cable everywhere I go. While I love giant, proper, headphones they are just not convenient for walks, or gardening, or pretty much anything where I'm not just sitting on my butt.

Beyerdynamic 770

The headphones I usually turn to at my office are my noise canceling QC35 from Bose. There's no cable (unless I want to use the optional 1/8" connector) so I mostly just work and walk and not worry about getting hung up on a door handle. The Bluetooth in the QC35's is excellent. It connects quickly and almost never drops unless I walk a pretty fair distance from my phone.

QC35

The controls on the QC35 work well enough. The volume rocker on the side is functional but the positioning is a bit awkward and end up sitting at my desk looking like Robin Gibb laying down a new disco track. Because the headphones are a bit heavy, using the controls tends to move the headphones a bit too. It can also be awkward to use the pause button or pull off a more complicated double tap.

The call quality with QC35s is variable. The mic tends to pick up more noise than I hear on my side of the conversation and I've had quite a few complaints from the other side about not being able to hear me clearly. I doubt it's the Bluetooth causing the quality issues. I tend to think it's just poor mic placement on the headphones and maybe a little too much sensitivity to background sounds. They are nearly useless for a call when it's windy.

Given all of this, I end up using my Apple ear-buds about half the time. They don't stay in, but they are moderately comfortable and the call quality is better than my QC35s. Which is quite a bitter pill considering the QC35's cost me $350.

Now, the AirPods are an entirely experience.

AirPods

As headphones go, $150 isn't an insane price. It's high for ear buds but given the feature set, I was eager to pre-order them shortly after the announcement. I wasn't disappointed.

AirPod Charge

The audio quality is good but not great. The Westworld soundtrack was still enjoyable and podcasts would sound about as good even if it was through a tin-can. If you have the Apple iPhone ear-buds, put those in and close your eyes. That's about what the AirPods sound like.

Call quality on the AirPods is excellent for both the talker and the listener. The microphone is sensitive but seem to isolate the voice pickup much better than standard Apple ear-buds. The most significant problem is an occasional odd stereo separation effect as if the right and left speakers are slightly out of pace. Overall thought the AirPods are my favorite headphones for phone calls. I also find that dictation works much better with the AirPods that any other headphone mic I have.

There's not much sound isolation on the AirPods. I can still hear outside noise as well as with standard headphones. These are not great headphones for mowing the lawn or using a snow blower. But they work just find walking down the street.

Apple's Bluetooth plus special sauce in the AirPods works as advertised. They pair instantly and play a nice like boot-up sound reminiscent of a Mac. They rarely drop the connection and recover quickly if they do. In short, they are the best Bluetooth experience I've had with any headphones.

Battery

Then there's the battery life. The AirPods have a much shorter play time than my QC35. The trick is that the AirPods also have a much quicker re-charge cycle. Popping them into the case for just a few minutes brings them right back and gives me enough recharge to work for awhile longer. They recharge so fast that I can actually watch the charge level increase while they are in the case. Without a major leap in battery technology, this is the probably the future of mobile electronics: devices that recharge so fast that the battery life is almost irrelevant. Device design matters though and AirPods nail it.

The AirPod case is small enough to not notice when it's in my pocket. Putting the AirPods away when I take them off is natural, like putting away a pair of sunglasses. That's the compelling design with AirPods. Charging them is not effort.

Fit

After a couple of weeks with the AirPods, I'm using them every day. They simply do not fall out of my ears. They are more stable than any corded ear-buds and they sound great. I don't bother with Siri but I rarely need to. Taking a bud out pauses the audio instantly. Putting it back in starts the audio again. The AirPods are so light it's easy to forget I'm wearing them. At times it feels like the audio is playing inside my head. That's a joy and quite a new standard for hardware.

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