One of the few surprise announcements to come out of Apple's recent iPhone event was the introduction of its new wireless earbuds, called AirPods. They were unveiled alongside Apple's new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, both of which lack the 3.5 millimeter headphone jack that's been an audio standard for decades. The AirPods will go on sale in late October for $159.
The AirPods feature Apple's new W1 wireless chip, which allow them to easily connect to other Apple gadgets. Onboard sensors make it possible for the buds to detect when they're in your ear and, more usefully, when they're taken out, which will automatically pause your music. The AirPods also have microphones for taking calls and interacting with Siri, which can be accessed by tapping one of the buds while it's in your ear. Their case, meanwhile, doubles as a charging pack.
Apple seems to have two goals with the new wireless AirPods: Offer a wireless earbud solution that works well with its new sans-headphone-jack iPhones, while also easing the wireless gadget setup process. Apple has done the former exceptionally well. As easy as it is to pair most Bluetooth gadgets, Apple has found a way to make it even simpler: Simply flip open the lid of an AirPod case, and the buds will automatically sync to a nearby iPhone.
Once you do this, your iPhone will automatically pull up a small panel that shows the name of your AirPods, their battery level, and how much juice is left in its case. The AirPod case could easily be mistaken for one of Apple's wall adapters, which is a fitting resemblance considering it charges the pods when they're not in use. The AirPods are designed to last for five hours on a single charge, while the case is said to provide more than 24 hours of listening.
Pausing and resuming music while using the AirPods was just as simple as setting them up. Each time I removed one bud from my ear, Spotify would automatically pause the track I had been listening to, only resuming it when I'd place it back in. That's a nifty feature when you're listening to music or a podcast but something or someone around you requires your immediate attention. I can also see the AirPods being useful for accessing Siri more quickly during a crowded commute. While testing Siri with the AirPods, Apple's virtual assistant understood me clearly even though my phone was tucked away safely in my bag.
The AirPods delivered loud and rich audio during my experience. I listened to them during my commute to work on two occasions over the past few days, and the sound remained consistent and never cut out. Some reviewers have cited this as a pain point with other wireless earbuds — The Verge's review of Earin's wireless earbuds for example, notes that one bud would occasionally lose its signal.
The main drawback I've encountered with Apple's AirPods so far is superficial yet important: their appearance. A white stem hangs down from your ears while wearing them, making them anything but discrete. This elongated portion is where the headphone's battery, antenna, and microphone are located.
The $159 price point, meanwhile, will seem expensive to many, though it's comparable to similar fully wireless earbuds on the market. And it may come across as particularly irksome that Apple would introduce an expensive accessory to solve a problem it created (the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7). That said, the new iPhone also comes with wired earbuds compatible with the phone as well as an adapter for using any other pair of wired headphones.
The AirPod's launch comes as several startups as well as larger companies like Samsung have debuted wireless intelligent earbuds. Some of these go beyond just providing audio: both Samsung's Gear IconX earbuds and Bragi's Dash headphones can track fitness stats and offer music playback controls.
Above all else, Apple's new headphones signal the company's vision of a wireless future. In Apple's ideal world, we'd all be listening to music through our wireless AirPods and switching between tracks on our Apple Watches, all while our phones are stowed away in our pockets or backpacks. Wireless technology was a big focus during the company's Sept. 7 event, and I doubt this will be the last we hear from Apple regarding innovations on that front.