Monday, December 19, 2016

Apple AirPods

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Update: The Apple AirPods release date has finally arrived, but you’ll only be able to wear them in 2016 if you were fast enough to buy them in the limited 20 minute window they went on sale. They won’t be back in stock until 2017. Here’s what we thought of the delayed AirPods in the meantime.

Apple’s AirPods are fully wireless earbuds that solve its newest problem of no longer having that old 3.5mm headphone jack in the new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

That means that as well as having no wire between them and your phone, there’s also no cable between the two earbuds. They’re completely wireless. 

But they’re more than that, really. The design of these cord-free earbuds match that of Apple’s wired EarPods, and they have a few novel functions you won’t find anywhere else.

They’re designed to work with iOS 10, macOS and watchOS 3 better than normal Bluetooth earphones, and, yes, they still have Bluetooth inside to work with non-Apple products, too.

TechRadar has received our own pair of AirPods to try out for ourselves, so read on for our initial impressions ahead of our full review that’s coming soon. 

AirPods release date

The Apple’s AirPods release date has come and gone, but you’re still going to be hard pressed to buy these new wireless EarPods.

Apple AirPods review

A very limited supply went on sale on December 13, after an initial delay from “late October” and already missing the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and Apple Watch 2 launch date of September 19.

Now, new AirPods orders won’t be ready until January 2017, according to the Apple Store. That’s just one month away, or you have to wait until next year, depending on how you look at it.

AirPods price

Apple’s AirPods cost $159 (£159.99, about AU$215). That seems like a lot of money when the wireless (but connected together) Beats Powerbeats2 Wireless headphones cost $120.

You’ll also be on the line for replacements should you lose one AirPods. It’ll cost $69 (likely around £69, AU$94). Batteries out-of-warranty (of one year) will cost $49 in the US or £52.44 in the UK.

Good news: AirPods are still cheaper than Samsung’s fully wireless earbuds, the Samsung Gear IconX. Apple’s version may lack its fitness functionality, but the  already has all that stuff anyway.

Of course, the Apple AirPods are totally optional. You can get away with using iPhone 7’s lightning cable EarPods. Or, you can continue to use your current headphones thanks to an included Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter.

Magical connectivity

What’s sold us on the AirPods is the seamless connectivity and pause-and-play functionality that has Apple trotting out its favorite adjective, calling them “magical” wireless earbuds.

Apple AirPods review

Here’s the magic: Take them out of the special AirPods case and they instantly turn on and connect just by being near your iPhone. You don’t need to dive into a hidden setup menu at all.

Even better, Apple’s new wireless earbuds can sync up with a newer iPad, iPod touch, Mac or Apple Watch just as quickly with a one-tap setup in Control Center. Super easy.

Maybe the coolest thing is the fact that someone from Apple began speaking to us when we were demoing the AirPods, saying,”It’ll pause if you take out one of the AirPods.”

We took out the right AirPod from our ear to say “What was that?” and the music stopped right on point. Very clever. We popped it back in and it started the music again.

Alternatively the AirPods appear to turn off completely and disconnect themselves if you take both out. Simply put them back in your ears to get them connected again. 

Do AirPods really work?

You may have heard that they work perfectly, or maybe you read that they’re fraught with problems. From the time we’ve spent with the AirPods, their connectivity seems generally good, but it’s not entirely flawless. 

For instance, they appear to crackle slightly when we’re in crowded areas with lots of competing wireless signals.

Apple AirPods review

Nevertheless, the pairing process is one of the easiest we’ve ever seen, and almost makes up for Apple having failed to embrace NFC technology for pairing in the past. 

Then the way the AirPods know when they’re in your ears and hence when to turn on is really quite remarkable, and seems from our initial testing to work every time.  

If they work for you as well as they have for us so far, it’ll live up to Apple’s “magical” description.

Familiar comfort and style

An Apple designer’s toddler yanked the cable from their EarPods and said “Eureka!” Thus, the idea behind AirPods was born. Or, that’s at least how we like to think they came about.

Apple AirPods review

They really do look like EarPods minus that always-tangling cord. AirPods still have the plastic stem on the ends, which at first looks odd hanging from your ears. But it’s there for good reason.

The stems point toward your cheek and contain microphones to pick up on what you’re saying. You can chat away on phone calls, or issue Siri commands by double tapping either AirPod.

Do they stay in your ear? So far, we gave them a solid “early 90s grunge headbanging” test and they didn’t fall out once. That’ll vary for people with different ear shapes, of course. 

AirPods also lack of differently-sized silicone eartips, which are now standard with most in-ear headphones. That means you can’t exactly customize them for your ear-size. 

Our biggest issue with normal EarPods falling out has been tugging at or brushing up against the cable. That’s obviously not an issue here since these are truly wireless earbuds.

Sound quality

Perhaps most surprising given the amount of technology built into such a small enclosure is the fact that the AirPods sound quite good.

These are not a pair of excessively bassy ‘cans, but the bass has enough kick to it to make itself heard. 

Apple AirPods review

We were less impressed with the overall detailing the AirPods are capable of. Mids and trebles had trouble making themselves sound distinct, which is less than ideal at this price point.

These aren’t giant, noise-canceling headphone cans that fit around your ears, so don’t expect them to offer proper noise-cancelling quality. They’ll still be able to pipe music to my ears without much ambient noise leaking through.

The headphones are able to pull this off thanks to dual beam-forming microphones that filter out background noise, according to Apple. That leaves us with wirelessly transmitted high-quality AAC audio.

I could still hear voices at the level of a murmur. That’s what I’ve come to expect from current EarPods, and the AirPods don’t stray too far from this sound quality.

Battery life and charging case

Apple’s AirPods battery life is five hours, which means it lasts longer than Samsung’s Gear IconX and many of the Kickstarter-funded fully wireless earbuds out there.

Apple AirPods review

Five hours is just enough to last you on a cross-country flight from San Francisco to New York, but what do you do when you run out? There’s a great answer for that.

Apple designed a case for its AirPods that holds more than 24 hours worth of additional charge on top of those five hours of the earbuds. Pop them back in and they’ll juice up again.

You can stow this small white case in your carry-on travel bag and recharge them almost six times before seeking a Lightning port.

Best of all, if you’re short on time, 15 minutes of charging equals three hours of battery life, according to Apple’s test at 50% volume.

Early verdict

Apple’s lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack is one of its biggest risks in years, and, assuming that you’ve got money to spend, AirPods act as great way to quickly get over such a shocking change.

Apple AirPods review

These aren’t the first attempt at a fully-wireless pair of earbuds, but they’re pretty seamless. Their battery life is living up to Apple’s claims so far, and the connectivity is really excellent.

AirPods look and feel just like those familiar EarPods – minus the cable – and their play-and-pause connectivity is so intelligently designed, it’s enough to bring back the “magical” descriptor.

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