AirPods are the best thing from Apple in years

I’m a runner and I always run with music. Cables are awkward and annoying. Transporting audio over Bluetooth is going to involve some compromises. Sound quality is going to suffer because most Bluetooth implementations involve lossy re-compression. Latency is another issue. Streaming music and watching video are decent use cases for Bluetooth audio, but real-time synthesis is something else entirely. For example, it isn’t practical to play a software synthesizer to an AirPlay destination unless you’re ok with 1.5 seconds of delay between twisting a knob and hearing the result.

Where AirPods excel
AirPods are about transparency. I don’t mean transparency in the audio quality sense, I mean transparency of experience.

There is no power button. You don’t have to turn them on, you just put them in your ears and they wake up. You don’t have to remember to turn them off. It is frustrating to go out for a run only to discover I forgot to turn my earphones off previously and now the they’re dead. When you’re done, they slide into the charging case with a satisfying magnetic pull.

The AirPods charging case solves multiple issues. You don’t have to carry an awkward charging cable. You don’t have to fit a cable into the AirPods to charge them. You don’t have to worry about battery life. Putting the earphones away isn’t a chore. The AirPods case is smaller than than a pack of gum and smaller than the impossible EarPods case that nobody ever used.

I spent a minute carefully coiling the EarPods into the case and was still unable to get the rest of the cable inside.

AirPods pair with the iPhone magically. I just opened the case and there they were. There was nothing to configure, they just worked in the headache-free way Apple products are known for.

magic!

AirPods are easier to put in than EarPods. I will not miss the process of coiling and uncoiling earphone cables. This sounds like a minuscule matter until you use AirPods for a few days.

The transparent design of AirPods naturally led me to use them outside of my primary use case. It is easy to forget they’re there. AirPods are nearly weightless, and the lack of cables is liberating in a way that is difficult to put into words. There isn’t anything dragging on your head. There isn’t anything tangling your movements. I know it always eventually comes back to cats with me, but yeah, for example, when a cat wants to get in my lap (and this happens 50 times a day) there is a process of negotiating the headphone or earphone cable.

a cat

Sound Quality
AirPods sound more or less like normal Apple EarPods. If these are going to be your sole earphones and you’re looking for the ultimate in sound quality, look elsewhere. This isn’t what the AirPods are about. AirPods are about removing a barrier between you and your computing device. AirPods allow your computer to convey data to your ears. Siri allows you to talk back to it.

Use case: Running
OK, this was the reason I bought the AirPods. This isn’t a critical listening scenario, so sound quality isn’t of paramount importance. If the AirPods can faithfully perform this one task, I’ll consider this money well spent. Everything else is gravy.

My first set of Bluetooth ear phones was the JayBird Bluebird X. While wireless, there is a connecting cable between the individual earphones that needs to be carefully fitted so they don’t flop around when you run. The earphones themselves have to be fitted into your ear canal, which acoustically couples your body to the earphones like a Stethophone, so every time you step, there is a low frequency DOOMF sound. Aside from this the Bluebirds sounded pretty good.

Theoretically, the Bluebirds are ‘sweat-proof’. They died. After wrestling with support and jumping through hoops for a month, they grudgingly replaced my set. The replacement lasted two months. Researching online, this seems to be a common problem, with people going through 6–7 sets. When Apple announced Airpods, I gave up on the Jaybirds.

If you’re concerned AirPods are going to pop out of your ears, they won’t. Like EarPods, AirPods are not acoustically-coupled to your body which makes them easy to insert and remove, but also removes the THUMP THUMP THUMP foot strikes inherent in sealed ear canal designs.

Often I’ll use the physical playback controls on the EarPods to advance tracks or change volume. Apple’s solution for this on the AirPods is to invoke Siri. Given the constraints, I can’t think of a better idea, but the process takes 4–5 seconds. Instead, I use my Garmin Vivosmart HR Bluetooth activity tracker to control music during runs.

I haven’t had the AirPods long enough to ascertain how sweat proof they are. Time will tell.

Use case: Streaming audio and video on Macbook
Switching between my laptop and iPhone isn’t as seamless as Apple would like you to believe. The AirPods fall back to the iPhone when out of range of my laptop, but if multiple devices are in range, you have to manually switch between them which makes sense as they can’t read your mind…yet.

Watching video on my laptop resulted in perfect sync — youtube, Plex everything worked flawlessly. Audio starts playing with very little lag.

Use case: Music Production
Electronic musicians already know about latency. Processing live audio or playing a virtual instrument is subject to a processing delay determined by the size of your audio buffer. A smaller buffer setting reduces the delay at the expense of taxing your CPU.

Wireless audio adds latency on top of whatever latency you’re already experiencing by rendering audio in real time.

I have an extensive AirPlay network in my house, and I know from experience that working through an AirPlay destination on a DAW is an untenable proposition with latency on the order of 1500–2500ms.

AirPod latency with audio production applications seems inconsistent, regardless of samples per buffer setting. Ableton Live seemed to incur a noticeable delay of around 350ms when used with AirPods. Interestingly, Max responded much more quickly. This fact was even more apparent when I played both simultaneously through the same MIDI controller.

However, outside of live paththough, there is a class of music production tasks that may be acceptable though AirPods in a pinch, such as light editing, previewing clips, and working with pattern sequencers. That said, I’m frankly surprised and delighted by how responsive Max is. I’d classify it as almost as good as using wired earphones.

Use case: Skype
Skype, like music production, requires as close to real-time transmission as possible. I found the audio to be out of sync with the video by the same amount as I experienced with Ableton Live.

Use case: FaceTime
FaceTime does a better job with audio/video sync, adding latency to the video to compensate for the audio delay.

Summary
If you use EarPods in normal, non-audio production use cases, AirPods are a completely transparent wireless replacement with virtually zero downsides.

Bonus Siri Tip
Does Siri seem to be strangely unresponsive? Double tap can be configured under Settings>Bluetooth>AirPod to invoke Siri or pause music, (or off completely) but make sure Settings>Siri>Access When Locked is enabled

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