When Apple announced its wireless AirPods alongside the iPhone earlier this year I was intrigued by the premise: wireless headphones that ‘just work’ the Apple way.
For years Bluetooth has been a hostile mess of pairing issues, connection drops and inconsistent quality. Whenever I think of Bluetooth audio, I associate it with sitting for a few minutes every time I want to actually just listen to music, poking around at the phone figuring out why they’re not pairing.
The beauty of AirPods is that they promise to fix all that, even across devices like your MacBook and Watch — so I decided to roll the dice and try a pair, since it feels like I’m constantly untangling the damn things.
AirPods are actually one of the few Apple inventions in recent memory that ‘just work’ like the company is famous for. From the moment you take them out of the box and flick the charging case open, they’re paired with your phone and automatically pop up on the screen, which actually shocks you for a second — you mean that’s it? It is.
This is what I had come for — the ability to sit in front of my computer and have them automatically pair, then jump on my bike and have it work with my phone automatically.
That part of the promise worked, and I was surprised that despite all the hand wringing in reviews of the headphones it’s pretty hard to get them to fall out.
The sound quality is noticeably better than that of those in the box, presumably because they have a small battery onboard that can drive them, and smaller touches like battery glances when you flick open the case shows just how much attention to detail Apple pays to the experience.
What reviewers seem to have ignored, and even discounted, is that beyond the fancy pairing process, the AirPods are actually pretty junk to use in the real world. There are annoying oversights that don’t make any sense, and Apple has leant on Siri incredibly hard to make the AirPods useful that they end up being more frustrating to use than the free ones with a cable.
Within just a few minutes I was annoyed that something as simple as changing the volume required me to speak out loud — and I’m all for voice assistants, but Siri is an utter shit-show.
When asking to change the volume, or skip a song not only would it rarely recognize me awkwardly tapping on the side over and over, it’d often do the opposite of what I asked, or even just randomly call someone. On top of that it’s incredibly slow, so by the time you’ve managed to do what you started out trying to do, it’d have been faster to pull out your phone, unlock it, do it and put it back again.
We all know Siri is crap on the iPhone, but putting it in your ears doesn’t make it any more convenient, instead, it made me resent how bad it really is. AirPods do, strangely, let you tap on the side to either invoke Siri or pause music, but not anything else. Perhaps this will change in the future, but it’s an oversight only Apple could manage to pull off.
Last November I picked up a Google Home, and the beauty of that device is it’s able to pick you up virtually anywhere with surprising accuracy — and it provides a response in a second or less. Home is legitimately useful because it’s charming, responsive and generally reliable, where Siri is the opposite: slow, robotic and incredibly patchy.
When you put the AirPods in your ears and start listening to music, it’s not a bad experience. The ability to pause music as you take one out of your ear is cute, as is having incoming calls announced to you. Unfortunately, when you want to skip music, hang up a call, turn down the volume or do anything at all, it falls apart.
I quickly realized that the free headphones in the box could do more, simply because they have a bunch of buttons on them. With AirPods, you’re stuck saying actions out loud over and over before giving up and ripping your phone out of your pocket.
And that’s the point Apple’s missed: AirPods are pretty amazing hardware, but because they’re so intimate and Siri is right inside your ear where you need it to work reliably constantly… it just becomes frustrating quickly. Apple’s offloaded the most basic of tasks to a voice assistant where it isn’t even capable of performing them reliably, and it shows.
Home and Alexa, on the other hand, reveal Apple’s weakness: they have a place in your life that’s permanent throughout your day, and while those assistants still need work too, it’s much easier to forgive them since they’re sitting on your countertop rather than in your ears, and what you’re probably asking them to do is convert a recipe measure rather than hang up a call.
Both Amazon and Google have worked to make their assistants charming and even sometimes lovable, so when something goes wrong you’re more likely to just try again. But ultimately the strategy is a good one: slowly get people accustomed to interacting with a voice assistant in the real world daily, in the privacy of their own home.
Apple, boldly, went straight for the obvious: why not integrate a voice assistant into your daily life by wearing it somehow? Unfortunately, both the timing and technology simply isn’t there. Siri isn’t up to the task at all, tends to be cold and clinical, and talking out loud to your voice assistant nobody else can hear in public is actually pretty weird.
Siri has been a constant complaint for years while other assistants have raced ahead. Google’s version, for example, understands the context of what you’re asking and can reference other queries earlier in the conversation. Siri, on the other hand, can still be stumped if you just ask the question in a slightly strange way.
I love the idea of AirPods, but ultimately they’re more frustrating than anything else. The wireless technology really ‘just works’ like Apple always promises, going above and beyond any other wireless earbuds I’ve ever tried. But, the last 5 percent is infuriating and AirPods’ heavy reliance on Siri made me long for wired headphones again — so I took them back after just a few days.
Where Home and Alexa are delightful because they enhance your life with voice technology and aren’t pivotal to going about your day, AirPods will leave you frustrated more than anything else. For some, it might work better, but I’m not convinced it’s worth it right now.
I’m sure that Siri and AirPods will get better over time, but it certainly seems like Apple has skipped the step where it makes the software better and released AirPods into the world without considering the implications of how hardware that’s heavily reliant on a voice assistant can make you feel about that assistant after consistently trying and failing to get it to work.
Siri is still not much more than a toy, and while everyone else seems to be forging the way with speakers in your home that can learn and slowly reveal to you how useful the future could be, Apple went straight for the jugular and only shone a light on how behind it is with Siri.
Over time, AirPods and Siri will make sense, but right now it feels like paying for the privilege to be a beta tester of a product that may or not improve over time. They might get better tomorrow, or it might take five years.
For now, it’s back to wired for me.