AirPods and the Three Stages of Apple Criticism

It’s rare for critics, commentators, and especially commenters to admit that they were wrong. One reason is that they are rarely asked to, and being wrong — even repeatedly — seems to do little harm to their reputations. It’s why people who predicted that the second Iraq war would be an easy victory, that Lehman Brothers was a solid investment in 2008, or that the iPhone was dead without a physical keyboard continued to work and have their opinions listened to.

That’s why it was so refreshing to find a belated positive review of Apple’s AirPods by Vlad Savov, the self-described “resident headphones obsessive” at the Verge, more than a year after the truly wireless earbuds became available in December 2016. That’s because in September 2016, after Apple unveiled the AirPods alongside the headphone jack-less iPhone 7, Savov savaged virtually everything about AirPods, from their price and sound quality to the “haughty” way Apple introduced them at their 2016 keynote. In May of 2017, he softened his position by a hair in an article that acknowledged that not only are AirPods successful despite all of the flaws Savov had highlighted, but that their sky-high customer satisfaction rating shows that they are delighting virtually everyone who buys them.

Then, in March 2018, after testing the AirPods for himself for two weeks, Savov became a believer. Not only does he now say, “I finally understand why everyone who owns them loves them”, but concludes, “I can’t see a better combination of price, features, and performance than what’s offered by the AirPods”.

First, I’d like to applaud Savov for writing his review, entitled “Apple Airpods: the Audiophile Review”. Instead of explaining why his take on the AirPods has gone through such a drastic evolution as he did, Savov could have simply remained quiet with the expectation that his previous excoriation of the AirPods in 2016 would be lost down the memory hole. An important sign of maturity is understanding that admitting you were wrong is a sign of strength, not weakness — a lesson our current president should heed. Coming from someone who had previously ridiculed the AirPods, Savov’s change of heart is a valuable perspective for those who had written off AirPods based on their first impressions.

Still, it’s worth wondering how Savov, a professional reviewer from a respected tech publication, could have gotten AirPods so wrong. But when looking at Savov’s three AirPods articles — “Apple Killed the Headphone Jack So It Could Resurrect the Bluetooth Headset” (September 2016), “Apple’s AirPods Are Winning With the Critics That Matter” (May 2017), and “Apple Airpods: the Audiophile Review” (March 2018) — I see an excellent illustration of a pattern I’ve seen often from tech reviewers, people on Twitter, and especially those who criticize Apple in the comments sections of posts about Apple.

Let’s call it the Three Stages of Apple Criticism.

STAGE 1: Anger

With the subheading “You can shove those AirPods straight up…”, Savov’s September 7, 2016 post “Apple Killed the Headphone Jack So It Could Resurrect the Bluetooth Headset” is a textbook example of Stage 1. Claiming that AirPods are a dual-ear version of the kind of “fucking Bluetooth headset” worn by “the most obnoxious business suit you’ve ever met”, Savov has nothing but unbridled scorn for every aspect of the just-unveiled AirPods and the thinking that went into them. A big reason for this is Savov’s claim that AirPods are just wireless EarPods (the earbuds that come with every iPhone), and everyone knows that “EarPods are a bad thing on this planet” with “terrible” sound quality that is an “abomination”. For Savov, AirPods offering 5 hours of wireless playback and 3 hours after a 15-minute charge earns no points since wired headphones don’t need to be charged. He even goes so far as to say that having no wires is actually a problem because wires increase visibility, while the tiny AirPods will surely get lost “on a regular basis”.

If you’re thinking that this kind of vitriol makes it seem like Savov is somehow taking the existence of the AirPods as some sort of personal insult, he makes that clear by stating “I’m offended right now” at the very thought of them. While Savov stops short of predicting that AirPods will be a flop, his outright condemnation of everything about the AirPods makes it obvious that he can’t imagine any other outcome, especially with their “lofty” $159 price for the “privilege” of owning something he sees as a blight on humanity.

If you think Savov’s take on the AirPods seems uniquely hyperbolic and unhinged, it’s actually not unusual for the commentary that surrounds the unveiling of most new Apple products, where every decision is ridiculed or raged against, serving as evidence that Apple has lost its way, is out of ideas, is hostile to its users, and is doomed without the visionary leadership of Steve Jobs.

STAGE 2: Blaming the “Victims”

Nine months later, Savov posted “Apple’s AirPods Are Winning With the Critics That Matter”, where one gets the impression that Savov has been somewhat chastened. Despite his previous condemnation of AirPods and everything he feels they stand for, people are not only buying AirPods, but loving them, awarding AirPods a sky-high 98% customer satisfaction rating, with a whopping 82% describing themselves as “very satisfied”. Savov’s acknowledgment that customer satisfaction (the “signal”) is ultimately way more important than marketing hype and the opinions of critics like himself (the “noise”) seems like an admission that his criticisms of the AirPods were off base. But if you read more closely, there’s another message — one that’s extremely common amongst those critical of Apple. And it’s one of the main reasons why many tech reviewers and critics never get beyond Stage 2.

In this article, Savov does not say that any of his previous criticisms of AirPods were wrong, only that they were not enough to make AirPods the failure they deserve to be. The reason for this is that, in Savov’s words, “Apple knows its customers well” and “has a very good idea of what products its users want to use”. This is a veiled way of saying that Apple products are successful not because they are good products, but because Apple knows how to persuade their fanbase to buy them.

So who is this fanbase, and why are they so susceptible to Apple’s powerful marketing and overpriced products? If you listen to fans of Android, or if you read the comment section of any article about Apple, the descriptions of Apple users can mostly be summed up in these ways:

1. Apple users are so brainwashed by Apple’s marketing that they believe Apple products are better than they are, and will buy any Apple product regardless of price, capability, or quality.
2. Like religious zealots, Apple users are so loyal and worshipful of the Apple brand that they believe the company is infallible. They will never speak ill of Apple products, even if they don’t like them, or will convince themselves that the products are good when they aren’t.
3. Apple users are vain and status-conscious, so they rush to buy new Apple products for bragging rights and to broadcast their wealth (or the appearance of it).
4. Apple users are conformists, so they buy Apple products because they are popular and ubiquitous.
5. Apple users dislike freedom and choice, preferring that Apple limit their options and make or curate all of their decisions for them. They embrace being imprisoned within and limited to Apple’s ecosystem and “walled garden” approach.
6. Apple users do not understand what good technology is.
7. Apple users are tech simpletons, so they prefer Apple’s lack of options and the company’s simplified approach to software and user interface.

Put another way: Apple’s products are successful because Apple knows how to market their products to a fanbase of deeply flawed individuals who don’t know what’s good for them.

I really wish I was exaggerating, but these seven reasons are the main ways Apple critics attempt to explain why someone would choose to buy products critics believe are both overpriced and inferior to their competition. Because if you’ve already come to the conclusion that Apple products are overpriced and inferior, but hundreds of millions of people still buy them, the only conclusion must be that there is something seriously wrong with the people who buy them.

That’s why “Apple’s AirPods Are Winning With the Critics That Matter” is such a sneaky example of Stage 2. While Savov admits that a critic’s first impressions of a product before they’ve tested it extensively shouldn’t be taken too seriously, he doesn’t retract any of his criticisms about AirPods. Instead, he implies that the convenience of AirPods must be enough to outweigh his still-legitimate criticisms about their horrible sound, terrible looks, easy-to-lose size, etc…but only if you’re an Apple fan. Perhaps Savov is referring to those who are committed to the Apple ecosystem and can reap its benefits, but I think this is more of a judgment on Apple users and their misplaced priorities. By saying that the success of AirPods proves not that they are good products, but that Apple “knows its customers well” and “has a very good idea of what products its users want to use”, the clear implication is that Apple users are not like “normal” tech users and judge tech products by different (and presumably lesser) standards. Apple then cynically uses this knowledge about their customers to make lesser yet still overpriced products that will meet their users’ lower standards, but wouldn’t pass muster with “normal” consumers who care more about features and value. The key to Apple’s success isn’t making good products — it’s knowing how lame their customers are, then exploiting it.

STAGE 3: Acceptance

Over a year and a half after his initial condemnation of the AirPods, Savov completed the Three Stages of Apple Criticism with “Apple AirPods: the Audiophile Review”, his endorsement of the product he once savaged but now calls “Apple’s best first-gen[eration] products in years”.

Now, the EarPods-like sound quality of AirPods — which Savov once described as a “terrible” “abomination” whose continued existence is “almost Machiavellian evil” — is “more dynamic and emotive than anything I’ve heard from the EarPods” and “convey[s] a full sense of the mood and intent of the music I listen to”. AirPods also have “enough of everything — bass and treble extension, soundstage, clarity, and detail — in Apple’s tuning to render a convincing reproduction of most genres of music”, even though Savov had previously made the accusation that “Apple doesn’t seem to care about the quality of the music that it pumps out at us”. He goes on to say, “in the category of truly wireless earbuds, the AirPods are the best I’ve yet heard”, providing “a wider soundstage than most Bluetooth earbuds”.

Did Savov lose his AirPods “on a regular basis” as he predicted? Apparently not, since his testing revealed that “Apple’s AirPods design, which I initially ridiculed, is actually the best and most functional one available for truly wireless buds today”. With no cords pulling down on the AirPods, the AirPod stem “helps to anchor them in place” against one’s face, even when exercising, and the AirPods’ case is “a total masterpiece”. The ease of pairing AirPods with an iPhone is “as wonderful as advertised” and using them with an Android phone is “entirely unproblematic”, with Apple’s custom W1 wireless chip providing a range and reliability superior to “every non-Apple pair of wireless headphones I test”. Even the $159 price, which Savov still (and accurately) maintains will be too much for many, is “fair”. While Savov still finds some “compromises” — like lack of external sound isolation and USB-C charging — these are far outweighed by AirPods’ comfort, fit, sound quality, reliability, and “unrivaled ease of use”, which has Savov “reach[ing] for the AirPods even when I’m at home” and bigger headphones with better sound quality are nearby.

Adding foam covers with holes for the sensors is a cheap, easy hack to give AirPods better bass response and fit, and they’ll still fit in the charging case!

What could explain Savov’s reversal, from taking personal offense at AirPods to them becoming his first choice for personal audio and an easy recommendation? First, Savov admits that as the Verge’s “resident headphone obsessive”, his “priorities are heavily skewed in favor of maximizing sound quality over convenience”. Using AirPods showed him that not only do AirPods have better-than-expected sound quality, but that their convenience is unrivaled in comparison to all other headsets. Instead of judging solely by sound quality and looks, Savov’s testing showed that it was a combination of factors working together that made AirPods more than “merely a ‘wireless EarPods’ experience”.

But possibly a bigger factor is Savov accepting the fact that you don’t need to lower your standards or be a mindless Apple acolyte to like one of their products. That maybe — just maybe — Apple is capable of making a quality product and selling it at a reasonable price. That maybe Apple users aren’t too different from other people who simply like nice tech products that work well, and that their decision-making process can be rational and experience-based, not merely the result of effective, targeted marketing and personal deficiencies. And that Apple products — and really all products — need to be judged holistically, not by just one or two metrics.

Apple bashing is one of the tech world’s favorite pastimes, and having a headline that criticizes Apple, highlights the company’s shortcomings, or predicts their doom is a surefire way to attract pageviews from both Apple detractors and fans. Apple is the world’s richest company, and rooting for the underdog is more fun than backing the champion, so it’s understandable that people want to see Apple taken down a few pegs. Apple is obviously not a perfect company, and they should not only be held accountable for their mistakes and poor decisions, they should be held to the highest standards possible since, as the world’s leading tech company, what they do has an outsized effect on the entire industry and can set the tone for how all tech companies should behave. However, when criticism of Apple and its products becomes hyperbolic, raging, closed-minded, and involves stereotyping and insulting tens of millions of Apple customers, it may get more clicks, but it doesn’t improve Apple products or make Apple a better company.

By going through Stage 1 and 2 of the Three Stages of Apple Criticism, but still being open-minded and curious enough to test AirPods for himself, Savov reached Stage 3, providing a fair and level-headed critique of what many (including Savov) are calling one of Apple’s best first-generation products ever, and an example of what Apple does best: combining custom hardware and software to provide an excellent user experience. Savov deserves credit for having the willingness — dare I say “courage”? — for not keeping his change of heart to himself.

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