The Ears Have It
Since retiring, air travel is no longer a frequent occurrence, but a recent holiday trip to Buffalo was a reminder that my audio listening gear for travel left something to be desired. I like to have music or podcasts at the ready to fill the travel time as well as to afford some private listening time when the spirit moves. But the corded earbuds I picked up at an airport kiosk in November 2017 were just not cutting it.
For a number of years, I used to make sure to travel with a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones to help cut down the background noise while flying. However, with the airlines seemingly intent on reducing carry-on bags to the size of a lunch bucket, I stopped carrying headphones sometime back and migrated to earbuds instead, with the quality and practicality being a bit of a “crap shoot” from trip to trip.
Music and audio have always been a big part of my life, so for me to continue using a tangled pair of corded, sub-standard earbuds seemed like self-inflicted punishment. A few months ago, I decided that, since Santa Claus had overlooked me at Christmas, I would visit the Apple Store and try to rectify the situation.
I had been hearing (no pun intended) good things about Apple’s AirPods, ever since they first hit the market in December 2016. Without much analysis or even testing, I plunked down my $219 CDN and placed a bet that the AirPods would play well in my Apple ecosphere. I haven’t been disappointed.
The AirPods are very comfortable and lightweight (be careful not to lose them!) and are designed to pair with any Bluetooth capable Apple device, including iPhones, iPads, iMacs and even Apple TV’s. I have been pleasantly surprised at how seamlessly you can switch the AirPods from one device to another.
Swapping the Airpods’ Bluetooth connectivity between iOS devices is a snap. Unlike some Bluetooth devices, which grab hold of a connection to the host device and won’t let go unless you delete the existing appearance of the device in your iOS settings, the Airpods involve a simple tap on the Airpod listing in Bluetooth settings to switch the connection.
I’ve read that switching the Bluetooth connection to an iMac can be a bit of a struggle, but if that’s a frequent use case for you, there are solutions out there to deal with that need. I have used the Airpods with my iMac and Apple TV’s and both work well, so if you’re looking for a solution for watching TV without disturbing others in the room, this is the ticket, as long as your viewing is happening with an Apple TV. Cable and satellite sources would require your smart TV to have Bluetooth that can see the Airpods. I haven’t tried that, but it’s a possibility.
Enough about the wireless connectivity to audio sources. Let’s talk about the Airpods’ physical features. They come in a white round-edged hard-shell plastic charging case - essentially a storage box with a flip-top lid like an old cigarette lighter. The charging case has the following approximate outer dimensions: 1.75” wide X 2.0” tall X 0.75” thick. The case reminds me a bit like EVE in the Wall-E movie, if you remember her.
The lid of the Airpod charging case has a magnetic closure and the receptacles for the left and right Airpods are also magnetic to make sure the Airpods are seated in place for charging. The receptacles are designed to accept only the right or left Airpod in the right place, so you’ll find yourself frequently trying to put them in the wrong receptacle.
The bottom of the Airpods charging case has an Apple Lightning receptacle for charging. You can check the battery level of the charging case and the Airpods by holding the case (with the Airpods inside) near the screen of your connected iOS device. It will then display both the case and Airpods on the screen with their respective battery levels below. The case receives its battery charge from a connected Lightning cable and the Airpods receive their battery charge from being seated in the charging case.
When I was at the Apple Store making my purchase, the person helping me suggested I consider buying the third-party “Catalyst” case to improve the protection of the case and the Airpods. I’m very glad I took her advice. The Catalyst case is a flexible rubberized protective sleeve that slides over the Airpods case and has these “ears” that flip up and down to provide easy access to the flip-top lid of the Airpod case but otherwise keep the Airpods firmly in place.
Not only does the Catalyst case protect the Airpod charging case but it also keeps the Airpod case lid from inadvertently flipping open and allowing the precious Airpods to slide out (and possibly vanish forever, given their small size!). The Catalyst case is another $39.95 CDN but worth every penny to protect your initial investment. The Catalyst also comes equipped with a belt clip, in case you prefer not to carry the case in your pocket.
As far as sound quality goes, the Airpods perform well in normal background environments, but don’t expect them to serve in place of noise-cancelling headphones on a long flight or override loud background noise. That said, I find their overall fidelity satisfies 90% of my listening needs, with decent base response.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but the Airpods are also a great way to handle calls on your iPhone. If you are listening to audio when an incoming call arrives, the Airpods immediately pause the audio and switch to the phone call. The audio source instantly resumes playing at the end of the call. I guess the best testimonial I can give to the audio quality for phone calls is to note that, as I was writing this blog post, my former neighbor in Massachusetts, Bernie, called me, and he sounded like he was in the room with me. Bernie had no trouble hearing every word I said and he’ll turn 99 in June.
A few final comments about the Airpods. The quickest way to pause the audio while listening is to pull either Airpod out of your ear. Put it back in and it picks up right where you left off. To give the Airpods Siri commands, simply tap the right Airpod twice and wait for the Siri chime before speaking.
In summary, the Airpods are now an essential part of my Apple suite of hardware. I hope you this blog post has given you a thorough pre-purchase rundown in the event you’re considering adding Airpods to your private listening experience.