After three months of use, I’ve found a lot to like about Apple’s AirPods. They’ve become my favorite solution for making phone calls. But because they don’t fit my ears well, they don’t block environmental sounds, and I find myself adjusting them constantly.
What’s to Like?
On the upside: AirPods don’t need to be recharged very often. They pack neatly into their matchbox-sized charging case, which is light and fits easily into the pockets of jeans. The case allows each AirPod to be inserted in just one way — and only one way — making it very easy to distinguish the right earpiece from the left.
Rather than add fiddly controls or force users to learn arcane gestures, Apple chose to limit (pretty severely) the number of options for interacting with the AirPods. Removing an AirPod from your ear pauses music; replacing the AirPod starts the music up again. Tapping once answers an incoming call or disconnects a call in progress. Tapping an earbud twice invokes Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, who takes voice commands for adjusting volume, skipping tracks, finding and playing specific songs, or making phone calls.
Speaking of phone calls: if you’re in a quiet environment, AirPods make phone calls fun again. Callers tell me my voice sounds clearer than it does on the iPhone alone. And because the person I’m speaking with seems to be located somewhere in the center of my skull, a phone call over AirPods feels intimate, like a whispered conversation in a private corner.
What’s not to Like?
Unfortunately, the same design philosophy that gives rise to all these strengths also produces a number of irritating limitations.
Any wireless Bluetooth device must incorporate an antenna. Apple’s solution is to put the antennae for each AirPod in a white plastic post about a quarter inch long. When I insert my AirPods, the antennae posts are very visible. It’s not an elegant look.
My understanding is that the external antennae are supposed to eliminate or greatly reduce dropouts. Unfortunately, even with my iPhone in a leather pouch at waist height and my AirPod antennae hanging down like odd plastic piercings gone wrong, I still endure the occasional dropout.
Like Apple’s iconic white earbuds (which I never liked because they sounded tinny and never fit my ears well), AirPods sound tinny and don’t fit my ears well. With my wired earbuds, I overcame this by adding third-party snap-on covers that came with three sizes of soft, removable silicone nubs. In addition to improving the fit, the nubs expanded in my ear canal, blocking out all but the loudest environmental distractions. But the snug design of the AirPod charging case makes this solution impractical, as any third-party nubs would have to be removed and replaced each time the AirPods are stored and retrieved.
Many seem worried that AirPods will fall out while walking or jogging. Mine feel very stable, but I do find myself constantly adjusting them: pushing them in deeper, tilting them at various angles, and wiggling them back and forth, all in a vain effort to hear my music better.
Part of the problem is this: without any enhancement or cushioning, the tips of AirPods are too small to rest comfortably in my ears. As a result, they are particularly bad at blocking out environmental sounds. In urban environments, I can barely hear my music. And as I discovered on a cross-country flight earlier this month, I can’t enjoy AirPods on a plane, as they cannot block out or compete with the roar of jet engines.
Siri Doesn’t Help
There is also no joy for me in using Siri to control my AirPod listening experience. By the time Siri hears and understands “Volume down!” I can fish my iPhone out of my pocket and adjust the volume myself. (Actually, the best way to control playback is with the Now Playing app on the Apple Watch, which allows me to go forward one track, back one track; rewind, fast forward, or pause the music; or adjust the volume with a few quick taps.)
I have also given up asking Siri to find and play music for me. Because I prefer Spotify to Apple Music, Siri believes my music library is empty. But even during my free trial of Apple Music, Siri, more often than not, failed to understand me. She did well with simple, popular titles (“Play ‘The Shape of You’.”) but any effort to play something more esoteric (“Play ‘Cathart’ by Isan”) failed repeatedly.
So … What to Do?
So: while I love the idea of AirPods, the reality leaves me wanting more. A few weeks back, during a walk to work, I realized I was on a public sidewalk with plastic posts protruding from my head, digging my fingers in my ears and imploring an invisible companion to “Turn the volume up!” That moment, combined with continued problems with fit and functionality, convinced me I needed a change.
I’m now trying a tiny, fiddly alternative: new Rowkin Bit Charge Bluetooth Earbuds.