Apple AirPods first impressions

I’ve had the Apple AirPods for a few days now, and thought I’d record a few of my thoughts on them.

EDIT 2017-07-17: I’ve added an update to the end of this article.
EDIT 2017-07-20: A second update has been added after going through the rounds with Apple’s support.

First of all, the sound quality: Wow.

What I liked about the regular EarPods, was that they let other sounds through, making wearing them in populated areas non-suicidal in comparison to wearing in-ear headphones with a better seal: I regularly shake my head at pedestrians and cyclists wearing in-ears and obviously having great faith in surrounding traffic as they step right out into zebra-crossings or high-traffic streets. Unfortunately, in the case of the original wired EarPods, this added situational awareness came at the cost of radically reduced “oomph” in the music: Bass and dynamic range seemed to suffer in anything but rather quiet environments.

While the AirPods have a pretty much identical fit, letting similar amounts of ambient sounds through, the design team has managed to give them the additional range and power to sound pretty close to as well as I imagine such small drivers can sound in an open design. That said, some magic is very hard to pull off: You won’t be well-off using these without additional protection when mowing the lawn or angle-grinding metal bars.

Technically, I second what most other people seem to be saying about the combination of Bluetooth and the W1 proprietary chip: Switching to sound output via the AirPods once the initial pairing with a device has been made seems to work flawlessly, but both on my Mac and on my iPad, it took a few tries to see the AirPods in the first place. Under the hood, information about your pair of AirPods is shared across your Apple devices using iCloud, and obviously this information needs to be updated in some way. On the Mac, it seems like restarting the computer worked the trick. This is obviously an area where Apple has some work to do, to smooth out the experience in the future.

One thing to be observant on: Enabling the AirPods when playing with GarageBand, you get a warning about the ‘Pods introducing latency to your process. Sure enough: playing with the on-screen keyboard I probably got somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 second of latency instead of the immediate response I’m used to from Apple music tools, so if music production is something you do on your Apple devices, make sure to keep a wired pair of headphones or in-ears around.

All in all: Are the AirPods worth their price? It depends. Can you spare a bunch of money for a smoother and nicer experience than what’s available via the cheapest available product that solves your problem? If you’re an Apple user, the answer to that question is probably yes. To me, after I got them, I don’t really think about the money I saved up to spend on them. For now I’m extremely happy with them.

I’ve encountered two major annoyances in how the AirPods work with my Mac (a late 2013 15″ MacBook Pro):
Apparently when anything in MacOS uses the microphones in the AirPods, they switch to phone call mode, lowering sound quality and making all sounds slightly distorted and lo-fi. This can be temporarily mitigated by switching sound input for the system or for the specific application to another device, like the internal mike, but this of course isn’t a viable long-term solution.

The other problem on the Mac is recurring sound interruptions and glitches on music playback. Switching to the internal speakers or wired headphones, no such glitches can be heard, so it definitely has to do with the AirPods or their Bluetooth implementation.

Frankly I’m disappointed that the AirPods were released with such glitches not worked out; then again they did have trouble getting them to market in time in the first place. I will speak to Apple’s support to try to get some more information. It may be a problem with the Bluetooth protocol itself as implemented on the Mac or in macOS, and in that case there may not be a lot Apple can do.

In view of this, I have to change my recommendation:
At this point in time (mid-July 2017), do not purchase the AirPods expecting to use them for good-quality music playback and convenient voice calls in macOS. For use with iOS devices, however, they remain an excellent choice.

Apple’s support gave me a technical explanation for the lo-fi sound quality when the microphone is used in macOS.

The facts

When only listening to the AirPods, Apple can send relatively high-quality AAC-encoded sound to them. When the microphones are used – that is when a return channel is active – the Bluetooth standard specifies a lower-quality protocol to be used, resulting in noticeably lower dynamic range and sound quality.

The problem exists on iOS devices too, but it’s simply less likely that one would be listening to music and simultaneously using the microphone in that system.

My speculations

It looks to me as though my iOS devices (9.7″ iPad Pro, and iPhone 6s) are capable of a newer version of the Bluetooth hands-free profile than does macOS on my 2013 15″ MacBook Pro, since call sound quality is radically better on the former than on the latter. This may be due to the Bluetooth chip used in my computer, or due to software limitations in the operating system. If the former – which I suspect – the issue won’t get fixed on my current computer. If the latter, a patch at a later date may be able to remediate but not solve the issue.

A problem with the age of the Bluetooth chip and its available codecs may also explain the stuttering in macOS.


As I wrote in Update 1 to this post, my recommendations are as follows:
Beware of purchasing a pair of AirPods if you intend on using them primarily with a Mac. They’re probably not worse than other Bluetooth headsets for this purpose, but rather the same problems exist with these as you’ll find with any other Bt headset. If music or voice call quality is an issue, a wired headset still is the way to go on the computer side of things.

For iOS devices and the Apple Watch, however, a pair of AirPods is probably one of the best upgrades to your experience you can get if you want to go wireless.