AirPods vs… a reader asks…
I’m considering getting a pair of Airpods to work with my iPhone 7 Plus, my iPad Pro, and my Macbook Pro. The order-to-deliver time is very long though. Is there a better alternative?
For you, I’d say wait it out. Order your $159 Airpods and sit back. If you want to possibly shorten the time, give http://fruit-basket.surge.sh/ a try – you can plug in your zip code and distance you’re willing to travel. That website will check all the local Apple Stores every 30 seconds and sound a tone on your computer or smartphone when a store has them in stock. You can then go (quickly) to Apple’s online store and order them for pickup at that store.
I have used a number of alternatives, and am convinced that Apple’s Airpods are the best option for consumers like you who want to go wireless. Apple’s PowerBeats3 wireless earbuds are probably easier to obtain, but they have a cord linking the two earbuds together, and are more designed for when you’re doing strenuous physical workouts. I’ve tried out these two alternatives that offer much the same general qualities as the Airpods (no connecting cord, stream music and take/make phone calls):
Here One: These are from Doppler Labs, cost $300 (buy them online at https://hereplus.me/), and they not only work for making/taking phone calls and streaming music, they’ll also adjust your live hearing experience. They can cut noise by up to 22db or boost it by 6db, and they have a wide variety of filters to enhance your hearing. That includes settings for restaurant, airplane, crowds, etc. When using as a phone, your voice quality to others you call may be impaired, and the earbuds can intermittently lose their connection with your iPhone, especially if your body is in the way. For example, putting your iPhone in your back pocket will cause lots of problems, and turning your head so your body comes between the right earbud and the iPhone can cause a disconnect. That said, I really enjoy my Here One’s and use them often at live events, they’re very comfortable to use. Listening to streaming music is enhanced, since the buds can reduce ambient noise so you enjoy a more immersive listening experience.
The Dash: These are from Bragi, cost $300 (buy them online at https://www.bragi.com/thedash/ or in a Brookstone store). The Dash are completely waterproof, have onboard storage memory for your playlist so they can be used during a workout without having to have your iPhone nearby, and have various fitness capabilities built in, like an activity tracker, and you can use geeky head gestures to control it. Downsides, your voice quality in a phone call is marginal, and they have intermittent cutout like the Here One if they don’t have clear space between the right earbud and your iPhone. I found them less comfortable to wear for extended periods, but are a great earbud for working out or swimming.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive review as I haven’t tried the many other Airpod alternatives that have sprung up in the last few months. Such as the Samsung Gear IconX, Earin, Motorola VerveOnes+, or Erato Apollo 7. I’m sure there are plenty of other alternatives. Let me tell you about my experience with the Airpods:
- When others hear my voice on a phone call, they most often say it’s ok, not great. About on par with the wired Earpods that came with the iPhone. If I’m outside or in a car, exterior noise can be heard, there’s not (yet) really good noise-cancellation. I’m assuming that’s a software upgrade in the future.
- I experienced virtually no interference or cutout of the signal, even if I placed my iPhone in my back pocket and turned my head this way and that. The connection is rock-solid no matter what I’m doing. That W1 chip (same as in the PowerBeats3) is awesome!
- They generally don’t fall out. My ears can handle the wired Earpods just fine, and the Airpods feel exactly the same in my ear. Jumping up and down, running, walking and other activities don’t make them fall out, but I wouldn’t use them playing basketball, for example. You have to really work at getting them to fall out of your ears. I don’t worry about them falling out.
- The lack of wires is absolute bliss. I was always catching my Earpod wires on things, having the cord stretched to my iPhone in my pocket would pull on the cord and dislodge one or both ears. I know the Airpods are in my ears, but they barely weigh anything and are comfortable for hours.
- The battery life is everything I expect, it beats the official estimates. I get over 5 hours of listening, or at least 2 hours of being on a phone call before they tell me the battery is low. Charging is so simple, just put them in the case – that case holds several recharges. Recharging is fast, I can do a quick 15-minute recharge and get several more hours of use out of them. If I’m primarily using them for answering the phone, I often only have one in my ear at a time, and switch earbuds when the battery gets low. NB: Always leave the Airpod(s) in the case when they’re not in your ears.
- The control mechanism is primitive. I can answer/hang up phone calls with a double-tap on either earbud (turn on iPhone’s call announcing – Settings > Phone > Announce Calls so you can know who’s calling without pulling out your iPhone). I can set the double-tap to otherwise either activate Siri, or start and stop track playing (Settings > Bluetooth > tap on the Airpods entry). Adjusting volume requires using Siri, pressing the volume buttons on the iPhone, or use the Apple Watch app (for certain apps like Apple Music, which has a volume control using the wheel).
I would like to see future versions of iOS, MacOS, and WatchOS better integrate Airpod controls and put them together in one applet or control panel. I get that the future of controlling devices is going to bank more and more on voice control (e.g., Siri), so I hope she gets smarter and better streamlined.
So what are the downsides?
- If your iPhone’s included Earpods don’t fit your ears well, then the Airpods won’t either. You can consider the PowerBeats3, or other earbuds – fitting is completely personal.
- It’s likely that this first version of Airpods will be improved, likely within a year. Early adopters won’t care, but you can bet version 2 of the Airpods will have more features, better quality, and other improvements.
- The batteries inside the Airpods (and case) are consumable objects, they will give you good service for a couple of years of regular use, and then the battery will be degraded to the point where they don’t give you decent time before needing to be recharged. I’m guessing that battery replacement will be up to half the cost of just buying new ones, so there’s that.
- There are concerns about radio frequency (RF) energy, with a lot of research being done on the effects of having a wireless-signal drilling from the right earbud through your head to the left earbud. Read a negative assessment here, and a don’t-worry assessment here. I encourage you to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. Airpods (like most wireless earbuds) use Bluetooth to connect the iPhone to the right earbud, and Bluetooth Low Energy to send the signal to from the right to the left earbud (directly through your head). Sounds dangerous, but many of the concerns raised are related to the much more powerful Wi-Fi signal – Bluetooth is 10x to 100x less powerful than Wi-Fi. My take is that, of all the 21st century dangers we expose ourselves to on a daily basis, Bluetooth is pretty low on my personal danger scale. I’m more worried about radar, living close to an airport.
I have to say after using Earpods for years, and Airpods for a few weeks (so far), I’m never going back to wired earbuds. The audio quality coming into my ears from the Airpods is actually better than the quality from the wired Earpods – not quite Bose quality, but close. Also, I set my double-tap control to start/stop tracks initially, but have gone back to having it activate Siri. I’ve found that Siri understands me much better than he/she used to. For instance, I can tell her “stop the music” and she’ll pause music playback, not only on the Apple Music app, but on Pandora, Spotify or any other audio playing app I happen to be using. I think Siri is getting better at understanding alternate ways of saying commands, which will save me from having to memorize specific command wording. I expect this to continue to improve.
If having a cord connecting the two earbuds isn’t a problem for you, then I’d suggest you consider the PowerBeats3 ($200, comes in 5 colors and has a secure connection around your ear) or the BeatsX ($150, comes in 4 colors). They both use Apple’s W1 chip for superior connectivity and better battery efficiency. I own and use several cheaper alternatives and they’re just not worth it. More expensive options exist as well, but for you and your all-Apple environment, I think you should stick with Apple’s offerings.