Apple announced their AirPods a couple weeks ago during their iPhone / Apple Watch event, and the launch of these new headphones comes along with more controversy than normal, even in the context of past polarizing product releases from the company.
The main reason around the controversy is that the AirPods are being closely associated with the removal of the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Something is changing / going away, so people are having the knee-jerk reaction of being mad about it. It doesn't seem like there's any going back from here, though -- Apple won't be able to re-introduce the headphone jack for next year's presumably enormous release of the 10th anniversary iPhone, and two straight generations without a headphone jack for the most popular smartphone in the world is probably enough to kill that little thing for good. In 2-3 years, the frustrations around the loss of the headphone jack will likely be forgotten, and in 5-7 years, we'll be laughing at the days we walked around with our head attached to our pants pocket.
All of this is not the point of my article here, though. On their own merits, Apple's AirPods are extremely impressive (on paper) compared to existing and upcoming competition. "On paper" is the only way to make comparisons to the competition (defined as "truly wireless" earbuds -- no wires at all) so far, seeing as how these things haven't been released yet. But if you search for early reviews of the new headphones, you'll find that most early reviewers are finding them to be acceptable in terms of sound quality as well. Most people are fine with the sound quality from Apple's standard included wired headphones, and these are reportedly around that ballpark.
Taking a quick look at Apple's competitors reveals a fairly straightforward conclusion that the AirPods offer some of the best performance specs on the market, at a $169 price that is objectively low compared to similar products. To make this comparison, a few points have to be assumed:
- We're assuming that all of these headphones are fine-ish in terms of sound quality. If any of them are significantly better than the rest of the field, and if you're a person who values sound quality more than all other factors, the AirPods may not wind up being the wireless earbuds for you. (If you're a person who values sound quality more than all other factors, I would advise waiting a year or so and letting the field improve as a whole.) If a pair sound so bad that nobody should ever buy them, then their price winds up being irrelevant.
- We're assuming that all of these headphones offer the very basic types of features that you'd expect, like a simple way to pause and play music. The AirPods are tuned up to provide a more impressive feature set for iPhone users, but they also obviously have the advantage of being first-party hardware. I won't considering the fact that the AirPods have a different way of connecting to the iPhone, because, as the data below shows, this feature is kinda just icing-on-top for iPhone users.
- We're assuming everybody agrees that charging your headphones regularly sounds like a pain in the ass. It's not a huge pain in the ass -- there isn't any manual labor involved in charging electronics -- but it's another thing to remember to put in the place they belong, or whatever. So we're focusing on two factors related to charging: The first is how many hours of playback these headphones get on a full charge, and the second is how many times you can charge up your headphones without actually plugging them into a wall. This is usually accomplished via some form of carrying case that comes with your headphones.
All that being said, I looked at 10 other "truly wireless" headphones and compared their charging capabilities and price point to the AirPods. The averages turned out to be 3.75 hours of playback on a full charge, with anywhere from two charges in the accompanying case or case-equivalent (two charges is definitely the floor here, and the bare minimum you should accept from a decent pair of headphones in this category) to five charges on the high end. The most playback I noticed on a full charge was six hours. The best carrying case provided five extra charges for a pair of headphones from Kanoa that claim to offer 6 hours of playback per charge, which is quite impressive. And all of the prices were between $199 and $299, with one low outlier from Bragi.
Here's the list of all the headphones I looked up with their respective stats:
- Samsung Gear IconX • 3 hours playback • Two charges • $199
- Earin • 2 hours playback • Three charges • $199
- Motorola VerveOne • 3.5 hours playback • About 3.5 charges • Charges fully in 90 minutes • $199 - $250
- Erato Apollo 7 • 3 hours playback • Two charges • $299
- Onkyo W800BT • 3 hours playback • Five charges • $299
- Doppler Labs Here One • 3-5 hours playback • Two charges • $299
- Kanoa • 4 hours playback • Four charges • $199 (going up to $300 once the pre-order ends)
- Bragi The Headphone • 6 hours playback • Unknown number of charges • Full charge in less than two hours • $120 (going up to $150 after the pre-order ends)
- Bragi The Dash • 4 hours playback • Five charges • Charges in less than 2 hours • $299
- Jabra Elite Sport • 3 hours playback • Two charges • $250
For their own part, Apple claims the AirPods get 5 hours of playback on a single charge, and that their case has enough juice to provide over 24 hours of listening -- which, depending on what they actually mean by that, indicates between 4-5 full charges. They also claim that charging AirPods for only 15 minutes will power you up enough for an extra 3 hours of playback, which is an impressive short-burst charging feature.
The total playback of 24 hours is the key. If you use headphones for about five hours a day -- let's say that time is divided between your commute both ways, your time at the gym, and some occasional walking around or whatever -- you should be able to make it from the beginning to the end of the work week without plugging the charging case into the wall even once.
By comparison, the first pair of headphones listed above (the Samsung Gear IconX) offer only a total playback of 9 hours, between the 3 hours on a single charge and the two additional charges. And those run for $199, which is $30 more than Apple's AirPods. The most impressive headphones on the list above, at least in this sense, are the pair from Kanoa and "The Dash" from Bragi, which both claim a total of 24 hours playback, on pair with the AirPods. The Kanoa earbuds cost only $199, but this is a special pre-order price and they will retail for $300. The Dash cost $299, so both are or will be nearly twice as expensive as the AirPods.
Taking into account the additional features Apple has built into the AirPods -- they quick charging, the sensing of when you're listening and not, the ability to tap into Siri immediately and filter out exterior noise when you're on the phone, blah blah here's the marketing page -- it becomes more and more evident that the AirPods represent an industry leader. Specifically, the Siri integration appears to be getting a ton of buzz (as our future becomes closer to the one represented in Her, see, it all comes back to that image at the top of the article), and as Siri improves, this will become more significant. But Apple is getting hammered over them because of how upset people are that their headphone jack is gone. Because at the end of the day, 24 hours of playback between plug-ins is a LOT less than unlimited playback with your favorite current pair of cheap earbuds.
It shows that Apple should have more aggressively talked up the AirPods' performance -- for once, it seems like Apple didn't hyperbolize a new product enough -- because people should realize that not only are these a great pair of truly wireless earbuds (at least on paper), but they should also realize that they're quite fairly priced. They won't be for everyone, but if you want a pair of headphones like this and if you own an iPhone, chances are high that they'll be the best option for you.