“Courage,” said Phil Schiller, in 2016, when he announced that Apple was removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. I recall that, when I heard this, I was stunned by how a key Apple executive used this word in a marketing presentation. Courage was Rosa Parks not moving to the back of the bus; courage was Nelson Mandela spending 27 years in prison. Courage is not removing a technology that works in order to push people toward wireless headphones.
Apple and headphone jacks… I don’t know why this is something that is often problematic. Take, for example, the AirPods Max. I recently bought this headset, and, while it’s a Bluetooth headset, it can also be used plugged into a headphone jack (if you buy the $35 Lightning to 3.5 mm Audio Cable).
But there’s a problem. The lightning port on the AirPods Max is on the right. Traditionally, cables are on the left of headphones. And the headphone jack on the new iMac is on the left. So if I want to use this with my iMac, the cable will run accros my keyboard and get in the way. (On my previous iMac, the headphone jack was on the right side, on the back of the device.)
Yet on my MacBook Air – and pretty much every Mac laptop I can recall – the headphone jack is on the right. So if you have standard headphones, the cable will cross the keyboard on those devices.
Apple pays attention to small details in some areas, but not in this one. This is something that should be consistent, and take into account how headphones work.
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A journalist writing for The Verge, who self-identifies as an “audiophile” has posted a review of Apple’s AirPods. In it, he points out that he is “headphone obsessive,” and that, for some reason, he is “not supposed to like the AirPods.” To be fair, this luxury music listener uses $3,000 headphones to listen to music; and undoubtedly has speaker cables whose cost per meter is more than the AirPods.
So he likes the AirPods. It’s not like this guy is the official audiophile that everyone should listen to. Just read some of what he says; the same drivel that audiophile reviewers spout all the time:
The AirPods convey a full sense of the mood and intent of the music I listen to. By that, I mean that they’re not technically spectacular. They don’t fill my world with a sparkling shimmer when listening to “Rachel’s Song” on the Vangelis Blade Runner soundtrack, but they still put me in that longing, wistful mood.
He only mentions the sound in one paragraph; the rest is about the technical features of the AirPods and their design. As often in “audiophile” reviews, it’s a lot of fluff and little substance.
No, self-identifying as an “audiophile” doesn’t make anyone more qualified to judge audio equipment. This article proves it.
“In a note to investors seen by AppleInsider, Kuo predicts Apple to debut a branded high-end, over-ear headphone with an ‘all new’ design to add to its growing audio accessory lineup. A specific launch timeline was not provided, but Kuo believes the device is unlikely to debut prior to the fourth quarter of 2018.
Though not specified in the note, the headphones will likely feature wireless connectivity. Kuo says Apple is aiming to deliver a product that boasts the convenience of AirPods but with better acoustic qualities.”
It’s not surprising that Apple is planning to do more in personal audio; it’s the perfect complement to its Apple Music service. The HomePod, while interesting, suffers from a Cupertino-imposed sound signature that is not flattering to all music, similar to the Beats headphones. If Apple were to make their own branded headphones, I would expect them to introduce some interesting audio technology, notably providing headphones with a built-in DAC that only work over the lightning connector. The company has lots of opportunities to play with advanced sound technologies, though in headphones there are more limitations than in a speaker.
I wouldn’t expect Apple to get rid of the Beats brand any time soon; I’d think that an Apple headphone will be premium priced, more as a showcase of what the company can do than as a mass consumer device. For now. I expect Apple to do a lot more with audio in the future.
AirPods offer some settings that you can tweak. Here’s how to do this on iOS, and on a Mac.
On iOS, go to Settings > Bluetooth, then find your AirPods in My Devices. Tap the i icon to the right of its name. You’ll see some options to disconnect the AirPods, forget them, and change their name. Scroll down, and you see the following:
You can choose whether a double-tap activates Siri, plays or pauses music, or does nothing. You can turn on or off automatic ear detection (so AirPods automatically activate when they’re in your ears), and you can choose whether the AirPods automatically choose which one’s microphone is active, or if you want it to always the microphone to use the right or left AirPod.
You can access similar settings on a Mac. Go to System Preferences > Bluetooth, then click Options next to the name of your AirPods. You can see the same options as with iOS.
If you want to rename your AirPods on a Mac, just right-click on their name in the Bluetooth preference pane and choose Rename.
If you have AirPods, you may want to know how much charge they have. There are two quick ways to do this. If you have the AirPods in your ears, go to an iPhone home screen, then swipe left until you see your widgets. If you have the Batteries widget visible, the AirPods (and the case, if it’s within range), will be listed, with their battery percentages:
This also works if the AirPods are in their case, and you open the top of the case.
But there’s an even quicker way to see the charge if the AirPods are in their case. Just flip open the charging case, and look at your iPhone. If it’s not asleep, you’ll see this (if it is asleep, just wake it up to see this display):
Note that if the battery in the case is dead, the screen above does not display. I guess this is understandable, but it means you won’t know how much power your AirPods have until you put them in your ears, at which time you can see them in the Batteries widget.
So if you’d run out of power and put the AirPods in the case to charge them, all you need to do is open the case and look at your iPhone to see if there’s enough charge to start using them again.
It’s been more than three months since Apple announced the wireless, and wireless, AirPods. I expressed my hesitation about them at the time, but in a true spirit of objectivity, I decided to order a pair and try them out for myself.
I don’t commute, so I’m not worried about losing them, but I can see how they could easily become dislodged from my ears if I were, say, in the subway and got jostled. If I jump around here in my office, they don’t fall out, but all it takes is someone brushing against one of them for it to discover gravity. And if I lie down with them in my ears, one moves a bit. It’s a tad loose; we humans are asymmetrical, so you won’t have the same fit in both ears.
They are easy to set up, though it takes a magnifying glass to read the tiny gray type in the fold-out instructions that come in the box. The settings transfer to different devices, so it’s easy to use them with my iPhone, iPad, and my Macs. They connect quickly and easily, and I’ve read a number of articles saying how much easier they connect than other Bluetooth headphones. This isn’t the case for me; I’ve been using a number of Bluetooth headphones over the years, and I’ve never had connection problems. This may be an issue with low-cost Bluetooth devices, but I’ve always had decent headphones that connect instantly.
The biggest issue is the sound. While EarPods really sound bad, AirPods sound just a tad better. Listening to a variety of music on my iPhone shows how weak they are. I’ve applied the Bass Booster EQ, to give them a bit more oomph, but they still sound like AM radio, compared to my go-to cheap headphones, Sennheiser PX 100 II-i. My current choice for Bluetooth headphones, the Jabra Revo, sounds light years better. The AirPods sound thin, wispy, as though they’re missing something, and it’s that type of sound that quickly becomes fatiguing. After a half hour of listening, I find the sound uncomfortable.
However, I will use these when working. Not for listening to music, but to make phone calls (I always make phone calls with headphones); I’m told that the audio quality when making a phone call sounds fine, though a bit weak; there’s no way to adjust the volume of the microphones. I’ll also use them when recording podcasts, since they’re less intrusive than larger Bluetooth headphones. They’ll also be fine for listening to podcasts or audiobooks, especially when I walk on my treadmill. Since my Jabra Revo Bluetooth headphones are over-ear models, they make my ears warm after a while. On the other hand, they block out the noise of the treadmill, so if I do listen to music while walking there, I’d rather have them than AirPods.
Controlling the AirPods is complicated. To increase or decrease volume, you have to use Siri; and to invoke Siri, you have to double-tap one of the AirPods. This pauses playback, and the change in volume only happens after you’ve told Siri to do so; if it understands you. The same thing happens if you want to skip to the next track in a playlist or an album; you have to invoke Siri, say what you want, and wait. With my inexpensive Sennheisers, I just press a button on the inline remote. Naturally, you can do all these from the iPhone, but doesn’t that somewhat defeat the purpose of these things? (Note that you can change the settings of the AirPods so a double-tap performs a play/pause, rather than invoking Siri. But there’s no way to adjust the volume without using the iPhone.)
While the technology behind these tiny headphones is clever, they’re not worth the cost. If you care about how music sounds, there’s too much of a trade-off in quality just to have the easy connection and lack of wires. They’ll be fine for phone calls and podcast recording, but I wouldn’t want to spend much time listening to music with them.
One aspect of Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7/7 Plus that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the impact it will have on third-party battery pack case makers. Traditionally, third-party battery pack cases plug into the Lightning port, and typically provide a micro USB connector in its place. They also then usually have a headphone passthrough, either via a port extender or a special headphone cable extender, to allow you to plug in headphones without removing the battery pack.
I was curious how the case makers were going to address this for the iPhone 7, because blocking the Lightning port means that users will have to use wireless headphones when using a battery pack. I searched Amazon for iPhone 7 battery case, to see what might be in store. However, the results were disappointing–basically, every single product uses micro USB for charge and sync. I could go on, but you get the idea: None of the manufacturers seem to be worried about blocking the Lightning port with their battery cases.
Rob mentioned this to me earlier today, and not having ever had a battery pack for an iPhone, I hadn’t considered this. But it is, indeed, a problem for those who need more battery life.
Both accessory-maker Belkin and Apple offer a solution to this problem, but neither provides users with a good experience.
Apple’s solution, according to an email response from Apple marketing exec Phil Schiller, is the company’s Lightning Dock. This flat, elongated platform connects to the Lightning port and offers both Lightning and 3.5mm audio ports on its back.
Aside from the fact that placing ports on the back makes them harder to use, this dock isn’t a full-time solution either. Using 3.5mm headphones and charging your phone at an airport or coffee shop can be complicated enough as is — do you really want to also have your phone on an upright stand where it can fall over, or worse, get snatched?
As you may know, Apple announced their new wireless AirPods on Wednesday. You can read my thoughts by clicking that previous link. Yesterday, Doug Adams and I were recording an episode of your podcast The Next Track, where we discussed Apple’s new product announcements, and the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone. Before the show, I went to my storage room to pull out a pair of EarPods. I haven’t used these for years, and, in fact, I haven’t used them at all, since they don’t fit in my ears. I tried them when they were first launched, and put them back in the box.
But I took out a pair yesterday, wondering how they sounded. Back in the day, I did use Apple’s earbuds when I went out walking, and I recall that they were weak, but acceptable for a small, lightweight headphone to listen to on the go. But after a while, discovered the excellent Sennheiser PX 100-II i headphones. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) These small, light, on-ear headphones have an inline remote and microphone, and I use them often, when walking, when recording podcasts, and when making phone calls at home. They also fold, so they’re practical for listening anywhere. They have excellent sound, and even decent bass response.
But back to the EarPods. They sounded horrible. Like AM radio, but worse. Even the cheap headphones I used with a Walkman in the early 1980s sounded better. I was truly surprised how bay they sounded.
This is interesting, because, while Apple touted the pairing abilities of the new AirPods, they didn’t say much about the sound quality. Pairing is important, but sound quality should be the benchmark by which they are judged.
Let me put it this way: AirPods sound way better than wired EarPods. I know that isn’t saying much, but it’s worth noting when you consider that the design is very, very similar.
Sounding “way better” is probably not good enough for something at this price. I’m curious to see what others say about these AirPods. We won’t really know for a while, since they won’t be released until October. But given the poor quality of Apple’s EarPods, I guess the bar isn’t set very high.