At this week’s Apple event, the most interesting new design wasn’t the iPhone 7, or the Apple Watch Series 2. No, it was the AirPods, Apple’s new wireless headphones.
In an event that was pretty boring from a design lover’s perspective, the AirPods were refreshing–if only because they attempt to solve some of the biggest pain points about existing wireless headphones: the annoying Bluetooth pairing process which makes juggling a single set between multiple devices difficult, and the fiddly need to constantly keep them charged.
Say what you want about the old wired EarPods, but they’re legitimately well-designed. An iconic profile, merged with great sound and a seamless, easy-to-mass-produce design, make the EarPods easily the best pack-in headphones in the world. So it makes sense that Apple would stick with its design for the wireless version; in fact, in appearance, the AirPods look like someone took a pair of EarPods and cauterized the cord. The tips boast a silver cap that dangles near the earlobe, and which we suspect is weighted to prevent the AirPods from popping out of your ear. Not only do the tips lend the AirPods a futuristic look–almost like an unused prop from Her–but they double as mic for phone calls and Siri requests (which can be made just by tapping the side of the AirPod).
It’s the insides of the AirPods that really distinguish them from just another pair of wireless Bluetooth earbuds. They run on a proprietary band of Apple-sanctioned wireless that makes pairing with an iPhone or a Mac a snap. AirPods can even juggle multiple connections, switching on the fly to connect to the device you’re actually using, not the one they were previously connected to. Pairing with a new iPhone, meanwhile, is as easy as opening the AirPods’ Li-ion battery-powered smart case–which, incidentally, also charges the AirPods when they aren’t in use. There’s even some clever infrared technology built into the AirPods, so that if you try to play music on your iPhone and they’re not in your ear, it automatically plays through the device speakers instead.
The trade-off for all this easy pairing? The AirPods won’t work outside of your collection of Apple products, like Android smartphones, or PCs. This, of course, is by design: Apple’s always trying to further lock customers into its own proprietary hardware ecosystem, which means routinely shutting out brand agnostics. But if you’re willing to go all-in, Apple’s new AirPods and wireless headphone technology will remove most of Bluetooth headphones’ pain points.
Of course, you could argue that given the fact that the company removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, these were all pain points with existing wireless headphones Apple had to solve if they expected people to give up their corded cans. Still, in an otherwise ho-hum Apple event, it’s notable that Apple managed to do what it set out to do: offer up a compelling vision of how the future of wireless headphones should actually look.
It only failed in one regard… the price. Because despite the fact that Apple’s new AirPods look shockingly easy to lose, Apple wants a teeth-aching $159 a pair for them. If that price point is the future of wireless headphones, I’ll stick with my timeless, pointedly-classic Koss Porta-Pros.