Note: a version of this post originally appeared for Members. This is an expanded and edited version of that post. Also, thank you to Apple for releasing new EarPods with USB-C!
This idea, vibe, or trend — it’s been playing in the back of my mind for a long time now. AirPods, and AirPods Pro, are nothing short of magic. That I can pop two small earbuds out of a sleek magnetic case, place them in my ear, and have them connect to my device — receiving and sending audio (and like pretty good audio)? And they last for hours? Like holy fucking shit you guys, that’s impressive.
That they sound pretty good, make me sound pretty good and have solid noise cancellation? Cherry on top right there.
But life isn’t an onstage Apple product demo — life is messy, life is not ideal. When I got my first pair of AirPods I had Bose QC25s as my “good” headphones, and the Apple EarPods which they were replacing. Compared to those, AirPods were freeing, magical even.
Eventually, I would get Bose QC35s, and while they were amazing, the convenience of the AirPods, the allure of magic, kept winning out. Then Apple drops the AirPods Pro — fuck those are good right? Like noise canceling, transparency mode, they fit better, they are shorter. Man, good shit right there, they felt like end game in a lot of ways when it came to normal people, not audiophiles, but like everyone.
But, there’s a fundamental issue with Apple’s AirPod lineup (as a whole): they are solving for problems which are theoretical, and not practical.
And thus the idea which kept nagging me: “are AirPods actually a pretty shit product?”
Apple is designing and engineering things at a level no one else is doing, but when it comes right down to it, we don’t actually want most of what Apple is doing. And, by doing this, Apple has over engineered the fuck out of the AirPods product line, to the point where I actively don’t want them any more, because they complicate my life more than they help it.
A common start to most video meetings, goes like this (from someone): “fuck, hang on, damned AirPods, wait, can you hear me? Shit I can’t hear you, hang on, ah, oh ok I got it now. Sorry, AirPods acting up today.” Then you see everyone else with AirPods nod in solidarity — this is the AirPod way.
It reminds me a lot of the ‘universal remote’: for those old enough to remember when entire companies existed just to supply you with a smart remote. Yes, a universal remote meant you could have a single remote for all your TV things (and back then did we have a lot of TV things, like receivers, VCR, DVD, Blue-ray, cable box, the TV itself), but a universal remote also meant you spent hours of your life fighting to get it to work how it was advertised. Did a universal remote make your life easier? Yeah, but only 1/5th the time, the rest of the time you wanted to take a baseball bat to them. Which is why we don’t really have them anymore, right?
I could start listing out my complaints with AirPods, and then you could start sending me messages about how you know the trick to resolving that problem. About how I need the newer version, they are better, you promise. But, let’s avoid all that. I’ll admit right now: the newer AirPods are better than the older. But, they are still over engineered. I still don’t want them. They still have the same fundamental problems, problems which only exist because Apple tried to out-clever their way out of something no one wanted a clever solution for to begin with.
What do I mean by this is? Apple attempted to solve these specific problems:
- Easy pairing / switching. There was a time when pairing a bluetooth device to another device was not easy, and was something many people would ask someone for help with. Older bluetooth standards meant that moving headphones from one device to the next was a bit of a bear/pain — if it was even supported. Let alone being connected to multiple devices at once so you can seamlessly move between those devices. It was rough. Apple thought: let’s design a completely new and proprietary system to solve this, this is the way.
- Removing Headphones to Hear: if you are using noise cancelling, then you can’t hold a reasonable conversation with someone while using it (mostly in person, but also kind of on video calls too). So you’d have to remove your perfectly placed headphones to talk to them, or more likely: to eavesdrop on someone talking near you. Apple thought: why not make this easier with transparency mode, where you keep headphones on, but we allow the world to be somewhat heard.
- Pause When Not Listening: most companies do absolutely nothing if an earbud comes out of your ear. You won’t get an abrupt pause at peak vocals, no, you’ll just hear it with one ear. You want to pause? It’s not hard, you hit the pause button. Apple thought: ‘well that’s all rather inconvenient’ instead each time we remove a single earbud, we want stuff to pause, and so too should everyone else, this is the way.
- Easy Access Cases: in the past, if your headphones had a case (which often they did not) then it certainly had some type of security mechanism to secure the case closed — likely a zipper as companies figured that if you put your headphones in a case, you probably wanted them to stay in the case. Apple fixed this with a case that will flip open easier than a Zippo. Apple thought: gosh, no one ever drops their stuff, so why impede access to these wonderful works of art we created.
Yes, I am glossing over the feats for true wireless, battery life, microphones, etc. those were/are all things anyone in the industry was already working towards. Not something that Apple invented into a problem. Let’s talk about why those four things I listed above actually make AirPods a pretty annoying product to use, and are ultimately over engineering at its finest.
- Pairing has always been a clunky thing, so Apple made a new chip to aid with this. Never mind that BTLE 4+ standards basically resolve this, but Apple made a thing. This means you pair your headphones with your iCloud account, and your devices. Thus, any new device you add should ‘just work’. The downside here is that you cede control of which device is active pretty quickly, and you run into substantial issues if you want to use your devices on things that are not a part your iCloud account. There’s magic here, for sure, it’s a nice system. But it’s only a nice system if your system consists of a handful of Apple devices, all tied to your account, and all only being used one at a time. Under those conditions, it’s perfect. Sit at a desk with three Apple devices running at once, and you already know why I think this pairing system blows. Your AirPods rarely stay connected to the device you actually want them connected to — even switching mid video conference, as if that’s something anyone ever wanted. And it feels random as to why this is happening (likely because it is, that’s what happens when you over engineer shit). My Bose QC45s? They connect to all three of those devices at once, and logically move devices if I start audio on a new device (pausing audio on the previous device): and that kind of a logic is something a user can understand and not be frustrated by (except incoming calls, but you have those blocked like a civilized person, right?). Oh, and pairing Bose are pretty fucking easy these days. Bose (and other standard BTLE devices) are really dumb when it comes to pairing, but that dumbness is actually a better user experience in the end as it is predictable by the user. The pairing tech Apple has developed is the single worst part of the AirPods experience.
- Transparency mode is nice, right? You toggle it on (if you have any fucking clue how to do that without going into your phone) and you can mostly hear while wearing your headphones. Thus you can easily eavesdrop on people around you, or even have a conversation without removing your headphones! Don’t want to bother removing an AirPod, what a great way to signal to someone that you care more about literally anything else, than giving them the common courtesy of your attention! You know what’s not hard, and actually very easy? Removing the headphones. Pretty simple and it’s an impressive spatial audio transparency mode as well. I get that there are times when you don’t want noise cancelling and times when you do, but those times are times when we should be removing our headphones anyways if you really think about it — those damned eScooters are silent enough, don’t let them have any more advantages to their attack approach. This feature is creating a weird rude-isolationist behavior and it is driving me mad, while also giving people a false sense they can actually hear over the audio they are listening to.
- I know, you think I am crazy for disliking this feature: but auto-pausing based on removing one (or more) headphones is pretty annoying in practice. First, it’s decidedly not hard to pause your music without this feature. Second, it is actually pretty socially rude to only remove one earbud to talk with someone, even if the audio pauses. Third, it’s literally not a big deal if your music keeps playing and you miss a few seconds — it’s not like you need to rewind the cassette here. Is this nice to have? Yes, but it’s incredibly annoying to have when you want to listen to something with only one earbud in, or if you are adjusting an earbud and the sensor thinks you removed the earbud, then your stuff stops playing. There’s nothing stupider looking than someone wearing AirPods removing one, only to put it back in, in hopes the system starts playing tunes again, because well otherwise they need to find the play button that’s been buried away in the UI, because why would you need ready access to that, as your AirPods pause automatically, right? You know the move I am talking about, you’ve seen it, you’ve done it — it’s horrid. Remember how those little remotes on the headphones cord would just pause shit for you when you clicked them? What a stellar feature. And they still exist.
- The AirPods case is pretty good right? Fun to play with? Yeah, sure. But like, I would pay more money if it secured shut, such that when I drop the case, the AirPods don’t go ejecting out of the case like I asked my cat to take the damned thing and whack it under the couch while looking at me with a face that screams “your move mother fucker”. You know what I love on a case? A nice latch, not too hard to use, but secure enough that should I drop the case with my earbuds in them, I worry only about retrieving the case. I don’t like having to find the left earbud which went from seat 10A to seat 23F while we are in the middle of beverage service — fuck I’d rather buy new headphones than that walk of shame.
So yeah, AirPods have started to really irk me. None of the features Apple has added, are solving for real world problems. And more often, are creating more real world problems for me. They seem, feel, and look like magic. But they are not magic. They are over engineered and actively make my life more annoying.
tl;dr: I bought wired headphones, and connected them to a bluetooth DAC and my life has never been better. They have the little clicky pause thing on the cord too!
AND the paper of record for cool things, The Wall Street Journal wrote this a couple years back: “Are AirPods Out? Why Cool Kids Are Wearing Wired Headphones” in it Rory Satran writes:
A cord also projects a “you can’t sit with me” factor that some people find appealing. While AirPods subtly blend into your look, making you at least appear available to the outside world, corded headphones wall you off from others. Natalia Christina, director of strategy and brand for the Digital Fairy, said that contributes to their allure. “It gives the air of ‘do not disturb,’” she explained. “So it’s kind of subconsciously related to that grungy aesthetic, where it’s about being moody and having that physical barrier up.”
So count me in among the cool kids? But I paid more money for my headphones, and they are not white, and I am decidedly less cool.
But you know what? Apple just released USB-C EarPods, so I am back in the cool club.
Oh, oh, I almost forgot: I always know which device my headphones are connected to now. Do you?