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SAN FRANCISCO — Apple's new AirPods are either genius or a disaster. After trying them out at the iPhone 7 launch, I think they might be both.
Each AirPod looks almost exactly like a regular Apple EarPod, just with the cables cut off. The bottoms of each are silver and contain the microphones. They're equipped with sensors that detect whether or not they're in your ears — take one of them out and the music pauses; put them back in and it resumes.
SEE ALSO: Goodbye headphone jack, hello Apple Lightning EarPods
At least it's supposed to — the iPhone 7's and iPhone 7 Pluses I tried the AirPods out with never resumed playback when I put the units back in my ears. Buggy pre-release firmware? Perhaps. I suspect it may have to do with the shape of my ears, which have never been that friendly to Apple's EarPods: They constantly fall out, so I always use a pair of third-party earphones.
That's really the rub of these AirPods — which cost $159, by the way. Your experience with them will depend greatly on your experience with EarPods; if you don't like Apple's provided earphones, chances are the AirPods won't be your thing, no matter how much their wireless tech wows you.
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And that tech certainly has lots of wow. The AirPods come in a carrying case that is roughly the size of a pack of dental floss on steroids. You can get 24 hours of music playback using the case — it provides 19 hours of juice for each earphone, and the AirPods can each play for five hours on a single charge.
Hold the case close to your iPhone, flip it open and the pairing screen pops up immediately. One button and you're paired via Bluetooth — across all of your Apple devices. It remains to be seen just how good those connections are, but Apple reps told me the AirPods would use Handoff (where your Mac knows what your iPhone is doing) to help you switch between devices intelligently. That's smart.
Apple's AirPods are small, expensive and, if they sit even slightly loose in your ear, prone to falling out.
Once you're connected, music comes through fine, though it had trouble competing with the many voices chattering in the Apple hands-on room after the event. I was listening at mid-to-high volume, and I was reluctant to turn the AirPods all the way up, but that's what it'll probably take in louder environments.
You can double-tap either pod to call up Siri, and she had no trouble hearing me — and only me — in that loud, crowded room. That's a testament to how well Apple's beamforming microphones work to capture your voice and filter out everything else. For an incoming call, an Apple rep said you can answer with one tap, although that didn't appear to work when a product manager tried it out.
As I listened, I moved around a bit and bobbed my head up and down. As I expected, one of the AirPods nearly fell out within a few seconds. I saved it before it did, but it shows the risk with owning these things: They're small, expensive and, if they sit even slightly loose in your ear, prone to getting lost. These are definitely not the earphones you want to wear while working out.
A photo posted by Pete Pachal (@mirrorpete) on
And then there's the fashion factor: Seeing a device in someone's ear that isn't attached to a wire immediately invokes douchey Bluetooth earpieces. These are distinctive enough to be their own thing, but are they any less douchey? Society will decide, but you'll definitely stand out while wearing Apple's AirPods.. for the first few months they're on sale, at least.
Apple says its vision of the future of audio is wireless, and the AirPods are a key part of that future. Looking at the effortless pairing process and smart device-switching features, there's a brilliance in their execution that no other wireless headphone can match. But between the tired EarPod design and the need to charge yet another gadget, they appear destined to inspire user frustration, not to mention self-consciousness. It's hard to see the AirPods becoming as ubiquitous as the distinctive white earbuds that preceded them over a decade ago.
I just wrote about how Apple may be blocking Spotify from working seamlessly with their hardware. I was worried that these type of tactics from Apple may give AppleMusic the upper hand. In some ways I wanted Apple’s new service to give me a great reason to switch as all of my owned tracks still sat in iTunes and the idea of having everything integrated into one place made a lot of sense. Unfortunately, aside from the deeper hardware integration, AppleMusic was a total disaster and here’s why.
Sound quality. Maybe my ears need tuning but Apple’s service is all treble and no bass. Spotify is a much better sounding service overall, with deeper bass and more range. Spotify also allows you to control the quality of your stream to help you adjust for cellular or wifi. Something Apple does not allow you to do.
User interface. Trying to find your way around Apple’s labyrinth of inconsistent, multiple menus….good luck with that. Taxi city driving simunblocked evrything. The complexity overkill that everyone is complaining about is an understatement. It is pretty clear that Apple destroyed what used to be a great Beats UI by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into it. There is a reason that mobile apps need to be simpler than a desktop experience. You don’t need to be able to replicate every menu across every platform. Simple things like allowing you to easily navigate from a song that is playing to seeing more by that artist or viewing the entire album is completely missing from AppleMusic. These things Spotify does oh-so-well.
Discovery. Maybe Apple has great discovery but navigating it is like wandering into a forest while forgetting to mark your way. You will never find your way back. Apple does give you great options for searching on a granular level, but its overkill. Before you get complex, you have to get the simple stuff right first. Supposedly Apple is curating playlists by hand as it does not believe algorithms do the best job. Maybe that is true, but because AppleMusic navigation is so poor, I still discover music more effortlessly on Spotify. Apple gives me more of what I want (maybe because it is using my old library to measure my taste level?), while Spotify helps me to expand what it is that I listen to. But the main driver that differentiates Spotify is social. Until Apple incorporates a Facebook login, it will remain an island unto itself. Oddly enough @AppleMusic is on Twitter and I was able to discover more from their Twitter feed than I did from within the actual app! Some of the best music I find usually comes from friends with great taste in music via Spotify’s Facebook integration.
Radio. Beats1 will never work simply because it can never be all things to all people. I listened to Beats1 at various points over the weekend and did not hear much that I would not hear from any major urban radio station. Nor did I discover much new music from it…just like on the radio. Blah.
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AppleMusic is good at some things, but not much. Seamlessly integrating all of my music – the albums I own with the new streaming service is a great thing. AppleMusic also does a much better job of integrating into the hardware that it owns and I never have a problem connecting the music stream to remote devices, or to my car like I do when trying to connect Spotify. This will be getting Apple into a lot of trouble soon I am sure. Apple’s search is also much more powerful, like allowing you to search by genres as one example…but like I mentioned above, the navigation is so complex that the benefits are lost to the user.
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Spotify overall, is a much better experience, and I guess they should be as they have focused on streaming for much longer than Apple. I wanted Apple to show me something that would make me want to switch. Spotify is a hard act to follow for those of us that love it and have all of our playlists already well curated. Maybe Apple cares less about converting us Spotify fans over to AppleMusic and their focus is on Apple fans and everyone else that have yet to convert to streaming music. Overall I hope those people give Spotify a shot because Spotify deserves it. Apple may gobble up a huge part of the market, but before they do they need to earn it. Lets also hope the marketplace realizes that we are all be better off with two major music streaming services vs. one large brand that dominates.