After nine months of rumors that the company would enter the market, Apple finally unveiled its first pair of truly wireless earbuds: the AirPods. They let you stream music, ping Siri, or talk on the phone with no wires required, and they’ll cost $159 when they hit shelves this fall. The price has already put a lot of people off, but when you compare it to just about every other pair of truly wireless earbuds (many of which come from startups you’ve probably never heard of), it’s actually really competitive. Meanwhile, everything else — the overall look, the one-size-fits-all mentality, the lack of features — makes the AirPods come across as a total swing and miss for Apple.
The wireless earbud market is still pretty new, but it is incredibly crowded. For every company that has even a modicum of brand visibility — I’m talking everything from bigger names like Samsung and Jabra down to startups like Bragi and Earin — there are dozens more trying to sell their own version of truly wireless earbuds.
Apple had a chance to disrupt all of this, or at least set up shop at the top of the market. I know a number of people who were waiting on this announcement before deciding to buy something else. I’d include myself in that group, too. While I’ve tried a bunch of wireless earbuds, I still haven’t plunked any cash down for a pair of my own because I wanted to see what Apple and Samsung were going to offer — and because other wireless earbuds are more expensive. Many of them start at about $150, and some go up to $300 or higher. In that sense, Apple made a great, competitive decision.
But Apple also went and made earbuds that feature some questionable design choices. First, all the stuff beyond music streaming is specific to Apple devices — the quick pairing, the voice assistant compatibility. It's a lot like how the fitness tracking features of Samsung’s IconX earbuds are specific to the company’s phones, but the earbuds’ basic function — audio streaming — works with anything that uses Bluetooth. The quick pairing is also one of Apple’s biggest selling points on the AirPods, which is perplexing, because connecting Bluetooth earbuds to a phone is one of the least broken parts about wireless earbuds in the first place. The bigger problem is how hard it is for a Bluetooth signal coming from tiny radios to pass through your body (and it’s too early to say if Apple solved that yet).
Was Apple going to make a pair of wireless earbuds that played nice with all phones? No. But I expected that the company would have much better reasons for building a bit of a wall. In fact I'd argue that it didn't go far enough with these first generation AirPods. It could have put some basic fitness tracking in the earbuds and tied that to Apple Health. It could have made them function more independently from your phone (like Bragi’s Dash earbuds), or given them a more built-in version of Siri.
But the bigger shortcomings appear to be that AirPods lack some of the more standard features that other earbuds have, like touch controls or buttons. (There is apparently a way to play, pause, or skip tracks by tapping the earbuds, triggering the accelerometers inside.) AirPods also don’t have noise cancellation or audio passthrough, features that can be found on wireless earbuds like the Dash or the Here One.
And then there’s the awful design. Apple stuck with the same basic look of the EarPods... why, exactly? EarPods are notoriously bad at staying in ears, and AirPods are essentially the exact same thing only without the wires. Even if they did fit well, most earbuds don’t fit comfortably in a wide variety of ears out of the box — that’s why other companies ship their earbuds with different tips or fins to help accommodate different ear shapes and sizes. I have not worried as much about losing the wireless earbuds I’ve tested because they all come with decent carrying cases and I can use different tips to make them fit pretty well in my ears. Only one of those things appears to be true about AirPods.
Apple usually waits to jump into new consumer technologies, and it’s hard to blame them. The company is really good at entering a market later than the competition, offering the features consumers learn to expect and still winning out because of the power of its brand. Apple certainly got beat to the market on wireless earbuds, but despite the fact that it apparently worked on them for years, it still feels like the company is releasing AirPods too soon. The competition is certainly aware of this: Here, Bragi, and Jabra all issued statements yesterday that took veiled shots at Apple’s wireless offering. We’ll have to wait until we spend serious time with the AirPods before issuing a final verdict, but from yesterday’s announcement, consider us skeptical.
Update September 8th, 3:47PM ET: Apple has told The Verge that AirPods will be able to work with non-Apple devices via Bluetooth, contrary to the information in the AirPods press release. AirPods "just lose the magic (ease of setup, seamless transitioning from device-to-device, Siri, etc.) when not used with an Apple device," the company said. This article has been updated to reflect this.