Apple released its courageous new wireless AirPods in December, and in that time, we’ve spotted lots of people wearing the earbuds on the streets and subways of NYC. Verge reporter Sean O’Kane reviewed them here. But in that review, Sean didn’t talk much about the aesthetic of the AirPods. Do they look good? How do they make us feel? Can they work with our commuter lifestyle and style? We recruited two certifiably fashionable people from our sister publication Racked — Rebecca Jennings, associate producer, and Cameron Wolf, menswear editor — to talk through the fashion of AirPods.
Ashley: Hello everyone! Thanks for helping us with the important task of figuring out whether the AirPods are a net gain or net loss for fashion. Before launching into that weighty discussion, how did your experience go with them more generally? Did you like them?
Rebecca: Hello! I should start by saying that I had to Google “how to turn on AirPods” before actually using them, and then after that, I spent about five minutes playing with the magnet lid thing. It’s extremely satisfying. Anyway, I highly enjoyed my time with the AirPods, and was genuinely sad about having to give them to Cam.
Cam: Rebecca passed her Googled knowledge onto me, but I really could not be saved. I had a lot of trouble trying to connect these to my computer, which seems like a reasonable thing to do if I’m at the office even if Rebecca thought it was dumb. I had better success with my phone, and pausing music by taking out an earpiece is objectively cool, but the experience wasn’t super fluid. One or both headphones would unexpectedly disconnect often enough. To reconnect I had to find the headphone holder in my bag, carefully place two pen-cap sized objects in their specific holes, and then reconnect. Not fun on a crowded New York subway.
Also, one of my favorite things about corded headphones is that I can easily adjust the volume without pulling my phone out. No such luck with the AirPods. I gladly passed them back to Rebecca.
Sean: I definitely didn’t have those troubles when I reviewed AirPods. In fact, I enjoyed the experience so much — when they weren’t falling out of my ears — that I didn’t care much about how they looked. I hated the look of them when Apple announced them last September, and I still kind of do now, but I was able to forget that hate while I used them. That’s something.
Ashley: I tried them for the first time this week and had issues with them dropping their connection in the middle of calls. That wasn’t great. I also just can’t get over the idea of having to charge another device. Who has time for all this charging? Plus, I constantly worried I’d lose them because they’re tiny. My long nails were problematic when trying to drop the little guys into their charging hole.
So all of that was bad, but ultimately, I found AirPods super convenient. I loved that I could take them out of their container and pop them in my ears to listen to music or make a phone call immediately.
We all seemingly had different experiences with their actual functionality, but here’s the real question: how did you feel you looked in them? Were you proud to wear them, or did you feel silly? How did people react to you? Rebecca and Cam, do you have official fashion takes?
Rebecca: I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop blushing for the first hour that I wore them — and this was in an office where people are always doing weird things like wearing overalls and attempting to hoverboard. But there was nothing more enjoyable to me than seeing the looks on my co-workers’ faces, followed by me removing one AirPod and being like, “What? Oh, these old things?”
Anyway, the experience was markedly less enjoyable on the subway, where I didn’t understand why people kept staring at me until I remembered I had white plastic sticks bursting out of my ears like some sort of disease. Also, the feeling that at any point a crazy person could simply pluck them off your face was a little disconcerting.
Cam: I feel like Rebecca and I are on exact opposite ends of this. I didn’t mind the look of them at all and didn’t feel the intense glare of my fellow commuters. But I feel like even if I had, I’d have chalked it up to envy and not to being judged as some Bluetooth-wearing Wall Streeter. If anything, AirPods felt like a huge flex in the the same way an Apple Watch does. Hyped-up new products get released and they’re so instantly recognizable; it’s not so different from what happens in the fashion industry. It felt a little like, yes, I have the new shit.
Sean: What’s funny to me is that, if you pull way back, isn’t it also kind of weird to have cords coming from your ears? After I used AirPods, I kept looking at other people using regular corded earbuds and thinking that was starting to look a little strange. Maybe AirPods won’t feel so foreign someday soon. Of course, the corded earbuds are a great way of signifying “don’t talk to me,” and we’d lose that.
Ashley: I didn’t think about that, but it’s true. I’m sure eventually we’ll find wired earbuds weird, but for now, the AirPods definitely stand out. I didn’t mind the extra attention I got on the subway. I figured people would judge me, but I think that’s kind of the point of fashion, like Cam said. They’re challenging to wear, made me look kind of silly, but also made me feel cool and on top of the trends. I’m a believer in the idea that anyone can wear anything they want so long as they own it. You have to fully own the AirPods.
By the way, they look great when you take a selfie with the puppy dog filter on Snapchat.
So Rebecca and Cam, I’m wondering, do you think it even matters if the AirPods are fashionable? Is Apple such a luxurious and reputable brand that people will buy and sport AirPods regardless of how they look? Does Apple putting its name on a product make it inherently chic?
Cam: No. And I think the Apple Watch is absolute proof of that. I don’t think the watch has done particularly well against strong competition in the wearables space and strictly from a fashion perspective it was panned when it first came out. And this was after a ton of advertising, poaching higher-ups from Saint Laurent, Burberry, Nike, and Tag Heuer to work on the dang thing, and a Vogue China cover. I’m probably forgetting some points there, too. But point is: Apple tried really hard to make this a Fashion Thing and it didn’t work. Don’t think the Apple magic is going to make a return just for the AirPods.
Rebecca: Completely agree with Cam here. Just because a huge brand like Apple is pushing disembodied headphone sticks doesn’t mean that the capital-F fashion industry is obligated to embrace them. That’s not to say they’ll never become cool organically — as in, on street style or social media — but if the fashion establishment start pushing AirPods like they did the Apple Watch, all they’d be doing is ensuring AirPods get an even more eye-rolly reaction than they already do.
Ashley: Cool, so now I have a final question: would you spend $160 on these?
Sean: Having covered wireless earbuds on The Verge for a while now, that price tag is actually pretty competitive and almost makes me want to buy them. But like I said in my review, these suckers don’t stay in my ears as well as they should, so I’m stuck waiting for AirPods 2.0. Apple’s industrial designers basically made the choice for me.
Cam: I definitely would not spend $160 on these. I had problems using them and avoiding the occasional snag of the headphone cord doesn’t seem worth it at all. Especially when you can bet these will start to get included for free in future releases of the iPhone much like the corded headphones are now.
Rebecca: THESE ARE $160?! That is insane, and now I am back to being mad at Apple, which is my usual state of being. I would definitely not spend $160 on these, especially when there’s roughly a 90 percent chance you will lose one of them, or when, as I mentioned before, a crazy person plucks them from your head.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales.