IN RETROSPECT, it makes sense that Apple couldn’t kill the headphone jack without some kind of replacement. And, in fact, alongside the iPhone 7, the company actually announced three different wireless options: two new Beats models, both with improved processors and super-long battery life, and the new Apple AirPods.
I tried on a pair of AirPods in Apple’s brightly lit hands-on room, a few minutes after the main event concluded. They were a little grimy from the ears of a hundred journalists, but I wanted to get the feel for myself. The white buds look like Apple’s EarPods, the headphones that have shipped with every iPhone for years, so it’s not surprising that they feel the same way too. They’re much lighter than most Bluetooth headphones, and nestled comfortably into my ears.
In every meaningful way, they really are just EarPods with the cord chopped off. That means they don’t sound great, though they’re probably good enough for most people. I had to turn the volume all the way up to be able to hear Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” over the din of the room. They also look a bit odd, almost like someone saw one of those long, early 2000’s Bluetooth headsets, with the bar that hangs halfway toward your mouth, and tried to imagine how Apple would design it. There are probably upsides to the design, like more room for battery and having a mic closer to your mouth. They look kind of silly, though, like your earphones are melting out of your ear and down your face. Or like you stuck a lollipop in your ear. Or like Apple actually did make AirPods by cutting the cables on your EarPods, but cut them a little too low.
There’s one big upside to dropping your $160 on the AirPods over any other Bluetooth headphones, and that’s the way it connects to your devices. You just flip open the white case, wait for the blinking white light, and set it down near your iPhone. Instantly, a pop-up appears asking you to connect the AirPods. Both times I got a demo, it took all of three seconds and one button tap to be set up. Using iCloud, Apple can automatically pair all your other devices too. (One note: These will only work on new Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Watches. Everything else is incompatible.) The buds will start playing music when you put them in your ear, and pause when you take them out. It’s always hard to tell in these demo rooms, but the AirPods seem to work really well.
I hope that AirPods don’t scare everyone else off from trying to make Bluetooth headphones. I don’t think they will, because they don’t sound good enough. And these aren’t the ones that will ship in the box with your iPhone 7; you get the standard EarPods when you buy an iPhone, which connect over Lightning now. (There’s also an adapter.) But hopefully Apple has set the bar for how easy it should be to connect Bluetooth headphones, and how responsive they should be. If someone can copy that, and make something that looks and sounds better, we might not miss the headphone jack at all.