Apple’s AirPods like the iPod, usher in a trend that just doesn’t just centre on technology but also practicality

Back in 2016, Apple did something very strange. It removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 which kickstarted a chain reaction which has led to an industry-wide trend of the mass removal of the headphone jack from smartphones.

The removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 also gave birth to a new product which many believe is one of Apple’s best products since the iPhone. Of course, I’m talking about AirPods. The AirPods right from the get-go polarised opinion as they looked quite similar to the EarPods that shipped with the iPhone for a couple of years.

They just lacked the wires because they were designed for a wireless future that the Cupertino-based company had envisioned. Fast forward to 2019, a couple of weeks ago, Apple launched second-generation AirPods, and they still look identical to the older models which shows Apple has conviction in the design it conceived. And with good reason.

In the words of Raghav Somani, founder of Headphone Zone, India’s largest e-commerce platform solely dedicated to headphones, “The AirPods have created a sensational category for truly wireless earphones that no one thought was possible when Apple dropped the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 7.”

Even fashionistas had dubbed them “fugly” yet for a wearable they went on to become the most popular wireless earbuds trumping the likes of Bose, Sennheiser, Apple’s own Beats, amongst other brands. This is a feat which is incredible considering AirPods are essentially wearables. AirPods are less function-based like gym headphones or active noise cancelling headphones, they are have been designed to be on your ears all the time.

For something that’s on your ears, they are surprisingly robust, and despite their looks, people have seemingly adapted to their looks.

Technology trumps looks

What made AirPods so special was the fact they paired so painlessly with Apple’s products. All one needs to do is open the charging case, make sure Bluetooth is on your Apple device and boom, you’re paired. And because of iCloud, your AirPods immediately recognise all your Apple gadgets. AirPods eradicated the mind-numbing irritation of pairing your earphones via Bluetooth, an old problem, which no company solved.

How Apple solved it tells a story of why it still is the king of mobile computing. Its silicon team led by Jony Sruhji developed the W1 processor which ushered the age of mainstream computational audio.

Apple used the combination of beamforming microphones, a literal computer within the innards of the AirPods and conjured a design that worked for the lowest common denominator in terms of fit and finish which allowed it to deliver a product that’s now used by millions of people.

More importantly, it’s a product that works like magic with more than a billion Apple products without the need to open a manual. Raghav Somani claimed that they don’t sound that great, but Apple’s user experience clinches things in the favour of AirPods.

“Their beauty lies in their seamless user experience which Apple loyalists and first-time users will swear by,” he states.

That’s just not a case of humanising technology, but it’s also called intelligent design. Apple focused not just on the looks of the device, but how the AirPods worked which was something no-one else did.

Apple also made sure they were so inconspicuous that you don’t know that they are on. Remember these were designed to work all day with users wearing them all the time.

But all was not hunky dory

Apart from its looks which people frowned upon, at the end of the day, the first generation AirPods was Apple’s first stab at wireless earbuds. Problems were a given, and they started immediately after they were announced. They shipped later than the iPhones with which they were supposed to be paired up.

Apart from the obvious critique of their looks, over the course of the last two years, users have found most ghosts in Apple’s wireless closet than even the best at Cupertino would like to have believed.

The fit was the obvious problem. Apple designed the AirPods for the lowest common denominator like the EarPods, but these didn’t fit everyone magically. “ Don’t like the way they fit into my ears,” says Ankita Manek.

Since these were typically more expensive than the average earphone, people have been overly concerned about their safety as often people have lost one AirPod, leaving them with an expensive replacement.

“It’s a convenient product, but also super inconvenient at the same time. The whole idea of losing one of them is horrifying considering the price,” says Shrey Kathuria a Delhi-based graphic artist.

Perhaps, the biggest problem lies in the fact that it was a product which didn’t last the entire day on a single charge even with the case where most people just expected it to last an entire day like MacBooks and iPads. Rahul Ghosh, a Delhi-based PR professional put this succinctly. “Even if I ignore the look, AirPods are worst in terms of battery,” he told me on a Facebook thread.

For audiophiles, who hoped that Apple was embracing better audio, this wasn’t the case. The AirPods certainly represented the best sound for the type of earphone they were but they weren’t setting a standard in purely aural terms.

“I’m not fond of the fidelity of the sound they provide,” claimed Delhi-based guitarist Udayraj Singh complaining about the lack of bass these earphones provided.

It also didn’t help that they were made by Apple as they didn’t offer the same magical experience to the Android brethren. This was the classic Apple vertical integration lockout, even though they were used to great effect for Android users. Apple in its subtle way said, if you’re not in our club, you’re a second class citizen.

People still loved them though, but why? User experience could hold a key

Despite all its flaws, people have come to love their AirPods. Its most adverse critiques admit to their convenience and ease of use. At the end of the day, no earphone worked so well wirelessly and they did push the industry forward.

Literally, every manufacturer has an AirPod rival in one form or the other including Apple’s arch-nemesis Samsung which released the Galaxy Buds. Some people use them during workouts, some for listening to music on the go, some people use them for regular chores, and some for calls.

Saranya Rastogi, who formerly used to be a communications professional for Microsoft India states she loves her AirPods. “ I love the way it allows me to multi-task! I speak to my mum while I’m cooking, I can take notes and sort through emails while on a call at work and generally do a ton of other stuff all at the same time,” she says.

It seems like people aren’t as averse to their looks as when they originally came out vindicating Apple’s decision to not change the design too much. Sana Sehgal, a PR professional working in the fashion industry also felt that they were super convenient.

“I think they are convenient for a job like mine, but an indulgence,” said Sehgal.

Apple’s focus for the lowest common denominator seems to have paid off too, despite it not please everyone under the sun. To the untrained ear, their sound is seemingly pleasing as well.

Mala Bhargava a senior technology commentator claims that to be satisfied with their sound and fit. “I like the way they sound like. They are balanced. They don’t fall out and are quite comfortable,” she says.

Like Bhargava, Shrey Kathuria also claims he loves the sound of the AirPods. “I love how they sound. I use them mostly at work or when I’m sitting in a cab. So I’m going to keep using them,” he states highlighting their sound.

A fashion icon?

AirPods are Apple’s first stab at wireless audio and while they have become immensely popular, they aren’t iPhones. That being said, they are quickly becoming a fashion statement despite their oddball looks just like the iPod was back in the mid-2000s, just like Apple-owned Beats headphones are abroad.

Rishi Seth, a PR professional based out of New Delhi believes they aren’t the nicest looking earphones but he swears by their functional nature. He also concedes that their popularity is increasing even in a country like India where he often sees people wearing them.

“I generally spot at least 20 people in airports/flights wearing AirPods and guess we’ve got accustomed to seeing others wearing them,” he said.

Even Kathuria claims that the fact they are from Apple makes them a bit of a luxury product which adds to their fashion quotient.

“About being a culture in India, it’s an Apple product. Apple has always had the upper hand in the whole ‘luxury’ segment in India. and it’s not uncommon to have come across a couple of knockoffs. I see at least one pair of knockoffs on a regular basis,” he says.

Raghav Somani perhaps summed up this phenomenon in the best possible way. “They’re not the best sounding earphones, they’re not the cheapest earphones, but everyone wants one. It sort of takes me back to the time in the early 2000s when the iPod became a fashion icon — with its white earphones becoming a real lifestyle statement announcing to the world who you are. I think AirPods are doing just that once again.”

Those who remember the origins of the iPod would remember that it wasn’t either the first MP3 player, not the best sounding one; it, however, was the most convenient one.

The new AirPods strive to improve on a solid foundation of the originals

The new AirPods may not be the visual update many hoped for, they represent an elevation in the overall AirPods experience. For instance, Apple claims improved battery life, improve the call quality and syncing has been made seamless between Apple gadgets.

Most reviews have also come out positively for a market like India. Reviewers have noted that it costs lesser than the first generation model which is a sigh of relief.

“An office colleague who is a hardcore audiophile and uses a pair of expensive Shure IEMs, swears by his AirPods just because they are so convenient to use,” states Ershad Kalebullah of Mr Phone, an India-based tech blog which focusses on mobile technology.

Its convenience is so good even some of the biggest technology analysts in India swear by it. Sanchit Vir Gogia who is the founder of Greyhound Research, when asked about AirPods 2, said, “ I cannot live without the AirPods 2,” highlighting the convenience of living in Apple’s ecosystem on a Twitter thread.

“The new AirPods have warmer undertones with a slight emphasis on bass. AirPods are best used for listening to track with vocals as the midrange and treble are clean and balanced. The overall sound does lack definition, however, that’s due to the sound leakage we mentioned,” states Akshay Bhalla who is technology editor of Men’s XP, India’s biggest lifestyle website. Bhalla is also a DJ in the electronic music circuit so his assessment of the audio fidelity holds a lot of weight.

“The new AirPods, in our opinion, is still the king of wireless earbuds as it offers balanced features such as good battery life, respectable performance and decent sound,” he added appreciating the balancing act Apple strikes with the new AirPods.

NDTV’s Roydon Crejo and Ali Pardiwala still think the first generation AirPods are almost equally good but represent better value as they are now cheaper. However, they do note one game-changing feature in the AirPods 2. They state, “If you use Siri a lot during your commute or take a lot of calls, spending the extra money for the second-generation AirPods might be worth it.”

All in all, Apple has taken a consumer-centric approach like Kalebulla states in his review. It has balanced between cutting edge features, audio quality and versatility while providing the usability that its gadgets are known for.

Hence the parallels with the iPod are undeniable. They may not be fashion statement the iPods became over the course of their lifecycle, but AirPods are well on their way to becoming one.




Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta

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Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta

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