Apple AirPods — A retrospect on why I went back to my Shure IEMs

I’ve used various types of wireless earphones over the years, the most recent being the Apple AirPods. When it comes to Bluetooth earphones, Apple’s AirPods are technologically ahead of the competition in my opinion. No matter how you feel about how they look, they are designed well while still packing in a ton of technology in a compact form factor and user-friendly way that others just haven’t.

For example, charging the AirPods is made effortless without the use of any visually offensive or obviously exposed contacts. The AirPods’ charging contacts are incorporated into the design itself (just like smartphones with wireless charging, you don’t see the charging coil or contacts), so it appears invisible to the user. The only visible contacts are inside at the bottom of the charging case where the AirPods will instantly begin charging when touched. Simply, drop an AirPod into the corresponding slot and they stay in place without any other user interaction. Unlike competing wireless earphones the AirPods don’t need to be clipped or snapped in. Instead, they are magnetically held in place. Making one less action to worry about and replacing it with one that makes sense and is user friendly is just a good design choice.

Apple’s custom W1 chip (H1 in the new AirPods) is another good piece of technology added in, making one’s life a bit easier. One of it’s functions aims at eliminating a few user interactions that Bluetooth generally requires when pairing a new device. Normally, you would go into the Bluetooth settings, tapping or pressing a button on the connecting device and then either entering a 4-digit or greater code or taping another button to acknowledge the code to complete the pairing process or something similar. The W1 chip has made that essentially disappear by simply holding down the button on the AirPods case and letting the two devices do all the work (aka handshake). In about 5 seconds they’re paired and you’re done. One action and that’s it.

The W1 chip also performs a number of other functions as well, such as controlling the optical sensors and motion accelerometer that detect when the AirPods are in your ears. Making it possible for audio to pause when you take one of them out of your ear and then resume playback once you put it back. This also includes actions like tapping an AirPod to play or pause audio because there are no physical controls. Controlling the microphones by detecting which one or both are in your ears during a call or when using Siri and activates the appropriate microphone. The W1 chip does quite a bit of work all while simultaneously managing the battery power.

Overall, I think AirPods are probably the closest we’ve gotten so far from a functionality stand point to the truly wireless dream. That said, while AirPods do have a lot going for it, it’s not without a few downsides. First, off the design of the earphone itself does not work well with all ear sizes and shapes. Although, the shape and size is based off of the human ear, it’s not a one size fits all design. So, if your ears aren’t close to that of the AirPods, they just won’t fit correctly. Then there’s the one thing Airpods do fall short on and that is sound.

While, the AirPods apparently do produce decent, balanced sound, they are nowhere near the level of similarly priced in-ear-monitors (IEM). That’s because they’re limited by their narrow sound stage, open-ear design and lastly Bluetooth itself. Now for things like podcasts, audio books and light music listening I think the AirPods are just fine. Their convenience and decent sound work well for that type of listening but, for us die hard audio fans, we need much more when it comes to serious music listening. User-friendliness, and convenience is great but when your sole purpose falls short in comparison to all your other attributes it’s pretty much a non-starter for music lovers who expect more than just average sound quality for their money.

Using Bluetooth introduces a problem that plaques all earphones and headphones alike and is part of why we aren’t living the dream of a totally wireless future. Using the Shure SE846 only to focus on a few pertinent points of interest it was quite easy to hear not only the differences between wired and wireless connections but the underlying issues with AirPods and how they are compounded which undermines what could be at minimum a good sound experience.

While the Shure’s do sound better over a Bluetooth connection than the AirPods they still suffer and even more so because they deliver a richer and more immersive audio experience to say the least. The entire process of converting sound from an analog signal to a digital signal and back to analog again causes degradation to the audio stream itself over a Bluetooth connection that just doesn’t happen over a wired connection. The Shure’s exhibited this even more because they have such a wide sound stage and picks up nuances that the AirPods can’t until you start raising the volume but once you start doing so sound distort begins to creep in. AirPods just aren’t designed to handle higher decibels like the Shures. When it comes to music people either compress it in order to fit more of it on their devices or purchase or stream it in which case it is usually already compressed. Now, compound this with the conversion that Bluetooth does and the sound becomes even further degraded making the sound even less like how it was originally recorded. AirPods lack of a wider, deeper and louder sound stage and open ear design can’t deliver what could be a minimum a good listening experience under these circumstances especially at. Listening to any kind of audio in loud surroundings or a place that just deadens sound causes the AirPods to sound extremely quite due to their open air design making using them less desirable.

Audio does fair better at 320-bit compression all the way up to completely uncompressed but not by much as the problems still remain. While using a Bluetooth connection is pretty much wasted on the Shure’s I still enjoy them far more than the AirPods during my commutes as they still manage to produce superior sound and have good sound isolation. The AirPods user friendliness, convenience and open ear design make them better suited for when I run, allowing me to still hear things around me and where their narrow sound stage isn’t an issue. For these reasons I’ve gone back the using my Shure’s for everything else except running.

If AirPods get a better sound stage in a future version by making it wider, deeper and louder they would definitely appeal to more people. As far fit I think Apple needs to create and in-ear-monitor AirPod (not Beats please) which works better for the rest of us. Until then workouts is the only time my AirPods will generally be used which is unfortunate because of all the other great technology inside them. Just another case of using technology for the sake of convenience does not win out.


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