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The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Apple AirPods

Scorned initially as “expensive cigarette butts,” these earbuds are now among the most successful ever

4 min read
Apple AirPods
“Expensive Cigarette Butts”: Though derided by many upon their introduction, AirPods went on to become one of Apple’s strongest product introductions, with some 25 million pairs sold in the first two years.
Photo: Apple

Quite a few gizmos languished before being loved. But AirPods are in a class by themselves: You would be hard-pressed to think of another consumer product that went from being so mocked to so many millions sold.

In September 2016, Phil Schiller, Apple‘s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, announced the US $159 AirPods wireless earphones at an event in San Francisco. “It makes no sense to tether ourselves with cables to our mobile devices,” he said.

As far as pretty much everybody was concerned, when it came to earphones, it most certainly did make sense to rely on those tethers. As you may have noticed, earbuds pop out of people’s ears rather frequently. And when they’re untethered, there’s nothing to keep them from getting crunched underfoot, dunked in a puddle, or simply lost in the shuffle.

Nor did it make sense to have to charge your headphones. And it really didn’t make much sense to shell out $130 more for AirPods than for EarPods, Apple’s earphones with wires. And if all that weren’t enough, AirPods were doofy-looking too, with their weird stems. “Expensive and easy-to-lose cigarette butts,” one reviewer opined upon first encountering them.

AirPods turned out to be so advanced they overcame all those negatives.

Woman wearing Apple AirPods. Ear Bling: AirPods are “one size fits all,” which of course means they don’t fit some people at all. Unlike most earphones, there are no replaceable ear tips. But for those who can use them, the fit has proven to be secure. Photo: Apple

For starters, AirPods didn’t (and don’t) fall out anywhere near as often as people originally feared. Not everyone’s earholes are the same shape, and AirPods fit some people better than others. But, generally speaking, for most people they stay put. An AirPod’s stem also helps it remain seated in the ear, which appears to have been a serendipitous benefit. The stems actually serve a function: They house the AirPods’ Bluetooth electronics and batteries. Apple engineers designed them that way because they wanted to reserve the space inside the bulbous buds for whatever they needed to achieve the best sound reproduction they could manage.

One of the critical features of AirPods is the incorporation of a system-in-a-package that Apple designed called the W1 (some wireless headphones from Beats Electronics, which Apple bought in 2014, also incorporate the W1). This system-in-a-package is a group of integrated circuits packaged together that includes essentially all the product’s electronics. Apple similarly integrated much of the Apple Watch’s electronics in a single package called the S1. Apple hasn’t talked much about the W1 (or the S1, for that matter).

Most reviewers agree that among all wireless headphones, AirPods excel when it comes to maintaining a Bluetooth connection with whatever device they’re paired with, and that’s due to the W1. Using Bluetooth to connect two devices first requires that the two be electronically paired. Doing so usually requires only a few swipes and taps, but it’s still a process, one that typically has to be repeated every time two devices that were previously paired are to be reconnected. Once you pair earphones that are equipped with a W1 to an Apple device, however, subsequent pairing is automatic. Further, the auto-pairing automatically extends to any other Apple device on the same account.

Bluetooth headphones are notorious for occasional interruptions. But such dropouts rarely happen with W1-equipped headphones, users say. Also, earphones and headphones equipped with W1s have pretty good battery life; Apple says that’s a function of superior discharge management, also performed by the W1.

As a matter of policy Apple doesn’t provide technical detail, so techies are left to speculate about how the company pulled all this off. One theory is that Apple is using Bluetooth 1 rather than its successor, Bluetooth 2. Earphones often use Bluetooth 2 because it draws less power than 1. But power translates into range, and the simple fact that AirPods have great range suggests that they’re using Bluetooth 1. Another popular idea is that Apple might have implemented some of the features of Bluetooth 5, the current version, in the W1.

Apple also faced challenges incorporating microphones into its AirPods. In normal, wired earbuds equipped for telephony, the microphone is perhaps 8 centimeters down on the left-ear wire. But AirPods have no wires, so the microphones had to be on the buds themselves, where they are poorly positioned to pick up sounds from the user’s mouth. To overcome this obstacle, the pods incorporate a device called a voice accelerometer, on which Apple has at least one patent. The accelerometer “recognizes when you’re speaking and works with a pair of beamforming microphones to filter out external noise and focus on the sound of your voice,” according to Apple’s website.

AirPods also include optical sensors and motion accelerometers that work with the W1 chip to automatically control the audio and engage the microphone. These sensors enable AirPods to determine if and when the buds are inserted in a user’s ears. That lets the pods start playing music as soon as they’re in your ears or cease playing when one or both are removed.

Apple doesn’t break out sales of AirPods, but a widely cited estimate suggests that it shipped 14 million to 16 million AirPods in 2017. That’s not bad, but there were approximately 700 million iPhones in use in 2017, so only about 2 percent of all iPhone users bought AirPods that year (and keep in mind that AirPods work just fine with Android phones, too). The same analyst believes the company probably doubled its sales of AirPods in 2018 and projects that the number of shipments might be as high as 80 million in 2020.

Apple seems to regard AirPods, and also the Apple Watch, as falling into the “wearables” category. So it doesn’t take a hyperactive imagination to see the earphones (together with the watch) as a critical pivot point for one of the world’s most successful consumer electronics manufacturers at a time when it needs to find a successor to its popular iPhone—and amid predictions that smartphone sales are going to start sagging in the foreseeable future.

A reviewer who was once thoroughly critical of AirPods recently relented, writing “AirPods may be the archetypal Apple product…. Right now you couldn’t wrestle our AirPods from our hands.” It’s music to Apple’s ears.

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