Apple AirPods: Smart engineering meets shoddy design

If you’ll head to Apple’s page for the AirPods, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of geeky stuff mentioned there. What, for example, is a voice accelerometer? What really is the W1 chip that Apple’s so chuffed about?

Apple’s September Keynote has come and gone and I think I can safely say that there were no real surprises on the hardware front. That said, the AirPods certainly piqued my interest and they deserve a closer look.

If you’ll head to Apple’s page for the AirPods, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of geeky stuff mentioned there. What, for example, is a voice accelerometer? What really is the W1 chip that Apple’s so chuffed about?

Smart engineering

Before we break down the hardware, let’s break down what the AirPods’ capabilities.

  • AirPods can detect when they’re in your ear and when not.
  • Taking out one or both AirPods from your ear pauses media playback on your device. Playback resumes once they’re reinserted.
  • The AirPods are smart enough to detect when you start talking and turns on beam-forming microphones when you do.
  • Beam-forming microphones actively eliminate background noise and focus on your speech.
  • Siri is a double-tap away.
  • AirPods will sync across all signed in devices if you pair it with one device.

To enable all of this, Apple embedded a bunch of sensors in the AirPods.

Voice accelerometers

Apple AirPods: Smart engineering meets shoddy design

For me, the most intriguing part of the AirPods was the voice accelerometer. At first I assumed it was a mic, Apple is, after all, known to use fancy terminology for even the most basic devices.

Digging a little deeper, I discovered an Apple patent application that was filed all the way back to 2014. The patent mentions a Voice Activity Detector (VAD).

Image credit: Apple Insider

Image credit: Apple Insider

The VAD, which is an accelerometer, detects vibrations caused by the user, essentially detecting “voice activity.” When activity is detected, the AirPod will turn on microphones, noise-cancelling systems, etc.

Why would you do that? I assume it’s to cut-down on power consumption. An active microphone will consume more power than a passive accelerometer, which would trigger only when a certain frequency is reached.

While the patent was filed in 2013, it’s quite clear that the AirPods are using the same technology. As Apple Insider describes it, Apple is investigating “an enhanced headphone device that can recognize a user's voice, activates multiple on-board microphones, turns on a noise suppression system and directs beamforming mics toward a user's head.”

Motion sensors

Apple Motion Accelerometer Tech2 720

Apple claims to have embedded motion sensors into the AirPods as well. These sensors are meant to enable the double-tap-to-launch-Siri function.

Honestly, I believe this is among the more elegant solutions that Apple has come up with. A motion sensor will detect taps and eliminates the need for a physical or capacitive button entirely, making for a less cluttered exterior.

Infra-red sensors

Apple AirPod InfraRed sensor Tech2 720

The infra-red sensors are those black spots on either side of the speaker port

A pair of these are located on each AirPod, on either side on the part that enters your ear. These IR sensors, or light sensors, along with the motion sensors, determine if one or more AirPods are inserted into your ears.

Pulling an AirPod out lets light into the sensors. I’m not sure how this would work in the dark and will make a point to test this aspect when I get my hands on a review sample. My guess is that the motion sensor will assist in the dark.

Beam-forming microphones

airpods

Those ports at the bottom of the AirPods house the beam forming mics

These are used in just about every good microphone out there. Without getting too technical about it, this type of mic will cut out background clutter and focus on your voice frequencies. This ensures that your voice is registered clearly.

Paring and charging

Apple AirPods

Charging and pairing happens via the charging pod that comes with every set of AirPods. You flip the Pod open when near an iDevice and you’ll see a notification for pairing. You tap ‘Pair’ on the notifications and hold down a button on the Pod to pair.

One paired with one device, iCloud will be used to share pairing information with every device registered with that ID.

To charge the AirPods, simply pop them into the charging pod. The pod itself charges via a Lightning connector and works as a sort of power bank for your pods.

Apple claims that the Pod will provide 24 hours of charge and that your AirPods will run for 5 hours.

This last is nothing new. A great many wireless earphone makers have done the same in the past. Apple’s pairing mechanism is the only aspect that’s more simplified than the competition.

W1: The icing on the cake

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Apple’s custom-made W1 chip is what brings everything together. It’s the brains of your AirPods.

The W1 chip is a CPU or sorts, just like the A10 inside an iPhone 7 or the Snapdragon 820 in your Android device. It’s just an ultra-low power version of such chips.

All the sensors report to this chip and the chip manages the information and ensures that your AirPods respond appropriately.

Shoddy design

Apple AirPods Tech2 720

A small disclaimer before I begin: The following is entirely subjective and based on my experience with the Apple’s existing EarPods and a wide variety of IEMs and headphones. Your mileage may vary.

While I do believe that the AirPods are remarkable in terms of engineering, the ergonomics are the exact opposite.

Apple EarPod Tech2 640

These never sit well in my ears

First, the AirPods use the exact same ‘Pods’ as the EarPods. While the EarPods are good, they might even be the best bundled earphones that you can get with a smartphone (though that is a stretch), they would only qualify as acceptable in terms of audio quality.

I haven’t tested them for myself of course, but those who’ve tried the AirPods report that their fit and audio quality is exactly like the EarPods.

Paying Rs 15,000 for a set of earphones that sound exactly like their Rs 600 counterpart is just silly. Apple should have gone with a complete design overhaul.

The design is also an issue, for me anyway, because my EarPods don’t sit in my ears. I know a lot of people who face this issue as well. While that’s tolerable in a wired set that came bundled with your phone, would you want the same for a wireless set that costs more than a Redmi Note 3?

Worse than all of this is the fact that you need to access Siri to change the track or volume. To change volume, you literally need to double-tap an AirPod and ask Siri to raise the volume. Now that’s just silly. I also hope I'm wrong about this, but early reports indicate no other option.

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You can't really do workout with the AirPods. They'll simply fall out. Image: Jaybird

I could also rant about the fact that you need to keep the charging pod with you at all times, or that you can’t just hang the AirPods around your neck, but that would just be cruel.

Apple dropped the ball when it came to the AirPods’ ergonomics for sure.

The AirPods are a tech demo

I don’t like the AirPods, but I like what they represent. The only real flaws are design related.

The AirPods are a good showcase for what a good wireless headphone implementation can do. By licensing the technology to more capable third-parties like JBL, they’re doing the right thing.

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