AirPods at five: Quintessential Apple magic

AirPods 2 with charging case
AirPods 2 with charging case (Image credit: iMore)

AirPods and Apple Watch

AirPods and Apple Watch (Image credit: iMore)

Five years in, it's fair to say Apple's AirPods have revolutionized the wireless headphone market. Sure, they weren't the first true wireless earbuds to launch (when is Apple ever first to do anything?), but they were certainly the most polished offering when they arrived in 2016 and they so clearly lit the touch-paper of a nascent market.

At the time of their launch, I was amazed by just how simple the AirPods were. Looking back, I think AirPods are my favorite Apple product of the last five years.

Apple magic

The main selling points of AirPods were the things that they removed. Gone were the wires that so often got tangled up in your bag or pocket and they also ditched the neckband between the earbuds that was common in Bluetooth earbuds at the time.

Just as importantly, the finicky pairing process that Bluetooth earbuds necessitated was also axed. Instead, it was replaced by an ingenious one-tap pairing process that set them up with all of your Apple devices.

"These magical wireless headphones use advanced technology to reinvent how we listen to music, make phone calls, enjoy TV shows and movies, play games and interact with Siri, providing a wireless audio experience not possible before. — Apple"

Despite being truly wireless, Apple's first-party W1 wireless chip meant that the connection was established quickly and remained stable while also maintaining industry-leading battery life. Tight integration with iOS meant that you could easily check the battery life in the Batteries widget and Find My integration came soon after so you could find lost AirPods.

The charging case was novel in its design, much smaller than those offered by competing products with magnets to keep the AirPods in place. It was also super tactile with its clicky lid making it a joy to open and close.

Even with the first-generation model, I never had any issues with the earbuds getting out of sync or dropping out. There was virtually no lag between hitting play on my iPhone and music starting in my ears, and the auto-pausing enabled by built-in proximity sensors felt like quintessential Apple magic. The diminutive case meant I could take my AirPods with me everywhere and the ease of pairing meant I could use them so much more often than previous Bluetooth headphones.

Few products epitomize Apple at its best more so than AirPods. Super simple setup, the tight integration of Apple-designed hardware and software, and a premium design that seems so obvious in retrospect.

Iconic design

Though the AirPods design was mocked at launch, it didn't take long for them to become a cultural phenomenon. While some people mocked the shape by cutting the wires off their EarPods, Apple was helping others cut the proverbial cord with AirPods.

Apple's first AirPods ad, pitching them alongside the headphone jack-less iPhone 7, is among the company's best. It showcased the ease of pairing, the freedom a truly wireless earbud enabled, and AirPods' auto-pausing magic in the coolest way. That ad is up there with the iPod silhouette campaign that made Apple's white earbuds so iconic. The shape of Apple's AirPods has since become just as recognizable and Apple is even leaning into it with its latest AirPods 3 ad.

AirPods are everywhere these days and the design, though it has changed a bit over the last five years, is instantly recognizable. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Apple should probably be pleased that its AirPods design is often cribbed by competitors just like the white wired earbuds of yore were.

Only getting better

Airpods 3 With Case Right Earbud Lying In Front Of Case

Airpods 3 With Case Right Earbud Lying In Front Of Case (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

Since their 2016 launch, AirPods have continued to improve both in terms of hardware and software to ensure they remain the best true wireless earbuds on the market.

The move from the W1 chip to the H1 chip in today's AirPods allowed for hands-free "Hey Siri" commands, faster automatic switching between devices, and improved battery life. The case gained wireless charging and even MagSafe compatibility in the latest models.

In the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro, gone are the on-ear tapping gestures that reverberated in your ear, replaced instead with more elegant on-stem controls. Spatial audio provides for a more immersive listening experience and the active noise cancellation of the Pro model is a must-have for many. AirPods Max ups the ante on sound quality even further with an over-ear design.

AirPods technology has also been shared across Apple's Beats products too allowing for several AirPods-like products with different shapes and sizes to meet different needs.

Only five years into AirPods' existence, we've seen Apple become a powerhouse in the audio space. I can't wait to see what the next five years bring.

Adam Oram

Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.