AirPods are smartish

Next year is going to be interesting. I’m hoping to save up enough to buy a Vision Pro and experience a new world of audio and visual. Until then, I get the sense (and hear from those who have tried it) that AirPods are the first true dip into an augmented reality world; at least for the masses. I’ve thought about writing this post a handful of times in the past week, but kept thinking it wasn’t worth the energy. A recent discussion on Connected convinced me that I’m not the only one.

I’ve owned a handful of AirPods at this point, and the AirPods Pro 2 are nothing short of amazing. If they died today I’d immediately grab my original Pros and put them on, then drive to the nearest Walmart to buy another pair. They’re that good.

I can limit the world around me while I work, listen to a podcast while running, use them for video calls and music, and generally augment my audio experience however I want. For someone who works at a computer much of the day this is a joy. There’s little chance I’d ever go back to a world without these.

The noise cancelling is so good that I can keep the volume lower, which is a plus for my ears; where louder sounds tend to feel overwhelming. Given that these sit in my ears for hours on end, I’ve even limited how high they can go on the decibels, out of concern for my ears in my older years.

When Apple announced Adaptive audio and Conversational Awareness at WWDC I was more excited about these features than any other updates for Apple hardware (the hardware I own at least). Then I tried them.

Here’s the thing about active noise cancellation (ANC). It’s amazing. It changes how I perceive the world. It turns a miserable airplane ride into something a little less horrid. It quiets everything at a co-working space, and even dims the yells of happy children right outside my office. I love AirPods, and the ANC part of it is fantastic.

AirPods Pros 2 are a massive improvement over their predecessors; with one weird exception where the devices themselves are sensitive to touch, so laying on my side on a pillow, or brushing a finger against them “feels” off. But that aside, I use these exclusively and my originals sit in my closet.

So, with that context, I was extremely excited to test out the new features in the beta. I tried them, and even told my wife that they’d make conversation easier since my device would now understand we were talking and automatically adjust the audio for it.

It’s not good enough.

Within a few days I disabled both features entirely and went back to my normal AirPods modes. The conversational awareness triggered at times when I didn’t want it, and the adaptive audio felt finicky. It wasn’t reliable enough. I couldn’t trust that it would just work and behave in the way that my brain expected.

I thought I’d write more about it, but it just feels off and not worth shifting from the already amazing experience I have now.

Maybe things will improve in future software and hardware updates, but for now I’m back to toggling between Transparency Mode and Noise Cancellation mode; and frankly that’s enough. I either pull out my AirPods when I need to talk to someone, or switch to Transparency mode if I’m expecting a quick response.

That aside, I’m excited to see how Apple continues to push these into the future. I’ll instantly buy a new generation, which has me wondering about the new USB-C announcement last week.