AirPods: First hundred days

I am not an audiophile. I thought the AM radio (WLS) music coming out of the dash speaker on my Ford Falcon sounded pretty damn good. During the 70s I wore headphones four hours a day. I lived through the refrigerator sized speaker era. It all sounded good to me.

But the music never sounded as good as it does coming from the tiny Apple AirPods. Is that perceptual? Maybe. But all music is perceptual unless you have a spectrum analyzer implanted in your head.

I’ve never heard better, more natural, separation. I was listening to CSN&Y (on the highway) this morning and could hear acoustic guitars in my left ear (for lack of a more scientific description). Even that little raspy sounds made when the fingers are dragged along one of the base strings (?). I could shift my awareness to the base in my right ear. (Channel is a better word, isn’t it?) And the vocals were somewhere in the rear-center of my noggin.

It feels like I’m hearing these songs for the first time. I know, I know… this is old news to you pros with the big cans clamped to your head. And good for you.

I’m seeing more AirPods here in the coffee shop every week. If I’m familiar with the person I ask how they like them and why they decided to give them a try. Usually some variation of the story above.

There are probably a lot of good reason NOT to try AirPods. That they’re made by Apple is not one of them.

Augmented audio future?

These are the kinds of possibilities that moved me to buy AirPods.

“Maybe I’d hear updates about store hours or be able to identify places by looking in their direction. Or a museum audio tour could be triggered by your proximity to an exhibit. Maybe I’d get a smartly-tuned audio assistant that sounded like it was perched over my shoulder, perfectly blended to sound like it was in my world versus being delivered via headphones. Or, a universal translator. That’s exactly what the Waverly Labs’ Pilot is promising: the ability to hear a speaker of Spanish, French or Italian in English (or vice versa) in near real-time.”

Voice-to-text note using Siri via AirPods

I created a note on my iPhone using Siri and voice-to-text. (In a noisy coffee shop). Music is great on the AirPods but my primary reason for the purchase was to see if/how AirPods could change the way I interacted with the iPhone. Using Siri (far from perfect) to read messages and email; create and send messages and email; schedule reminders; etc. Without removing the phone from my pocket. [Video runs 20 sec]

Apple AirPods

I was going to wait a few days before sharing any thoughts on my new Bluetooth headphones but I’ve been so impressed by the initial experience I’m going to share a few first impressions.

  • I thought the regular Apple earbuds sounded fine but the audio quality of the AirPods is noticeably better. A lot better, IMO. Maybe a 25% improvement?
  • Lots of folks complain about how earbuds and the new AirPods feel in their ears. Never a problem for me. I kept them in for an hour two last night and they were so comfortable I forgot they were in. I felt no movement when shaking my head vigorously or jumping up and down. I have no concern about them falling out. I have no doubt I’ll be wearing (?) these more than the wired earbuds.
  • On that point, I was surprised by a new sense of freedom from the wire. (Like I said, this is my first experience with Bluetooth phones) Not having that little wire against my cheeks or snagging on a shirt button changes the experience far more than I would have expected. In a way that I can’t explain, the music feels like it’s in my head, instead of in my ears.
  • Phone calls – Barb says I’m much easier to understand on a call (compared to just talking on the iPhone). I think this might be the result of ambient noise filters built into the system.
  • Voice-to-text works great, even when speaking in lower-than-normal speaking level.

Still trying stuff (Siri commands/inquiries, etc) but these are keepers. Will it fundamentally change how I interact with the technology? To be determined.

There’s a word for that

You know that feeling where you say a word so often that it stops — for a few seconds — having any meaning? It’s just a sound your lips and tongue make? I’ll bet there’s a word for that but I don’t know what it is.

I’ve been thinking about the word “computer.” I use that word a lot. But it really doesn’t have much meaning (for me) any more. The earliest computers were big old room-size monsters that… computed numbers. Add, subtract, multiply, divide (and probably some other math stuff). So we called the machines computers.

And I guess there are lot of folks still computing on their computers but doesn’t it seem like there could be a better name? We’ve got “desktop” and “laptop” but those are more about where and how we use the machine.

Our phones are computers now but I’m not all that happy with the term “smart phone.” Better than “device” but still not great. Shoot, “digital assistant” was a better term than most of these but that won’t be back. And why didn’t “communicator” catch on? Good enough for the Star Trek crew.

In a few weeks I’ll be talking to Siri via AirPods. And god only knows what we’ll call the glasses we’ll one day be wearing.

AirPods

I spent some money on headphones back in the 70s. When I started at KBOA in ’72 all they had were these WWII-era Bakelite hockey pucks with a piece of vibrating tin inside.
headphones2

When I saw my first pair of Sennheiser open-air headphones (in a magazine) I ordered a pair and paid for them myself. And, yes, I took them into the studio for my shift and took them with me when done. They were pretty expensive (for the time) and a bit fragile. But I sounded soooo good in those headphones. More accurately, I could hear what I really sounded like and that was important.

Steve Mays KBOA control room

Fast forward several light years to the first iPods and the famous white earbuds that all serious music buffs hated. I loved them. They sounded fine to me and they fit my ears just fine. I’ve been using them ever since, pretty much every day.

In a few weeks Apple will start selling AirPods ($150) and I’ll buy a pair on Day One. And I might not be the only one. From Business Insider:

12% of U.S. consumers surveyed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch say they intend to purchase AirPods, apparently on the strength of Apple’s marketing, given that few people have actually seen and tried them out. This is a very bullish sign for Apple, says BAML. “12% of the US installed base could lead to up to an incremental $3bn in revenue,” writes the analysts.

“Apple’s marketing” is one explanation. Another might be that people like me have been using Apple earbuds for fifteen years and like them.

When the interface becomes invisible

There’s been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over Apple’s announcement there won’t be a headphone jack in the new iPhone. Eliminating the jack leaves more room inside the device and makes it more water resistant, which makes sense but Frank Swain (New Scientist) thinks there’s more going on here.

“Unlike visual interfaces, which demand your attention, audio provides an ideal interface for pervasive, background connectivity. The end goal is a more immersive type of computing, where the interface itself becomes invisible.”

I talk to my iPhone more and more. Google Now, Siri, text-to-speech. And my device (I just don’t think of it as a ‘phone’ these days) is getting better at “understanding” me and giving me the information I ask for.

But if Apple’s new bluetooth Air Pods work as Mr. Swain thinks they will, they might take us much closer to “a more immersive type of computing, where the interface itself becomes invisible.” Suspend your disbelief for a minute or two and imagine me sitting in my local coffee shop with my Air Pods in my ever-larger ears. I’m listening to Bob Dylan.

Siri: Excuse me, Steve, but you have a message from George Kopp. Would you like for me to read it to you? [George is on a VIP list of people I’ve told Siri I’d like to hear from when I’m doing other stuff]

Me: Yes, please.

Siri: George wants to know if you you’d like to have lunch at the fish place?

Me: Tell him I’d love to. What time?

Siri: I’ll check… George asks if noon is good for you?

Me: Tell him it’s a date.

[Later that morning]

Siri: The new John Sanford novel you pre-ordered on Amazon has shipped. Should arrive this Friday.

Me: Thanks, Siri. Put a link on my calendar to the description of the novel. I can’t recall what this one is about.

Siri: I’ve added a link. If you’d like, I can read you the description now…

Me: Okay. Please do [Siri starts to read the description, I remember, and tell her she can stop]

Siri has a standing order not to contact me between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., unless I get a call from someone on my VIP list. Next morning I pop in one of the AirPods…

Me: Good morning, Siri. What do I have on the calendar for today?

Siri: You’re joking, right? [I’ve programmed Siri to have a sense of humor where she thinks appropriate] Actually, you do have one item. Hattie has an appointment at the vet for her annual shots. 4 p.m.

Me: When was she last at the vet? [Siri has access to my calendar, of course)

Siri: Looks like March 8th of this year. There’s a PDF of the vet’s notes from that visit attached to the appointment on your calendar. Would you like for me to email that to you?

Me: No thanks, I remember now. What’s the big news this morning? [I’ve given Siri a list of topics I’m interested in and she augments that with what I’ve been reading and searching. She reads headlines]

Me: Wow. Can you play the audio (from YouTube clip) of Trump saying he thinks Putin is a great leader?

Siri: Of course. The clip runs 45 seconds.

I could go on (and on) but you get the idea. Before anyone freaks out about Siri… this could Google Now or Amazon Alexa or (fill in the blank). And I’ve given my digital assistant access to all or most of my accounts. (Hey, Siri… when is my VISA bill due?)

Not keen on having a robotic voice buzzing in your ear all day? Chill. It will be as natural and pleasant as any human voice you hear. Even better. [More examples]

Will it seem strange to hear and see people talking quietly to these digital assistants? At first. But it’s pretty common to see people talking via bluetooth devices now. When everyone has and uses this kind of tool, it won’t seem that odd. Remember it would have once seemed strange to see people walking down the street talking on a phone.

No, I don’t think Apple is simply trying to get rid of the little white wire hanging from our ears. This is about a new way of accessing and interacting with all of the information in the world.