December 13, 2016: After months of anticipation and delay, Apple finally releases AirPods. The tiny wireless earbuds arrive in Apple’s online store just in time for holiday shoppers looking for stocking stuffers.
Like so many Apple products, they aren’t the first such earbuds to arrive on the scene. However, their rapid success will fuel a wireless listening revolution.
Original AirPods launch in 2016
Apple unveiled AirPods — little white earbuds that looked like EarPods with the cords cut off — during the iPhone 7 event in September 2016. During the presentation, the company revealed its seemingly mad plan to “courageously” kill off the headphone jack. The decision drew immediate fire from pragmatic Apple fans. And AirPods — the new wireless earbuds that would benefit from the decision — faced immediate mockery for looking like electric toothbrush heads.
But Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing at the time, crystallized the features that ultimately would make AirPods so successful.
“AirPods are the first headphones to deliver a breakthrough wireless audio experience, and with the new Apple W1 chip they deliver innovative features including high quality sound, great battery life and automatic setup,” said Schiller in a press release. “AirPods are simple and magical to use, with no switches or buttons, automatically connecting to all your Apple devices simply and seamlessly, and letting you access Siri with just a double tap. We can’t wait for users to try them with iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2.”
Originally scheduled to launch in October 2016, unexplained audio glitches delayed AirPods‘ ship date. However, once they became available, it didn’t take long for them to conquer the world.
By May 2017, AirPods had racked up the highest customer-satisfaction rating yet for a first-year Apple product. An astonishing 98% of owners reported they were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with Apple’s new wireless earbuds.
AirPods did look weird out of the gate
In reality, the tiny white “ear fangs” did look weird at first. Their long, white stems — without the trailing white wires we’d grown accustomed to — looked unnatural and definitely took some getting used to.
While they seemed reasonably acceptable in Apple’s glamour shots, they looked far less aesthetically palatable in the ears of normal folks who weren’t super-fit athletes. And some people, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, never figured out how to wear them properly.
Still, AirPods’ ease of use and broad compatibility with Apple’s sprawling ecosystem set them up for success. Apple’s proprietary W1 chip gave the earbuds superpowers, essentially banishing the flakiness of Bluetooth. And while AirPods worked with non-Apple devices, they truly shined with iPhones, iPads and Macs.
The magic of AirPods and Apple’s W1 chip
The magic started with the AirPods pairing process. iPhone owners simply flipped open the dental-floss-size AirPods case, and a lovely pairing sheet appeared. But the magic didn’t stop there. Cupertino wisely synced the pairing information via iCloud, making AirPods instantly available on users’ other Apple devices.
Built-in sensors that detected when AirPods were inserted into ear canals, and when they were removed, added to the magic. Suddenly you could start or stop your music or podcast simply by slipping an AirPods in your ear. Customization options, and the ability to use either AirPod by itself, added to the earbuds’ versatility. And the original AirPods’ clever tap controls made them even easier to use.
Despite audiophiles’ objections, the original AirPods sounded just fine to most folks.
Apple builds on AirPods’ success
Never content to rest on its laurels, Apple released second-gen AirPods on March 20, 2019. With a new (and also proprietary) H1 chip, they paired even more quickly. They also added “Hey Siri” support and came with an (optional) wireless charging case. By this point, AirPods totally dominated the wireless earbuds market.
AirPods Pro — with active noise cancellation and a shorter, curved stem design — came later that year. AirPods Max, Apple’s premium over-the-ear headphones with that same H1 chip, arrived in December 2020 with an eye-watering $549 price tag. And AirPods 3, with a design similar to AirPods Pro and a MagSafe wireless charger, arrived on October 18, 2021.
The third-gen AirPods added even more audio tricks to the mix.
“AirPods forever changed wireless headphones with their groundbreaking design, incredible sound, and magical experience,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing in a press release. “We are excited to introduce the next generation of AirPods, featuring unrivaled sound through Adaptive EQ and spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, along with seamless interaction between Apple devices — making the world’s best-selling headphones even better.”
An audio world without wires
Obviously, the world eventually got used to looking at earbuds without wires. Now everybody’s wearing them (except for some Gen Z hipsters hell-bent on embracing the wired past).
A wave of competitors drove down the price and offered audio quality at least as good as Apple’s offerings. But the seamless way AirPods slide into the Apple ecosystem makes them virtually impossible to beat for anyone with an iPhone, Mac or iPad.
These days, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a world without AirPods. And Apple’s contentious move to eliminate the headphone jack ultimately spurred a sideline that generates billions of dollars a year in revenue. That’s more than just courageous. It’s genius, and that’s what Apple does.