EarPods and AirPods: Here’s What Changed With the iPhone 7

New Apple AirPods and EarPods

Confused about Apple’s new EarPods and AirPods? Here’s what you need to know | Stephen Lam/Getty Images

When Apple introduced the iPhone 7, it also took the wraps off of two new accessories: a redesigned pair of EarPods and the all-new AirPods. The new headphones options come to us courtesy of the latest of Apple’s controversial design choices: the decision to eliminate the legacy 3.5mm headphone jack from the bottom of the iPhone 7 and create headphones that plug in to the Lightning port instead.

The new pair of Apple EarPods that ships with the iPhone 7 features a Lightning connector. The optional pair of AirPods, which Apple will sell separately, connects wirelessly to the phone via Bluetooth. Additionally, an adapter included with the iPhone 7 enables you to use a pair of headphones you’ve already got.

In other words, if you’re planning on buying the new iPhone 7, you have several choices for how you’ll listen to music or make calls with a pair of earbuds. You can use wired earbuds that plug in to the Lightning port (like the EarPods that come in the box). Or, you can connect a pair of Bluetooth wireless headphones, like the company’s newly introduced AirPods. Alternately, you can plug in the included adapter to use a pair of “normal” wired headphones of the type that would typically plug in to the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Still confused about what’s going on with EarPods, AirPods, Lightning connectors, and Bluetooth connections? Ahead, you can catch up on everything you need to know about Apple’s EarPods and AirPods and why Apple made such big changes to such a small accessory.

What are Apple EarPods?

EarPods during a launch event for the iPhone 7

Apple’s new EarPods connect to the iPhone 7 via the Lightning port, not a traditional headphone jack | Stephen Lam/Getty Images

EarPods are the earbuds that Apple includes with the purchase of a new iPhone. With the introduction of the iPhone 7, the pair of EarPods that’s included in the box will no longer plug in to a traditional headphone jack. They’ll connect to the Lightning port instead. The Lightning port is the same one that you use when you charge your phone, or sync it with iTunes on your computer using a USB cable. The obvious drawback with this system, of course, is that you can’t charge the iPhone 7 or the iPhone 7 Plus while headphones are plugged in to the Lightning port.

The pair of EarPods that comes with the iPhone 7 is identical to the pair that comes with the iPhone 6s with the exception of the Lightning connector in the place of the 3.5mm plug at the end. The cable is equipped with the same microphone and volume controls, which means that these EarPods are just as useful for making calls or listening to music. The EarPods that come with the iPhone 7 can be used with any device that’s equipped with a Lightning port, as far back as the iPhone 5 and the fifth-generation iPod Touch. So if you buy a new iPhone 7, you can use the EarPods that come with it on many other Apple devices.

As Jared Newman reports for MacWorld, Phil Schiller mentioned at Apple’s iPhone 7 even that it’s the Lightning connection on the company’s new EarPods that will enable new features like adaptive noise cancellation and higher-quality audio without an external power source. However, Apple “didn’t mention any noise-canceling or other fancy features in the new EarPods,” and instead spent more time asking about the wireless AirPods that it’s selling separately (more on those shortly).

Why did Apple change its EarPods?

A new Apple iPhone 7 with the Lightning port for Lightning connected EarPods

The new iPhone 7 features only a Lightning port, no headphone jack for the EarPods to plug into | Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Now that you understand how Apple’s EarPods have changed, you may be wondering why they’ve changed. Theories on this vary according to your view of Apple, your confidence in its design choices, and your level of attachment to the headphones you’ve accumulated over the years. But generally, the consensus is that Apple changed its EarPods to help phase out the headphone jack and to push the industry toward wireless headphones.

Ian Bogost reports for The Atlantic that the introduction of the new EarPods and AirPods are as much about killing off the headphone jack as they are about how Apple “sells its controlling ways as futurism.” He explains, “Apple portrays the removal of a century-old standard like the analog audio port as the ongoing expression of the company’s bold and unrelenting nature.” Bogost reports that two of Apple’s other forced obsolescences — the removal of the floppy drive upon the 1998 launch of the iMac and the absence of the optical drive from 2008’s MacBook Air — “felt similarly aggressive at the time,” but have been largely forgotten today.

Nonetheless, Bogost points out that “Apple’s aggressive battle against the retrograde pull of hardware standards also exerts an implicit control on its users.” Apple’s choices to support or remove specific standards amplifies the tendencies already present in the market. Removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 might seem hostile, like removing the floppy disk and the optical disk did in 1998 and 2008. But in Boost’s assessment, the bigger picture is that “Apple’s influence and success has seen its design choices colonize competing products and services, from Android to Windows. The future that those choices helped create has become our present. Second nature. It’s hard to imagine an alternative.”

What are Apple AirPods?

Apple wireless AirPods are tested during a media event at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California on September 07, 2016. / AFP / Josh Edelson

Apple’s new wireless AirPods connect via Bluetooth, not via the Lightning connector or a headphone jack | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Apple AirPods, as opposed to the EarPods, are the company’s new wireless earbuds. A pair of AirPods costs $159 and is an optional purchase (i.e., AirPods don’t come with the iPhone 7 and aren’t free with the purchase of an iPhone 7). They’re powered by a new ultra low-power chip, called the W1, which operates at a third of the power of traditional wireless chips and enables the AirPods to deliver “high-quality AAC audio.” The AirPods last for five hours of listening on a charge, and you can recharge the AirPods in the included charging case, which provides 24 hours of total listening time. You’ll recharge the case, in turn, via a Lightning port.

While Apple didn’t explicitly mention Bluetooth when it announced its new AirPods, or make promises about compatibility with non-Apple Bluetooth devices, the AirPods store page does confirm that they support Bluetooth. AirPods are equipped with optical sensors and accelerometers, which work with the W1 chip to detect when the AirPods are in your ear or determine when you’re talking. You can use one or both, and they’ll only play when you’re ready to listen. You can remove them from your ears to automatically pause the music, or you can move one to have a conversation and your music will automatically resume when you put it back.

The accelerometer in each AirPod detects when you’re speaking and enables a pair of beam-forming microphones to focus on the sound of your voice and filter out external noise. You can access Siri with a double tap to the AirPods to select and control music, change the volume, check your battery life, or complete any other task with Siri. When you pair your AirPods with your iPhone, they’ll automatically pair with other iOS 10, watchOS 3, or macOS devices signed into your iCloud account. But as Daring Fireball’s John Gruber reports, “they can most certainly be used as regular old Bluetooth ear buds with an Android device or a Mac running a pre-Sierra OS or whatever. The pairing button is on the case, not the AirPods.”

Do you need AirPods?

The newly announced Apple AirPods is seen during on a screen a launch event on September 7, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Apple Inc. is expected to unveil latest iterations of its smart phone, forecasted to be the iPhone 7. The tech giant is also rumored to be planning to announce an update to its Apple Watch wearable device.

Deciding whether you want to spend $159 on the AirPods requires some thinking about whether you like Bluetooth headphones in the first place | Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Considering whether you should plan to buy a pair of AirPods? Then don’t forget to take a look at the downsides, too. One of the biggest drawbacks of wireless headphones, no matter how great their reliability or their sound quality, is that you’ll need to remember to charge them. (Not only that, but you’ll also need to remember to charge the charging case.) Both the AirPods and the charging case are small devices that will likely prove easy to misplace, which is another peril of earbuds that aren’t connected to each other and also aren’t perpetually tangled into a knot at the bottom of your backpack.

While it’s useful that the AirPods have built-in microphones for taking calls or talking to Siri, it’s annoying that you need to use them for everything, even controlling the volume or switching tracks. Steve Kovach reports for Business Insider that though the wired EarPods have volume controls, the AirPods have no such buttons, and you’ll have to either take your iPhone out to change the track or control the volume, or ask Siri to do it. That may seem like a step back if you’re already used to adjusting the volume of your favorite playlist right from your EarPods.

But plenty of people are enthusiastic about Bluetooth headphones despite the drawbacks that bother others. Even if you’re ready to make the switch to wireless, you should keep in mind that Apple isn’t the only company making wireless headphones. As Billy Steele reports for Engadget, plenty of companies make wireless earbuds that feature activity and heart-tracking tools, features that aren’t present in Apple’s AirPods. And earbuds like Doppler Labs’ Here put you in control of the sound around you, even enabling you to selectively reduce unwanted noise and amplify speech. The point? Even if you’re sold on the idea of wireless headphones, it pays to do your research and make sure that Apple’s AirPods are the right pair for you.