Apple’s AirPods have always struck me as peculiar. Not just because of the shape, which is definitely odd, but the fact that so many owners rave about their $159 earbuds, despite admitting to mediocre sound. Surely the most important feature of any headphones sold for that price is the quality of the audio?
Nevertheless, I bought a pair at the urging of several of my colleagues. Now I get it. The AirPods experience is simply delightful in ways that fiddly Bluetooth headphones have yet to achieve. They’re so lightweight that I forget I’m wearing them and they make Siri surprisingly useful. The battery also lasts forever (in wireless terms), thanks to the clever charging case that also doubles as an iPhone stand.
But the sound… I had to do something about the sound.
Vlad Savov, our resident headphone expert, will be the first person to tell you how important fit is when it comes to audio. Remember, he’s the guy that unlocked the sound of an $1,800 pair of earphones using nothing more than some tips he scavenged from the bottom of a drawer. Since the AirPods are notoriously leaky due to their open-air design, that got me to thinking: what if I could close the air gap to simultaneously block ambient noises while increasing the bass response? That’s when I found this video on the PoltergeistWorksYouTube channel:
Looks easy, doesn’t it? So I tried it. The surgery lasted about 20 minutes, but the result… the result would have been worth two hours of work. My AirPods now have bass!
I wasn’t able to find white foam covers that could be delivered to my home in Amsterdam, so I settled for black which cost me just a few bucks per dozen. They look fine as the foam disappears into the ear — not that you could really make the AirPods look any worse. The black foam is also transparent enough under direct LED lighting that I could still mark the sensor locations using my daughter’s pink sparkly nail polish. I then used a disposable lighter to heat the business-end of a tiny screwdriver meant for eyeglass repair (about 60 seconds for each hole). I wasn’t able to burn the sensor holes as cleanly as the video, having to repeat the process a few times on all but one of the holes, but I was ultimately able to achieve the desired result without my fingers getting too burnt (though the tip of my thumb used to ignite the lighter is still numb 12 hours later).
The better sound, especially at the low end, is remarkable. And the better seal in my ear makes my hacked AirPods far more enjoyable in the gym where my aggressive music tastes have to compete with music playing on the loudspeakers, and the grunts and clanking of the human machinery all around. My colleague Dan Seifert who runs The Verge reviews program hacked his AirPods last week as well. Now he says that he doesn’t have to crank his AirPods as loudly on the train.
Sure, there are plenty of aftermarket tips you can buy for just a few dollars that achieve similar results. However, none of those products — usually made from a flexible silicone — fit inside the AirPods case. That means they have to be constantly taken on and off in order to charge the buds. The hacked foam covers, however, fit inside the charger case with only a slight resistance felt when closing the lid.
Like most hacks, the results aren’t flawless. Both Dan and I have experienced times when the foam slips to obscure the sensor openings, thus defeating functions like auto pause when removing an AirPod from an ear. Features like double-tap for Siri or to advance tracks are unaffected by the hack.
All this makes me wonder why, nearly a year after the AirPods went on sale, we still can’t buy a retail version of these foam covers with precision cutouts for the AirPods’ sensors. “I’d buy a four-pack in a heartbeat instead of dealing with this DIY crap,” said Seifert in his adorable surly style. And you know what? As satisfying as do-it-yourself is, I’d have to agree.