- Apple’s audio products might be its biggest unsung achievement.
- Even the iPhone speakers are good enough for music listening.
- It’s all about how the hardware and software are designed to work together.
Apple makes the most popular camera in the world, but does it also make the most popular audio products?
Think Apple, and you think iPhone and Mac, then probably iPad, and after, it’s probably the Apple Watch. When someone points out AirPods, you’ll say, “Of course!” but those are just an accessory, right? Except that Apple’s audio offering is extraordinary across the board. From its AirPods, through its HomePods, to the speakers in the MacBook Pro and the iPhone. They’re better than almost anything else, and we don’t even notice.
“I’ve got paired OG HomePods in my studio with a baffler-paneled wall behind them—the sound quality out of them is absolutely insane, and I strongly doubt it could be bettered without spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. There’s also an AppleTV connected to them, and as a cinema-watching experience, I much prefer them to the 7.1 home cinema system we have in the living room. The fact that they do both of these things so well is kinda miraculous, the demands of each are so different. They’re one of my favorite purchases of all time,” iPad-first musician FastGhost replied in a music forum post started by Lifewire.
Thanks to its size, even Apple’s smallest niche products are a big deal. In 2019, one estimate put Apple’s AirPods business alone at $175 billion. And that’s just an accessory line for Apple. The difference is Apple can bring considerable resources to minor problems if it wants to. In 2015, The Verge’s Chris Welch reported that 800 people were working on the iPhone’s camera.
Apple's audio has long been excellent. We remember the earbuds that came with the iPods because they were white, a great marketing trick when all other buds were black. But they also sounded better than most other in-ear buds. At that time, you'd have to buy 'proper' over-ear headphones to get good portable audio.
Today, the AirPods Pro 2 are absurdly good, not just for their size, but good, period. The jump from the original AirPods Pro is significant, and they can even hold their own against Apple's AirPods Max. The bass is startling, the noise-cancellation almost magical, and, with iOS 16.3, Apple seems to have finally solved auto-switching. They are always connected to the correct device when you switch between an iPad and an iPhone.
Less obvious, but equally important, are the speakers built-in to Apple's computers. The iPhone's built-in speaker is good enough for kitchen podcast listening and even for music while you cook. The iPad Pro can handle movie audio fine, and the current MacBook Pros have bass that will make you wonder whether you accidentally connected to some bigger speakers in the room. They're even good enough for musicians to make music on the go.
Equally impressive are the HomePods. These are precisely the things Apple is good at, marrying meticulous hardware design with matched software. And that's the other part of this equation: software.
Apple designs the hardware and the software that runs on it. In the big picture, this means it can put special chips like the Neural Engine into its computers to radically speed up its software when it processes video and images.
It also means that Apple can take the know-how from Spatial Audio and put it onto laptop speakers, for example. Owning the whole stack, as they say, and being able to develop the software and hardware together, allows tricks that would be impossible otherwise. Do you need your camera app to analyze each image trillions of times to process it? No problem. Just build a chip that can do it in a second.
“Apple’s work with spatial audio is simply next level, the amount of width they can get from small little laptop speakers just blows my mind. Also, the speakers they make for said laptop are incredible too. The noise canceling in the newest AirPod pros is scary good too,” music industry veteran and producer Erik Magrini, aka Tarekith, told Lifewire in a forum post.
This is why even the tiny AirPods and AirPods Pro have computer processors in them, why they work so well with other Apple gear, and why they can sound so good while being so small.
“[The AirPods Pro 2) completely blew my expectations in every aspect. It really is an incredible wireless earbud,” says audio nerd and headphone tester Zxphyre on Reddit.
Audio quality might not be something we consider when buying computers, just like we don't always consider screens. But these things are important. If you have been using Apple stuff for a while, you might only notice how good it is when you find yourself using non-Apple phones, earbuds, or laptops. It's easy to take this stuff for granted, but right now, at least, we can take a second to appreciate it.