Pods move internationally

Five ways iOS 14 makes your AirPods better

Jason Cross

If you upgrade your iPhone this fall, your AirPods will perform better and sound better. The Pro models in particular have exciting new functions.

Software-based headphones are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a software update can degrade an otherwise perfectly functioning accessory - with some AirPods Pro firmware updates, users complained of reduced noise reduction or problems with battery life. On the other hand, your accessories can simply get better over time with new features and expanded functionality.

This is exactly what happens with the AirPods on iOS 14 (and other Apple operating system updates in the fall like macOS Big Sur, tvOS 14 and watchOS 7). If you own AirPods or AirPods Pro, you'll find that they work better with your other Apple devices. Here are the five big improvements coming this fall to the way AirPods work with your other Apple products.

01 Automatic device switching

One of the nice things about AirPods is that they automatically sync with other Apple devices signed in with your Apple ID. Once you pair them with your iPhone, they will automatically pair with your Mac, Apple TV, iPad, etc.

However, you still have to go to Bluetooth settings or audio playback controls to switch to your AirPods, and that is a little annoying.

EnlargeYour Airpods will soon switch devices automatically and seamlessly.

With iOS 14 and the other new operating systems coming out this fall, your AirPods can automatically switch between devices. Let's say you're listening to music on your iPhone with your AirPods, then stop and start playing a YouTube video on your MacBook. Your AirPods will then automatically switch to MacBook output. Then when a phone call comes in on your iPhone, it switches back to that device.

02 Spatial audio for AirPods Pro

When you're watching a movie or playing a game in surround sound on your iPhone, you can hear it in surround sound on your AirPods Pro. Your AirPods Pro reproduces a virtual surround experience (similar to software such as Dolby Atmos for Heaphones or DTS Headphone: X).

EnlargeAirPods Pro get spatial audio recordings that shift as you move your head or device.

This is difficult to do in a mobile environment because the sound has to shift as you move your iPhone or turn your head. Apple actually compares the gyroscope and accelerometer data from your iPhone and AirPods Pro to rotate the sound field as needed so it always sounds like it is going "forward" towards the screen. However, this feature is only available on the AirPods Pro. If you have regular AirPods, you'll only hear regular stereo.

03 Improvements to the battery

Starting with iOS 13, Apple added optimized battery charging to the iPhone and iPad. The same feature was introduced for Macbooks in macOS Catalina 10.15.5. It's a feature that learns the way you use your device and then doesn't fully charge it when it determines that a full charge is not necessary. With iOS 14, this function is used with AirPods. Fully charging the lithium-ion batteries in your devices and then leaving them with a full charge (especially in a warm place) will shorten the overall life of the batteries. So if you don't need a full charge, it's best if you don't have one.

EnlargeIt's hard to believe it took so long for the low battery warnings to display properly on the AirPods.

Optimizing charge capacity to extend battery life isn't the only new feature. You now get a nice little popup notification warning you that your AirPods are almost empty so you won't be surprised if the music stops playing or suddenly you can't hear that Zoom conference call.

04 Hearing health and sound adjustments

There's a new feature in the Accessibility section of the Settings app that won't just be useful for people with hearing impairments. With headphone sound adjustments, you can amplify soft sounds and fine-tune the sound output to make things clearer. There's even a custom settings feature that lets you choose which of the two sounds sounds better. I am not hard of hearing, but I am 46 years old and no longer have the ears of a young person. I noticed an immediate and substantial improvement in the clarity and brightness of the music after going through the headphone fitting test on my AirPods Pro.

EnlargeYou don't have to be hard of hearing to appreciate the new headphone accommodations.

Apple is doing more to take care of your hearing health in iOS 14 as well. With the new setting "Reduce loud sounds" in the "Sounds & Haptics" menu, you can set a certain level that your AirPods (or Beats) headphones will not exceed. There's a new Headphone Audio Levels section in the Health app so you can check your loudness history and protect your hearing health.

05 Motion API for developers

We told you how Apple uses the gyroscope and accelerometer data in AirPods Pro to make sure the spatial audio still sounds like it's coming from the direction of your device when you turn your head. Developers will have access to an application programming interface (API) that will give them access to orientation, user acceleration, and rotation rates of AirPods Pro, just like they would on your iPhone or iPad.

This could be a big deal for fitness apps that could use the movement of your AirPods Pro (perhaps in conjunction with Apple Watch) to track new movements or workouts. It's easy to imagine, for example, a fitness app that automatically counts reps for activities where the head moves but the wrist hardly moves, such as pull-ups or push-ups.

Head movement data from AirPods Pro could also be an interesting addition to gaming. Imagine a quiz app that can tell whether or not you are nodding or shaking your head, or a game where you play as a dog and get better hearing when you tilt your head to the side.

With all the great innovations Apple is introducing for the AirPods with its operating system updates this fall, it is better access to the developers that could open up the most interesting and creative new uses for the AirPods for us.