The Mac’s audio and AirPods support needs to be more like iOS

And now that Apple silicon is here, it's time to redefine what Sleep means, too.

macbook pro m1 nov2020

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There’s a lot to prefer about how macOS handles sound compared to iOS. On the Mac, more than one app can play audio at one time, and the audio just plays—on iOS, only one app is supposed to play audio at once. On the Mac, apps like Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack, SoundSource, and Loopback make it possible to route different audio between different apps, speakers, and microphones, while recording and streaming live at the same time. On iOS, it’s just not possible.

And yet the more I use my M1 MacBook Air with my AirPods, the more I am reminded that there are so many ways in which the Mac doesn’t live up to the standard set by iOS. I expect Apple’s products to behave in a certain way… and get let down when the Mac can’t keep up with its younger cousins.

Getting and staying connected

I love my AirPods Pro, and I use them with all of my Apple devices—iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac. And while using AirPods with the Apple Watch can occasionally be frustrating, it’s nothing compared to the Mac. (And I’ll admit, some of my frustration is probably caused by the fact that the Mac’s audio system is so much more complex and advanced than the one on iOS.)

But… connecting and disconnecting AirPods on the Mac is so much more frustrating than on iOS. While iOS 14 brought more intelligent connection and disconnection of AirPods, Big Sur can’t get with the program. It can take a long time to connect the AirPods, and they seem to disconnect at the drop of the hat.

As I was writing this article, my wife needed to ask me a question. I pulled out one AirPod and my music paused—just as it was supposed to. Once I had answered her question, I popped the AirPod back in, at which point it chimed, connected to my iPhone 15 feet away, and began playing back a podcast. And if that wasn’t frustrating enough, getting them to reconnect to my Mac was a comedy of errors, as I clicked on Notification Center alerts, on the AirPlay icon in Music, and the Output tab of the Sound system preference. Eventually, it came back. I’m still not sure how.

apple airpods IDG/Adam Patrick Murray

Apple AirPods on the Mac: An expereince that needs improvements.

When I began writing this article, I got my AirPods connected and began playing music, but even when I maxed out the volume in the Music app, the music wasn’t very loud. The volume controls on the keyboard adjusted the system volume—but all that did was adjust the volume on my external speakers, rather than my AirPods.

To get my AirPods to play the music at a louder volume, I had to open the Sound preference pane and set the AirPods as my default sound output, at which point I could make the system volume louder and that made the music louder.

I have also noticed numerous momentary audio dropouts and disconnections on the Mac—though this may be fixed in macOS Big Sur 11.2, to which I just updated. And at several points my AirPods have gotten stuck in “voice profile” mode, where the audio becomes low-quality mono sound that sounds like my music is calling me on the telephone. This never happens on my iPad or iPhone.

Just walk away

Suffice it to say, the Mac needs to do a better job of supporting AirPods. But beyond that, now that we’re in the Apple silicon era, I think we need to abandon some assumptions about how Macs work—and it’s my habits of using AirPods with my iPad and iPhone that brought this to mind.

Apple’s processors, unlike the chips in Intel-based Macs, have two kinds of processor cores—“performance” cores and “efficiency” cores. The efficiency cores allow ultra-low-power operation, which makes sense since iPhones and iPads are always on, even when their screens are off. When you click the sleep button on an iPhone or iPad, it’s still functioning, but in a low-power state that limits battery drain.

When you put a Mac to sleep, whether it’s via the Apple menu, when the display sleeps, or when you close the lid on your laptop, it’s not there anymore. Yes, Apple’s “Power Nap” feature allows Macs to occasionally wake up from sleep and perform some basic tasks… but it’s a temporary, intermittent state.

macbook air m1 hero01 Jason Cross/IDG

Apple silicon can play a key role in redefining what Sleep mode is on a Mac.

On Macs running Apple Silicon, it’s time for Apple to change what the definition of sleep is, to make it more resemble the iPhone and iPad. I suspect this is already true to some degree—Apple silicon Macs wake up instantaneously, and the Power Nap feature is no longer optional. But that doesn’t go far enough.

Imagine this: You’re listening to music on your iPad and you close the cover. Or you’re listening to a podcast on your iPhone and you click the sleep button. What happens?

The audio keeps playing.

Now… you’re on a Mac laptop, listening to music, and you close the lid. What happens?

The audio stops and your headphones disconnect!

It’s a bit of behavior that makes sense and is in keeping with how the Mac has worked since the first portable Macs introduced Sleep mode three decades ago. And yet in the context of today’s Apple platforms, it’s completely wrong.

Sleep isn’t what it used to be. It’s time for the Mac to catch up, and for the music to keep playing.

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