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Apple's W1 Bluetooth chip, explained

There's more than "magic" that makes W1 headphones pair so well with your iPhone.

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Apple's AirPods aren't just special because they are one of the few "truly wireless" earbud headphones available -- models with separate left and right earpieces that aren't tethered together with a cable. Along with three Beats headphones (the PowerBeats3 Wireless, the Solo3 Wireless and the BeatsX) they're one of only a handful of products that incorporate Apple's new W1 chip, a teeny-tiny piece of hardware that will make your forget how awful pairing over Bluetooth can be.

What's special about the W1?

Like the A-series chips that power iPhones and iPads, the W1 is custom Apple-designed silicon. In addition to standard Bluetooth 4.1 streaming and advanced power management, the chip adds a host of key features unique to the AirPods, including balancing all of that sophisticated syncing (between the two earpieces, the case and the audio source) with the sensor inputs (automatically pausing music if you remove one from your ear).

On one hand, headphones with the W1 chip are no different than any other wireless models: you can pair them with any Bluetooth-enabled device. But if you've ever gone through that process, it's a bit of a pain: Press a button on the headphones to enter pairing mode, pull up the settings menu on the phone or tablet and -- if everything works as planned -- choose the headphone from the menu to complete the connection.

By comparison, the big advantage of W1-enabled headphones is that "they just work" -- when you're using them with a compatible Apple device, at least.

When you pull AirPods out of their case, they'll pair with your iPhone within seconds -- around 3 seconds, actually. Kind of like the way you just plug in wired headphones. After the first time you pair W1 headphones with your iPhone, it will also be added as a Bluetooth headphone on any other device tied to your Apple ID. From there, selecting it as the sound output is easy -- no further pairing required.

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Jason Cipriani/CNET

The W1 chip also helps improve battery life. The W1-equipped PowerBeats3 Wireless and Solo3 Wireless, for example, last longer compared to their respective predecessors, which are otherwise basically identical. So the W1 is basically the secret sauce that wrings more juice from same-size batteries.

Do I have to have an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus?

Nope. Because the W1 chip is Bluetooth compatible, any Bluetooth-enabled devices can still be paired with W1 headphones like the AirPods. That includes pretty much any iPhone, Android phone, tablet, Mac and many PCs. When pairing with an Android phone, for example, it works the same way as pairing any other Bluetooth headset. Even though you don't get the pairing benefits available for iPhone owners, you do seem to get the same battery life gains.

That convenient auto-pairing, meanwhile, only works with these Apple devices:

Which headphones have the W1 chip?

There are four W1 headphones available right now. Click through for full reviews of each one:

The good news is that they start at $150, £130, AU$200, which isn't a huge premium compared to similar models from other big-name manufacturers.

Will we see other brands use the W1 chip?

You probably noticed that the only W1 headphones available are made by Apple or its Beats subsidiary. Apple hasn't expressed intentions to license the W1 chip, so don't expect W1 headphones from Bose or the like anytime soon.

However, it should be noted that many Android phones offer a "tap to pair" feature (with accessories that are equipped with NFC chips) that delivers a similar easy-pairing experience. The problem (in our experience) is that it doesn't generally work as smoothly or reliably as the W1 headphones do with iPhones.

Is the headphone jack ever coming back?

Are you trolling me?