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Use your AirPods with an in-flight entertainment system

The death of the headphone jack on your telephone has unintended consequences. For travelers, one of the most annoying is that your very nice Bluetooth headphones do not work with the entertainment systems on the back of aircraft. If you're lucky – or smart – you have over-ear headphones with a headphone jack, so using them is just a matter of bringing the right cable.

But what if you want to use your AirPods, AirPods? Pro or other truly wireless headphones with the backrest system? For that you have – you guessed it – a dongle. And it's even worse because you need a dongle to keep you charged.

My original goal here was to find (or even solder) a smart cable that would convert the 3.5 mm audio output from the backrest into an audio input to the Lightning or USB C port of your phone, which you could then use an app to send the audio to your headphones. I claim that this is a great idea because it means that you no longer have to worry about linking. But the truth is that it is a terrible idea. Such cables are not immediately available and the coupling bit is not too bad.

There are many different generic Bluetooth transmitters on Amazon, many of which are so similar that they certainly come from the same factory. I have not tried them all, but I have tried at least one as a kind of proxy for the rest. But if you prefer to spend a little more on a name brand, the gold standard is the AirFly from Twelve South.

Option 1
: use a Bluetooth adapter

I tried three different Bluetooth adapters in an attempt to get audio from the backrest to my AirPods Pro: the original AirFly (now the "Classic" brand), the AirFly Pro, and a cheap and seemingly sketchy thing I've found on Amazon from a company I've never heard of (Hagibis). All three, to my surprise, work equally well – assuming your flight is at least not too long.

The basic configuration is the same for everyone:

  1. Charge the adapter
  2. With the adapter off, long press the main button to put it in pairing mode
  3. Hold your headphones directly next to the adapter and place them in pairing mode
  4. Look carefully at the faintly blinking lights on both devices until one or both devices change their color, blink speed or both
  5. Connect the adapter and place your headphones to see if it worked
  6. not, switch off the adapter by pressing and returning to step 2

This all sounds terrible. In practice, at least I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to pair my AirPods Pro immediately – even during the flight when dozens of other Bluetooth radios were around, potentially ruining the pairing process. It helps if you switch off your Bluetooth on your telephone or computer nearby. That way, the headphones will connect less quickly to that connection instead of connecting to the new dongle.

The AirFly Pro has an integrated 3.5 mm cable, a switch for receiving and sending audio and charges via USB C.
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

The AirFly Classic is less convenient to use than the Pro, but it costs less.
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Of course there are gotchas. The Hagibis adapter that I tried has a second button to switch between TX (send) and RX (receive) mode, which requires a second round of button presses on light flashing drops and getting up.

The next gotcha is volume: it was mysteriously lower when using these dongles than it would have just been connected. Twelve South, the company that makes AirFly, has a FAQ suggesting that this is a problem that results from a recent firmware update for the AirPods. I had to set the airplane seat system to max, and it was loud enough for me, but just barely.

The Hagibis adapter is very small and very cheap, but lacks the user-friendliness of the Twelve South versions.
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Then there is the most obvious gotcha of all: battery life. On the small side, little Hagibis claims that I was only trying to last five hours. The AirFly classic claims eight hours, while the AirFly Pro demands 16.

For me, the extra $ 20 for the AirFly Pro is worth it. You get a longer battery life, and you get the option to turn it into a pinch in a Bluetooth receiver if you want to use it in a car or on an Airbnb. I also admit that the extra money is worth it because the AirFly Pro charges via USB-C instead of Micro USB, and you have the option to connect two headphones at the same time if you want to watch a movie with someone. [19659025] Good Stuff

  • USB-C
  • Integrated 3.5 mm connection
  • Long battery life
  • Transmit and receive switch

Bad Stuff

  • No on / off switch
  • Setup requires gymnastics with button

Is this as useful as using traditional wired headphones? No. That is why I have a second strategy to tackle this problem.

Option 2: Don't even try it

Many airlines have Wi-Fi systems that offer full entertainment libraries locally for streaming to your personal phone, tablet or laptop. You can log in and watch movies without paying for the rest of the internet and without bringing a second dongle.

It can be a good option, especially if you are not concerned about the life of the battery on your device and / or the space on your tray table.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Another good option: just bring a relatively cheap pair of wired earplugs for the flight. You may lose all the noise cancellation that you would have on your wireless headset, but it's much easier. Some airlines give away (or charge a nominal fee) for almost disposable earbuds. They don't sound great, but again, you're watching an airplane movie on an airplane screen, so how valuable are you really going to be about the sound quality of your headphones?

Last but not least: spend the (considerable) money for a good pair of Bluetooth headphones with over-ear noise reduction. We now love the Bose Noise Canceling 700 headphones. They are lighter and more comfortable for long-term use than the Sony 1000x M3 headphones. They all have a 3.5 mm headphone connection and are supplied with a cable that can be connected to the headrest. Don't forget to take that cable with you.

Perhaps one aircraft seat has its own Bluetooth pairing option one day. Given the quality of the software on those things, that sounds like a completely different kind of nightmare.

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