The death of the headphone jack on your phone has unintended consequences. For travelers, one of the most annoying ones is that your very fancy Bluetooth headphones won’t work with the seatback entertainment systems on airplanes. If you are lucky — or clever — you have a pair of over-ear headphones that include a headphone jack, so using them is just a matter of bringing the appropriate cable.
My original goal here was to find (or even solder together) a clever cable that would convert the 3.5mm audio-out from the seatback into an audio-in to your phone’s Lightning or USB-C port, which you could then use an app to send the audio to your headphones. I maintain that this is a great idea because it means you don’t have to worry about pairing again. But the truth is that it’s a terrible idea. Such cables aren’t readily available, and the pairing bit isn’t that bad.
There are lots of different generically branded Bluetooth transmitters on Amazon, many of which look so similar that they’re surely coming from the same factory. I haven’t tried them all, but I have tried at least one of them as a kind of proxy for the rest. But if you’d prefer to spend a little bit more for something name-brand, the gold standard is the AirFly from Twelve South.
I’ve tried three different Bluetooth adapters in an attempt to get audio from the seatback to my AirPods Pro: the original AirFly (now branded the “Classic”), the AirFly Pro, and a cheap and seemingly sketchy thing I found on Amazon from a company I have never heard of (Hagibis). All three, to my surprise, work equally well — assuming your flight isn’t too long, at least.
The basic setup is the same for all of them:
This all sounds awful. In practice, I was pleasantly surprised in each case when I was successfully able to pair my AirPods Pro right away — even midflight when there were dozens of other Bluetooth radios around, potentially screwing up the pairing process. It helps if you turn off your Bluetooth on your phone or nearby computer. That way, the headphones are less likely to just glom on to that connection instead of pairing to the new dongle.
There are, of course, gotchas. The Hagibis adapter I tried has a second button to switch between TX (transmit) and RX (receive) mode, which requires a second round of button-pressing light-blinking trial and error.
The next gotcha is volume: it was mysteriously lower using these dongles than it would have been just plugging in. Twelve South, the company that makes AirFly, has an FAQ in which it suggests that this an issue stemming 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.
Then there’s the most obvious gotcha of all: battery life. On the small end, the tiny little Hagibis I tried only claims to last for five hours. The AirFly classic claims eight hours, while the AirFly Pro claims 16.
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