At long last, truly wireless earbuds!
Apple has received a lot of criticism for the AirPods since their announcement. Many have complained about the look of the ear buds, the price, and the idea that it might be easy to lose them, but few people have actually provided a realistic review of the AirPods and how they fare against those criticisms.
As for Apple, they claim that the AirPods have been a runaway success. Without releasing sales figures, it’s hard to judge how true that statement is, but considering how impossible they are to come by there must be some truth to their claim.
So how good are the Apple AirPods, really? Let’s take a look.
The AirPods take after their wired predecessor—the EarPods—very closely, using the same shaped plastic design. For most people, these fit comfortably in their ears, but for some, they simply cannot make them fit well. So for those of you who don’t like the EarPods, look no further.
The ‘stems’ of the AirPods are slightly larger than on their wired cousin, but this isn’t a detractor really, since this larger housing contains the batteries for the units. While they look a little strange at first, it’s not as bad as some have made them out to be. You may get some odd looks at first, but as people begin seeing these more in public, the look of them will become more common.
When not in use, the AirPods fit snugly into their charging case. Some have compared their case to dental floss, which is an apt description. It’s a shiny white ‘pill’ that the AirPods reside in which also charges the units. While the design itself is rather uninspired, it’s a wonderfully useful case and is small enough to fit into the ‘watch’ pocket on most jeans. The charging case itself has a lightning port for re-charging, and a small round button on the back to initiate pairing with either other iOS devices, or with non-Apple Bluetooth devices.
I have two general complaints about the AirPod design: First, the AirPods themselves are quite slick, due to the shiny plastic material Apple went with here. While it’s not a deal-breaker, I found myself having to figure out how best to handle them at first. I found the best way to remove them from the case was not to try to remove the AirPod entirely, but to pull them up, swivel them, and then remove them by the stalk. My first attempts at removing them were disastrous, and I dropped them more than once. It’s an indication that yes, these could be easy to lose, but I’ll get into that more in a little bit.
My other complaint about the AirPod design is with the case itself. The shiny plastic material here is extremely prone to micro-scratches. In fact, within just a few minutes of having them unpackaged, the case looked like I’d had it a bag full of keys for months. While it’s only superficial, it would have been nice if the case was less prone to scratching.
Much has been made about the $159 price-tag of the AirPods, yet I’ve found the price to be more than competitive. Yes, there are bargain-brand Bluetooth earbuds out there selling for $20, but they’re not truly wireless earbuds. While Apple isn’t the first to market in this category, in my opinion they’re the best option available for the price. I’ve tried a few of the more popular bluetooth earbuds, like the Jaybird X2’s, which have a wire between buds, and found them to be far inferior to the AirPods.
The X2’s ran $149 at regular retail price (they’ve since come down), but they were uncomfortable, even with the various inserts for different ears, the sound quality was not noticeably better than a $20 Anker pair of earbuds, and overall they just weren’t all that impressive. The AirPods, on the other hand, seem a bargain at $159. Their closest competition right now start at $149 and quickly increase in price. While I’ve yet to test any of those other devices, I’m convinced the AirPods would probably still be superior to them, at least for now.
After using the AirPods for some time now, I’m actually surprised Apple doesn’t charge more for them. They would still be competitive at a higher price.
Sound Quality & Performance
While I’m no audiophile, I know when I hear good sound. Many reviews for the AirPods will tell you they sound no better than their wired counterparts. What I will tell you is that they sound just as good, if not a little better, than wired earbuds. They’re wireless, and they sound just as good as a wired pair of earbuds. That’s the first time I’ve ever been able to say that. Sure, there are good-sounding wireless headphones, but I’ve never heard a pair of wireless earbuds sound this good. Ever. Add the fact that these have zero wires, and I can’t rave enough about the quality of the AirPods.
I’m often surprised by how good these actually sound. While watching YouTube videos I’ve caught detailed sounds I would have never heard over my desktop speakers, or even thought could existing from the iPad’s minuscule speaker. Music sounds great, with good bass and quality sound overall. While an audiophile could describe each and every nuance, and determine where the AirPods fall short, I couldn’t detect any problems. As an average user they sound great, and that’s what matters to me.
Volume is pleasantly loud, and they block out enough outside noise to do a decent job in a noisy room. There’s no sound-cancellation, so I’m not sure how well these would work on an airplane (I’ve yet to fly since buying them), but I would guess they would do an adequate job. I rarely turn the AirPods up to full volume as they are plenty loud.
Apple claims each AirPod has a 5-hour battery inside, and that the case provides an additional 24-hours of charge time. While I’ve done no scientific testing, in my experience that claim is a bit incorrect. I’ve sat and watched 5 hours of TV shows on my iPad using the AirPods without issues. The case, however, seems to have far less than 24 hours of charge in it. I’ve rarely used the AirPods for more than an hour or two at a time, and yet the case requires charging after 2 or 3 charges of the AirPods.
I’m not sure why this is the case, but perhaps it has something to do with the ‘quick charge’ that the case provides. Apple claims that 15 minutes in the case provides 3 hours of listening on the AirPods themselves. Perhaps my usage pattern is causing the case to run-down sooner. Regardless, I have no complaints about the battery life on these. I’ve found them to be comparable with other wireless earbuds, and the charging case makes them superior in that regard.
Wireless performance has been impeccable so far. I’ve had zero audio drop-outs, and range has been excellent. In some ways, it’s hard to believe these are Bluetooth devices. That Apple W1 chip appears to really make a difference. The only performance issue I can think of (and this is very minor) is that the proximity sensors, which detect when the buds are in your ear, don’t always work each time. Every now and then, when I remove an earbud, the music or video will pause, but then when I reinsert the AirPod, the video or audio doesn’t resume as it should. Maybe this is just the way I’m inserting the AirPods into my ears, or something else.
Perhaps the only true annoyance of the AirPods are their lack of on-ear controls. There are no volume controls, no play/pause button, nothing at all. Apple has included motion sensors to detect when you double-tap an AirPod, which activates Siri. Turning up the volume requires you to double-tap, wait for Siri to ask what you want, and then saying “turn up the volume”, and Siri then does it. This also pauses whatever you’re listening to while it’s happening, so it’s a little jarring. For things like skipping tracks, asking about the weather, or any other Siri-related activity, it’s not too bad. But for simply turning up the volume, it’s annoying. Like most people, I end up just grabbing the phone and pressing the volume buttons, which is far faster.
It would have been nice if Apple could have found a way to include these controls, or even better: allow users to customize controls via taps. For instance, 1 tap could turn up the volume, while 2 taps turns it down; 3 taps to skip tracks; and 4 taps to activate Siri, etc. Allowing me to customize these would let me make it work the way I want. Perhaps Apple will release an update that enables this type of functionality, but it’s more likely they’ll come up with some unique approach for the AirPod 2 product, to get people to buy those next year. Regardless, it’s a minor complaint, and one that’s indicative of a 1.0 version product.
Haven’t Lost One Yet
The danger of losing an AirPod is one of the biggest criticisms that people have voiced. It seems inevitable, right? While I’m not the typical user for AirPods in that I don’t often use these while exercising, biking, or doing any physical activity with them on, I can safely say that I have had zero problems misplacing an AirPod over several weeks of use.
Apple has come up with a solution (albeit perhaps not very useful) that will be part of the upcoming iOS 10.3 update that uses the Find My iPhone app to help locate the AirPods (either their current location if they’re out of the case, or the last location if they aren’t.) Having not had need to locate a missing AirPod, I’m not sure how useful this will be, but a missing AirPod can be replaced by Apple for $69. It’s not a small amount, but isn’t the end of the world.
In the course of my testing, I have tried to get them to fall out of my ears by shaking my head, jumping up and down, etc. and have not been able to dislodge them. Oddly, that’s not the case with the wired EarPods, as the tension of the cables actually pulls them out of the ears. So long as AirPods fit your ears well, you should have little problem with them falling out.
The Magic of Apple
This is where the AirPods truly shine. Apple loves to use the term ‘magical’ to describe their products, and hile the hyperbole is often exaggerated, they truly have done something special with these Bluetooth earbuds.
Pairing bluetooth devices has always been a somewhat arduous process, but the AirPods make pairing about as simple as possible: You open the AirPod case, unlock your iPhone, and tap Connect. Done. Your AirPods are now paired to your AppleID, not just your iPhone.
Changing the pairing to another Apple device is similarly simple. You ‘forget’ the AirPods from your current device, and then when you attempt to pair to another Apple device you’ll be prompted to press the button on the back of the charging case for a couple seconds and voila. Done.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the AirPods are their ability to work across the Apple ecosystem. All of my computing devices are Apple. I have an iMac, iPhone, and iPad, and the AirPods will seamlessly switch between all of these devices for use. I no longer have to re-pair the earbuds each time I want to use a different device. While non-Apple users won’t have this magical experience, the AirPods will still work like any other Bluetooth device.
I can’t begin to describe how useful this auto-switching between devices has been. Before the AirPods, I would typically pair my bluetooth headphones with either my iPhone, or my iPad, but rarely used them on both devices. Having to re-pair each time was a hassle that just wasn’t worth the effort. Now, it’s as simple as putting the AirPods in my ears, choosing them from my audio options on whatever device I want, and listening. It makes these truly useful, and convenient.
I will, however, say that Apple could do a better job of making this a bit faster. Switching from device to device takes a few seconds, which can grow a little annoying. Still, considering how seamlessly this works, it’s a minor complaint.
The only other issue I’ve experienced related to this is when trying to use the AirPods for a phone conversation after a call has started. I haven’t had good luck getting it to consistently connect to the call. Starting a call with them already in is no problem, but joining a call in progress gave me fits. In the end though, these are all minor issues.
So should you buy the AirPods? That’s entirely dependent on your needs and budget. Certainly, I would recommend them if you’re an Apple user and have multiple Apple devices. They’re almost a no-brainer if that’s the case.
So long as they fit well in your ears, and you don’t mind the price tag, these are probably the best earbuds you can buy for the money.
The only real issue with buying the AirPods is… well, buying them. They currently have a 6-week waiting list, even a couple months after they’ve gone on sale and are practically impossible to walk into a store and buy, unless you’re very lucky. eBay has them for outrageously marked-up prices, but it’s a matter of if you think they’re worth the premium.
The Apple AirPods do an excellent job of showcasing Apple’s wireless future, especially with the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Whether that wireless future is what you’ve been looking for depends entirely on you.