Apple AirPods Review: Too Simple For Their Own Good

When they were first announced in September, it was obvious that AirPods were Apple's attempt to distract everyone from the iPhone's lack of a headphone jack. At $229 in Australia, AirPods are Apple's version of truly wireless earphones, a gadget lots of companies have been trying to perfect with varying degrees of success. No one disagrees that wireless is the future, the big question is what company will finally manage to make a truly wireless earbud that is comfortable, affordable, and worth using over more traditional wireless headphones. After two months of delays, AirPods are finally shipping.

My favourite part of using Apple's newly available AirPods is pairing them with my iPhone. Simply open up the magnetic case near your iPhone and watch as a spinning "connect" pop-up appears. After you've paired your AirPods with your phone once, flipping open the case near your phone will instantly pair them and show the battery life of both the case and the AirPods.

The ease of pairing -- you never have to open the Bluetooth settings screen -- make AirPods feel like the future. That the buds are "truly wireless" feels futuristic too, but in a slightly different way. As soon as you pop one into your ear, you hear a little sound effect, letting you know they're working. And once both AirPods are in your ears, removing one will automatically pause the music you hear.

These types of design touches are classic Apple, and definitely set AirPods ahead of other truly wireless earphones we've seen from companies such as Sol Republic and Samsung. And the sound quality -- as I've said before -- is shockingly good. Highs and mids are crisp, though there isn't a ton of bass.

The buds' battery life is solid, too. Apple promises five hours of battery life, which is exactly what I got in testing. Of course, that's way, way short of the 40 hours you get with the new Beats Solo 3 Wireless -- but it's very good considering how tiny the buds are. For comparison, Sol Republic's Amps offer about 4 hours of battery life. The tiny case, which looks like a container of floss, doubles as a battery charger for the buds, and offers another 24 hours of battery life.

I also have to give AirPods good marks when it comes to using them to talk on the phone. I braved the cold in New York City over the weekend while talking on the phone the whole way, with just AirPods in my ears. The person I talked to said I sounded better than I normally do, and this was despite it being windy and snowing.

AirPods basically look like regular EarPods with the cables cut off. Still, AirPods are far from perfect. Apple has really hyped up the fact that Siri is built-into the buds. Double tap on the side of either bud to pull up Siri on your phone. From there, you can answer a call or ask questions. But this is also the only way you can control playback on your phone -- unless you actually want to press pause, fast-forward, or skip on your screen. This takes far too long, especially if you want to raise or lower the volume if your AirPods.

AirPods in my ears. Just look how stupid the AirPods' volume control is: Double tap a bud, wait for Siri to turn on. Speak "volume up" or "volume down," wait what feels like eternity for Siri to respond, then wait for your music or podcast to resume at the new volume. If that volume isn't what you wanted, start the process over again. Not only does it take far longer than hitting a button on the side, you look kind of stupid talking to yourself in public. Oh, and you better be connected to the internet, otherwise Siri doesn't work. What a waste.

I don't understand why Apple couldn't just develop gestures for basic playback controls. The sides are tap sensitive to invoke Siri, why couldn't the company build in some additional gestures to raise or lower volume, or at least to play or pause?

Floss or AirPods? The charging case is tiny, and looks just like a container of floss with a Lightning port on the bottom. I like AirPods, but the lack of physical playback controls really does make them feel too simple for their own good. These are the best truly wireless earbuds I've used, but their limitations show the category still isn't ready for prime time. Being forced to use Siri -- or the playback controls on your phone -- just to play, pause or adjust the volume is a huge problem. And as much as I enjoy the instant pairing nature of the buds, I don't know if I would replace these as my daily subway headphones over the Beats Solo 3s, which pair the same way, have 40 hour battery life, and let me actually turn the volume up on the side. If you prize size over everything else, AirPods are for you, but everyone else should wait for version 2.0.

README

  • Extremely comfortable, probably the most comfortable wireless earphones I've ever worn.
  • They didn't fall out of my ears, and I'd feel very safe using them on the treadmill, but I wouldn't recommend using these for a full run outdoors.
  • The lack of playback controls or gestures is a huge pain in the arse.
  • Charging the AirPods is super quick, taking just 15 minutes in the case for another 3 hours of juice.
  • If regular EarPods don't fit well in your ears, try these out in the store first because the design is basically the same.

Comments

    No one disagrees that wireless is the future

    I do, there's enough radiation and devices that need to be charged in this world, I would never buy wireless headphones.

      If there's a charge running through a wire then it's giving off radiation.

        True but bluetooth would be more.

        Charging is my main concern, not only do you have to charge wireless headphones, broadcasting to them uses far more battery life from your device of choice.

        My phone went from full to 70% playing spotify through my bluetooth speaker for a few hours on Sunday, yet an hour through wired headphones on my commute normally uses only 2-3%.

        Also both apple and samsung have had exploding batteries recently, I'd rather not have one in my ears!

        Last edited 20/12/16 9:58 am

      Walking through RF hotspots like the Sydney CBD tells me that the future is full of ruined riffs and frustrated pedestrians.

        Does Bluetooth get inteference?

        I know the radio frequency based headphones used to be shocking, but thought Bluetooth was better?

          My Parrot Ziks drop out for a second when I cross George St at Martin Place, twice a day without fail.

          Virtually Anything electrical can get interference.

      Few would disagree that wireless is part of the future (and indeed the present). And even fewer, if they looked up the difference between ionising and non-ionising radiation.

      But I would certainly disagree that wireless is the only way to go. To get the convenience of no wires, you give up the convenience of no charging - and the plug & play simplicity of a headphone jack, the uncompressed audio quality, and of course the vastly cheaper cost of a simple piece of wire.

      Personally I'll be choosing phones that give me the choice of either.

    Curious as to how well they'd stay in my ear when exercising, looking at Jaybirds x3 but they seem to be very out of stock. However knowing apple, I'm guessing sweat will kill these pretty quickly.

      I have them in my ears right now and cannot dislodge them from my ears by violently shaking my head (gave myself a headache trying :-). The only way they come out of my ears is by pulling them out with my fingers.

      As for waterproofing, Apple is pretty good at under promising and over delivering, but I guess time will tell.

      Sound is very good, but bass is not as good as the best wired earphones out there.

      The absolute freedom from wires is amazing and the bluetooth works from several rooms away.

      I have some Jaybirds Bluebuds X, and I cannot recommend them enough if you're concerned about waterproofing.

      I accidentally put these through the washing machine. I let them dry out for 2 days and they sound as good as ever.

      There was a review done on either 9to5Mac or The Verge where physical exercise was involved and the buds faired well.

    I'd rather have playback and volume controls on my watch. No fiddling around.

    5 hours playback time wow!... Here I was thinking the infinite playback time of passive headphones was long; but 5 HOURS... so awesome.

    "The ease of pairing — you never have to open the Bluetooth settings screen — make AirPods feel like the future." Maybe if you are trapped in Apple's walled garden but the rest of us have been able to do similar things with NFC for several years. e.g. To connect my Sony Walkman to my NFC equipped Bluetooth speakers, I just tap the back of the Walkman to the spot on top of the speaker. In the case of my Sony speaker, I don't even have to switch it on first.

      I wonder what happens when you open the case on say a train where the person next to you is using their iPhone.

    So do you get these with the phone? ...or is it $229 on top of the cost of the phone?

    I imagine using an Apple Watch is maybe how they envisaged getting around the lack of playback/volume controls but still I agree that they should have integrated something into the earphones themselves.

    Not sure if you want to amend your review but you can change the tap gesture to play and pause in the settings, most other reviews have even talked about it.

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