Have you ever thought "my wireless earphones are just too big?" Have you ever thought "man, I wish my headphones told me their battery life whenever I switched them on?" Have you ever thought "I wish I could listen to all my music through one earphone, so I don't need to wear both?" Apple's new AirPods solve a lot of these problems. Problems I'm not entirely sure needed to be solved, but problems nonetheless.
What Is It?
Maybe that intro was a little bit harsh. I do genuinely love the Apple AirPods after a month or so of playing with them, but Apple's approach to innovating with these tiny wireless earbuds has taken some interesting turns along the way.
Announced with some fanfare by Apple alongside the iPhone 7, Apple's AirPods look just like the company's $29 regular EarPods, but without the wires. Put like that, it sounds like the smallest difference possible, but the amount of effort that has gone into building these tiny, entirely wireless, battery powered (and wirelessly charging) earphones is obvious. Despite being no larger than the cheap, unpowered EarPods, each AirPod has five hours of claimed battery life — seriously? where do you even fit any battery in these things — and can charge four more times fully from the 24-hour playback life of the ovoid, white carry case they're sold inside. Of course, they come at a price premium. Quite a price premium: you'll pay $229 for the AirPods in Australia.
AirPods use Apple's new, in-house-designed W1 chip: a layer of fancy smarts on top of powerful Class 1 Bluetooth — which itself means long range, high quality, all-round-good wireless performance — that adds a bunch of genuinely useful features for iPhone owners. For one, battery life is improved massively over regular Bluetooth, especially while the headphones are in standby mode. You have to have an iPhone or other iOS device to take full advantage of the AirPods, make no mistake, but if you do you'll be able to pair the AirPods just by opening their case near your phone. Then have that instant pairing shared to any other Apple device you own. And every time you take the AirPods out of their case,
You can use both AirPod earphones simultaneously and have stereo audio pumped into both of the left and right headphone channels — y'know, like normal headphones — but if you only take a single AirPod out of its Lightning-powered carry case, you'll get both audio channels intelligently routed to it. The same is true for voice calls, because each of the AirPods has an ambient noise cancelling mic setup that detects your voice but blocks out the audio from external sources. You can't, from what I've experienced, set both AirPods to receive dual mono audio — so you can't share one headphone with a friend and both listen to the same music at the same time.
What's It Good At?
The initial pairing process, and each subsequent Bluetooth connection you make, is utterly seamless (on an iPhone, at least — more on Android later). To first set up the AirPods with your iPhone, literally all you need to do is hold the AirPods' case near your iPhone and flip open the top cover — you'll then get a pop-up sliding up on your iPhone's screen telling you that "Cam's AirPods" (in my case) are connected, with three battery indicators — one for the charging case, and one for each of the left and right channels. This is more useful than it seems, because the utility of the AirPods means that you will spend time with only a single earbud in — and it's useful to know which of your earbuds has more juice than the other. Of course, recharging them just dropping them back into their magnetic housing and waiting.
For a tiny set of earbuds, the Apple AirPods sound pretty good. The internal battery and amp in each skinny little earbud provides noticeably more bass than a regular set of wired (Lightning or old-school 3.5mm) EarPods, and the overall sound signature is quite measured and even for a set of open-air earphones. Treble is very clear at low to moderate volumes, although maybe a little too sharp towards higher volumes, and this contributes to voice calls sounding very, very good on the AirPods. Take note, though: for a tiny set of earbuds is the caveat here. There are Bluetooth earbuds, completely wireless ones, that sound better — like the $329 Jabra Elite Sport, mostly because they're physically larger.
The simplicity of the AirPods' earbuds and charging case belies a lot of the design and effort that has gone into their construction and creation. Each action has a purpose, whether it's flipping open the sturdy protective charging case's lid to kick off that Bluetooth handshake, or sliding out one of the AirPods to put into your ears. Just about the biggest complaint I have with the AirPods' design is that it can be sometimes hard to grasp the slick plastic earbuds to slip them out of the strongly magnetic carry case. There's a single tactile function that the AirPods have — a double-tap on each earbud can either be used to play/pause audio, or to activate Siri. Siri is more versatile, sure, but I found play/pause more useful for the purpose that I use the AirPods for most.
And that's before taking into account the usefulness of putting Siri right up in your ear at all times. Now, Siri isn't the perfect digital assistant, but it's not bad if you know the right language with which to ask a question or if you have your entire life (calendar, contacts, and so on) within the Apple ecosystem. The biggest problem I've had with voice-powered AI like Siri and Google Assistant in the past has been the quality of the microphone that they use to pick up your voice — if it's on your phone, and your phone's not near your face, that's a big impediment. AirPods bring always-on Siri to your iPhone in a way that hasn't really existed before now, especially if you use the double-tap feature to activate Siri rather than having to awkwardly mumble "Hey Siri" in public all the time.
Fit, too, is good in that they're not jammed in my ear, but they're not going to fall out feel that Apple's EarPods have always had. Because you don't have the slight extra weight and tug of any wires at the base of the earbuds, they don't move around during wear. The AirPods just sit comfortably in my probably-perfectly-normally-sized ears. If you're touching your ears all the time — towelling off sweat on my face while exercising is the most obvious example I can think of — the AirPods will move around a little. You learn quickly enough to be careful not to bump them out. Some people love the way Apple earbuds fit, some people hate them. I've always been more of a fan of securely inserted in-ear monitors, but I'd happily wear the AirPods for a couple of hours at a time without them feeling intrusive or annoying.
Battery life from the AirPod earbuds themselves is good enough at five hours (claimed; I got closer to three and a half or four hours during my testing, mostly at volumes over half power) to suit intermittent listening throughout the workday. You could commute to work, listen to a couple of podcasts or hours of music, then commute home on a single charge if you were careful. Excessive use of Siri or louder volumes will sap precious minutes from your battery life, though. The real star is the battery charging case, which has nearly five full recharges for each AirPod hidden away; I found that I only had to recharge the battery case once a week at most during my month-long time with the AirPods, and I never got an explicit low-battery warning to do so from my iPhone.
What's It Not Good At?
The AirPods look cool when they're not in your ears. They're beautifully designed. When they are in your ears, the illusion is destroyed. I've had so many comments about the AirPods' distinctive look that I've lost count, and they've predominantly been negative. In any in situ photo of the AirPods you can capture, they look like a regular set of Apple EarPods with the wires Photoshopped out. And honestly, sometimes they look like someone has stuck a couple of cotton buds in their ears and is walking around oblivously. I've seen a few sets of AirPods out in the wild in the last month, and sometimes they look just fine, but sometimes they just look a bit weird.
They're also expensive when you consider their $229 price tag primarily against their sound quality — surely the most important factor in choosing a pair of headphones. There's no doubting that they sound better than a regular, passive set of EarPods, but the AirPods still have that Apple earbud sound to them — bass that sounds a little bit hollow, treble that can be a little bit sharp and fatiguing at higher volumes. They sound OK, but I'd recommend you try a pair before buying if at all possible. The biggest impediment to the AirPods is how much outside noise they allow in, which means you have to raise the volume to near maximum to hear clearly in a loud environment.
And sometimes that can be a problem, because the maximum volume of the AirPods isn't hugely loud. Sitting in a reasonably quiet office typing this review with the AirPods in my ear listening to music, I've got my iPhone's marker for the AirPods volume pushing dangerously close to full power — three or four notches off the highest setting. If you want clear audio from a podcast, you'll need to push that volume dial one notch higher again to compensate for a little bit of a dip in the AirPods' lower midrange frequencies where most voices sit. Interestingly, voice calls don't suffer from this problem, being boosted by default to an excellent volume with near-perfect clarity.
That five hour claimed battery life is, for the most part, good enough to get you through any reasonable listening period. But there are some instances where it isn't quite up to snuff. I find myself at the gym for around a three-hour period when I go, for example, and if I've been listening to music before I go, I'm pushing it dangerously close to running out of juice at the same time for both body and AirPods. Running the AirPods' tiny internal batteries from maximum to minimum power over and over, too, gives me a little concern for their longevity over a couple of years or more. It's best to think of the AirPods as headphones for the commute to and from the office and a quick trip to the gym, not an entire non-stop workday five days a week.
It's almost not even worth mentioning, but at the same time it's important to realise that if you're buying the AirPods to primarily use them on a non-Apple device, you lose a lot of their functionality. Pairing on Android is definitely straightforward — press the button on the AirPods' case, find it in your phone's Bluetooth list — but it's not as seamless as on iOS. You also lose the always-on Siri (there's no always-on "OK Google") and auto-pausing when you take one or both of the AirPods out of your ears. They do the whole music part perfectly well, but you don't get those higher functions that make the AirPods (more) worth it with an iPhone.
Should You Buy It?
Yes and no. If you're considering buying AirPods, you probably already have a modern iPhone, and in that case it's very easy to recommend the AirPods as a compact, portable, extremely convenient addition to your Apple-powered repertoire. The ease of use of flipping open that little case and having your entirely wireless earphones instantly connected to and piping music or podcasts from your iPhone is hard to beat; even Beats' own Solo 3, which use the same W1 chip, take the tap of a button to power on and connect. AirPods are just about as trouble-free as Bluetooth has ever been, on any device I've ever used. On Android, this is slightly less true.
For voice calls, again considering the size and weight and portability and form factor of the AirPods, it's hard to go past them. Dual microphones and jaw-sensing smarts means that you can have a lucid conversation in a loud environment, and the combination of AirPods and iPhone has clearly been optimised to make live voice sound just about as good as possible. For music, the AirPods sound good for their size, but you can absolutely find better sounding earphones — wired — for less money. Or, you can spend more and get wireless earbuds that sound better. The compromise in the AirPods' sound design is obvious — how do you make something so tiny sound good and produce loud sound and not run out of juice in a matter of minutes? — but it's a reasonable compromise for Apple to have made.
At the end of the day, you're paying a lot of money — $229 is a lot of money — for earphones that don't sound amazing. They don't do anything hugely different to any other Bluetooth headphones — there's no massive quantum leap in sound quality or battery life or connectivity or utility. And the AirPods' form means compromises in battery and maximum volume. And sometimes they look kinda weird. But I'm hanging on to my pair as long as possible, because if you have an iPhone, it's hard to find a pair of earphones — wired or wireless — that just works as seamlessly as the AirPods do. And for the kind of listening that I do these days — passing the time with a podcast on the train, or making a long voice call back to Australia when I'm travelling overseas, or struggling through a session at the gym — seamless is a valuable thing.