Apple AirPods review: Wireless, but at what cost?
Apple AirPods have finally hit shelves. These wireless headphones were first announced at the 2016 iPhone launch event in a likely attempt to paint traditional audio jacks as things of the past. Are the tiny untethered buds capable replacements for our favorite headphones? Read on for New Atlas' review.
First impressions: clever case, easy setup
The white plastic pair of pods arrives in a carrying case that doubles as a charging dock. The case has proven to be one of my favorite AirPod features, since storage is essential for easily-lost niceties like these, and its charging functions capitalize on a very natural way to use and store headphones.
The case itself is similar to a box of dental floss in size and shape, though it is much more dense and sturdy. The heavy white plastic hearkens back to Jobs-era Apple products like early MacBooks and iPhones, which smacks of quality yet does look a little dated to this tech reviewer's eyes.
Setting up the pods (that is, pairing them with an Apple device) is a cinch. If you're listening on your iPhone, just make sure Bluetooth is turned on, then hold the pods in their case closeby, with the lid open. The phone will automatically detect them and after a few quick prompts, they're paired. There's a similar process on any other Bluetooth-enabled Apple devices – navigate to Bluetooth settings, view devices, and connect. They are compatible with Android devices as well.
Charging and battery life claims hold true
The AirPods and case ship with a USB-A to Lightning cord for charging, but no wall adapter. It is nice to charge AirPods using power sources you already own, but unfortunately, purchasing them doesn't score you an extra charger.
To charge the pods and case at the same time, place the pods in the case and plug the cord into the case's Lightning port. Plug the USB-A side into your computer or the Apple Cube wall adapter that came with your iPhone.
Once the case is charged, it holds that charge. When you stow your pods in the case between uses, it charges them. We've seen other iterations of charging cases in various kinds of mobile technology (like on Kindle Oasis e-reader for instance, or third-party smartphone battery cases) but this is one of the most apt and efficient applications we've seen. It's convenient to use, and it works well.
We always take manufacturers' battery life estimates with a grain of salt, but our casual testing indicated that Apple's claims were right on the nose. Apple said that AirPods get five hours of listening time off of a full charge, and in our experience, one hour of listening at a constant volume yielded a 20-percent drop in battery life. Apple also claimed that 15 minutes in the charging case gives three hours of listening time, which also proved true: Pods with 20-percent life remaining were back at 100% after 15 minutes in the case.
Overall, Apple says the combined life of the case and pods yield 24 hours of listening time. This was more difficult to test, but, we've probably put in at least 15 hours of combined listening and talking use since our last charge, and the case's charging is still going (an indicator light within shows whether the case is on and/or charging).
Keep in mind that Apple's estimates are basing on listening time, not talk time. The pods' microphones and Bluetooth connectivity mean you can make and receive phone calls on them, but phone usage seems to deplete the battery about 20-30 percent faster than listening alone.
The moment of reckoning: Putting them in your ear
My overwhelming first impression of the feeling of these pods? They put the "Air" in AirPods, but in a bad way. They felt like they were just floating in my ears, completely untethered and insecure. An Apple evangelist might twist that sentiment to mean "comfortable", but worrying that your $160 pair of earbuds is going to fly away is anything but.
AirPods are very similar in shape to Apple's wired EarPods, which ship with iPhones. If that shape doesn't do anything for you, neither will these. I've always found EarPods virtually unusable due to their poor fit, and AirPods are no different.
Since "I hate them, they fall out" would be just a little too succinct of a review, I spent some trial-and-error time to see if there was a sweet spot for the pods. After all, these aren't silicon-tipped buds that hug your ear canal. The sound is meant to broadcast into your ear, so a little space between the pod and your ear is necessary. I found that they stay in best when pushed downward and forward as much as possible within my ear.
I'm used to the glued-in feeling of sport earbuds, so I concede that some of my feeling of looseness may stem from unfamiliarity and not necessarily a sign that the pods are falling out. Even taking that into consideration, using AirPods feels like using an iPhone without a case in terms of risk. Maybe some careful and tidy types won't lose or smash them, but for this bull in a china shop, it's only a matter of time before the inevitable.
I did manage to keep the AirPods on during the better part of a sedentary day at the home office, mostly spent sitting, typing, walking and eating. But I also kept track of activities that made my AirPods fall out. Highlights include:
- Dancing, particularly moves with side to side movement, or spins that create centripetal force
- Interference from earrings and hair
- Smiling and laughing – this shifts my cheeks and ears, which dislodges the AirPods from the sweet spot
- Throwing a tennis ball for my dog
- Any activity where my head wasn't upright – downward facing dog, for instance, or stooping to pick something off the ground.
I don't normally wear headphones in the house, though – I wear them during workouts or in public places like the airport or a coffee shop. For the former, I might trust the AirPods to stay in during a tame trip to the gym spent on the elliptical or with light weights, but not on an outdoor run or any type of vigorous calisthenics. AirPods are more suited for the latter, working at a table or biding away a commute.
If you can get the pods to stay in, you'll enjoy them. For tiny apparatuses, they do pack in warm and impressive sound, and the Bluetooth connection doesn't struggle one bit. You can get much further away from your paired device than you could with wired headphones. I had no trouble listening when my phone was 2-3 rooms away.
Mids and highs sound crisp, clear and fully toned. If there's a lack, it's in the bass. Low tones sound pleasant, without discernible distortion or lack of fidelity, but they don't have much power. The soft, fast jazz drumming in Nina Simone's "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" sounded great, but kick drums and driving bass lines in rock and hip-hop songs sound soft and lack resonance.
Apart from the poor fit, a lack of noise canceling separates the AirPods from many high-end listening experiences. This could be a deal breaker or a plus, depending on what you like. For example, I prefer to hear some real-life noises when outdoors, but due to the poor fit, I probably wouldn't venture outside with AirPods. Indoor listening makes me wish for a more immersive listening experience.
No noise cancellation also makes it more likely that people nearby will overhear, especially if you listen loudly. For some, this lack of privacy undermines the point of wearing headphones in the first place. It's also considerate to remember if you're listening in a public place.
More hits and misses: Siri, volume control, phone calls and the wireless experience
AirPods are Siri-enabled. Just double-tap on a pod (surprisingly, they stayed in my ears for this) to launch Siri. You can ask her to change the volume, skip to the next song, or any of her normal tricks.
But Siri integration does not prove very valuable. Instances where you're likely to wear headphones are not usually ones where you want to be seen and heard holding a one-sided conversation: Voice control commands in a workspace or airplane will draw serious side eye.
Plus, Siri commands don't work on third-party apps like Spotify or Pandora. If you're using one of those services, you'll need to change tracks and volume from the paired device. For these reasons, I think we'd be better served by physical volume controls – which are conspicuously absent from the pods – than by Siri.
The pods do work well for phone calls. Incoming calls sound better on the pods, and according to the recipients, who didn't detect a change in sound quality, outgoing calls are perfectly clear, even when I'm moving around.
Thanks to proximity sensors, AirPods automatically turn on and off when you put them in your ear. If they fall out or are removed, the music doesn't pause, and your call doesn't drop. Instead, the audio comes out of the paired device. This may lead you into a faux pas, broadcasting your music or conversation at an inopportune moment.
As long as you're not worried they'll fall out, AirPods are very comfortable. There's no headband messing up your hair, weighing down your head, or putting pressure on your temples. The downside of removing all those wires and bulk is that people you encounter don't always notice you're wearing headphones, which again may have unintentional social consequences.
It's probably nice that they aren't noticeable, considering they aren't particularly attractive. They're small, but the bright white in close proximity to your face can make your teeth or eyes look comparatively dull, and the protruding tips on the lower parts have a geeky antennae look that reminds me a goony Bluetooth phone headset. Still, since AirPods are so minimal, it's hard to imagine too many people taking major issue with the way they look.
AirPods are luxuries – but fussy, low-value ones
AirPods' US$160 price point is much higher than typical wired entry-level earbuds, but about half the price of premium wireless over-the-ear headphones. They do have strong points and attractive features – a novel case, long battery life, a reliable wireless connection and impressive sound. They're also small, light and comfortable.
Nevertheless, the unstable, non-adjustable fit combined with the high price and occasionally awkward operation completely negate their good qualities in my mind. We'd be hard-pressed to recommend these headphones over others at similar price points, unless you're one of the lucky few with ears that perfectly suit the Apple design, and their strong points perfectly align with your listening needs.
Product page: Apple