On its website, Apple describes its new AirPods ($159) as “Wireless. Effortless. Magical.” The completely wireless earbuds have finally arrived, after a delay that almost caused Apple to miss the holiday season completely. AirPods use Apple’s W1 chip to easily connect via Bluetooth, and the company claims the chip also allows for efficient battery use and improved sound. The earbuds make Siri easily accessible, with built-in microphones allowing for immediate, intimate interaction with Apple’s virtual assistant, as well as any callers on your iPhone. There’s a whole lot of tech packed into these tiny buds.
AirPods come in a tiny, light charging case, which measures about 2.18” x 1.81”. There are obvious worries about losing the AirPods themselves, but it’s not like the case is easy to spot, either. The upside is that you can take these things anywhere without a second thought. The case keeps the AirPods in place using magnets, and a small light shows charge status of the AirPods — or the charge status of the case itself, when the AirPods aren’t in the case. A pairing button connects AirPods to other devices when the earbuds are in the case, and a Lightning port on the bottom charges the case (a Lightning cable is included in the AirPods package).
Much has been made of AirPods’ design, which are basically EarPods cut off after the slightly longer stems. The bottoms of the stems each have a microphone built in. AirPods do look a little odd — they look incomplete, if not a bold, ear-extending fashion statement. Like any earbuds, comfort and fit will vary. This reviewer had no issues — the AirPods are very light and comfortable — but not everyone who tried them out had the same success. If you know how you feel about the fit and feel of EarPods, you’ll know what to expect with AirPods.
Pairing AirPods is an absolute breeze. If your case is near your iOS device, it takes care of itself — the AirPods connect on their own, and then you’re immediately shown the battery life remaining for both the AirPods and their case. This top-rate convenience is one of the most important factors in the product’s appeal. It continues during use, as well. If you’re listening with both AirPods, and you remove one — perhaps to talk to someone — your music will pause. Inserting the AirPod again will resume playback (you can also restart manually on your device, or by asking Siri to resume playback with one AirPod in). You can also start listening in mono mode with one earbud. There’s a lot at work here, but not everything is perfect — we still experienced some typical Bluetooth blips.
AirPods are controlled using Siri. You give a firm double tap to either Pod, and wham, Siri’s right there, practically in your head. Considering how light and comfortable AirPods are, you can conceivably walk around for hours with these things in your ears, listening to music, making calls, and relying on your virtual assistant. Speaking of phone calls — if you’re at all interested in AirPods as a Bluetooth headset for calls, you will be impressed. Call quality is crystal clear on both ends, and when others are around, callers heard everyone so well, it was like they were in the room with us. If you’re wearing AirPods and you start talking, though, your voice comes into focus more, so the person on the other end can hear you over the rest of the chatter. Apple says a voice accelerometer works with the microphones to make this possible, and it’s very well-implemented.
Using Siri for music playback is a different story. To increase or decrease volume, you tell Siri “volume up” or “volume down.” You can also say a specific volume percentage. Doing any of these can take anywhere from a second or two to 10 or more seconds — the latter of which feels like an eternity, considering you can manually change the volume on your iPhone (or Apple Watch) quicker. You can actually change the double-tap to play and pause music instead of activating Siri from within the Bluetooth options menu for the AirPods, but then you lose the easy Siri access. Either way, volume can’t be controlled from the AirPods themselves, which seems like an oversight, especially when considering that touch controls have already been built into the buds.
AirPods were never going to appeal to audiophiles, so it may not surprise you that these buds don’t actually boast what we would call “superior sound.” In fact, we can’t really tell a distinct difference between these and Apple’s Lightning EarPods that come packed in with the company’s newest iPhones. It’s not completely unexpected, but it’s still disappointing. Overall, the sound is fine for casual listening — crisp and clear for their size with limited bass, but certainly nothing we’d call impressive in any regard. As strange as this sounds, you’re not paying for sound quality if you’re interested in AirPods.
While wearing AirPods, we sprinted, jumped off ledges, and ran up stairs. We were only able to dislodge them once, and even then, they didn’t fall to the ground. This will differ for everyone, but for us, they at least seem feasible as sport earbuds. The idea of a dropped AirPod falling through a sewer grate remains, though, and that’ll likely never go away. Perhaps it’s best to keep AirPods confined to safer gym or trail workouts, rather than dashing through the city with them.
An area where AirPods truly impresses is in battery life. Apple says the AirPods can run for five hours on one charge, and our testing agrees. Those claims might even be a bit conservative. AirPods also charge quickly in the case — the case is said to offer more than 24 hours of battery life before needing recharged, and that’s either true or close to it, based on our testing.
Apple’s AirPods are a double-edged sword of simplicity and limitations. Do the painless connection process, battery life, call quality, and Siri compatibility make AirPods worth it? Or are the clunky music controls, average music listening sound quality, and premium price tag enough to keep users away? It all depends on your use case, really. We like to think of AirPods as fantastic, futuristic EarPods, which makes them a bit of a luxury at this price point. There’s not really anything else quite like them, for reasons good and bad.
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Compatibility: iPhone, iPad and iPod touch models with iOS 10 or later, Apple Watch models with watchOS 3 or later