Apple cuts the cords on EarPods and makes them into AirPods, but are they worth it?
AirPods are Apple's attempt to bring a better, brighter wireless future to us now, today. They look like the ends of Apple's current, wired EarPods, but with the cord snipped off at the stems. The way they work, though… that's magic.
I touched on how AirPods worked in my iPhone 7 review but now that I've spent three months with them and used them in a variety of situations and circumstances, I'm going to dive a little deeper.
About this review
I spent three months with a pre-productions set of Apple's AirPods, using them in New York, Montreal, and San Francisco, traveling by car and by plane. I used them around the house, for walks and hikes out on the streets and in parks, and while driving both around town and long distances.
I also spent the last three days using a final, production set of Apple's AirPods. I tested them under similar conditions, around the house, out on walks, in the parks, and driving around town. (No flights, sadly, but lots more snow.)
As far as I can tell, set up and performance has been identical for both pairs. So, this review contains the sum total of my experiences with AirPods to date, across both sets, and over several months.
For people who want:
- EarPods-style look and fit
- Noise cancelling mics
- Powerful voice control
- Long battery life
- Cutting edge wireless technology
Not for people who want:
- On- or over-ear heaphones
- Noise cancelling speakers
- Actual physical controls
- Plug option for when batteries die
- Low, low pricing
If you want easy-to-access physical controls for volume and track skipping, or noise-cancelling headphones for study or long flights, AirPods aren't for you. If, instead, you want cutting-edge wireless technology fit into one of the smallest, lightest headphones on the market, with a clever charging pack and really great noise-cancelling mics, then AirPods are absolutely for you.
Likewise, if Apple's one-size-fits-all EarPod design didn't look good or feel good to you, then AirPods are more of the same. Almost. The lack of wires make an incredible difference in how well and comfortably they stay in-ear. Whether having stems drop an inch down your jawline looks any worse than cables dangling past your face, you'll have to decide for yourself.
Overall, Apple wanted to push the state of wireless headsets as far as they could, and do it as inexpensively as the sensors and chips embedded in both pods would allow. And that they've done.
AirPods come in a case that might just be the closest thing we've seen to Jony Ive's classic white iPod since… Jony Ive's classic white iPod.
The top flips open like a vintage lighter and the action is every bit as addictive. Seriously — I force myself to put it down so I don't end up flipping it open and closed constantly. (At least it hasn't come close to falling off...)
A large part of that is its magnetic closure. It's exactly the right amount of magnet to make it click open and closed in just exactly the right way. Have I mentioned how addictive it is yet?
Same with the AirPods themselves: The stems slip into and out of the case, but are also magnetic. That doesn't just make them less likely to fall out of the case but also sucks them in when you go to put them away. It's practical, so they don't fall out in your bag and you don't have to worry about pushing them in all the way, but it's also fun.
When the case is flipped open, there's a light between the AirPods. It's green when the buds and the case are charged, and orange when they're close to needing a top-off. There's a button on the back so you can pair or re-pair them, if needed. You can do initial setup on your iPhone without it but need to press it if you want to pair an iPhone not on your iCloud account or pair to a Bluetooth-only device like Apple TV or Android.
At the very bottom of the case is a Lightning port, so that you can charge the case with the same type of cable you use to charge your iPhone.
Since the case is shaped like a pod, it's incredibly easy to slip into a pocket. It is plastic, so it can get scratched if you put it in with sharp objects or if you drop it — but since it's also just a case, you may not worry about that too much.
The white color means you'll see every spec of lint you pick up, but it's easy enough to wipe off. The case I've been using for three months has a few dings on it, noticeably from the one time I dropped it onto the sidewalk. Still works great, though.
AirPods look like Apple's current EarPods with the cords cut off right below the stems. It's fitting: In a very real way, Apple is using them to cut the proverbial cord.
The left and right buds are mirrors of each other, but otherwise almost identical. One has a small L, the other a small R, so you can tell left from right, but that's it. Both have the same speakers, and both have beam-forming microphones.
The shape looks the same as the EarPods as well, but because there's no cord pulling at them, they stay in your ears far better. My ears have been mangled by years of grappling, and traditional EarPods — like all earbuds — don't stay in for me at all. AirPods, so far, have.
I've taken them walking, jogging, driving, even a little dancing — my living room, my business! — and they've stayed in fine. I've been out in the rain, the sleet, and really strong wind. Also the snow. So. Much. Snow.
The left one has never fallen out, far as I can recall, and the right one only a few times. (That ear is far more mangled.) I know people freak out when they hear about AirPods falling out. I'll point out again that regular EarPods don't stay in for me at all. Like I have to hold my hand over them, over my ear, to keep them in. Same goes for most in-ear headphones.
So, believe me when I say I'm thrilled with how well AirPods have stayed in. It's the first time I've ever been able to use headphones that didn't hook over my ears.
All that said, I'm still not a huge fan of the "one design to rule them all". Even with all of Apple's testing, even with a universal shape, they're just not going to fit as many people as they could if there were a range of interchangeable tips included in the package. Sure, it's not as elegant a solution, but it's one that could, for example, let me use a different sized tip for my more-mangled right ear than my less-mangled left.
Using AirPods in the snow did scare me at first, though. Anything small and white that falls into the snow can be extremely hard to find. In an attempt to assuage my fears, I deliberately dropped one, hit play to restart the audio, cranked up the volume, and listened to see if I could find it.
I could, though traffic made it tough for a few moments. A couple of days later I accidentally dropped one while shooting photos in the park. And yes, it fell into a big fluffy pile of fresh snow. I panicked but stuck to the same method and, a few long seconds and some seriously cold fingers later, I found it.
If only there was a nice, bright Product [RED] version to see me through the holidays? I'm only partially joking about that. With watch, Apple has proven there's a fashion angle for wearables. Earrings have been around forever. Having a way to jazz up and personalize AirPods would be an amazing next step for Apple as a lifestyle company.
As nifty as the case and headphones are, the real AirPods "magic" isn't how they look — it's how they work. Bluetooth has gotten better over the years. In the past there were often bizarre button maneuvers needed to put Bluetooth into pairing mode, codes needed to negotiate the pairing, and small miracles to get and maintain a decent connection. AirPods solve all that.
Bring the AirPods case close to your iPhone, open it, and a Control Center-like interface slides up. It shows both the AirPods and the case. Tap the Connect button, and that's it. You're paired.
Seriously. That's it.
Not just with your iPhone either, but every iCloud-connected device you own gets connected: Apple Watch, other iPhones, iPad, even your Mac.
The only current exception is Apple TV. You can still use AirPods with it, you simply have to pair them like standard BT headphones. It's ... an odd omission. I get that Apple TV is a living room, not personal, device and can have multiple iCloud accounts logged in, but if one of them is mine, that'd still be a far better experience than plain BT. Hopefully that gets fixed soon as well.
What makes the pairing — and everything else about AirPods — so simple is all the hard work being done inside the silicon by the W1 chip. There's one in each AirPod and they essentially work like mini computers to keep everything in sync, even absent a hardwire cable between them or to the device.
What happens if you open the case next to someone else's iPhone? You get the same interface but, instead of your name, it simply says "Not Your AirPods" and an option to connect them anyway. That's great for privacy, not so much for security. Ideally I'd love a pin code or even iCloud or Touch ID auth to approve pairing with non-synced devices. That'd cut down on AirPod pilfering, I imagine.
Either way, W1 is Apple's first public attempt at a wireless chip that I'm aware of, and adds to the company's growing line of designed silicon: The A-series system-on-a-chip, M-series motion fusion hubs, and S-series system-in-package for the Apple Watch. It's here where Apple continues to show just how far and fast they can push state-of-the-art silicon. And it makes you wonder what they could do next: Full-on Bluetooth radio? Wi-Fi radio? Cellular modem?
There are 22 letters left in the alphabet, after all!
AirPods in Action
Take an AirPods out of its case, and you'll see it displayed in its custom Control Center panel along with its charge level. Likewise, if you take them both out, both will display. Place one in your ear, and the infrared sensors know you're wearing them and start to play in mono. Place the other one in your ear, and it's likewise detected; the audio will seamlessly shift to stereo. Take one out, and the audio pauses. Hit the play button on your iPhone or Watch, or tap the AirPod to ask Siri to continue your music, and your tunes will resume in mono.
You'll notice that yes, I did mention Siri: Your AirPods are hooked directly into your iPhone's personal voice-based assistant, and can be triggered with a double tap of either one of your AirPods, Her-style. Siri is the primary way you interface with the AirPods — there aren't any minuscule play/pause, volume, or track controls on these earbuds. Instead, you ask Siri to pause your music, raise the volume, or switch to the next track.
If you really want to, you can go into settings and switch the double tap shortcut to play/pause instead of Siri. It does make starting and stopping easier, but it sacrifices the full width of controls that Siri enables. I tried it briefly but switched back to Siri after a day.
Because the AirPods offer beam-forming mics that engage when they detect your jaw movement, you can speak very softly — not quite sub-vocally, but close — and still get Siri to understand and trigger commands. In my tests, they do a great job isolating your voice. I've used Siri in the car, around the house, on the streets, and in relatively noisy hotels and bars with no problem.
By default, the AirPods automatically switch between the two mics as needed. You can force them to use only right or left in settings, though, if you prefer.
If you don't want to, or it wouldn't be socially acceptable to use Siri, you can still control everything from your iPhone or Apple Watch. I thought I would miss the remote dongle on my traditional, wired headphones, but I don't: I only ever used the remote to play or pause tracks, and I can do that easily enough with Siri.
Frequent song skippers will no doubt miss the dedicated controls, though.
You can take calls on the AirPods, too: When a call comes in, tap either one of the AirPods twice to answer — or hang up, if you're already on a call. As with Siri, I tried out calling in a variety of rooms and environments; everyone I asked said they sounded great.
If audio starts playing on your Apple Watch or iPad, AirPods will automatically switch to them. You can also switch to them manually using the audio source setting in Control Center. On Mac, you can switch from the icon in the menubar.
Update: With the release version, auto-switching still works with Apple Watch but not with iPad or Mac. For iPad and Mac, you now have to manually switch to AirPods in the audio source selector. That removes some of the magic so, hopefully, Apple restores that with a future update.
How you feel about AirPod controls will depend on how you listen to audio. If you like easily accessible physical controls for volume and skipping between songs or chapters, Siri is going to feel very, very cumbersome. If you're more of a set-it-and-forget-it type listener, who starts a podcast or audiobook or playlist and then lets it go, Siri will be fine.
It's for everything beyond audio that Siri really comes in handy. Yes, it's a complete pain in the soul to have to ask Siri to bump volume or go to the next song, but it's future-in-your-face-fantastic to tap twice and unleash Siri on everything else. Especially thanks to the new Siri apps.
Tap. Tap. "Message Serenity the review will be done on time." Tap. Tap. "Call Kevin on Skype." Tap. Tap. "Turn my lights purple 50%." Tap. Tap. "Siri, remember this [spot in the podcast]." Tap. Tap. "Play Smooth Crimibal by Alien Antfarm." "Google 'How to find AirPods in the snow'." Now we just need "Siri, read this." for the last one …
For basic playback it's frustratingly slow compared to buttons. For everything else, though, it's obliteratingly faster.
It'd be better if Apple could provide at least one additional tap pattern or physical control that would be user-assignable for convenience. Something robust enough that it wouldn't collide with the double tap, even while you're out on the street running or at the airport racing to make a connection, though.
Otherwise you'll have to decide if the limited buttons are made up for by the limitless voice.
AirPods Audio Quality
I'm not an audiophile, so the subtleties of the sound performance are lost on me. To my unappreciative ear, though, AirPods sound as good as the EarPods Apple's been bundling with iPhones for years. That again might sound like damning with feint praise, but it's way better than many Bluetooth headphones have sounded over the years.
They're not noise cancelling, which is bad for airplane flights but great for walking out on the street. They're also loud and clear enough that I can hear podcasts, audiobooks, and music just fine, even when cars are racing by.
In my testing, I only ever experienced very brief audio drop-outs three times, all when I was moving my iPhone from my back left to front right pocket. It doesn't happen often and I can't force it to happen by repeating that movement, so it's quite possible something else was at work.
I've used them when recording both video and audio podcasts, though, and they've been perfectly solid each time.
I've also worn them now with hoods on, caps on, and toques — what we call knit caps in Montreal — without a problem. I am careful when pulling on or off a hoodie, though, because you can physically knock one or both out that way.
Even when in the car or out for a walk, the mic sounds good enough that nobody I've spoken to on the phone or over VoIP apps could tell that I was using AirPods. When I switched to them, some even thought I'd switched back to my iPhone, assuming that would be better.
Whatever beam-forming Apple is doing, works really, really well.
AirPods and Accessibility
For accessibility, I've been asked numerous times if AirPods have low enough latency to be workable for VoiceOver. I've tested it, but I'm just not sensitive enough to make a useful determination. I don't think it's as instant as non-Bluetooth headphones, but I'm far from certain.
To my ears, VoiceOver is in time with the visual state highlight changes on the interface, but the same is true of my Bose Q35 Bluetooth headphones. Whether that's good or bad, I'm not able or qualified to tell. I apologize to everyone in the accessibility community that I couldn't give a better answer to this, but if anyone who lives with VoiceOver tries AirPods, please let me know how they work and I'll share all the answers I get.
AirPods and Battery Life
Apple claims AirPods will last 5 hours and that the case will carry 24 hours of recharge power. That's more or less matched my experience with them.
When I first started using AirPods, I figured that amount wouldn't be enough and that recharging them would be a hassle. I was wrong on both counts. I mostly use one AirPod at a time for listening to podcasts or audio books, or taking or making calls.
That way, I can switch them back and forth, and get double the battery life when and if I need to. I haven't really needed to, though. Even on long flights, I've never run out, and because the case charges over Lightning, I can plug it in at home, in my car, even into my portable battery pack, to top it up if and when I need to.
AirPod battery life is also shown on the Today View widget in iOS, so it's easy to keep track.
How to use AirPods
Less interested in a review and more interested in getting the most out of the AirPods you've already ordered? Here are all the guides!
AirPods Bottom line
The pre-production AirPods I tested for three months worked so well that they might as well have been production models in my mind. Since switching to the production models, I haven't experienced any noticeable differences.
Going in, I figured AirPods would be unusable for me based on their shape alone. Instead, I've been able to use them constantly. So much that I don't really want to wear corded headphones any more.
I'm now using AirPods for my workouts, when I'm driving, when I'm flying, when I'm out for walks — basically any time I need headphones. I've used them with my iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac, and it's worked great with all of them. Likewise Apple TV over regular Bluetooth.
The easy pairing and switching really do make a difference, too. With other Bluetooth headphones, I'd swap pairings every once and a while, but mostly stopped because of the hassle. With AirPods, Apple TV is still a hassle, because it pairs like standard Bluetooth, but everything else is a dream.
The price is up there but with AirPods, you're not paying for the buds. You're paying for the wireless chipset and the sensors. Apple's pricing them to move and if they could go lower, I'm guessing they would. Time will fix that, though.
These are the first generation of Apple's wireless buds, after all. And that excites me the most. Apple has rolled out W1 chips in its Beats headphones as well, but who knows where the company will go from here? AirPods as the new iPods? AirPods as health and fitness wearables? The silicon's the limit.
If you want noise-canceling headphones, or on- or over-the-ear headphones, you'll need to look to Beats, Bose, or elsewhere. If you're all-in on the Apple ecosystem, though, and you want the best integrated experience money can buy, you want AirPods.
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