Apple AirPods review: Great sound but limited utility

Alex Kidman 20 December 2016 NEWS

Quick Verdict
Apple’s AirPods are a fascinating fusion of its ongoing love affair with design over just about everything else, which has both its appeal and its rather obvious drawbacks.

Strengths

  • Great audio quality
  • Case adds battery power
  • Good call quality
  • Suitable for jogging

Could be better

  • In no way inconspicuous
  • Lacks noise cancelling
  • One size doesn't fit all
  • Siri controls everything
  • Short battery life
  • Bluetooth pairing could work a lot better
  • All white design shows off the earwax


Apple’s AirPods deliver top quality sound, but their design needs refinement.

Apple’s purchase of Beats put it squarely in the headphones arena, but at the launch of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus it also used that purchase to announce its own AirPods wireless headphones. It’s not the first time Apple has dabbled in own-brand audio, having offered for example the iPod Hi-Fi Audio dock a decade ago. AirPods, according to Apple’s hype, are wireless, effortless and magical, which sounds impressive, at least in theory. AppleAirPods_2_450

Apple AirPods: Specifications

AppleAirPods
Battery life5 hours, 24 hours with battery case
Charge time15 minutes for 3hr charge
ConnectivityBluetooth
MicrophoneYes
RRP$229

AppleAirPods_1_450

Upsides: Why you’d want a pair of AirPods

  • Great audio quality: Small bud earphones are typically tinny little devices, but Apple has done a great job with the audio that comes out of the AirPods. Audio quality across a range of music genres was represented well, and surprisingly, given the Apple/Beats relationship, they’re not heavily tuned towards bass frequencies.
  • Case adds battery power: Apple didn’t invent this, as it has been part of any number of previous Bluetooth headsets, but it’s nicely implemented with a solid magnetic click when you drop the AirPods into their case for storage and recharging.
  • Good call quality: Voice call quality is notoriously difficult to assess, because there are so many factors to take into consideration. Still, in our calls on the AirPods, those we spoke to had no problems understanding us even at low volumes.
  • Suitable for jogging: One of our first worries with the AirPods, even before we’d tried them on, was that they could simply fall out of your ears. We tested this going for a heavy 5km street run, after which we were sweaty and tired, but the AirPods stayed the entire route, never once threatening to bounce out of our ears. We could see how a very sudden impact such as a car braking might cause them to go adrift, but for regular everyday use they’re very solid.

AppleAirPods_4_450

Downsides: Why you might not want a pair of AirPods

  • In no way inconspicuous: Apple rather likes its design notes to stand out, and there’s no doubting that this is true of the AirPods. Great if you’re walking the fashion runway at Milan, but perhaps a little less desirable late on a Friday night when you’re leaving the pub. Even if you’re staying in secure areas, they do still also have that slight social awkwardness that has long been associated with Bluetooth earpieces. Maybe Apple can change that over time, but right now it’s definitely an issue.
  • Lacks noise cancelling: You do get some noise isolation because the buds go into your ear canal, but there’s no functional noise cancellation going on with these buds. That would impact battery life, but it’s the kind of premium feature you might have expected.
  • One size doesn't fit all: Competing bud earphones come with silicon tips to fit different ear canal sizes, but the AirPods are a one-size-fits-or-falls-out proposition. We didn’t have issues with this, but if you typically reach for the largest silicon tips for your earbuds, you might find them a less than optimal fit.
  • Siri controls everything: The only interaction you can have with Apple’s AirPods is to double tap on the side to invoke Siri. She works as you’d expect, which feels futuristic, but the downside here is that you have to use her for everything. Want to adjust volume? You’ll have to ask Siri, which is slow and tedious, not to mention a little imprecise. Frankly it’s easier to dig your phone out of your pocket and adjust the actual volume controls.
  • Short battery life: In one sense Apple has done a great job getting the five hours of battery life you get out of the AirPods. Still, five hours is only five hours no matter how you time it, which means that they’re not suitable for all-day office listening or long plane flights without dropping them back into their charging case.
  • Bluetooth pairing could work a lot better: Apple's contention is that the AirPods are easier to pair than conventional devices because they'll pair with an Apple device with one tap and then spread to your devices on the same account. This is only partially true, because while pairing is easy, you've still got to use the same menus to actually shift from one audio source to another, which is as time consuming as regular Bluetooth. For what it's worth they will pair with other non-iOS devices, but you naturally lose the Siri integration if you do this. The AirPods will pair with anything Bluetooth, but only a single connection at a time. We’ve seen a number of Bluetooth headsets that will dual pair, which is handy if you’re listening through a MacBook but also want your phone calls routed through. The AirPods can’t handle that kind of sophistication outside of an Apple Watch and iPhone 7 pairing, however, meaning you’ll have to manually switch them through the Bluetooth menu to swap audio sources.
  • All white design shows off the earwax: Remember how white iPods used to show every scuff and mark? The AirPods are like that, but with whatever material may collect in your ears. Again, that’s a function of any in-ear buds, but the stark glossy white really serves to show it off to its full revolting potential.

AppleAirPods_5_450

Who is it best suited for? What are my other alternatives?

Apple’s AirPods are a fascinating fusion of its ongoing love affair with design over just about everything else, which has both its appeal and its rather obvious drawbacks. They’re best suited if you’re already heavily within the Apple ecosystem given the quick pairing with iOS and macOS Sierra devices and you like the rather obvious design style. Maybe Apple can overcome the general social stigma associated with Bluetooth headsets in a short span of time, but right now you’re likely to feel rather conspicuous wearing them. Apple’s hype wants to suggest that they’re wireless, effortless and magical. They’re certainly wireless, but the lack of on-device controls beyond the double tap for either Siri or Play/Pause (but not both) means that they’re far from either effortless, and they’re only magical if you’ve never seen a set of Bluetooth headphones before, or wish to fool people that you’re a magician because you have two white tubes sticking out of your ears.

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Everyone is jostling for wireless audio supremacy right now, so your choices are quite wide. If the concept of headphones that are just buds appeals to you, you could consider Samsung’s Gear IconX headphones or Jabra’s Elite Sport buds. If you want to keep things within the Apple family, you could opt for a pair of Beats Solo3 headphones which share the same W1 wireless chips as the AirPods. If you’re after something with more of a fitness angle, consider Plantronics’ BackBeat Fit headphones, which wrap around the back of your head. If you’re after something with a bit more audio oomph and a lot more battery life, we recently tested out and adored the Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 headphones.

Where can I get them?

Apple’s AirPods are sold through Apple’s retail stores and online for $229.

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