Apple’s AirPods wireless headphones have dominated the market essentially since they hit stores in December 2016. It’s obvious the world has long been waiting for an amazing pair of completely wireless headphones. But the real question is: Do the AirPods deliver?
With what look like golf tees emerging where you would expect to see wires, the AirPods’ appearance may be polarizing, but those white sticks were the first to crack the conundrum that confounded every wireless earbud before them: They were the first truly wireless earbuds that reliably work. In many ways, they are among the best fully wireless earbuds made to date.
But that doesn’t mean you should buy them.
Out of the box
The AirPods are in many ways predictable, and that includes Apple’s signature product packaging. Inside the box is a small, white charging case with the AirPods tucked inside, some very basic product instructions (they practically operate themselves), and a standard-issue USB-to-lightning charging cable. You’ll find no USB wall plug here, but you already have more of those than you know what to do with, right?
First impressions are mostly positive. The AirPods’ charging case has a magnetic clasp to keep it secure; the AirPods each snap firmly into their cradles thanks to more magnets; a multicolor LED indicates charging status; fresh out of the box, the buds are ready to pair.
Yes, you look a bit silly with AirPods in. But do they really look any sillier than any other wireless Bluetooth headphones?
Upon arrival, the AirPods are in pairing mode. When you flip open their case, the AirPods will appear in your iPhone’s Bluetooth menu as “AirPods.” Simply select them to connect and the pairing is done. That may not sound like a big deal, but many fully wireless headphones are tough to pair for one reason or another, and even Google’s tethered Pixel Buds (i.e., not fully wireless earbuds) struggled with auto pairing in their initial rollout.
If you’re an iCloud user, all of your Apple devices should recognize the AirPods as a sound output option, and sound switches among them with a swipe and a click. To force the AirPods into pairing mode for use with any non-Apple device, a small, nearly invisible button on the back of the charging case will force pairing mode when held down.
Sweet, sweet Siri
It would have been easy for Apple to cram as much functionality into the AirPods as possible – others have certainly tried, and it ended up being their undoing – but Apple showed some restraint here and loaded the wireless buds with just enough tech to make them interesting, yet easy to use.
The Apple AirPods are the first truly wireless earbud that reliably work.
You can tap the outside of either AirPod to summon Siri – just as you would by pressing and holding the home key on an iPhone – and she will be at your service. Don’t ask her to skip the song on your Spotify playlist, though — she can’t help you there. If you want to do any song navigation, or have Siri pull up your favorite tune, it will need to be through Apple music.
Siri can help you with any of the other tasks you’re used to relying on her for, though. You can ask her to set a reminder, set an alarm, place a call to someone on your contacts list, or adjust the volume of your music up or down.
When receiving a call, Siri will announce it, and a double-tap to either AirPod’s outer shell will answer the call.
Inside the AirPods, accelerometers and other sensors determine when the buds have been inserted and removed from ears. This enables a few energy- — and time- — saving measures. For instance, if you’re listening to music and remove one AirPod, the music will pause until the removed AirPod is re-inserted, at which point the music or podcast picks right back up where it left off. If both AirPods are removed, the music stops and the AirPods essentially shut down, saving precious battery life. When the ‘buds are replaced, they power up and connect instantly – the fastest we can recall experiencing.
The AirPods also function independently. At one point during a call that lasted over an hour, one of our AirPods ran out of juice — but our call didn’t end. The unit in our left ear had enough power to keep going, and didn’t need the other earbud to function. That gave us enough time to switch to our phone and keep the call going.
To check battery life of both the AirPods and their charging case, you can dig into an iPhone’s battery widget, or you can simply hold the AirPods case within proximity of an iPhone and flip open the lid. You’ll then see the battery status of both the charging case and the AirPods themselves.
Apple claims the AirPods deliver 5 hours of listening time and 2 hours talk time on a single full charge. Mixed use will land somewhere in between those numbers. With multiple charges from the AirPods case, Apple says you can expect a total of 24 hours listening time, or 11 hours talk time. Perhaps most notably, the AirPods charge fairly quickly – just 15 minutes of charging in the case should net you 3 hours of listening time or an hour of talk time.
EarPods and AirPods: Same, but very different
You are about to experience a repetitive theme: In many ways, the AirPods are just like the EarPods. But we want to point out that despite the many similarities, the AirPods are also very different than the EarPods. There is certainly a lot to the wireless connectivity, but beyond the magic of wireless lay a number of usage scenarios that aren’t immediately obvious.
In terms of sound quality, the AirPods are nearly identical to the EarPods you get free with the purchase of an iPhone. Bass is satisfying in that it reaches surprisingly low, has appropriate presence, and is pleasantly tight and tuneful. We’re not talking Beats-level bass here, but most folks will find bass levels just fine. Treble is sparkling, but not particularly refined or detailed — perhaps the best thing we can say about the treble is that it is not overly aggressive or aggravating. Midrange performance leaves us wanting for more presence and warmth. We’d love for voices to sound more natural and present. With all of that said, we feel everyone knows the AirPods aren’t designed to be the darling of audiophiles. Bottom line: If you find the sound of EarPods acceptable, you’ll be perfectly happy with how the AirPods sound.
We found that the AirPods are an excellent tool for taking phone calls. The sound quality and ambient noise reduction afforded by the AirPods matches what you get with an iPhone’s built-in microphone or an EarPods wired in-line microphone, and in some ways exceeds it. Apple credits its “beam-forming” microphone design for the AirPods’ performance here. You can use just one ‘bud for taking a call, like a Bluetooth headset. You can’t do that with ordinary Bluetooth earbuds, because they’re wired together.
The ability to use just one AirPod also comes in handy if you’re using Siri (or any other map app’s voice prompts, for that matter) for directions. There’s no need to plug up both ears just to hear Siri tell you to turn right in 500 feet. But the AirPods, just like the EarPods, don’t provide particularly good noise isolation, meaning you’re likely to hear that bus bearing down on you, or that siren from an approaching ambulance, whether you are using two AirPods or one.
Fun for fitness?
Despite the wireless design, the AirPods aren’t a particularly good choice for fitness purposes. If you need earhooks for stability or sweatproofing, Apple would be quick to usher you to more fitness-oriented Beats headphone options that use the same W1 chip, and offer similar features. We, however, would point you to the Jabra Elite Sport Wireless, which is fully sweatproof.
If you use EarPods while working out and have had no problems, then congratulations: The AirPods should be a fine replacement. For the vast majority of us, though, the AirPods are prone to fall out during rigorous or particularly sweaty workouts. And this brings us to a very important consideration.
Will I lose them?
If you’re clumsy or absentminded, you may want to steer clear of AirPods. Lose the case and you’ll have no way to charge them. Lose one EarPod and you’ll have to purchase a new one at $69 for stereo sound, though you’ll still be able to take calls and listen to music or podcasts with just one AirPod.
Is this a knock on the AirPods, though?
We say no: It’s a knock on fully wireless earbuds. Every other product of this type introduces the same concern. If this is the sort of product you want, then – for now at least – you must be willing to accept the risk and deal with the consequences. It is the nature of the beast, as they say.
Apple’s AirPods are protected by a one-year warranty, and service for any AirPods that lose their battery capacity within that time frame will be free. Battery maintenance outside of the warranty will cost $49 and the replacement cost for a lost AirPod or AirPod charging case will be $69.Our Take
Apple’s AirPods are among the best completely wire-free earbuds available today. Their flawlessly stable wireless connection and range alone still puts them ahead of much of the competition. That said, they are no longer the kings of the court in terms of overall performance. Competitors like Jabra, with its excellent Elite 65t headphones, offer the same battery life, IP55 rated water resistance, and better sound, and Bragi, Bose, and a growing collection of others also now make worthy competitors.
But we would be remiss if we didn’t pose a relevant question: Do you really need fully wireless earbuds? If the little wire or neck band on the myriad alternative Bluetooth earbuds available gets in your way regularly, perhaps you are a good candidate for something like the AirPods. And of course, there’s the undeniable cool factor involved here (golf-tee protrusions be damned!) with having such a futuristic product. Just be prepared for frequent charging, the risk of losing a component, poorer performance for your dollars, and the lack of other frilly features like in-ear heart-rate monitoring, sweatproofing, and security.
In the end, though, we’re rating the AirPods based on their position in the emerging wireless earbud segment. In that context, they’re the best overall choice, earning them our Recommended Product badge.
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What are the alternatives?
If you’re a die hard iOS and Apple Music user, the added integrations of the Airpods may well still have them as the front-runner for you
Our favorite fully wireless headphones on the market are the aforementioned Jabra Elite 65t model, which offer the same conveniences as the Airpods at a nearly identical price, but with better sound in tow. We’ve also had good experiences with Bragi’s dumbed-down value pick, The Headphone, which offer better sound and a bit more juice per charge at the same price point. The only real caveat here is that The Headphone earbuds don’t come with a portable charging case.
While pricier, Jabra’s Elite Sport are another great alternative for those who put their daily workout on the top of the list. They offer solid performance, plenty of features, and good enough sound to get the job done, especially on a bike ride or run.
Bragi’s Dash Pro offer more features than you can shake a stick at, plenty of battery life, waterproofing, and they’re also pretty dang comfortable. Again, however, they suffer from bugs in the system, including pairing that’s way harder than it needs to be, and occasional connection issues.
How long will it last?
Provided you don’t lose them, the AirPods should last for a few years of use before their batteries lose their stamina – just like any lithium-ion device. They are built reasonably well and shouldn’t be prone to breakage, though if they take repeated tumbles to the asphalt, they will likely end up looking pretty beat-up.
A larger concern is how long they will remain competitive. We expect a number of new wireless earbuds to make their debut at CES 2017, though we remain guarded with our optimism as to how good any of them will actually be
Should you buy it?
If you can’t resist the appeal of a wire-free earbud and you are satisfied with the sound of Apple’s EarPods, then yes – knock yourself out and pick up a pair of Apple AirPods. You can do a lot worse in terms of reliability and overall performance and spend more for it – in some cases double.
If, however, you prize sound quality over freedom, or if you are looking for a fitness-ready headphone, we suggest you look at the Jabra Elite 65t or Elite Sport, or one of the many Bluetooth earbud options tethered together by a wire or headband — many of which can be found on our best wireless headphones list.