AirPods. It’s something that I’ve been talking about on the Apple Core podcast for some time. When they originally came out I expressed that I didn’t care for them whatsoever. Several months later, and several delays later the hype got to me. Something clicked. I’m not sure what it was but here I am, right? I am now writing a review for the AirPods, something I wrote off as soon as they came out.
So let’s start with why I bought them in the first place. Well, to be fair, I got them because it was an Apple product and it’s my job to review these things. Admittedly, I had some interest in them. In terms of sound quality, I set the bar super low. While I didn’t write a review specifically for them, I absolutely hated the EarPods (both the 3.5mm and Lightning kind). Everything from the sound signature down to the fact that the cable kept forcing them out of my ear. For the last several years, I’ve given up on the EarPods as a whole. I’ve been using over-ear headphones ranging from the worst of the worst (the Audio-Technica ATH-M50), to some of my favorites (the Oppo PM-3). Again, here I am, writing an AirPods review. I also wrote an initial impressions of the AirPods a few weeks ago.
If you’re looking to purchase AirPods to be blown away by sound quality, these are not for you. They’re bass heavy and that bass extension bleeds into the mids quite a bit. Treble is better than the EarPods, but they’re a bit recessed. For music, I’d highly recommend looking elsewhere. Though, Bluetooth and sound quality never mix. Personally, I would never use the AirPods intentionally for music, but they’ll get you by in a pinch. Point blank, don’t expect these to replace your high-end audio equipment anytime soon. For low-bitrate audio such as phone calls, audiobooks, podcasts, and things of that nature, AirPods are amazing. Don’t even bother trying to EQ these because it’s not worth it, seriously.
AirPods are decent at any genre that has tons of bass and is dominated by bass. But try anything else, the bass will feel overpowering and overwhelming to most who care about sound quality. The other issue is that with tracks with little to no low end, the AirPods will sound abnormally tinny to the trained ear and the treble will then overtake the mid-range.
It’s been a while since I’ve actually tried EarPods, but AirPods aren’t terrible. Obviously, sound will vary greatly depending on how well they fit in your ear. Soundstage is similar to the ATH-M50s in the sense that everything sounds very boxed in and lacks any sort of instrument separation whatsoever, though that’s expected from a set of earbuds with no real seal.
The AirPods are amazing functionality wise. Everything from taking out one ear and having your audio automatically pause, to them automatically pairing when you put them in your ears. They’re awesome. The problem here is that they’re not 100% reliable. I’d say that these functions work 95% of the time, which may be good enough for most. When you take one out of your ear, there’s a noticeable half-second delay, and it sometimes doesn’t pair automatically when you take them out of the case and put them in your ear.
It’s obvious that AirPods were built around the iPhone. When you open the lid, a card shows up on your iPhone telling you the battery life of the case and your AirPods. If you have one earbud in, it’ll show you the battery life of each individual AirPod. This automatic card is only available on the iPhone, and not on the iPad, (maybe the iPod touch, but who owns one of those?). On the Apple Watch, you can pull up Control Center, tap the battery icon, and it’ll show you the same information, but that’s not automatic. On the Mac is where it’s clear that AirPods weren’t designed for the platform. To view battery life on the Mac, you have to tap into the Sound menu bar icon and you see a battery indicator without the percentage. And lastly, on the Apple TV. While being a counterpart to iOS, tvOS doesn’t automatically pair like the rest of your devices. You have to go into Settings > Remotes and Devices > Bluetooth to pair these. Not the greatest. It’s also the only Apple platform that doesn’t have easy access to AirPods. On iOS and the Apple Watch, you can swipe up on Control Center, get to the media controls/AirPlay button and pair from there. On the Mac, you can go to the Sound menu bar icon and pair there, on tvOS you have to dig into Settings to do so. Unfortunately, I’ve found battery life indication to be extremely unreliable. It’s not that the percentages it gives out is inaccurate, that’s not the issue. The issue is trying to get the interface to show up at all. On the iPhone and iPad you can view the battery indicator in the Battery widget in iOS 10. However, I’ve found that it isn’t always there. Ideally, it’s supposed to show up if it’s paired to the device, but that’s not always the case. Most of the time, I have to put them back in its case and take them out a second time in order for it to show up. Same goes for the Apple Watch.
The case that the AirPods come in are pretty great as well. It’s always charging the AirPods while in the case, and the case gives up to 24 hours of additional battery life for the AirPods. Remember, “up to.” In my personal experience, I’ve gotten around 15-20 hours of additional battery life which is fine. I have to charge the case every 2-3 days. Albeit, feels like the case takes forever to charge in comparison to the AirPods. The AirPods can charge from dead to 60% in about 15 minutes, that’s pretty awesome. But the case? It takes around 2-3 hours to fully charge and unless you’re charging the case overnight, this could feel like forever. Speaking of charging, it’s flat out annoying that the AirPods shipped with a Lightning to USB-A cable. Apple claims that USB-C is the future yet no Apple mobile device has shipped with a proper Lightning to USB-C cable in the box. Apple’s claim of 5 hours of battery life is pretty accurate as well. I’ve gotten anywhere between 4-4.5 hours which is right on the ball with Apple’s estimate.
The microphones that are built into the AirPods are on a whole other level in terms of microphones on mobile devices. I was walking down a busy Seattle street the other day with tons of people walking by and engine-based cars stuck in traffic, yet, the person on the other end of the phone call could hear me just fine. That’s impressive. Using the microphones for Siri also works surprisingly well when Siri wants to work.
And that brings me to my final point, the double tap gesture for Siri is awful. Maybe I’m not doing it right, but I’ve found that the gesture works about 40% of the time. I’ll keep it on versus changing it to Play/Pause (own an Apple Watch) or having it do flat out nothing. I originally thought, “Why not map out the gestures from the EarPods to the AirPods?” I now understand Apple’s decision. The gesture simply doesn’t work reliably enough to add any additional gesture. However, requiring an internet connection to do simple things such as adjusting the volume, is flat out insane.
How well do they stay in the ear?
For whatever reason this is the most asked question when people see me with AirPods. This isn’t an easy question to answer as everyone has different ear shapes. But for me, EarPods fit just fine and AirPods are the same. If anything the AirPods stay better in my ears due to the lack of wire. Initially, I was paranoid about them falling out of my ear and I kept pushing them back in every time I felt like they’d fall out of my ear. Though, that’s starting to slowly fade as I get more comfortable with them. I have yet to have them fall out of my ear at all.
While it may seem like I absolutely hate the AirPods, they’re by far my favorite Apple product of the year. They work reliably enough that it’s not super annoying. Sound quality will be adequate for any non-audiophile person. I’ll primarily use the AirPods for podcasts, audiobooks, phone calls, movies, and other non-music audio. While pairing with Apple TV is supper annoying, I primarily use it there because the Siri remote is able to adjust the volume of my AirPods. While it won’t be replacing my audiophile grade headphones, it’ll now have a place in my pocket on me at all times for when I need them. If you’re looking for a set of wireless Bluetooth earbuds, AirPods are the only ones I can recommend. While no promises can be made about Apple improving its software quality anytime soon, AirPods and the experience you get from them (that’s mostly due to the Apple designed W1 chip) cannot be matched.
In the end, it’s silly to disregard sound quality in a set of headphones, especially from an audiophile. However, functionality wise, AirPods set a high bar for wireless headphones and is a truly innovative headphone, even though sound quality isn’t there yet.