When Apple removed the traditional headphone socket from its latest iPhone, part of the rationale was that wireless headphones were now coming into the mainstream. And Apple had its own player in this field, its AirPods.
But then there was an unexpected delay in their launch, raising fears over technical issues. Now they’re finally here, are they worth the price tag?
The AirPods are not the first wireless earbuds on the market, but until the start of 2016 they all had a cable joining the right and left earbud.
Now there’s a new breed of entirely wireless earbuds, but most of them don’t really work. In my testing, only Bragi’s the Headphone and Jabra’s Elite Sport wireless earbuds can keep a connection between themselves.
Apple reckons it’s got that particular problem licked with a new processing chip called the W1, which regulates the connection between the earbuds and to the smartphone, tablet or computer.
EarPods or AirPods?
If you’ve ever seen a set of Apple’s iPhone earphones, the EarPods, you know what the AirPods look and feel like. If you took the EarPods, cut the cables off, made the stalks a little thicker and ever so slightly changed that odd bud shape, you’d have the AirPods.
It’s a conscious design decision that you’re either going to like or hate. They perch in your ear, unlike isolating so-called canal buds that wedge themselves in your ear canal, with the stalks going down past your earlobes.
The fit is closer to an open, traditional earphone from the early 2000s than the modern canal-fitting earphone. As such, they don’t isolate you from the world around you at all. You can hear everything, even if you push them hard into your ear.
As a consequence you have to have the music really quite loud to be able to hear it if you’re trying to block out the rest of your train, plane or bus commute. At work in an office, they offer almost no refuge from the chatter of those around you.
But, compared to the EarPods, they leak a lot less sound. So while you can hear everything, you won’t be subjecting those around you to an impromptu tinny disco. They still bleed a little at high volume, but Apple’s done the rest of the world a favour by stopping one of the most annoying things of a modern commute -- other people’s crappy music.
Fit Is Up to the Shape of Your Outer Ear
The fit is relatively comfortable, but I found they hurt my ears a little after about an hour wearing them. The AirPods are very light and do not drop out of my ears, no matter how hard I shake my head, but neither would a set of EarPods without the cable dragging them down.
Running while wearing them in the cold wasn’t a problem, but as I became sweaty they started to slip back from my ear canal and became much quieter. They didn’t come out but how secure they are in your ear relies heavily on the shape of your outer ear.
For some people I asked to try out the AirPods, they dropped out of their ears almost immediately after they started getting up from a seat or turning their head.
If the EarPods fit and stay in your ear, the AirPods will likely fit as well or slightly better without the drag of the cable. If they don’t you won’t have any luck with the AirPods.
It’s also worth noting that the stalks of the AirPods bash into medium-sized shape earrings, meaning that you might have change your style to accommodate them.
Audio Upgrade over the EarPods
The AirPods sound surprisingly good given the lack of a proper seal in the ear, with relatively full bass and much less of the punishing treble that’s the hallmark of the EarPods.
Like most other wireless earbuds, they’re nowhere near as big a step up in quality as a set of wired earbuds costing similar. The AirPods definitely sound better than the EarPods, with more bass than Bragi’s the Headphone, but less separation and distinction between instruments and sounds.
Call quality was also pretty good. Although I had to crank up the volume to hear the other end, they could hear me loud and clear even when walking along a congested London street.
Lack of Controls
Apple’s gone for simplicity with the AirPods, which means no buttons. In fact, there’s only one thing you can do with them once they’re in your lugholes: double tap them to either fire up Siri or pause or play music, depending on what you’ve got as default in settings (when connected to a non-Apple device the only option is pause/play).
Connected to an Apple device, when you take one or both out of your ears the music pauses and resumes when you put it back in. Volume adjustment, track skipping or anything else has to either be done via Siri, which is incredibly tedious and requires a good internet connection to work, or by pulling out your smartphone.
It feels a bit like Apple built the AirPods for people who own Apple Watches, because volume and play controls can be done via the wrist. Most other wireless earbuds have buttons or gestures for play controls and volume at the very least, and not having even tap gestures to skip tracks and change the volume seems like a backward step.
The AirPods make and maintain a strong connection to other Apple products. To pair them all you need to do is open the case that they come in close to an iPhone for the first time and confirm that you want to connect them.
That pairing is then shared via iCloud to your other Apple devices, should you use iCloud and have an iPad or a Mac. Switching between devices is as simple as prompting a connection from the tablet, smartphone or computer you want to use.
The AirPods appear within MacOS’s menu bar, for instance, or the devices menu in Command Centre. Select them, wait for the small bong and you’re ready to go. Connected to an Apple device, the connection is absolutely bulletproof, reaching at least 10m and resisting interference as if it’s not there. The AirPods also don’t suffer from the small lag most Bluetooth headphones do when connected to Apple devices, which is only noticeable when you’re watching video and the lipsync is slightly out. They can also be used one at a time for mono audio or for taking calls.
On iOS, most other Bluetooth headphones require a trip into the settings app to pair, and God forbid you have to try and connect them to a Mac -- the Bluetooth audio handling has been terrible for years and simply not worth even attempting (it’s pretty bad on Windows too).
Connecting to Non-Apple Devices
Things are different if you want to connect the AirPods to a non-Apple device. A button on the case puts the earbuds into pairing mode when held for a second or so, so you can find them and pair them manually.
Many other good Bluetooth headphones have one-touch Bluetooth pairing -- just tap your Android device on a particular spot and you’re done. But that particularly Bluetooth convenience has yet to make it to completely wireless earbuds.
The AirPods’ connection to an Android device such as a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge or Google Pixel XL is also not as stable as it is to an iPhone, occasionally suffering from skips rather than the cutouts that plague earbuds such as the Earins.
They also do not pause the music when you take them out of your ears, and you cannot activate Google Assistant or Cortana using them -- a double tap simply pauses or plays music.
Wireless earbuds are easier to lose so almost all come with some kind of case that charges them, either when plugged in or with an internal battery. Apple’s is arguably the best designed of the lot. It’s small, the earbuds slot in, held in place by magnets, and it provides up to 24 hours of running time, or about five full charges of the AirPods.
It charges via Lightning, and snaps shut with a satisfying click. The only thing missing is a battery indicator on the outside of the case, although there is a little LED just under the lid that flashes red when its out of juice.
Apple reckons you get five hours of listening between trips in the case and up to 24 hours of battery life between the buds and the case, which is about right in my testing. I used them for a week between charges, listening to about five hours of music a day.
For comparison, most others only get under 10 hours of battery life between charges, so what Apple’s managed here is quite remarkable.
* Siri adjusts the volume one click at a time, which gets old really quickly
* Like most Bluetooth headphones and earbuds, the AirPods emit a little chime when they connect to your device
* The stalks hit earrings and the tops of coats or macs done up around the neck causing a loud tap or brushing noise in your ear
* Their while colour and stick-out stalks attract attention in your ear, much more so than other good wireless earbuds
* There is a Find My AirPods feature that lets you see on a map where you last had your AirPods if you happen to lose them
In some ways I love the AirPods. Apple’s W1 chip really does what it claims: solves Bluetooth connectivity issues that have plagued all but a few truly wireless earbuds, and with excellent battery life too. The case is also brilliant and I don’t even mind the stalk-like design.
But it is Apple’s EarPod-like bud design that I cannot get on with. They sound OK, but the lack of any sort of isolation makes listening to music or podcasts very difficult, even at hearing-damaging volumes.
The problem is accentuated by the lack of instant volume controls. When you hit the busy street you need to crank them up to not miss anything, but when you emerge into the relative serenity of the office they suddenly sound deafening.
I would pay twice the asking price for a set of canal-bud AirPods with proper sound isolation and a few more controls.
For those who cannot get on with canal buds or really love EarPods, the AirPods are the best wireless earbuds going, but their advantages are quickly lost when not connected to Apple devices.
For everyone else, there are already viable and similarly priced isolating alternatives available, and many more are expected this year. The new Bluetooth 5.0 specification released at the end of 2016 should also provide many of the advantages of Apple’s W1 chip, but for non-Apple devices, although it is unknown how long a wait there will be for both smartphones and earbuds using Bluetooth 5.0.