[TL;DR: AirPods have flaws, and I don’t recommend them for everyone. But while the drawbacks are immediately noticeable—including meh sound quality—some of the best things are features you appreciate more over extended use, especially if you use AirPods with multiple Apple devices. (Also, these are my personal views, not those of my employer, etc.)]
I’m frequently asked what I think of Apple’s AirPods. It feels like every time I wear them in public, someone asks how I like them—leading me to try to explain my conflicted thoughts in depth to someone who undoubtedly expected (and likely would have preferred) a simple “They’re great” or “They suck.” Similarly, whenever I mention them on Twitter, a bunch of people ask for my impressions, and it’s tough to tell the whole story in 140 characters.
I received my set back on December 20, so I’ve been using them just over two months. I almost returned them after a week because I was disappointed in the sound quality, but I decided to keep them, and I’m glad I did: Two months in, I’m using them more than when I got them. While I have some serious criticisms of the AirPods (as you’ll see below, and as I’ve mentioned on Twitter), and they’re not as good in some areas as I expected, they’re a lot better in other areas, and the latter are things that I’ve come to appreciate a lot more over extended use—and, I hope, point to improvements we’ll see in other Bluetooth headphones in the future.
Thanks to some free time on vacation last week, here are my main impressions, from bad to great.
Sound quality: While audio quality isn’t identical to that of Apple’s wired EarPods, it’s much more similar than different. This means that AirPods sound decent for traditional earbuds, but not great—and not nearly as good as what you’d get with a good set of in-ear buds (and probably even great cheap in-ear buds). Bass is an especially noticeable weakness—even if you don’t like the accentuated bass you get with a Beats headphone, AirPods lack a good, accurate low end.
No track or volume controls: There’s no way to skip tracks or adjust volume on the AirPods themselves. (Sorry, Siri doesn’t count—I’m not talking to myself whenever I want to skip tracks or tweak the volume level.) The most you get is the option to configure a double-tap on either earpiece as Play/Pause—a setting that disables Siri activation on the AirPods. (I do use Siri via the AirPods to initiate phone calls and ask questions, so I don’t enable this setting.) When listening to your tablet or computer, this isn’t as big of a deal, since those controls are within easy reach. But if your iPhone is stowed away while listening on the go, you must pull it out for these actions. The best current solution, if you have an Apple Watch, is to keep the Now Playing widget in your watch’s dock for quick access. I’m hoping a software update will at least let you tap the AirPods for track control.
Battery life: I’ve seen complaints that the “five-hour battery life” is too short, but in my experience—I frequently have my AirPods in my ears much of the day, because they’re great for phone calls—I have yet to run out of battery. The main reason is that real-world use encourages you to charge them without thinking about it: As with any tiny piece of electronics, I worry about losing my AirPods, so I tend to put them in their case whenever I plan to have them out for a while (say, during lunch), and that case automatically charges the AirPods. (It provides 24 hours of total use time, with fifteen minutes in the case giving you several hours of listening time.) Unless you actually need your headphones in your ears constantly for a full eight-hour work day, you’ll likely end up charging them multiple times per day in the course of normal use.
Comfort: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and secure the AirPods are (for me, of course). I don’t have much of a problem with the fit of the wired EarPods, and the AirPods have essentially the same fit in the ear, but several people I know who never found EarPods to be comfortable are happy with the fit of the AirPods. My theory is that the lack of a dangling cable eliminates the biggest reason earbuds fall out—the cord pulling down on them—and puts less pressure on each ear. This design also means that there’s no annoying connecting cord rubbing against your neck, like you have with most Bluetooth earbuds. That said, as with any product where fit matters, your mileage may vary, and you should see if you can try a set before buying.
No noise isolation: This is a mixed bag for me. I like wearing AirPods when I need to hear what’s going on around me. 1 But the lack of any noise isolation means I simply can’t use them in noisy environments, so I have to carry a different set of headphones for travel.
Price: Great Bluetooth earbuds tend to cost $100 to $150 these days, so $160 isn’t outrageous…except that AirPods don’t sound like great Bluetooth earbuds. On the other hand, AirPods do some things (see below) better than even the best Bluetooth earbuds. Let’s put it this way: If sound quality is important to you, you’ll probably want to wait until better-sounding headphones get Apple’s W1 wireless chip and the user-experience benefits that come with it. (I ordered the Beats X to see—hoping against hope?—if it has significantly better sound.)
Range: I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how far I can wander from my source device and still get a solid signal. I’ve used otherwise good Bluetooth headphones that would occasionally cut out if my body got in between the headphones and my phone. The AirPods almost never cut out, even with a wall (or two) in between. Put simply, AirPods have the best reliable Bluetooth range of any Bluetooth headphone I’ve tried—and I’ve tried many. (I did have one issue where, after a firmware update, my AirPods were unusable for phone calls. I ended up unpairing them and then pairing them again, and the problem disappeared.)
Headset use: AirPods are much better than I expected for phone calls, video conferencing, dictation, and other situations in which I need a microphone—they’re my new Bluetooth headset of choice. In part this is because the weight and fit make them comfortable enough to use for hours at a time, but it’s also because my voice sounds great to people I’m talking to. They tell me I sound at least as good as, and often better than, with the expensive, dedicated Bluetooth headset I’ve been using for the past year or so.
Auto on/off/pause/resume/etc.: Put your AirPods in your ears, and they automatically wake and connect to the last-used device. Pull an AirPod out of your ear and your media playback pauses; put it back in and playback resumes. Pull both EarPods out, and they go to sleep, with your source device switching audio back to its own speakers. Put one in an ear, and your phone knows you have a headset for calls. This all works seamlessly, and it’s great. I have a couple other Bluetooth headphones that have a “Take them off and playback pauses; put them on and playback resumes” feature, but it’s glitchy, and sometimes playback resumes on the wrong device or from the wrong source. 2
Software integration It’s a simple thing, but I love that I can easily see the battery level of both the AirPods themselves and their charging case right on my device screen.
Pairing: I’m sure you’ve read about this in many other places, but it bears repeating: There’s no other Bluetooth device that’s easier to pair. You just open the charging case’s lid next to your iPhone, and a pairing dialog appears on your phone’s screen. Tap Connect, and you’re done. But in addition to being paired with your phone, the AirPods are automatically paired with every other iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, and Apple Watch 3 (but, alas, not Apple TV) associated with your iCloud account. There’s nothing else like this in Bluetooth audio, and it’s related closely to the next point…
Multi-device use: This is one area where I think a lot of “general tech” reviewers have missed a major advantage of AirPods, both because they have to write their reviews without extended use and because they don’t use the AirPods with multiple devices. No other Bluetooth-audio device I’ve used is better at pairing with, and switching between, multiple audio sources.
A big reason this matters is that Apple customers tend to own multiple devices—some combination of iPhone, iPad, iMac, Mac laptop, Apple Watch, and iPod touch—and in my experience, many of them actively consume media on more than one of those devices. For years, one of the biggest headphone complaints among Apple customers (heck, among consumers in general) has been how terrible BT headphones are at letting you use them with more than one source. Even when a particular headphone lets you pair with two or three sources, it’s not obvious how to switch the active connection from one source to the other. And even if you do that successfully, sometimes you’ll get interrupted when listening to a secondary device if audio starts playing on the primary device. My “solution” has been to [hangs privileged head in shame] use a separate set of headphones for each device.
AirPods are a massive improvement in this area. As I mentioned above, your AirPods are automatically paired with every Apple device associated with your iCloud account. By default, AirPods connect to the most-recently used source that’s available, but you can easily switch to a different device. The most seamless transition is between iPhone and Apple Watch: The connection automatically switches to whichever is playing audio. To use your AirPods with your iPad or other iOS device, you just choose them as the audio output in Control Center; on a Mac, you click the systemwide audio menu and choose AirPods as the output device—though I prefer this nifty third-party Mac app that lets you switch your AirPods to your Mac with a click or a keyboard shortcut. (If you have non-Apple devices, sorry, it’s not as seamless. But I wouldn’t recommend AirPods to someone who doesn’t have Apple devices.) And I don’t think I’ve ever had, for example, my phone’s audio interrupt me when I’m watching a video on my iPad—something that happens all the time with my other multi-device Bluetooth headphones.
As someone who uses an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac daily to listen to audio, I can’t say enough about how great this feature is. It’s enough of a convenience that I end up using AirPods more than any other single headphone, despite my complaints about sound quality and noise isolation.
- I always use Bluetooth headphones at the gym and when doing other exercise, because the lack of a cable means there’s nothing to get snagged on equipment. I also use open headphones in these situations, because I need to be able to hear what’s going on around me. ↩
- With one full-size-headphone model, If I’m watching TiVo on my iPad and I adjust the position of the headphones on my head, TiVo pauses; when the headphones are back in place, the Music app starts playing. ↩
- Running iOS 10.2, macOS Sierra, or watchOS 3 or later, respectively. ↩