Do Apple’s AirPods sound great? Not really. But they’re about way more than playing music.
Let’s just get all the fun comparisons out of the way up top. Wearing AirPods is like wearing a toothbrush in your ear. No, it’s like your earbuds are melting down the side of your face. They look like tiny hair dryers! Tiny candy canes! Tiny bean sprouts! Tiny golf clubs!
Never have Bluetooth headphones been so easy to pair. AirPods turn Siri into an omnipresent being. Battery life and fit are both better than you might expect.
U-G-L-Y, they ain’t got no alibi. All the best features only work with Apple gear. They don’t sound as good as they should for the price.
In truth, AirPods look like… Bluetooth headsets. In fact, they look like the Bluetooth headset Apple made for the original iPhone back in 2007. If you follow Apple’s design philosophy of making things thinner, simpler, rounder, and whiter over time, you could easily get from that to these in nine years.
If you’d prefer something a little more contemporaneous, they also look exactly like Apple’s wired EarPod headphones, minus the cable. Whether that’s weird or bad is up to you. I say they look both weird and bad.
Looks aren’t everything, though, and the fact is AirPods look the way they do because of their most important feature: they have no wires. There’s nothing to break or tangle, nothing to plug in, nothing to get caught on a stranger’s backpack on the train every freaking day. Just sweet aural freedom. Sure, you might lose them, but that’s a you problem, not a headphones problem.
The AirPods sit fine in my ears, actually better than the EarPods. They even stayed in while I ran. The battery lasts a little longer than the five hours advertised. In the six days I’ve had them, I’ve only had to charge them one time.
The oddest thing about the AirPods isn’t how they look; it’s that Apple’s evidently not all that concerned with how they sound. Your $159 doesn’t buy you any better audio than you’ll get from the EarPods that come free in the box with your iPhone. I mean, look: they sound fine. Statistically, most people are fine with the EarPods, and they’ll be fine with the AirPods too. But if you’ve ever purchased a pair of headphones that cost more than $50, I’d bet they sound better than the AirPods. If you’ve spent more than $100, they definitely do.
So what’s that premium pricing going toward, aside from no strings attached? For one, the microphone is fantastic. The dual-mic setup, along with Apple’s clever noise-cancelling tech that uses subtle vibrations to know you’re speaking, makes for one of the clearest remote-input devices I’ve ever used. Good riddance to Siri never hearing you, and to holding your headphone cable a quarter-inch from your mouth while you walk and talk.
More important, though, is the tight integration between hardware and software that Apple still excels at supplying. It starts from the very beginning: you take the AirPods out of their box, open up the lid to the dental-floss-dispenser case, and set them down next to your iPhone. A pop-up window appears from the bottom of your phone’s screen, asking if you want to connect your new AirPods. Of course you do! So you press the very large “Connect” button, and you’re done.
From then on, as soon as you flip open the charging case and put the AirPods in your ears, a bright ding will let you know you’re connected to your phone. If you’re listening to music and take one bud out, it automatically pauses. Put it back in, and it starts playing again. (This is the only imperfect part of the equation, by the way—it works most of the time, but not all.) If you only have one bud in to start, it automatically shifts to mono sound. Double-tap on the headphones to invoke Siri. The AirPods will work as standard Bluetooth headphones with any device, but features like auto-pairing and Siri will only work with headphones that incorporate Apple’s new W1 chip.
The AirPods will cut out for a split second if I put my hand in just the right spot or bury my phone a bit too far into my bag. It doesn’t happen often, and it is, sadly, still better than most other Bluetooth headphones. And I’ve never had it spontaneously disconnect completely, which is more than I can say for most AirPods competitors.
Having Siri two taps away isn’t just the best thing about the AirPods. It’s the reason they exist. In some spots, they’re even too reliant on Apple’s voice assistant. Most headphones let you change volume or songs with gestures and buttons. With the AirPods, you have to either dig your phone out or double-tap on the bud, wait for Siri to stir from its slumber, say “Next song,” and wait again for Siri to do your bidding. Siri has gotten dramatically better in the last couple of years, and minimalism is great and all, but another swipe option or two wouldn’t hurt.
Of course, Apple could add more gestures with a simple software update. AirPods are, after all, a computer for your ears. Apple’s not the first company to try this approach; Bragi and Doppler have brazenly run down this same path. But Apple has something those two upstarts don’t: An entire ecosystem at its disposal. It’s easy to imagine Apple making the AirPods the centerpiece of how you interact with all your devices, particularly as Siri becomes more important. (And, hopefully, faster.)
Do you want to wear these AirPods all the time, though? Will you ever? If my experience so far is any indication, it’ll be a while before wireless earbuds of any kind are more than a near-futuristic novelty. And it doesn’t help that the AirPods look like two antennae sticking out of your ears.
Right now, you can get better-sounding wireless headphones for the same price or less. They’ll fit better, look better, work better. If you buy the AirPods you’re buying them for being really, ridiculously convenient, and not much else. And you can even get that for less, too, at least when the W1-equipped Beats X earbuds come out later this fall. (Though those are, improbably, even uglier than the AirPods.)
All that said, I’m really looking forward to what the AirPods become. They have the potential to be the kind of project that goes from accessory or hobby to critical piece of Apple’s future. The AirPods, above all else, are Siri machines. And just like Siri, they have a bright future—and a seriously awkward present.
A Few Months Later
After a few months of using the Airpods, a weird thing keeps happening to me. I still don’t think AirPods sound very good, I still don’t think they look good, and a few of their features still drive me absolutely insane. And yet, I keep finding myself going back to the AirPods. For all their faults, Apple’s candy-cane headphones are so easy to pair, and so comfortable to wear for hours at a time, that I can overlook the many faults. Sometimes.
Life with the AirPods is a study in tradeoffs: It’s great that they’re so loose and comfortable in my ear, except that means I can’t hear my podcast once the train gets noisy. I love that I can just pop one bud out and my music will pause, but when I’m holding that bud in my hand I tend to accidentally tap on the side and start the music playing all over again. Their simplicity is half the point, but it drives me up a wall that I can’t change volume without getting my phone or begging Siri. I love that there are no wires! I hate that I can’t take them off and drape them around my neck.
I love using the AirPods for phone calls above all else. They’re the first Bluetooth headphones that sound as good as if I’m holding my phone to my face. And in general, they’re a totally viable set of headphones that never fall out, even when you think they will. What I really want, though, is a cross between these and the PowerBeats3: the light, simple earbuds, with a cable that goes behind my head and some basic controls. Maybe even a cable you can disconnect? I’m dreaming, I know. But there’s a happy medium in there somewhere, between the beauty and freedom of wireless and the controls and quality of the slightly tethered. Until we get there, pick a side. Or buy two pairs of headphones.
Update: This review was updated in April 2017 with additional notes from the author.
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