Better late than never.
After a two-month delay, Apple’s new wireless headphones, the AirPods, are available.
Well, sort of. Good luck getting a pair before Christmas. Supplies are extremely limited. But hey, there’s always eBay if you don’t mind paying $300 or more!
Overall, I mostly enjoy the AirPods, and while there’s a bit of sticker shock, I think they’re mostly worth the $229 if you want to go wireless.
After testing the final version of the AirPods for a few days, it seems like Apple knocked out a lot of the glitches I’ve experienced while testing the pre-production model over the last few months.
They’re not perfect, but they’re probably the best option you have now that the headphone jack is gone from the iPhone 7. I already wrote a review of the pre-production AirPods back in September. For the most part, everything I wrote there holds true.
But now that AirPods are here for everyone, it’s worth revisiting them. Let’s take another look.
The best feature in the AirPods has nothing to do with audio at all. It’s how Apple fixed the annoying Bluetooth pairing process. Instead of digging through your settings, all you have to do is flip open the AirPods case while holding it close to your iPhone. A card pops up that prompts you to pair, and you’re all set.
This is thanks to the special W1 chip inside each AirPod. The W1 chip also tells your iPhone when the AirPods are in your ears so music will only play when you’re wearing them. It’s amazing that it took this long for someone to solve the hassle of pairing Bluetooth accessories.
No complaints here. While the AirPods don’t sound as good as high-end, over-the-ear headphones, they sound just about the same as the wired EarPods that come with your iPhone. For me, that’s good enough. But if you’re a hardcore audio nerd, you probably shouldn’t be using earbuds anyway.
Siri and voice controls
The AirPods have a built-in microphone for phone calls and controlling Siri. A double tap on one of the AirPods activates Siri. From there, you can use it as you normally would, making a phone call, having your text messages read to you, setting a reminder, and so on.
I’m not a heavy Siri user, but it is an interesting way to interact with the iPhone, as long as you can get past looking like a weirdo while muttering to yourself in public. But there are some problems when you rely on Siri for everything, which I’ll get to in a bit.
It’s rare I get to say this about a new gadget, but battery life on the AirPods is really good. Apple says you can get up to five hours per charge, which seems about right based on my experience. But you can also top up the battery on the go using the charging case, even if it’s not plugged in. I was able to get well over a day’s use out of a single charge this way.
Plus, you should always pop your AirPods back in the case when you’re finished anyway. You’re going to lose them if you don’t. And Apple will charge you $69 for a replacement AirPod.
Do they fall out?
That depends. I’ve used the AirPods at the gym, running on the treadmill and doing push ups, sit ups, and other strength exercises. They stayed put the entire time. But I’ve seen some people complain that the AirPods don’t fit snugly in their ears, so I guess it all depends on your ear shape. My advice: Try them on at the store before you buy them to make sure they fit. In general, if the wired EarPods fit you, then the AirPods will too.
There’s a lot more to unpack than I can fit in one review, so check out my handy AirPods FAQ if you want to learn even more about how they work.
“Siri, raise the volume”
I only have two major problems with the AirPods.
The first is the design. AirPods look nearly identical to the wired EarPods, just with the cords snipped off. That design is fine until you put them in your ears. They look like goofy plastic earrings, so good luck walking around in public looking like this:
The second major problem is much worse though. Controlling audio with the AirPods is a frustrating experience.
Since there are limited physical controls on the AirPods, you have to use Siri for everything. For example, if you want to raise the volume, you have to double tap the one of the AirPods. That pauses your music and activates Siri. Then you have to tell Siri to raise or lower the volume. Assuming Siri understands you, the music starts playing again at the adjusted volume. But if the volume isn’t what you wanted, you have to go through the process again.
Oh, and Siri needs an internet connection to work. So, yeah, you literally need an internet connection just to adjust the volume or switch tracks using the AirPods. Welcome to 2016.
Yes, you can just adjust the volume or change tracks by whipping out your iPhone. And yes, you can use the Apple Watch. But it’s not as good as using that handy dongle on the wired EarPods. Plus, not everyone wants or needs an Apple Watch.
There’s also an option to change the double-tap gesture to play/pause music in you iPhone’s settings, but then you lose your Siri functionality on the AirPods. It’s all kind of a mess. I think it would have been a lot better if Apple had added other tapping gestures for music controls. (Maybe a triple-tap to adjust the volume? I don’t know. But the folks at Apple are pretty smart. I bet they can figure it out.)
I also experienced some crackling audio at times with the AirPods. It rarely happened, maybe a few times a day for a second or two, but it was there. Apple told me that shouldn’t happen, and the AirPods they sent me to review could be defective. They’re sending me another pair to test soon, and I’ll update this review after I get a chance to try them. For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen anyone else with this issue, so maybe I’m just unlucky.
Like it or not, traditional headphones are becoming obsolete. Wireless alternatives may not be better yet, but they’re good enough for most people. That applies to the AirPods, too.
For now, AirPods work better when used passively just to listen to music. Some have lumped grand expectations on them, dreaming about an experience similar to what we saw in the movie “Her” with Siri buzzing in your ear. That’s not what the AirPods are.
The AirPods are more of a mixed bag. They’re fine for listening to wireless audio, but they’re expensive. They pair easily with your iPhone, but you still need your iPhone to easily control them. They fit well in most ears, but boy do they look goofy.
All those tradeoffs are proof that we’re in a transitional period from wired to wireless audio. It’s fine for now, but it’s going to be a bumpy road for a while.