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Seamless Apple integration
Head-spinning battery life
Beautiful, premium build
Lackluster sound quality
Hefty price tag
No waterproof rating
If you love and use Apple exclusively across your devices, the AirPods will fit right into your life; but if you need the best possible sound quality and don’t mind mucking with Bluetooth menus, look elsewhere.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve seen at least a dozen pairs of Apple AirPods walking around. When Apple launched them at the end of 2016, the company was met with the usual “What is Apple doing?” But somehow, they have clawed their way to the top of the wireless earbuds conversation—for good reason. As a full package, there are few earbuds that present as many premium features as these. In fact, with the exception of sound quality, and perhaps design preference, there’s really not a lot to dislike about them. They just work, and they let you carry on with your day.
We tested these for 24 total hours over the course of a full two-week period in NYC, and here’s how they kept up.
No one’s going to argue that Apple is not a design presence in the tech world. The AirPods have been the most polarizing device Apple has released in recent years, from a looks perspective. After all, they look like regular earbuds with the wires chopped off, just dangling out of your ear. But two years after launch, they have become a bit of a statement of status, like many other Apple products.
If you want the perfect accessory for your iOS devices, AirPods are a no brainer.
Each stem, which contains the battery and charging contact, measures in at about 1 inch from the tip to the earbud. They’re all white, and other than the metallic tip, they look just like EarPods without the wire. Pair that with the ultra-sleek, rounded glossy battery case (aesthetically, our favorite part of the package), and you have a product that will fit beautifully in with the rest of an Apple user’s gadgets. But, when you come right down to it, the design is a personal preference. If you like the look, you like it. If you don’t, then you don’t. What we can say is that the plastic looks and feels great, and seems to retain its sheen, even when banged around over the course of your daily life.
Most earbuds (true wireless, regular wireless or fully wired) attempt to do the best they can at blotting out sound using a physical seal. Apple has never subscribed to this philosophy—their EarPods offer a rigid plastic design without the seal-friendly rubber tips of most other headphones.
The same is true for the AirPods, though they’ve taken the time to extend the speaker grill’s cone so it nests further into your ear. If EarPods don’t give you a comfortable fit, that doesn’t necessarily mean that AirPods won’t either. Because they’re truly wireless, AirPods tend to “hang on” just a bit better. But, the lack of seal will take a bit of getting used to at first. They can still fall out, but we were pleasantly surprised at just how stable they felt in our ears. That said, the lack of seal does affect sound quality.
This is a difficult category to address. On the surface, Apple’s AirPods feel extremely premium and they aren’t likely to disappoint anyone who pulls them out of the box. If we’re being honest, the pair we had definitely had its share of bumps and drops, and we found little-to-no physical wear and no functionality issues even after putting them through our paces. Even the magnets that suck the earbuds into the case easily and the snappy, magnetic lid offer a satisfying feel. On the other hand, Apple does not claim any level of water resistance, and they don’t do much to talk about the materials they used to actually build the AirPods (unlike their laptops and mobile devices).
So, if you’re tackling a lot of gym sessions or go on a ton of outdoor jogs, and you’re going to put these through a lot of sweat and rain, there’s no official resistance to those elements. We can say anecdotally, that the rain seemed not to have any effect on our pair, and we did use them for a workout class or two. But, it’s something to consider as many of the other true wireless earbuds at this price point do promise an official IP rating.
This is, by far, the biggest ding against AirPods. Almost intentionally, the sound quality is not a central use case for them. It’s actually interesting because if you read through the entire product page on Apple’s website, they don’t discuss the sound quality more than simply calling it “Rich, high-quality audio.”
They have a decent, punchy response for the size of the headphones, but lack a lot of bass character.
What’s more, Apple even sells the Bose SoundSport Free headphones right on their website. This could mean one of two things: either Apple knows these aren’t premium drivers or they just assume people know what EarPods sound like. Either way, in our tests, they sound exactly like EarPods. They have a decent, punchy response for the size of the headphones, but lack a lot of bass character. For phone calls and spoken word, they’re nearly perfect, so for podcasts and light music listening, they’ll do the trick. But if you consider yourself an audiophile, there are better choices out there in this price range.
The battery life on the earbuds themselves keeps up perfectly with the rest of the competition. Almost every premium true wireless earbud will advertise about five hours of listening time, with less if you make a lot of phone calls. Apple advertises that same five hours, but tempers the talk time at closer to two hours. Our tests put the earbuds at about four hours, 30 minutes when listening, and actually trended toward more than two hours for phone calls and voice memos.
What sets the AirPods apart from the competition is the battery case. This tiny two-inch powerhouse packs a whopping 24 hours of extra listening time, according to Apple. That’s nearly five times what the earbuds themselves can hold. Truth be told, it took us about 20 hours to deplete the case, but we did a fair amount of talking in that time. But even at 20 hours, these handily surpass a lot of the front runners (like Bose and Jabra).
What sets this product apart from the competition is the battery case. This tiny two-inch powerhouse, according to Apple, packs a whopping 24 hours of extra listening time.
What that amounts to is a seamless integration into your life. Heading to the gym for a quick workout before a conference call, but haven’t charged your AirPods all week? You’ll probably be good. And, because the case charges with the same Lightning cable that your iPhone does, it’s easy to find a cable to juice these up. And the icing on the cake is, if the earbuds themselves do die on you, just 15 minutes in the case will yield you a cool three hours of listening and an hour plus of talk time (this held pretty close to true in our test). It’s pretty impressive, and it’s going to be hard to beat.
Alongside battery life, the number one reason to purchase a pair of Apple AirPods is the seamless integration into the Apple ecosystem. If you use an iPhone, iPad, Macbook, or Apple TV interchangeably, AirPods will fold in so beautifully you’ll wonder how you’ll ever be able to go back to standard Bluetooth headphones.
Apple achieves this with a complex system including the custom W1 chip and an array of optical sensors and an accelerometer. That chip will automatically sense Apple devices nearby, and when the optical sensors pick up any change in light (i.e. when you open the battery case), a notification will automatically pop up on your iPhone or iPad to ask you to pair them—no need to fumble in the Bluetooth menu. On top of that, the headphones will automatically stop music when you pull them out of your ear, using the sensors and the accelerometer.
The story is a bit different with a Mac itself. That automatic popup on your iPhone won’t happen on your Mac, but if you click the Bluetooth icon in your menu bar, you’ll see the AirPods listed there, even if they haven’t been previously paired. That’s still a step more convenient than other Bluetooth headphones, but not quite as seamless as the iOS integration. And, if you’re an Android or PC user, you can still pair these using the Bluetooth pairing button on the back of the case, following the prompts in your standard Bluetooth menus. This is a refreshing option, considering Apple is usually stingy about Android and third-party integration.
Related to connectivity is software integration. Because these are Apple products, there isn’t a separate app like you’ll find on premium third-party headphones like Bose or Jabra. Instead, Apple has opted to include some customization right in your Bluetooth menu. Here, you can change the name of the AirPods, adjust what the touch functionality on either ear does (a double tap assigned separately to either ear can trigger Siri, control music and more), and you can even disable Automatic Ear Detection. It’s nice that it’s built right into your iPhone, without the need for a third party app, but it is more limited than we’d like. What’s more, you can’t make any of these adjustments natively on an Android or Windows device, unless you make those updates first on an Apple device. Again, these headphones are meant for Apple users, so none of this is particularly surprising. But it’s important to note.
You could make a claim that these are too expensive, and your case would probably be sound. At $159 MSRP, these are premium earbuds. This is especially true when you consider how lackluster the sound quality is. Again, it’s not a bad sound, but it’s not a great sound either.
What you’re paying for is the same premium you’re paying for with a flagship iPhone or MacBook: full, seamless Apple integration. At the risk of sounding like an Apple ad, these really are magical when paired with iOS. So, if you want your headphones to just work without the need to unpair and repair every time there’s an inevitable issue with Bluetooth, these are worth a lot. But for sound quality alone, we’d recommend something from the competition below.
Bose is a legacy brand for headphones, and the fact that Apple sells the SoundSport Free earbuds right on their site, is telling. If you’d prefer sound quality over iOS integration, your money is better spent on Bose. It’s a trade-off between convenience and a fuller audio spectrum
The Jabra 65ts are crowd favorites when taken at face value, especially if you’re not concerned with automatic convenience with iOS devices. With better waterproofing, a sealed fit, and premium sound, these make for a more well-rounded lifestyle. But you can’t beat the connectivity with iOS afforded by the AirPods.
A newcomer in the space, Sennheiser’s Momentum true wireless buds are almost double the price. And that money goes right toward world-class sound, from the better driver design and the ultra-premium build quality. Not to sound like a broken record, but we’ll say it again: sound quality is better here, but iOS integration is better with AirPods.
Not ready to buy quite yet? Check out other options by reading through our list of the best wireless headphones
Perfect for iOS users.
The sound is fine (it’s not bad, it’s not good), and there’s no promise of water- or sweat-proofing. But if you want the perfect accessory for your iOS devices, AirPods are a no brainer. After all, other than the non-true wireless BeatsX, there’s basically no other earbud on the market with the convenience of the W1 chip.
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