Thursday, May 18, 2017

Apple AirPods Review

The AirPods have been a sleeper hit for Apple, reminiscent of their magical and whimsical nature. They also have been out since December 2016, and are still largely in short supply. I’ve had them since day one, and everyone who sees me wearing them always asks me how I like them, so I figured a proper, in-depth review was in order. Read on if you want to know everything about the AirPods and how much I like them.

Introduction

It’s amazingly impressive just how much the AirPods do, as you will come to see. They are a tiny engineering marvel, and a testament to how far we’ve come with miniaturization.

Table of Contents

Features

  • Two independent, Bluetooth pods with a microphone in each.
  • Comes with a case that charges the AirPods for 24 hours of use.
  • Can automatically detect when they are in your ears.
  • Double tap an AirPod to trigger Siri.
  • Pairs to your iPhone (and Apple Watch) with a push of a button upon opening the case for the first time.
    • Then automatically pairs to all your other Apple devices signed in with your iCloud account, except the Apple TV (can be paired manually).
  • Upon placing at least one pod in your ear, it will automatically connect to your iPhone if it was connected last.
    • Manually switch audio to AirPods on your iPad or Mac by selecting them from the Audio section of Control Center (swiping up from the bottom of the screen).
  • When only one pod is used:
    • Audio plays in mono so you can hear the left and right channels in one AirPod.
    • Audio will pause when the pod is removed from your ear, but will not resume when placed back in.
  • When both pods are used:
    • Audio plays in stereo (left and right).
    • Audio will pause when one pod is removed from your ear and resume when placed back in.
    • One microphone is used for your voice and the other for noise-cancelling any background noise.

Pairing & Connectivity

Pairing is a breeze. Simply open the AirPod case near your phone, and you will be prompted to connect. Once you do that, the AirPods are automatically paired to all your other Apple devices signed in with your iCloud account, except the Apple TV (can be paired manually by going to Settings > Remotes and Devices > Bluetooth and following the next set of instructions).

AirPods initial pairing screen.

AirPods can also be paired to Android, Windows, and other devices through a standard Bluetooth pairing process. With both pods in the case, simply press and hold the button on the back until the light starts to flash white. Then connect to the AirPods from your device of choice.

Now, most Bluetooth headphones have generally always been plagued with spotty pairing and connection issues that can make for a frustrating experience. Apple has solved most of these problems with its specially-made W1 chip, which maintains a strong connection at great length. To put it in real-world terms, I can walk around my house without any kind of connection issues.

It would be insanely great1 if the AirPods auto-connected to whatever device you last used, but that’s low-hanging fruit for a future version, I’m sure.

All that said, sometimes the AirPods don’t automatically connect when they should, but it happens seldomly and is tolerable. Future updates will most likely solve the issue as Apple works out the kinks.

Bottom Line: aside from very minor stuff, pairing and connection isn’t a problem at all.

Fit

One of the largest concerns (and first question I’m usually asked) is about the fit of the AirPods. “Do they stay in your ears?”, ask most. The truth is they do and they don’t. If I’m at my desk and still, the fit is great. If I’m moving around, they will occasionally start to loosen, and I have to push them back in every now and then, but they don’t fall out–even if I try to make them.

I’m okay with the fit. Considering the wired EarPods do not hold in my ears at all, I was concerned the AirPods wouldn’t either. However, it’s good enough for me. This ended up being the case with a lot of folks, and it’s most likely due to the fact that the AirPods are slightly larger than their wired counterparts. The pod shape was introduced with the EarPods and made after scanning dozens of ears to find a common fit. Hopefully Apple is open to making AirPods in more than one shape to accommodate different ears down the line.

Bottom Line: The fit largely isn’t a problem for most people, but you can try them on in an Apple store before you buy (don’t worry, they sanitize them).

Sound

EarPods are notorious for their weak, passible sound, so nobody expected too much from the AirPods in this arena. However, this was not the case, as the AirPods have a solid sound profile, and surprisingly so. Granted, you are not getting audiophile-quality sound, and you shouldn’t even remotely expect that in any $159 wireless earbuds, but the AirPods do impress in this area.

The sound is very balanced. Decent amount of bass, good treble. You probably won’t be crazy about them if you listen to bass-heavy music, but they are definitely louder than the EarPods, and don’t distort even at full volume.

You can only push a tiny speaker so far, but Apple really pulled off a great feat of engineering here. Even my Dad, who loves high-quality sound, is impressed with his AirPods. That further reinforces my own observations.

Bottom Line: Apple surprised me in a good way, and I’m very happy that sound quality wasn’t compromised as a result of such a small, versatile device.

Pods Form & Function

I’m a huge fan of the fact that both pods are independent and lack a wire tethering them together (like the Beatsx or Jaybirds). I used to own Jaybird X2s, and despised the wire. It would get in my way and get pulled by things during the day.

With the AirPods, I can use one at a time if I’m on long phone calls, and switch to the other if the battery dies. With four hours of talk-time per pod, this typically isn’t a problem. Not to mention that they charge ridiculously fast in their battery case.

Also, music/podcasts automatically pausing when one pod is removed is genius. Now, when you put the pod back in and it resumes is just plain magical.2

That said, the AirPods do lack physical volume buttons, so you either have to use Siri, take out your phone, or use your Apple Watch to control volume. Most probably don’t have an Apple Watch, but it is definitely the best experience of these options. I really don’t mind the lack of volume buttons on the AirPods, but others have strong feelings about this topic. [More on Siri below.](# siri)

Bottom Line: If you want to exercise with these, just remember there’s no cable and refer back to the [Fit](# fit) section above. If they don’t fit you well when stationary, you may want to look at the Beatsx, Jaybirds, or the many other tethered Bluetooth earbuds out there.

Case Form & Function

Despite looking like a dental floss case, the battery case is half of the near-perfect AirPod puzzle. When you aren’t using the AirPods, they should be in their case. The case charges the AirPods, protects them, and prevents them from being lost under tables/sofas, bitten by your daughter3, or sucked into a vacuum. They are pulled into the case by magnets that reward a satisfying ‘click’ when seated. A small LED light between the pods indicates the charge level of the one you just inserted/removed. A Lightning connector can be found on the bottom for charging the case and pods.

If you ever need to reset your AirPods to factory settings, you can press and hold the button on the back of the case until it flashes amber (about 15 seconds). Both AirPods have to be in the case in order for you to perform a reset.

It’s refreshing to have a device that fits Apple’s old white aesthetic, along with the Apple Pencil. My only gripe about the case is that it scratches easily, but it’s not a huge deal and covers do exist.

Case Charging Light

  • White: Not synced with an iPhone
  • White (flashing): pairing mode
  • Amber: low battery
  • Amber (flashing): you may need to set up your AirPods again.
  • Green: charged
AirPods with charge light indicator.
AirPods with the case charge light indicator.

Bottom Line: The case is just perfect.

Battery Life

Apple claims the following regarding battery life, which I have found to be pretty accurate and not at all limiting.

  • AirPods used with Charging Case: More than 24 hours listening time, up to 11 hours talk time
  • AirPods (single charge): Up to 5 hours listening time, Up to 2 hours talk time
  • 15 minutes in the case equals 3 hours listening time or over an hour of talk time

Checking current battery life can be done in the following ways.

  • If both AirPods are in the case
    • Opening the case near your iPhone will prompt a pop-up with battery info.
  • If at least one AirPod is in use
    • From the Audio output section in Control Panel (swiping up from the bottom of the screen).
    • From the Batteries widget to the left of your home screen (you may have to enable this widget first).
    • On the Mac: battery life is shown in the iTunes output selection, as well as the Bluetooth dropdown on the menu bar.
    • On Apple Watch: swipe up on the watch face and tap on your battery percentage. The percentage will be showing below your Watch’s battery life.
    • On Apple TV: go to Settings > Remotes and Devices > Bluetooth.
  • If both AirPods are in use, there is no way to check the case’s battery life.4

AirPods and case battery life popup upon opening the case, in the battery widget, Apple Watch (pods only), and within iTunes (pods only).

Bottom Line: No complaints here. The only room for improvement is the short talk time, but you can use one at a time and swap when one is depleted.

Siri

Siri in your ear is nice, but it’s still Siri. You can trigger Siri by double-poking one AirPod. I say poking, because it requires more force than just a tap. Doing this to place calls is nice and definitely beats having to pull your phone out. You’ve also got the usual weather and sports commands, but using it to control volume is just cumbersome.

However, there’s a really interesting saying in the world of tech that I often find true, and it goes: the best device to accomplish a task is usually the one you have in front of you (or in this case, on you). Along this line of thinking, a really cool use for Siri on the AirPods is controlling your HomeKit5 devices. For instance, if I happen to be wearing my AirPods and need to turn on the living room lights, I just double tap one and say “Turn on the living room lights”. It’s faster than using the Watch, iPhone, or iPad. The only thing that matches it is my Amazon Echo Dot (if I happen to be near it).

Bottom Line: Siri itself needs improvement.

Calls

Making and taking calls with AirPods is a great experience. When you’re using both, one of the AirPod microphones is used for your voice and the other to cancel out any background noise. The speakers are also plenty loud to hear whomever you’re talking with in a noisy environment.

Call Handling

  • Double tap an AirPod to answer/hang up a call or FaceTime.
  • If you happen to be wearing an Apple Watch when a call comes in, you can direct it to your AirPods right from the watch.
Direct a call from Apple Watch
Direct a call to your AirPods from Apple Watch by pressing the button on the right.

Bottom Line: Great experience.

Settings & Updates

AirPods settings are located in Settings > Bluetooth > then tap on the “i” next to your AirPods. Here, you can change the name of your AirPods, change what happens when you double-tap them, turn off Automatic Ear Detection, and select a default microphone.

AirPods settings screen.

We’ve also learned that the AirPods receive automatic updates from Apple. It has only happened once so far, but you can check the current version by going to Settings > General > AirPods. Note: your AirPods must both be in the case (with the case open), or in your ears for this menu to appear. To update your AirPods, simply leave them plugged in to charge and near your iPhone for about 10-15 minutes when a new update comes out. Apple did not announce the first update, so they are aiming for this to be as seamless as possible for customers. In other words, if you don’t worry about it, you’ll eventually receive any new updates as you routinely charge your AirPods.

Final Thoughts

The AirPods are a huge hit. They recently obtained a 98% customer satisfaction rating and Tim Cook6 called them a “runaway success”. This is easily the best first-generation product Apple has put out in a long time (even beating the Watch, as far as I’m concerned).

I would recommend the AirPods to anyone, as I can’t say enough great things about them. If you have a problem with the fit, or find they just aren’t for you, Apple has a great return policy, so they’re definitely worth a shot.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this review and the AirPods themselves. You can reach me on Twitter @syrinxstarman.


  1. As Steve Jobs would say. 
  2. As listed under Functionality, automatic resume only works when you’re wearing both AirPods. If you’re only wearing one, you’ll have to resume your audio manually. Also, even if you’re wearing both, there seems to be a time limit to putting one pod back in for auto resume to work. These gaps are most likely to conserve battery life. 
  3. Unless your toddler loves opening and closing the case and pulls the pods out to play with. True story. 
  4. The case itself has no Bluetooth radio, so the AirPods are needed to communicate the case’s battery life back to your device. 
  5. HomeKit is Apple’s platform and certification for smart devices, so not all devices support Siri control. 
  6. Apple CEO.