Review: Apple AirPods Wireless Earbuds

Intro

I'll get right to it: AirPods may be one of the best products Apple has released in the past few years. The amount of technology and clever design packed into these tiny wireless earbuds is nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider that it all works in concert behind the scenes to make for dazzlingly simple operation. With AirPods, Apple has done what they do best - designed a seamless experience for users within their ecosystem of products. 

 AirPods case

AirPods case

The Case

AirPods live in a mini charging case when not in use. It bears striking resemblance to an unbranded pack of floss, though with a sliver of exposed metal at the back hinge. Flip open the magnetically sealed lid and you're presented with your left and right AirPods, also magnetically secured. A color LED indicates charge status of the AirPods while they're in the case, or of the case battery itself when the AirPods are removed. The case fits easily in pocket or bag, making it easy to tote around. 

 AirPods case Lightning port

AirPods case Lightning port

Apple claims that a fully charged case will provide over 24 hours of listening. The case is charged via a standard Lightning cable; if you're an iPhone user, you'll likely appreciate not having to carry a separate cable while traveling with these headphones.

 AirPods case charging

AirPods case charging

Setup

Pairing AirPods with an iPhone couldn't be easier - just open the AirPod case near your iPhone to trigger a pairing pop up on your screen, then tap "Connect." That's it! What's even more delightful, once you pair AirPods to your iPhone, they'll automatically be available as an audio output option across all of your Apple devices connected to the same iCloud account. You don't have to re-pair with each new device and there are no pairing codes to worry about (unless you have non-Apple devices, in which case you'll have to go through a more traditional bluetooth pairing setup). 

 AirPods automatically pairing with iPhone

AirPods automatically pairing with iPhone

 AirPods on a MacBook Pro 

AirPods on a MacBook Pro 

 AirPods pair automatically to all Apple devices on the same iCloud account.

AirPods pair automatically to all Apple devices on the same iCloud account.

Using AirPods

AirPods detect when they're in your ears and automatically turn on and connect, providing a chime to confirm they're active. Taking one AirPod out of an ear will auto-pause whatever you're listening to. Put it back in and the audio resumes. It's super slick and intuitive. Putting a single AirPod back in the case while the other is in your ear will also resume audio playback and switch the audio track to mono. Apple has done a nice job building in this sort of intelligence around existing user behaviors. 

 AirPods in and out of their charging case

AirPods in and out of their charging case

These wireless earbuds are stated to provide about 5 hours of continuous listening before needing a recharging nap in their case. I found myself getting better battery life than Apple claimed while listening to music and podcasts in the medium volume range. Your battery life will likely vary based on playback volume, amount of time the microphones are actively listening (e.g. while on a phone call), and distance from your phone. The good news is that AirPods recharge quickly in their case - 15 minutes provides 3 hours of listening. You can also alternate wearing the right and left AirPod, always keeping one changing in the case, if you want truly uninterrupted listing over many hours.

In addition to the sensors that inform AirPods when they're in your ears, Apple has included accelerometers to sense physical taps. By default, a double-tap on either AirPod will invoke Siri, without the need to pull out your phone. I immediately remapped this double-tap gesture to play/pause functionality, since I frequently want to pause the music while keeping both AirPods in my ears. This gesture works flawlessly and I love that are no tiny buttons or switches to fiddle with. I do hope that Apple will find a way to allow for volume control with a tap gesture in the future; for now you'll need raise and lower volume from your device. 

 AirPods settings

AirPods settings

Fit

AirPods' are shaped much like Apple's wired EarPods, sans wires and with chunkier stems. The shape of the bud looks nearly identical as well, if perhaps ever-so-slightly larger. If wired EarPods fit in your ears, it's likely that AirPods will as well. 

 Apple wired EarPod vs wireless AirPod

Apple wired EarPod vs wireless AirPod

Exercising with AirPods

For years I've been searching for the perfect music configuration for fitness, having tried many iPhone arm bands, "sport" earbuds, and other wireless earbuds in the past, none of which were optimal. Prior to AirPods, I had settled on using an iPod Shuffle with it's stock wired earbuds while exercising. Even with thoughtful cord placement under my clothes, I constantly found myself having to readjust throughout my workouts to keep them from falling out of my ears. The cords would regularly tug the buds out of my ears.

AirPods are another story - they don't budge in my ears, even on long runs or while doing exercises like jumping jacks. My guess is, the lack of tension from the wires helps the buds stay comfortably planted in your ears. AirPods are super light to boot; I barely notice them while exercising. Also, if you're an Apple Watch owner, a nice perk of using wireless earbuds is the ability to stream audio directly from your watch - no iPhone required. Like Apple's EarPods, AirPods let ambient noise in, which I appreciate for maintaining awareness of my surroundings while exercising and waking around town. All of this makes for a great experience exercising with AirPods.

 AirPods paired with Apple Watch

AirPods paired with Apple Watch

Sound Quality and Range

I found the AirPods audio quality to be on par with Apple's iconic wired EarPods. While I'm no audiophile, they sound clear and evenly balanced and the maximum volume seemed to be louder than the wired versions. In terms of the bluetooth wireless connection, indoor range and reliability were superb. I would regularly leave my phone in one room and walk into another room - 20-30 feet away through a wall or two - without so much as a blip in the audio. Indoor phone calls over the AirPods were crisp and delightful for both parties - others thought I was holding my iPhone to my ear during our conversations. By default, AirPods automatically switch between the mics on the right and left stems throughout the conversation, depending on which has the best reception of your voice. The directional mic system seemed to pick up my speech much better than the omnidirectional dangling mic on standard wired EarPods.

Outdoors, my AirPods would tend to have occasional short drops in audio, depending on which pocket my phone was placed in and how open the environment was. This may be due to the lack of nearby surfaces for the radio waves to reflect off of. Also, street noise and wind seemed to foil the AirPods' microphone arrays, making audio quality for those on the other line less than stellar at times. Hopefully this will be improved with future software updates. 

AirPods in Flight

So how do AirPods work on airplanes? By design, they don't filter out ambient noise, so don't expect them to block the hum of the engines or a crying baby nearby. They certainly won't replace my Bose QuietComfort 25 noise cancelling headphones for longhaul flights. That said, AirPods produced sufficient volume to hear spoken words over the engine noise, something I've found my wired EarPods have trouble doing. Also, it's great not having any cords to get caught on armrests or a tray table.

According to recent changes to FAA regulations, you should be able to use AirPods during all stages of flight, so long as your phone's cellular service is disabled. I haven't had any issue wearing them on multiple flights, even during takeoff. 

Overall Thoughts

After using AirPods daily for several weeks, I couldn't be happier. They've made audio listening while working, exercising, and traveling more enjoyable and tangle-free. I appreciate their portability, quality, and simplicity. If you're currently using standard wired EarPods and can justify the $159 purchase price, I recommend upgrading to AirPods to embrace the wireless revolution. For frequent flyers, AirPods won't replace your noise-cancelling headset, but are a nice improvement over stock wired earbuds. Overall I found AirPods to be incredibly simple and indeed quite magical, as Apple claims.