AirPods look odd, but are an otherwise great pair of earphones. While the design might not be Apple's best, AirPods live up to the "effortless" claim and they sound good to boot.
What Are They?
AirPods are Apple's first take on a wire-free pair of headphones. While typical wireless headphones and earbuds have a wire joining the left and right "phone", each AirPod is an independent unit. There's no wires connecting the two AirPods to one another, or to your device.
Wire-free headphones are pretty nifty, but the W1 chip found inside the AirPods is the real point of difference. This chip allows AirPods to instantly pair with your iPhone when in proximity, and supports seamless handoff to your Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac without the need to reconnect or re-pair.
In Apple's marketing for the AirPods, it describes them as "effortless" and "magical". Thanks to the aforementioned W1, AirPods certainly live up to the first of these claims and makes headway on the second.
When you first unbox your AirPods and open up the charging case, you'll see a white pane slide up on your iPhone screen asking if you'd like to connect them. Tap connect, and you're ready to go. There's no need to open up the Bluetooth menu or press a pairing button. Just open the case and make sure the devices are next to one another.
More importantly, the connection between the iPhone and AirPods seems quite reliable. In my time testing out the AirPods, I didn't experience any dropouts or interference. Range is solid as well; I was able to pace our entire office (which is pretty long) without losing the connection between my AirPods and the phone on my desk.
Another benefit of the W1 chip is that it makes it easy to change what device your AirPods are connected to. As long as your devices are signed into the same iCloud account, you'll see AirPods available as an audio output option for your Mac, iPad, and Apple Watch. It's not quite a gamechanger, but it's a welcome timesaver over manually pairing headphones whenever you change device.
If you open the AirPods case next to someone else's iPhone, you'll see a similar prompt that says "Not Your AirPods", but you still have the option to connect. While they don't need to be authenticated with a PIN or anything, you do have to press and hold the button on the back of the case to finalise the connection.
While AirPods work as a regular Bluetooth headphones and can be used with Android smartphones, features like instant pairing only work with Apple hardware.
The charging case that houses your AirPods is a nifty inclusion. It's small enough to comfortably throw in a pocket (but it does mean you end up with another thing to carry around, even when the AirPods are in your ears), and the click the magnetic lid makes is incredibly satisfying.
AirPods will give you up to five hours of play time per charge, and just 15 minutes in the case will top up the buds' internal battery by three hours. When combined with the charging case, Apple says you'll get as much as 24 hours of playback time before you run out of juice. When the case finally does go flat, you can recharge it via a Lightning cable. However, if your AirPods and case run out of charge, you're out of luck. Unsurprisingly, there's no way to use AirPods as a wired device.
While five hours per charge isn't exactly amazing, its fairly standard for wireless earbuds. Combined with the case and quick charging tech, the short battery life shouldn't be an issue for all but non-stop listeners.
If you've ever used the EarPods Apple bundles with iPhones, you'll know what to expect from AirPods. They're a little bassier, but otherwise, it's the same kind of "good enough" sound you get from Apple's freebies. While the sound quality is fine - good, at least indoors, even - AirPods will probably leave audiophiles underwhelmed.
Given the AirPod's unique form-factor, they're not great at blocking out external noise, at least when compared to in-ear earbuds (the ones that sit in your canal, rather than just rest in your ear). I found this most noticeable when walking, especially around traffic. Cranking the volume helps, however.
In terms of fit, I find AirPods surprisingly comfortable. They're slightly rounder than EarPods, which makes them sit a little bit better. The lack of any wires also makes a big difference in term of weight; at just four grams each, AirPods are pretty unobstructive (for what it's worth, I've tested headphones where a hefty cable has completely negated light earbuds).
Notably, I haven't had an AirPod fall out on me, despite hitting the gym with them, running with them, and vigorously headbanging with them. Everyone's ears are different though, so your mileage may vary. However, if EarPods work for you, AirPods should hopefully fit just as well, if not better.
AirPods also work as a headset for phone calls, and managed to pick up my voice quite well. It's worth noting that using AirPods for calls does burn through more than twice as much battery as listening to music.
What's Not So Good?
It's easy to feel self-conscious wearing AirPods, thanks to the odd, elongated design. They look like someone just cut the cord from a regular pair of headphones, which leaves you with two, small white antennas sticking out from your ears. Admittedly, my first pair of traditional wireless headphones made me feel self-conscious too - not having a cord connecting my cans to my phone was weird - so I guess I could feel better about the AirPod aesthetic as they become normalised.
At the same time, other wire-free headphone alternatives are exactly the pinnacle of design either. Earin's M-2 is the only pair of wire-free buds that I'd definitely rank above AirPods in terms of looks, and while Bragi's Headphone aesthetic may be preferred by some, you end up with a bulky bulge filling your entire ear.
All in all, AirPods aren't a perfect design, but they're not really much worse than the competition either. If you want to get into the wire-free movement, you're going to have to make some sacrifices when it comes to aesthetics. Fortunately, if I'm worried about looking odd in public, I can always untie my ponytail and hide my AirPods under my long, luscious locks. And, you know, Google Glass was far worse.
The other compromise you make with AirPods is the lack of physical controls. Double tapping an AirPod is the only actual gesture that compares to a control, and by default its used to summon Siri. The idea is you then ask Siri to skip track or adjust your volume, but pausing your music to get Siri to make your favourite song louder isn’t really a great experience. Alternatively, you can set double tap to pause / resume your music playback, but removing one AirPod from your ear will have the same effect.
If you don't want to talk to Siri, you'll need to use your iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple Watch to adjust volume or change tracks. I don't overly mind the lack of physical controls, as I typically find it easier to reach into my pocket and hit my phone's volume rocker than fidget with something on a neckband, but tastes vary, and it doesn't really help you if you don't keep your phone in your pocket.
The £159 price tag is also on the high side, especially given that you're more-so paying for cool wireless tech rather than sound quality. Dropping a similar amount of dosh on a different pair of wireless earbuds won't get you as futuristic headphones, but it will get you better audio; take Bose's SoundSport Wireless, for example. Even my budget pair of Bluetooth earbuds - the £35 or so Meizu EP51s - sound on par, if not better (there's just a touch more bass) than AirPods.
It's also worth noting that you'll need to fork out £65 for a replacement AirPod if you happen to lose one. It's better than buying the whole package again, but it's not a cheap proposition either.
Who Are They For?
AirPods are a resounding step forward for wireless headphones that manage to address many of Bluetooth's pain-points. W1 makes connectivity a dream; it's how wireless headphones should work. It's literally a case of put them in your ears and start listening. Just like when the 3.5mm jack was still a thing.
AirPods' ability to simultaneously be accessibly by other Apple products fixes another Bluetooth issue, and as such, increases the value proposition for iFaithful. And thanks to the battery case, AirPods aren't the sort of Bluetooth earbuds you have to plug in and charge every single day, or worse, multiple times day.
In taking a stride in the right direction, Apple has also take one back, to make use of a somewhat clichéd idiom. By cutting the cord, Apple's also made a couple of compromises. The odd design alone will be enough to deter some, and the lack of physical controls can be inconvenient.
While I've enjoyed the simplicity and freedom AirPods offer, they're not for everyone. Avoid them if you're an audiophile, if physical controls are a must, or if you need headphones that block out all external noise. But if you're already embedded in the Apple ecosystem, there's a good chance you'll love AirPods.
What Else Can I Buy?
If you prefer your headphones joined together, but still want the W1 goodness found in the AirPods, BeatsX are your best bet. They won't be on sale until February, but if you can wait, BeatsX offer a neckband design, in-ear buds, and up to eight hours of battery life. Apple says a five-minute charge will give you an extra two hours of playtime.
BeatsX are also slightly cheaper than AirPods; you'll have to part with £129 when they land on shelves.
Meziu's EP51s are the best cheap wireless earbuds I've used. Priced around £35, they sound much better than their budget price tag suggests. The EP51s aren't perfect, but they're easily the best value Bluetooth headphones you can currently get. Their battery lasts for about four hours, they're hard to dislodge from your ears, and they come with a handy little carry case. The only catch is you'll need to import them through either eBay or a reseller like Kogan.
Bose SoundSport Wireless
If you don't mind a slightly higher price-tag and more of a fitness oriented design Bose's SoundSport Wireless are another solid wireless earbud option. They sound great, are comfortable, and as bonus, sweat and water resistant.