Apple AirPods Review
March 2019 Update: Apple has released the 2nd generation of AirPods, and while I haven’t yet tested them, on paper they address some of the downsides I suggest below. Longer battery life, voice-activated Siri and a wireless charging case just make AirPods even better than they already were! As everything else I included in the review is still true, I’ve left it alone. However, I’ve updated the links throughout to the new generation as that is what I would now recommend.
How many times have you snagged your old corded earbuds on just about any object protruding from anywhere? How many times have you felt the agony of those little guys being forcibly ripped from your ears, your phone flying out of your pocket in the process? How long does this have to go on, people! What if there was a better way? What if you could have everything that makes earbuds great, without all the snagging and ear ripping? Thus, I present to you, a mighty solution in a small package: Apple AirPods. Here’s why I like them.
Making Good Headphones Great
For many years, I used the stock Apple EarPods (yes, that’s what the traditional corded headphones that have shipped with iPhones from time immemorial are called). I love how they fit in my ear, and I also appreciated the fact that I could still hear sounds from my environment, an important “safety feature,” in my opinion. In many situations, while traveling, commuting, running outside, etc, I happen to think it’s valuable to be able to hear what’s happening around me. Sure, there are times when the sweet sweet cone of silence ushered in by my Bose QuietComfort 35s are a welcome relief from the racket of an airplane or the buzz of an open office, but those are times when I can tune out without worry. So when I heard about AirPods, I was excited by the prospect of blending what I already loved about the EarPods and making them wireless, while adding a bunch of other smart features into the mix.
Other Bluetooth Headphones I’ve Tested
Before I get to what makes AirPods so great, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple other “gateway” bluetooth headphones that I bought along the way before finding the one to rule them all. First was the Plantronics Backbeat Go 2. I liked their battery life and the noise canceling concept – at the time I purchased them primarily to use at the gym to listen to audiobooks and drown out the muzak. However, for the life of me, I could not get them to stay in my ears, despite the various sized earbud attachments they come with, so my search continued.
I next chose the TaoTronics Bluetooth Headphones – I have an earlier version which they appear to be phasing out. I did like using these, especially while working out at the gym. They stayed put in my ears and also blocked out some of the sound from the environment. I also appreciated the long battery life and water-resistance for running in the rain. Finally, since they weren’t too expensive (relatively speaking), I didn’t worry about something happening to them – it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But, since the day I got my AirPods, I literally have not used either even once. I don’t even know where they are right now, to be honest.
Why I Like AirPods So Much
So enough teasing – what makes AirPods so great? They are like the anti-headphones. They are so entirely seamless and unobtrusive that it’s easy to forget you’re even wearing them. They do everything you want headphones to do, with none of the fuss. And they mostly “just work,” with a few caveats I’ll explain below.
When you first open the box, you’re presented with them all nestled in their small case. This is their home. They like being home. They love to relax and recharge there – literally. Yes, there’s no need to be constantly plugging in the headphones themselves like I’m used to doing with other bluetooth headphones I’ve owned. Charge the case once and it’s good to recharge those little puppies several times over. As long as the case has juice, whenever they are in the case, they are charging. Storage and charging all in one, oh my!
Two Second Setup
So, how hard are they to set up? Typically the bane of any bluetooth experience, the magical “pairing” needs to take place here as well. Unlike the typical bluetooth pairing rigamarole where you must interpret a series of blinking lights in various colors, divining their meaning like a robotic soothsayer, if you have an iPhone, you simply open the case near your phone and you’re presented with a visual pairing interface. One tap to connect and you’re done. Why can’t all tech be so simple?
So, you’ve cued up your favorite K-Pop playlist on Spotify and are ready to jam. Just pop those buddies out of the case and into your ear holes. You’ll know you’re connected when you hear a satisfying little tone. One feature to note, at this point – you don’t HAVE to put both in at once. They work independently of one another, which is a brilliant feature. A tip on that later.
Then just press play, and enjoy! So what about sound quality? Is it really worth it to pay so much more than the regular old EarPods that come with new phones for free? Don’t they sound the same? Nope. Each frequency is enhanced over the standard buds: the bass is deeper, the mids richer, the highs sweeter. They don’t have the best sound quality of all time, and serious audiophiles can easily quibble. But for the 99%, the quality is a massive upgrade over what they’ve been using, bar none.
So now you’re jamming, but that guy or gal who thinks they’re the boss of you (because they are) comes over to you and motions to talk, having no idea that you’re about to reach “Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” in Bohemian Rhapsody. Before AirPods, you had to be willing to either lose your place, or hustle for that pause button. After AirPods: automatic pausing of your music. That’s right. Thanks to nifty sensors packed into a crazy small package, AirPods KNOW when you’ve pulled them out of your ears, and hit pause for you. It’s not a cure for cancer, but to automate an activity that many people do hundreds of times per year, that’s pretty cool.
Your New Conference Call Headset
So, I’ve talked about the cool “output” features – how about the input? How’s the microphone(s)? Well, when I first started a job that entailed spending a great deal of time on conference calls through my computer, I was given a telemarketer-style headset, which I used but never loved. It has gathered dust ever since I got my AirPods. It’s truly fantastic for phone calls / Skype calls – the ability to walk and talk without being tethered is amazing, and the voice quality is very good.
They do a great job reducing noise from the environment as well – the dreaded leaf blowers like to tear past my window right when I’m on a call for work, and I always apologize for the noise. Not necessary, they say – we can’t hear anything. It’s wild – to me it sounds like they’re in the room with me, but others can’t hear it at all. That’s why I now also use my AirPods for handsfree calls in my car, instead of my car’s microphone, which picks up a ton a road noise.
So, for all the hypetastic outpouring of my love for AirPods, nothing is perfect. What’s the downsides? The biggest one, in my experience, is battery life. Especially if you’re doing an activity that uses both input and output (phone call instead of just listening to music), the battery seems not entirely up for the challenge. There’s just so much active tech going on in such small real estate (there’s just not that much space for a bigger battery) that it makes sense, it’s just an uncharacteristically obtrusive drawback. Everything else is so seamless, you would expect the battery to be the same, but, you know, physics, the limitations of time and space, etc.
To mitigate this, Apple has designed them to be quick charging – claiming 15 minutes will add 3 extra hours of use. That’s great, but you’re not always able to tell the person you’re speaking with that you need a 15 minute break to recharge your headset. There is a trick to overcome this, however, taught to me by my actor friend Jon: since you can use each AirPod independently, when the batteries start to get low, you can just take one out, throw it in the case to charge, and then swap and repeat with the other one. Brilliant solution.
Manual Device Switching
Another downside for me is a bit unreasonable but still that less than seamless experience: you have to manually switch between audio sources and reconnect the AirPods depending on what you’re using. So for example, if you were using them to make a phone call, but now want to listen to music on your Mac, you need to go into the menu bar and connect them there, essentially breaking the connection with your phone and taking it over on your Mac. Again, very minor – and how could it possibly know what device you want to drive sound out of – but if you do a lot of switching throughout the day it can be annoying.
Siri, Are You There?
Also, the “tap for Siri” and next track stuff doesn’t really work for me. Not sure what I’m doing wrong but it’s pretty unresponsive. Not a deal breaker, just not Apple-like for something to not work as advertised.
Are AirPods Easy to Lose?
So what about the biggest potential downside, the one that everyone immediately thinks of whenever AirPods are mentioned? “They’re so small, I would lose them immediately. They would fall out of my ears, and that would be that.” First of all, that’s a totally reasonable and fair concern. They are quite small, especially as each separate unit. And I’m not an otologist, but I imagine ear anatomy does vary from person to person. I can say that I’ve never had either AirPod fall out of my ear willy nilly. But, I never had that problem with the old EarPods either – unless they were ripped out forcibly by some drawer knob or counter edge the cord caught on!
I would just say to use common sense and think about the activity you’ll be undertaking before wearing them. For most physical activity for most people, you should be just fine. I probably wouldn’t wear them with the possibility of them getting wet though. And if you’re really worried, you could always invest in a less expensive pair of bluetooth headphones to wear during more extreme activities or when you know there’s a good chance of them getting soaked. Overall, I would definitely add AirPods to your exercise gear arsenal – especially for all those gym rats out there. It’s so nice when workout out not to have the constant threat of tangling cords and ear jerking.
Always Put Them Back in the Case!
Another way to make sure they don’t get lost through simple human error is I’ve made a deal with myself. WHENEVER I take them out of my ears, regardless of how long I plan to leave them out, I always put them back in the case. This has helped me avoid any issues for over a year now. There’s also a way to use Find My iPhone type of tracking technology as long as they are registered to your Apple ID, but they are different from other devices, and harder to track down – if they’re not currently in use, they are considered “offline,” and you will only see their last known location.
Pair with Apple Watch
A last cool feature for those who have an Apple Watch – you can pair them seamlessly and leave your phone behind, playing music and podcasts wherever. Great for that run where you want to leave your phone, and the world, behind and just go.
Add a Case Protector
Finally, you can accessorize your AirPods to add some protection and decrease the chance of misplacing them. I picked up this AirPods case and have found it helpful. I hate taking away from the aesthetic of the naked Apple product, but I think something like this is worth it.
”These changed my life. I’m not an Apple fangirl by any stretch of the imagination but I love these.Dr. Sarah Bogue