It's been a little over two years since Apple unveiled the AirPods, which marked the company's foray into the personal wireless audio space (not counting the Beats products). The AirPods design felt totally weird at the time, as if someone had snipped the wires of Apple's EarPods and left them to dangle from your ears, like two spoons without the handles.
The Internet of course showed no mercy and the inevitable jokes and memes came flooding in. To make matters worst, Apple's shiny white ear hooks faced production delays and they finally went on sale in the US only in December 2016, three months after they were announced.
Fast forward to 2018 and it's very clear that Apple is having the last laugh as the AirPods have been a huge hit, despite their relatively high price tag of $159 in the US and Rs. 12,900 in India. In a recent earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook — echoing his earlier comments — said that the AirPods have been a “runaway hit”. That's no surprise given it's now commonplace to see people trotting around the city with AirPods in their ears in the US, and this trend is catching up in India too.
AirPods have become an integral part of our lives here are Gadgets 360, so much so that after our smartphones, this is the next piece of tech many of us don't leave our homes without. We've been using them for a long time now and we feel it's a good time to take a closer look at what makes them so special.
AirPods design and features
The design of the AirPods might have been the butt of many jokes when they debuted, but it's safe to say now that they are easily one of the best — if not the best — designed truly wireless earphones around. The fact that the world's second largest smartphone manufacturer only recently announced a blatant copy of the AirPods — with another Chinese company following as well — is testament to the design's success. This success hinges on a couple of things.
First, is the form factor. AirPods are incredibly light thanks to the all-plastic construction, but this doesn't make them any less durable. Our AirPods have survived multiple drops over the years and surprisingly, they haven't picked up many noticeable scratches or scuffs marks either. The capsule-like charging case they ship with is also minuscule and easily fits into your pockets without creating an unsightly bulge.
The plastic case is equally durable and has survived many drops too, though it does pick up scratches rather easily. To avoid this, you can dress up you AirPods case with a skin or a little rubber jacket to keep it shiny and scuff-free, though it's definitely not something you need to do.
The AirPods rest along the crest of your ear canal, which makes them very comfortable even for long durations
The case has a Lightning port at the bottom, which is used to charge the AirPods as well as the case's own battery. Apple claims the AirPods can last for up to five hours, and with the charging case you can expect more than 24 hours of listening time, which sounds impressive for this form factor — we will get to our real world experience in a bit. The case has a magnetic flap which snaps in place with a reassuring click and the metal hinge for this feels just as solid today as it was the day we first started using the AirPods. There's a discretely hidden button at the back of the case which is used during the initial pairing process.
Second, is the way the AirPods sit in your ears. Most wireless earphones stick to the in-ear formula, which involves a silicone ear tip that goes into your ear canal. The general advantage of this design is good bass response, lesser distractions from ambient sounds, and a snug fit. On the flip side, such earphones also cause quite a bit of fatigue after a couple of hours of continuous use.
Apple's AirPods, on the other hand, have a design similar to its EarPods wired headphones that ship with the iPhone. This means the ear buds sit just outside you ear canal, which makes them more comfortable. But what really amazes us is how well they stay put, even with vigorous use. We've used them during workouts at the gym and even when running and we've never found them budging even the slightest. Yes, we've all heard about people who've had issues with the in-ear fit of the AirPods, but none of us at Gadgets 360 — we have nearly half-a-dozen AirPods between us — have faced that problem.
The AirPods might look very simple, but they are packed to the gills with tech, including Apple's custom W1 chip which is the brains behind the operations and manages everything from the Bluetooth connection, battery consumption, handling gestures, and the audio processing. Each AirPod also has optical and motion sensors, which, in conjunction with the W1 chip, can do things like automatically pause/ resume audio as you take out/ put back the AirPods.
Each earphone also has a pair of beam-forming microphones that help filter out external noise when you're on a call. This means you can use either of the earbuds — and of course, both — to answer a phone call. This is an improvement on most of the competition that restrict calling functionally to just one of the earbuds.
The earphones snap into place in the case with the help of magnets so they don't accidentally fall out if the lid is open. There's a single LED inside the case, which glows white when in pairing mode. When the AirPods are in the case, the LED indicates the battery status of the earphones, otherwise it shows the status of the case — green means charged, while amber means less than one full charge remains.
The charging case tops up the AirPods' battery, which is supposed to extend usage time to about 24 hours
The AirPods also support the AAC audio codec, which is a step up from the default SBC codec used for audio transmission over Bluetooth. They lack support for higher resolution audio codecs like aptX and aptX HD, which is usually found in other products around this price bracket.
The AirPods can only connect to one device at a time, unless you pair them with an Apple Watch and an iPhone, in which case they can dynamically switch between the two. In other words, if your AirPods are connected to your iPhone and you start playing something on the Apple Watch, the audio will automatically stream to the AirPods.
Throwing an Apple Watch into the mix also offers other conveniences like tapping your Watch's screen to answer an incoming call, something that can also be done by double tapping the AirPods themselves, though we have to admit doing so is a rather unpleasant experience. The AirPods — and indeed other Bluetooth earphones — work great with Apple Watch LTE variant to listen to music or answer calls on the go, even when your phone is not with you.
The AirPods retail packaging is simple. The small white box contains the AirPods, a Lightning cable for charging the case, and some instruction leaflets.
AirPods performance and battery life
Pairing the AirPods with an iPhone or iPad is a simple process. Simply bring the AirPods (in the case) near your device and open the lid. Almost instantly, you'll see an image of the AirPods pop up on your screen. Simply follow the on-screen instructions and you're all set.
If you have multiple Apple devices — iPads, iPhones, Macs, or Apple Watches — associated with the same iCloud ID, the AirPods would be automatically added under Bluetooth devices on them as well, eliminating the need of manually pairing with each one individually. This in itself is a major win.
Once paired, the AirPods really begin to shine. Both earbuds have a touch sensitive area along the base of the neck, which can be programmed to do different functions. By default, a double tap will summon Siri but you can change this to play/ pause, previous track, next track track, or simply not do anything at all. What we really miss is physical controls for adjusting the volume. Technically, you can ask Siri to do this, but it's not the quickest solution especially when there's ambient noise around.
However, the really cool bit is having the ability to assign different functions for the touch gestures based on the Apple device you're connected to. For instance, we typically use gestures for controlling music playback when connected to the iPhone, and have Siri summoned when we're connected to the MacBook. That's because these settings are remembered on individual devices and not on the AirPods themselves.
The music or video playback stops when you take off one of the earbuds, which is also super useful, and something we find ourselves using a lot whenever someone walks up to us to have a quick conversation. If you take off both the earbuds at the same time while connected to a MacBook though, the audio stops playing from the AirPods and switches over to the built-in speakers of the laptop.
You can set a different touch gesture for the AirPods for every Apple device you use them with
The AirPods work just like any other Bluetooth headphones on other devices too. We've been using them on and off with plenty of Android phones that we've tested and haven't had any issues. Some of the touch gestures that you set on the iPhone work with Android phones too, which is great. You can skip tracks and use the play/ pause gesture, but if you've assigned one of them to wake up Siri, don't expect it to bring up Google Assistant. Other features like music automatically pausing when you take one of the earphones out does not work with non-Apple devices either.
All these fancy gestures are fun but what about audio quality? We're just going to come out and say it — the AirPods are not the best sounding pair of Bluetooth earphones at this price, but that's fine because they are about more than pure audio quality.
The weakest part of the sound is the lack of good bass. They don't sound completely flat but if you're looking for that thump in your movies or EDM tracks, you're not going to find it here. Having said that, they do deliver excellent detail in the mid-range and instrument separation is handled with great aplomb. Treble is generally crisp and detailed, although at times we've found it to get a little too sharp and sibilant.
Coming back to the lower frequencies, the AirPods can handle gentle bass notes well, which is often enough. Due to the lack of any sort of ambient sound isolation though, we've often had to bump up the volume higher than usual. The AirPods can get really loud, but at higher volumes the highs begin to sound a little shrill and can get fatiguing.
The AirPods might lack any official IP rating for sweat resistance but none of us have had any problems on that front despite using them during workouts and in the rain. The white colour of the AirPods and the case has also aged very well, with no noticeable yellowing or discolouration. You will need to clean the insides of the case — near where the top of the AirPods rest while being charged —as it somehow manages to pick up dirt very easily. If you're not regular with this, it will likely leave a permanent mark.
The AirPods handles voice calls very well too, where we and the callers are able to hear each other quite clearly. We haven't noticed any audio-video sync issues either when watching videos and playing games.
The AirPods also have excellent wireless range when paired with some of the newer Apple hardware. We are able to use them across rooms without any issues. With our ageing MacBook Air and non-Apple devices though, we noticed that the range is about the same as other Bluetooth earphones. This is likely down to the latest Apple devices being optimised to work better with the W1 chip inside the AirPods.
The AirPods might not have very good bass, but they deliver pleasing audio quality for most use cases
The battery life, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. With one of our units, even after a year of near regular usage, we continue to get a solid four and half to five hours of runtime on a single charge. The charging case always keeps the AirPods topped up, which means we only end up charging them around once or twice a week. We use our AirPods pretty extensively on a typical day, with a couple of hours of usage on our commute to work and then a few hours with the AirPods connected to a MacBook Air.
Note that if you use your AirPods for a lot of calls, the battery drain will be faster as the earphones are rated at five hours only for music, and at just two hours on a single charge for calling. With that said, the AirPods charge pretty quickly, as just 15 minutes will get you roughly three hours of playback, as promised by Apple.
However, with another set of AirPods — which are now 21 months old but used to give a solid four-and-a-half hours of music playback at 75 percent volume when relatively new — we only manage to squeeze out a little over one hour of music playback. This is rather disappointing, and in the absence of any way of checking the overall health of the AirPods' battery life, it's been hard to troubleshoot the problem. Apple does offer battery replacement for AirPods, but that shouldn't really be necessary for a product that's — admittedly been used a lot every single day — been out of warranty only for 9 months.
This means we've resorted to using only one earphone at a time so we can continuously use the AirPods. Yes, they still charge pretty quickly, but it's annoying to run out of juice every 75 minutes, so it's simpler to use one earphone while the other gets/ stays charged, and just alternate between the two. This is a terrible workaround if you listen to music — though the AirPods will convert stereo to mono when you do that — but it works for us as we primarily listen to podcasts, though we can't claim to be fans of this jugaad.
While on the subject of battery life, you can check how much juice the AirPods have left by simply asking Siri, or open the lid of the AirPods case near your iPhone/ iPad and wait for the status to pop up. You can also see the AirPods battery status via the Batteries widget on iOS. On a Mac, you can find that information under the Bluetooth settings or via the Bluetooth icon in the Menu Bar.
The AirPods might seem a little expensive at first but considering their versatility, features, and performance, they're easily one of the best value offerings in Apple's current product portfolio. Yes, there are plenty of AirPods alternative available at a budget, but everything else that we've tested is either not worth recommending or costs just as much as the AirPods — or even more.
While the AirPods are best used with an Apple device, it's nice to see that they aren't completely crippled when using them with devices outside of Apple's ecosystem. Yes, the design limits the passive ambient noise isolation and the amount of bass the AirPods can offer, but we think most people will be pretty happy with the way they sound.
We've been hearing rumours about an AirPods successor for over a year now and when it was a no-show at Apple's iPhone XS event, we were pretty sure they would make an appearance later in the year. Sadly, that didn't happen at the October 30 event either. We're also awaiting release of the wireless charging case that was supposed to debut alongside AirPower, but Apple has been completely silent on the subject.
It's clear Apple is no rush to launch a successor to the AirPods — the product is seemingly doing very well so why fix something that's not broken? Having said that, we do have a small list of features and changes we'd like to see in the next version of AirPods and volume control would be on the top of that list. We already have touch sensitive portions along the neck of the AirPods, so why not enable a sliding gesture for turning the volume up or down?
Second, we'd really like proper multi-device support. While it's not a big inconvenience to switch devices, it would be nice to have two active connections at the same time so we can, say, take calls on our phone while listening to music via a laptop
Recent rumours suggest that the next AirPods could also have biometric sensors built-in for measuring heart-rate and other health related metrics — the way Samsung does with its Gear IconX truly wireless earbuds — which may bump up their price a little bit. Earlier this year, we also heard rumours about the next-gen AirPods getting water resistance and a more powerful chip for a hands-free Siri experience, but we guess we'll have to wait for 2019 to see if that's true or not.
Even though we know there's a successor to the AirPods on the horizon, we have no trouble recommending the current one. If you own an iOS or another Apple device like a MacBook, you'll really appreciate the seamless way in which AirPods work with those devices. If you're looking for better sound isolation and bass, then the Sony WF-SP700N is currently your best bet at a similar price. If you don't like the in-ear design, then we recommend the Bose Sound Sport Free, although they are priced at a premium compared to the AirPods.
Price: Rs. 12,900
- Light and comfortable
- Pleasing audio quality
- Useful gestures and other features
- Compact charging case
- Weak bass
- No passive isolation
- Mixed battery life in the long term
Ratings (out of 5)
- Design/ comfort: 4.5
- Audio quality: 3.5
- Battery life: 3.5
- Value for money: 4
- Overall: 4