Apple AirPods Review: Neat Technology, Mediocre Sound

AirpodsIt’s been more than three months since Apple announced the wireless, and wireless, AirPods. I expressed my hesitation about them at the time, but in a true spirit of objectivity, I decided to order a pair and try them out for myself.

I don’t commute, so I’m not worried about losing them, but I can see how they could easily become dislodged from my ears if I were, say, in the subway and got jostled. If I jump around here in my office, they don’t fall out, but all it takes is someone brushing against one of them for it to discover gravity. And if I lie down with them in my ears, one moves a bit. It’s a tad loose; we humans are asymmetrical, so you won’t have the same fit in both ears.

They are easy to set up, though it takes a magnifying glass to read the tiny gray type in the fold-out instructions that come in the box. The settings transfer to different devices, so it’s easy to use them with my iPhone, iPad, and my Macs. They connect quickly and easily, and I’ve read a number of articles saying how much easier they connect than other Bluetooth headphones. This isn’t the case for me; I’ve been using a number of Bluetooth headphones over the years, and I’ve never had connection problems. This may be an issue with low-cost Bluetooth devices, but I’ve always had decent headphones that connect instantly.

The biggest issue is the sound. While EarPods really sound bad, AirPods sound just a tad better. Listening to a variety of music on my iPhone shows how weak they are. I’ve applied the Bass Booster EQ, to give them a bit more oomph, but they still sound like AM radio, compared to my go-to cheap headphones, Sennheiser PX 100 II-i. My current choice for Bluetooth headphones, the Jabra Revo, sounds light years better. The AirPods sound thin, wispy, as though they’re missing something, and it’s that type of sound that quickly becomes fatiguing. After a half hour of listening, I find the sound uncomfortable.

However, I will use these when working. Not for listening to music, but to make phone calls (I always make phone calls with headphones); I’m told that the audio quality when making a phone call sounds fine, though a bit weak; there’s no way to adjust the volume of the microphones. I’ll also use them when recording podcasts, since they’re less intrusive than larger Bluetooth headphones. They’ll also be fine for listening to podcasts or audiobooks, especially when I walk on my treadmill. Since my Jabra Revo Bluetooth headphones are over-ear models, they make my ears warm after a while. On the other hand, they block out the noise of the treadmill, so if I do listen to music while walking there, I’d rather have them than AirPods.

Controlling the AirPods is complicated. To increase or decrease volume, you have to use Siri; and to invoke Siri, you have to double-tap one of the AirPods. This pauses playback, and the change in volume only happens after you’ve told Siri to do so; if it understands you. The same thing happens if you want to skip to the next track in a playlist or an album; you have to invoke Siri, say what you want, and wait. With my inexpensive Sennheisers, I just press a button on the inline remote. Naturally, you can do all these from the iPhone, but doesn’t that somewhat defeat the purpose of these things? (Note that you can change the settings of the AirPods so a double-tap performs a play/pause, rather than invoking Siri. But there’s no way to adjust the volume without using the iPhone.)

While the technology behind these tiny headphones is clever, they’re not worth the cost. If you care about how music sounds, there’s too much of a trade-off in quality just to have the easy connection and lack of wires. They’ll be fine for phone calls and podcast recording, but I wouldn’t want to spend much time listening to music with them.