In September 2016, a big announcement took place: tech giant Apple announced by keynote not only the omission of the headphone jack on their newest smartphone (and in the future certainly on all iDevices), but that they also had a suitable solution ready for all those who initially questioned that decision – wireless headphones. And with that, AirPods were born.
[Update from 22/09/2017]
One year has passed since the launch of the AirPods and since December 2016, the in-ears have been available for purchase. Delivery difficulties on the part of Apple caused repeated delays, but the availability now seems to be regulated. And with the major release of iOS 11, new features have finally officially been added to make the AirPods even better. To find out what exactly has changed and if that influences our over-all-rating, read on:
New charging cradle
With the launch of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X, Apple is now introducing wireless charging (Qi-standard) with more tech company products to follow. What they already showed on the keynote was a Qi-compatible charging cradle for the AirPods. When and at what price the box will be available for all previous AirPods owners is not yet known. Presumably, Apple will offer it next year as a complete package with AirPods 2.
New gestures thanks to iOS 11
A criticism in our test was the limited control functions available to the listener via a double tap. While controlling Siri or Play/Pause by tapping on one of the two handsets worked, iOS 11 has finally extended the functionality. Now, the left and the right handset can be configured independently and under the Bluetooth settings you’ll find “Siri”, “Play/Pause “,” Next Track “,” Previous Track “or” Disabled “. It’s about time! However, why Apple needed almost a year to introduce that is beyond me.
The AirPods sound different with iOS 11
That was really a surprise. After the update to the new operating system, the AirPods sound a bit different, notably fuller and louder! Is this all just imagination or has Apple has somehow altered the tuning of the AirPods? The bass range looks more punchy and large acoustic numbers now actually sound larger, livelier and brighter. Of course, we will observe exactly what this new sound tuning is all about and report back on this page in due course.
With iOS 11, the AirPods are finally attempting more functionality and my criticisms at the time must be partially revised. Thus, the in-ears get full four stars in the “sound” category, while in “function” they still earn just half a star.
The small earphones were scheduled to hit the market in October, though technical problems delayed the start of sales. But with Christmas being the most important time of the year in terms of sales, it was to be expected that Apple would want to get AirPods out and under the trees of its many customers.
But why does a headphone generate so much hype? Sure, Apple has long since ascended to the top of the tech world and everything they’ve produced has sold enough to make them the first trillion dollar company, so it only makes sense that their first wireless headphone would be met with great expectations. But the landscape of the company is changing in surprising ways: professional computers are not maintained for years, the production of monitors is discontinued, and in-house WiFi routers have been discontinued. How does a headphone fit in the portfolio? The competition is fierce and the subsidiary Beats has been selling very successfully for years.
If you believe the analysts of Slice Intelligence, Apple’s share in the marketplace has jumped from 0% in the Bluetooth Headphone Sector to 26% just weeks after the AirPods launched. From scratch, this company created something with headphones that no one has ever done in such a short time – impressive. But, and here’s the most important question, are the AirPods as impressive and as magical as Apple itself?
Apple’s products are synonymous with unboxing videos on the internet; those featuring their products garner millions of views. The company is also extremely concerned about its packaging and even after all these years, it is still a blast to unwrap a device. Unfortunately, the AirPods, in this case, are underwhelming. The white cardboard box provides a home for the AirPods, including the charging cradle, the Lightning charging cable and the booklet (quick start guide) but it’s nothing new – we’ve already experienced this with other headphone manufacturers.
Again, Apple proves once again how easy-to-use technology can be. Open the white box, hold it next to the iPhone (it must be at least iOS 10 installed) and only a few seconds later the AirPods are ready for use. It could not be simpler and always works right away, unlike our experiences with other brands. It shouldn’t be surprising, however, as it is to be expected that two products from the same company should harmonise perfectly.
The charging cradle
The white charging case is made of plastic and has a built-in rechargeable battery. This case is not only a safe travel case, but also fulfils another purpose: the small box is supposed to provide the two in-ears with power for up to 24-hours of muscial enjoyment. This did not quite work in our test. Instead, the AirPod charge lasted for about 5 hours, but this also depended on volume. More positively, the fast charging mode is nice. 15 minutes stuck in the small case will keep the in-ears powered for about three hours. The case itself has its own battery, which gets its power via Lightning cable. If you want to know which device has been charged and by how much, open the charging case near an iPhone or iPad and you’ll see a hint screen.
I found the design of the case a bit too smooth and therefore too slippery, and it reminded me of a dental floss container. The two earplugs snap magnetically in but it takes a bit of skill to pop them out again; with a certain grip and a slight twist it works just fine, but with too dry fingers, it’s a bit trickier.
The form factor of the two headphones is almost identical to the EarPods that Apple included with its iPhones, which should, therefore, count among the best-selling in-ear headphones. However, there are differences in this form factor. For instance, one fits like a glove, the others slip out constantly.
Unfortunately, I’ve experienced the latter with EarPods and they have been living mostly unused in my junk drawer for several years now. However, the new AirPods are a little different: they look slightly thicker, which may be due to the fact that all sorts of technology have been stuffed into them, and the fact that there are no cables to pull at the plugs makes them fit better and more securely.
We all know, if the in-ear sits too loosely, the sound won’t knock you out, and we can immediately hear the AirPods when they slip so can take corrective action. But it is exactly this fact that bothers me as well because, on the one hand, the AirPods are so light and inconspicuous that you almost forget them in the ears. On the other hand, I constantly remind myself while wearing them to take care of them so I don’t lose them. But the fear of losing them while jamming out in your own home or shopping in the city is fortunately unfounded because when they slip out of the ear canal, they hang and just do not fall out. In the event they do fall, however, Apple has also announced the euro prices for a subsequent purchase in the event of a loss: in Germany, the replacement fee is 75 euros per earplug. Within the warranty period, a battery replacement (only in case of a defect and not through normal wear and tear) costs 55 euros. Under certain circumstances, a new purchase might make more sense than a singular replacement.
Women or men who wear earrings might also not be happy with the AirPods. The spontaneous hearing test my wife gave the in-ears confirmed my suspicion; with certain head movements, her earrings hit against the sticks of the AirPods and caused loud, unpleasant knocking noises.
Packed with technology
Apple advertises the AirPods as magical, which is due to the advanced built-in technology. The specially developed W1 chip recognises whether the AirPods are in the ears through optical sensors as well as through an acceleration sensor. This makes it so that when they are removed, the music is automatically paused. And that works great except for one exception: connected to the Mac, which must have at least installed macOS Sierra, the programs “iTunes” and “Spotify” are automatically paused. The Vox player, which plays my Hi-Res audio files, reacts the same, even after installing an add-on to the controller via remote controls. Surely an update will be released soon to fix this issue? In combination with an iOS device, I have no problems: the apps “Music”, “Spotify”, “Soundcloud”, “Audials Radio” and “DS Audio” pause well on the removal of the left or right AirPod and play when inserting again.
Siri voice command
If the AirPods don’t react automatically, there is still the option to start Apple’s language assistant Siri via (configurable) double tapping on the left handset before giving voice commands. In principle, this works well, but the latency always bothers me: double tab, wait two seconds, talk, wait two seconds. Sometimes that’s just too long, especially since Siri sounds LoFi on a Mac and doesn’t always understand commands or sometimes misinterprets them.
Swipe gestures? Think again!
If you do not want to use voice command and Ask Siri, you can instead configure the double-tap depending on the device, which can make sense because who wants to talk to himself on the bus or train? And so we come to one of the biggest criticisms: the double tapping is the only control option for either Siri or Play/Pause! No volume change, no songs jumping back and forth, etc. Other manufacturers have been implementing this cleanly for years. From the inventors of multi-touch and swipe gestures that have revolutionised our use of electronic devices, this seems almost ridiculous.
So the AirPods leave a bitter aftertaste after learning the controls. You can clearly feel they’re the first version, but you won’t be able to shake the feeling of having a product in your ears that could be really cool, but the manufacturer is just not ready yet. In fact, the ideas behind it are great, but not thought through to the end. Perhaps this is due to the pressure of selling and getting it to market as quickly as possible, or perhaps, they’re just not finished.
The sound quality of Apple’s AirPods
In most headphone reviews, you’ll often read something along the lines of “let’s get to the most important part: the sound”. But many headphones are not just bought for their sound quality, or we would see and hear far more high-quality headphones on our streets. For many buyers, the sound isn’t the most important quality and is therefore not apart of the purchase criterion, which is completely true of these headphones. For 180 euros, there are far more high-quality sounding headphones on the market.
Solid, unruffled sound
In my opinion, the AirPods sound solid. Our Spotify Playlist sounds pretty clean with the in-ears. However, Howard Shore’s “The White Tree” did not produce goosebumps like other models have. In general, the AirPods sound compact, make good basses and mids as well, but I think the heights are not nearly brilliant enough. It still lacks a piece to liven up just great acoustic numbers, such as “Portraits of Cuba” by Paquito D’Rivera. I also miss a big sound stage; the band is tight, which makes identifying the exact location of individual instruments difficult.
Modern pop numbers are what the AirPods are clearly designed for. At best, these are casual headphones that aren’t magical nor “superior sounding,” as Apple might have you believe.
The Apple AirPods are an interesting glimpse of what awaits us in the near future: headphones that are perfectly integrated into our everyday lives, that are as small and inconspicuous as possible and that include all kinds of intelligent technology in addition to pure listening to music. After all, “voice accelerometers with wave bundling microphones” sounds so damn modern! So it wouldn’t be surprising if headphones will accompany us everywhere in the future, monitoring our vital signs, playing music via the heart rate monitor, and visually complimenting the whole thing with IP-controlled light systems.
The first generation of Apple’s AirPods leaves an ambiguous impression: comfort is great, as is handling and battery life. But despite Apple’s intentions, the product seems somehow “unfinished”. The operation is not yet error-free and while the sound is not great – at most, it’s average – it’s not bad in this price region. As an Apple user, I’m not at all enthusiastic about them, but maybe that will come with a major update or the next generation release.
- Ear couplingIn-ear
- Transducer principledynamic
- Weight without cable8 g
What's in the box
- Lightning USB charging cable
- Charging case