Review: Apple AirPods – pretentious genius

Disclaimer: As far as I know, no one in the wide world has been able to get their hands on a set of AirPods in under six weeks. I had my finger on the purchase button at Apple.com/jp, but couldn’t wait. In the end, I chose the grey market route of Yahoo! Auctions, overpaying by about 20$. I got them in two days. That was sometime in July, or about six weeks ago. Let’s rumble. AirPods go for 160$ USD. You can find out all about them here: Apple AirPods.

Not sound

I’m an audiophile-hating audiophile reviewing Apple’s AirPods. This essay may be the death of me. Fortunately, there are a few of us that believe in great audio democratisers: self-contained DAC/amp units that work lickety split with phones, computers, TVs, and the like, and whose internal heavy-lifting ensures the same sound no matter the source.

And AirPods are exactly that. While they in no way rival Flare Audio’s Flares Pro sound quality, and in no way rival the Sony MUC-M2BT1’s robust catalogue of compatible earphones, they sound good, work well, and are just as device agnostic.

And yet, they’re intrinsically flawed. Al hands-free short cuts require either Siri, or the physical removal of one AirPod from the ear. And Siri can be a real dick. My Siri calls me ‘Ney-than’ in a pretentious accent. Often, he stalls when invoked, misunderstands the simplest of web searches and directional commands, and embarrassingly has trouble with his stand out calling card, Hey Siri! My phone is choking on screenshots of his worst boners. Apple’s hate for buttons and love for touch pads and touch screens should have worked itself into AirPods. Siri isn’t ready for full time voice control. Nor is anyone on the train near you, nor your mates whilst strolling in a park, nor the animals in the park, nor are your own psychopathies positively combatted when essentially forced to talk with yourself. Siri sucks. Forcing users to suck up to it to change the volume when their phone is out of reach is a real dick move.

And yet, I keep coming back to AirPods. They slip in, and out, lickety split. They work for hours, and fast charge in less than twenty minutes. Very little signal noise comes over the wires. There’s no on/off button to depress for half a minute while the earphones decide whether or not to go into pairing mode. There’s no needle-mount charging  plinth to thread. Like an iPhone, they charge – in their feel-good case – via Lightning cable. And that slippery case literally slips into a pocket – where typically I carry soft-sided and slim-line earphone cases -, lickety split. The earphones snap in magnetically, as does the case snap shut. If you like quality hinges and precision manufacture, you’ll love the case.

The earphones are typical EarPods fare, seems dirty up in no time, meshes gunk up from use, and they will yellow with time. There’s no way really to fix any of that. The first time you use AirPods will be the last time they’re clean and cute. Both they and their case easily pick up scratches. Their ports and seems are positioned nearly flawlessly and their grills are perfectly machined. I’d love to see the next version in ceramic or metal.

Connection

I’ve connected AirPods to both Apple and non-Apple gear. Connection speed and stability relies on many things, case material being the most important, interference being second. When vacuuming, AirPods connect and reconnect to a charging iPhone across the first floor of my 118m2 house, which is just okay. When everything is fit, I can leave my phone in my studio and run downstairs and wash up whatever’s in the sink, which, embarrassingly, is where my iPhone may now be. Incredible. I just stepped out. It is raining mice and parakeets. AirPods managed 29 paces before whizzing and whirring. Siri worked out to 24 paces from my iPhone. Any way I look at it, AirPods have the best and most sticky connection of any wireless audio gear I’ve tried.

Battery

I’ve neglected precise battery run-downs, but I’ve gotten over four hours on the earphones. There’s not much to AirPods. I’m surprised that they get anything more than an hour. Best of all, they fast-charge in fifteen minutes and net at least two hours of playback.

Sound and more after the jump:

Review: Apple AirPods – pretentious genius
2.5 (49.73%) 37 votes

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

23 Comments

  • Reply August 16, 2017

    dale thorn

    Airpods are unique in my house. My wife and I use them or regular headphones, but not IEMs. For the headphones we’ve used in common, we use the same EQ curve (where applicable), but with the Airpods she plays ’em flat and I boost the bass and cut the treble (a lot!). I guess they just don’t fit close enough to my ear canals to have the proper bass response, to offset the treble. Apple really did have a stroke of genius in designing these.

    • Reply August 16, 2017

      ohm image

      Strange as it may sound for a non-sealing earphone, AirPods’s fit is important. Sound can be flat and tinny if bad. I think you nailed the description. How are you otherwise enjoying them?

      • Reply August 17, 2017

        dale thorn

        I think the sound is close to ideal for portable use, but then the obvious killer for some outdoor places is the ambient noise. I’ll usually take a headphone along for on-the-go situations – something I can wear around my neck unobtrusively, but I’ll use the Airpods where noise isn’t a problem. Indoors the Airpods can come in very handy for videos and Internet, and the extra bit of crispy response (in my case) adds to the clarity for Internet and movie sound.

        Airpods make a great gift too, and for many cellphone users, could be the closest they ever get to hi-fi sound. The downside is losing them, so I pre-qualify anyone I might think of handing over $160 wireless earbuds to, just in case.

  • Reply August 17, 2017

    Rasmus Horn

    Thanks for helping not to feel stupid for liking and sometimes even enjoying the sound (and ease of use) in my AirPods!

    And thanks for a great review. I love the way you write!

    • Reply August 17, 2017

      ohm image

      I’m glad you like them. I’m glad both of us found what we think of as a good deal. My writing is full of errors and eels. I need to work on both, but thank you for the encouragement.

  • Reply August 17, 2017

    Barun C

    Nice article Nathan. I can see the convenience of earpods, but personally I feel they are not practical like the state of smartwatches today. Speaking of wireless, I’ve been using the Sony MDR 1000X and it has been a daily companion for me in flights and daily commutes. You guys should review it.

    • Reply August 17, 2017

      dale thorn

      Smartwatches can be extremely useful. Mine has 4 different bands I can swap between in just 5 seconds. It tells the exact time, day and date, weather, upcoming appointments, and has a stopwatch with 1/100 second gradations. And I turn off all the nonsense like health tracking.

      The Airpods are also extremely useful, in that they weigh nothing, are extremely comfortable (zero comfort issues), and with a smidgen of EQ, sound about as good as a good headphone in non-critical listening (i.e., outdoors etc.)

      • Reply August 17, 2017

        Barun C

        Any smartphone can do that and I can get an earbud which will not get lost, does not need to charge and can sound better than earpods at the value of $ 0.30 USD. Regularly charging several devices can be a hassle.

        • Reply August 17, 2017

          dale thorn

          I haven’t found a smartphone I can wear on my wrist.

          I know 50 people now who swear by Airpods and their unparalleled combination of convenience (no cord, no ear canal comfort issues) and sound quality. No outer-ear earbud comes anywhere near Airpod sound quality, especially the bass.

          Charging is hassle-free – just get a power strip with the chargers mounted, then plug the thing in when the charge is low, or just do it every night. It takes less than 5 seconds.

          • Reply August 17, 2017

            Barun C

            There are several smartphone watches out there, dating at least 7 years from now http://cnet.co/2uTDkpp , even in recent times, there are smartwatches with sim capability coming out. http://bit.ly/2wjFMck

            Most folks carrying smartphones don’t have a smartwatches as most can’t afford one and some who don’t feel the need for it due to practical reasons. Those who use and get the benefit out of it, good for them, but at the end of the day non users will outweigh users of smart watches.

            iPhone is not as big in India, as it is in most developed nations, there is a marginal population of iPhone users who use airpods and I know a few of them who have lost a piece or the entire pair. This is a country approximately one third of the size of US with a population of 1.3 billion, so probability of losing one in crowded cities during public commute is quiet common, so it is not practical here either. Just my 2 paises.

            • Reply August 17, 2017

              dale thorn

              I don’t get your point that non-users outnumber users. Non-audiophiles outnumber audiophiles, so by your reasoning we should reject audiophile gear.

              • Reply August 18, 2017

                Barun C

                Again, this is my personal opinion and it doesn’t have to be inline with others beliefs. False equivalencies does not result in proof. Application of smartwatch is not significant enough in my life and the circles I hang out with, may be it is for you.

                A smartphone can pretty much do what a smartwatch does and even more. I don’t mind taking the phone out of my pocket rather than being lazy enough to not do it and stare at my watch to get the job done. May be its not for me, but in terms of technology smartwatches have not reached a point that it warrants for a must purchase when some one buys a phone/mobile device.

                The same is not true for audio gear like an earphone for example. Everybody owns one and the ones who want to get a better quality in terms of its core function, will spend dough to get a better one. For watches it does not turn out to be same, as when some one goes for a better watch they either go for better precision or better durability or more functions. Smartwatch is not the same, one needs a mobile device to accompany that with the exception of watch phones (Which also failed as a mobile phone idea in the past).

                You are happy with your smartwatch good for you, but am not convinced about it due to cost, application, practicality, regular maintenance and durability.

                • Reply August 18, 2017

                  dale thorn

                  That’s a LOT of typing just to say “I don’t use item ‘xyz’ because ______”. What’s the point? I’ve listed the reasons (excellent reasons) why people should consider these items IF they are interested. Nobody needs to write a long diatribe against them – you already listed your negatives three posts ago – why go on?

            • Reply August 17, 2017

              dale thorn

              BTW, Airpods *are* easy to lose. But I’ve never before read an argument against a tech product that says it’s not good because it’s easy to lose. The proper argument is to learn how to not lose them, and I’ve been 100 percent on that one.

              • Reply August 18, 2017

                Barun C

                Convenience and comfort is something humans easily incline to which is why certain folks might like the airpods so much. Here spending $160 with such a design flaw is something I can’t look past. In the suburbs of developed nations losing it might be difficult, one should come down to crowded places like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Calcutta, Chennai and see if they can survive with the pair in tact for a few months if not more.

                And about sound quality, my $45 Ocharaku Co-Donguri can sound much better than this, I’ve heard airpods on two occasions and it I was not impressed. Coupled with the fact that it can’t perform direct voice service functions without accessing the phone unlike Jabra, Platronics headsets which are more secured and go for 1/6th to 1/7th cost.

                • Reply August 19, 2017

                  dale thorn

                  There’s no design flaw. The Airpods are pure genius, great mid-fi, and a heckuva bargain at $159.

                  But some people who can’t afford them DO get jealous.

                • Reply August 19, 2017

                  dale thorn

                  Oh BTW, I told you once already that ear-canal IEMs are not comparable to or competitive with outer-ear buds like the Airpods, but you keep forgetting.

    • Reply September 13, 2017

      ohm image

      Thanks for the comment, Barun. I’m late on this reply, primarily because of what happened between two men I respect. I had to stay away. I love the AirPods, warts and all. They are now my most used earphone. I hope you enjoy your choices.

      • Reply September 13, 2017

        dale thorn

        At the risk of increasing confusion or contention, it’s easy to see why some audiophiles are so down on Airpods. For one thing, they vary widely in response between users in a way that regular headphones don’t (don’t vary widely).

        My wife and I are in close agreement on around-ear and on-ear headphones, and in how we set EQ’s when that’s applicable. But we hear the Airpods waaaaay differently, and I can only guess it’s because they sit much closer to her ear canals than they sit in my ears.

        I believe the other controversial aspects of the sound have to do with where they’re used and the background noise levels. They’re not so good in noisy places because they’re open to external sound, and in very quiet places you can hear the obvious differences between Airpods and a good audiophile headphone.

        For me, I always have access to a great headphone in those places where it’s very quiet and I’m listening undistracted. Where it’s very noisy, I won’t try for an audiophile listen under those conditions, even with noise canceling. The Airpods fit neatly into many of the in-between places.

  • Reply August 17, 2017

    ezedua

    i doubt earpods can compete with anything if you are not an apple fanboy and don’t own and iphone. for that price i would rather get vmoda frza, focal spark, byron bta, bose ss. even though the earpods are innovative, have a cool way of charging still they lack heavily in looks, sound and i would probably lose one of them in a month 🙂

    • Reply August 17, 2017

      dale thorn

      Only the sound you mention is arguable, and compared to my 150 headphones, the Airpods stand up very well with EQ, unless of course you’re talking about indoor critical listening with the better headphone amps.

    • Reply August 17, 2017

      dale thorn

      BTW, the Forza requires a seal into the ear canal, so it is not a competitor to the Airpods.

    • Reply September 13, 2017

      ohm image

      AirPods, dude, AirPods.

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