Apple’s AirPods have been out for a while now, but their combination of features and performance make them one of the best true wireless earbuds out there. While they may not actually fit in your ears, for the lucky ones that can use Apple’s audio products, they’re a real treat. If you’ve gone outside at all in the past two years you’ve likely seen more than a few people wearing AirPods. Somehow, they’ve become one of the most popular pairs of earbuds in the world and it’s hard to go two city blocks without seeing them, despite them making the user look absolutely ridiculous (sorry AirPod lovers, it’s true). As popular as they are, they were never perfect. They recently got a hardware refresh, and while Apple completely ignored most of our wishes for what would make them a truly great product, they are slightly improved. But how so?
Editor’s note: this article was updated on December 23rd, 2019, to add more information about the TWS landscape in 2019.
Related: Best wireless earbuds
The box is pretty standard for the Cupertino company: all white, with a picture of the Apple AirPods on the front. Inside the box is the charging case with the headphones, some instruction and warranty booklets, and a lightning charging cable.
How are the Apple AirPods built?
Apple is king when it comes to build quality and design, and that’s still the case with the AirPods… kind of. Even though they’re made of plastic, the charging case feels great. It’s lightweight and sturdy enough to be tossed into your pocket. This is good because you’re going to want to keep the case on you at all times, even if it’s just to store the ‘buds when you’re not using them. The new AirPods (or AirPods 2) still look exactly the same and have exactly the same build as well. So if you, like me, had trouble getting the originals to fit your ears then you’re out of luck with these as well. These are going to be just as impossible to use thanks to Apple believing that these are one-size-fits-all, which they are not.
The bottom of the charging case has a single Lightning port for charging them up, and on the back there’s a button to enter Bluetooth pairing mode. But what really makes the build quality stand out are the magnets. The lid is held closed by a magnet, and flicking it open or closed is super easy. There are also magnets on the inside of the case, so even if the lid does open, the ‘buds won’t fall out. The only real difference that is visible to the eye when it comes to the original AirPods and the new AirPods is the small LED light on the front of the case for charging and pairing. It was previously on the inside of the case, so you would have to flick open the case in order see it. Thankfully, it’s been moved to where it should have been all along: right on the front of the outside.
Plus, the 2019 version of the AirPods is the first option to have a wireless charging case, compatible with certain Qi wireless charging pads. Though, if you want that feature be prepared to shell out another $50 for the compatible case. While we’re on the topic of bad news, if you were waiting for the rumored Airpower that Apple announced a while back to wirelessly charge your devices you’re out of luck. Even though Airpower was rumored still to be coming even as these new AirPods were released, the company cancelled it altogether.
Then you get the Apple AirPods themselves, which haven’t changed much. Actually, they haven’t changed at all. The old ones will even fit in the new case if you want to only pick up the wireless charging case. But the lack of a new design isn’t exactly a good thing either. The AirPods’ inability to seal your ears leads to a lot of problems that just aren’t all that easy to hand-wave away. For example, outside noise is a much bigger problem for users of AirPods than it is for users of Bluetooth in-ears because neither version of AirPods isolates at all.
Additionally, because they don’t seal, some people will find that the AirPods sitting outside the ear canal makes them vulnerable to drop-outs and shifting positions. These are extreme problems for true wireless earphones, as losing one ‘bud means the death of your product. Now I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of people do all kinds of physical activities wearing AirPods, and if you’re one of them consider yourself lucky because if the AirPods don’t fit in your ears, they really don’t fit. I can barely walk casually without one or both of them falling onto the pavement, and that hasn’t changed here. If you want true wireless earbuds that fit well and afford all the same benefits of the AirPods, check out how the Beats Powerbeats Pro compare to the AirPods.
The case is absolutely necessary when using the Apple AirPods. If you don’t have it with you, it’s all too easy to misplace and lose the earbuds. We did a fit test video on how the original version fit, and since the build and design hasn’t changed at all it’s still applicable here so make sure to go check that out if that’s what your main concern is. As for the overall AirPod design, they don’t look too different from regular earpods, just without the wires obviously. On each earbud, you have a tiny microphone for voice calls and a small sensor that gives you a few controls when you tap them, which brings us nicely into the next section here.
We’re splitting this part up into two sections: iOS and Android.
Connecting to an iOS device
Connecting to an iOS device is as simple as tapping connect on the card that pops up on your device. When you connect to one device it also connects to every device on your iCloud account. During testing music never skipped once while connected to my iPad Air (except for when I was really testing range but that doesn’t count). You also get full access to all of the cool sensors and features on iOS. For instance, when listening to music you can take one earbud out to pause the music, and placing it back in your ear will resume music. Plus, the new AirPods come with a new H1 chip (updated over the previous W1 chip) which lets you use the “Hey Siri” phrase to activate the voice assistant hands-free. Of course, you can also turn this option off in the settings of your iOS device if you want to squeeze a little more juice out of these batteries.
You’re going to have to get used to talking to Siri because that’s also the only way to control volume which kind of makes no sense, especially if you’re on the subway. In the settings on iOS you can change the double-tap to pause or play music, which also makes no sense. If I’m reaching up to double-tap, I might as well just remove the earbud to automatically pause the music. When it comes to range I was able to get to leave them on my desk and walk around my entire house easily without any stuttering. That’s about 60 feet away with walls and a floor in the way, not bad at all. Overall, I’d say the connection was pretty great with iOS.
Connecting to Android
This was more of a process and a much different story. The connection was still impressive, just not great. To connect you have to pop open the case, hold down the button on the back of the charging case to enter pairing mode, and also find the AirPods in your Bluetooth settings. Okay sure, that isn’t really a big deal. But once connected, the experience is different. The connection strength to my Google Pixel wasn’t nearly as good as on my old iPad. I counted about nine stutters in only two hours of listening. The range also suffered when on Android. I was able to get to to the fringes of 50 feet before stuttering occurred if I turned the wrong way. With the new AirPods, I even experienced a significant lag in audio between the left and right ‘buds, which only resolved itself after I paused and played the music.
This is to be expected considering the new H1 chip is optimized to work with iOS, but it’s something that’s worth mentioning if you want to use these with your Android device. You also won’t be able to automatically pause music by removing an earbud. Music just continues playing. Double tapping the side of the AirPod does access the Google Assistant, which will allow you some control, but not as much as say, the Sony WH-1000X M3. Though I was still impressed with the range and the synchronized music playback, it’s easy to say that they won’t play as well on Android as they do on iOS.
Additionally, testing by our crack team here at SoundGuys revealed that connecting to Android devices means lower audio quality, though just how bad it sounds varies from device to device. It’s peculiar—and frustrating—but it’s another reason why we don’t list these as the best true wireless earbuds out there. A set of headphones or earphones that use only AAC will introduce an element of variability to your listening, and that’s no fun for anyone.
Apple claims that the battery will last you about five hours on a single charge, but during our objective testing, we weren’t quite able to reach that. Instead, at 75dB we found that the new Apple AirPods were able to provide 4.125 hours of playback time using an iPhone X over the AAC codec. Compared to the original version, the H1 chip seems to offer about 21% longer life on the newest iteration of Apple’s true wireless earbuds. Though this may seem like a significant increase, we’re only talking about 30 or so minutes of extra battery life because the power cell is so small.
The overall battery life is quite poor compared to even regular Bluetooth earbuds, or even Bluetooth over-ears—and that’s if you’re using them with an iOS device that has been optimized to work with the new H1 chip. If you’re connecting to an Android phone, battery life is basically unchanged from the first version at only 3 hours and 29 minutes. That H1 chip also helps switch between iOS easier (which works nicely between my iPhone X and iPad Air) and it also allows for a stronger connection when you’re on voice calls. To be fair though, the quality of your call is going to depend more on the service coverage you have, but the AirPods will still get the job done.
The other thing you have to keep in mind is that because the Apple AirPods’ batteries are tiny, they won’t last very long compared to other units. Battery cells can only last through so many charge cycles before degrading, and even moderate use of the AirPods will accelerate their degradation. Just like it is with all true wireless earphones, you can’t replace the batteries in the AirPods, and this product will wear out within a few years’ time.
How good is the sound quality?
As we already mentioned, the AirPods take a one-size-most-all approach, so chances are these won’t fit your ears perfectly. This means that outside noises easily find their way into your ears and these things leak like it’s nobody’s business. If you don’t want the person next to you to hear your music, you’re going to have to turn down the volume substantially.
The theme here is that the AirPods have a very consumer-friendly sound, and you can see it above. However, this is only under perfect conditions. The AirPods target a somewhat bass-heavy response, but most people will not hear it simply because the AirPods don’t cancel out sound, nor do they block it out.
The bass (pink) and the mids (green) are where most vocals and music live, and this type of response is very common in consumer headphones. There’s a peak in the highs (cyan), but again, it’s a super common feature in headphones of all types meant to mimic how the human ear hears high-frequency sound.
Right to the point, the low end isn’t great, but that’s entirely because of the lack of a seal. For example, the bass in California by Childish Gambino feels like it’s a very low mid rather than a bass.
Just like the regular wired EarPods, the mids are given a huge boost in these; vocals come through crystal clear. This goes for voice calls as well, by the way. These are probably the clearest phone calls I’ve ever taken on Bluetooth ‘buds. When it comes to music you can easily sing along to your favorite tunes, but background elements don’t really sit well with each other. Basically, every instrument in Generator ^ Second Floor by Freelance Whales seems to lose its weight and depth.
Considering how loud these can get, I’m actually really impressed with the highs. Sure, there isn’t a ton of detail reproduced by a cymbal hit, but nothing ever gets harsh or painful.
What are some alternatives?
While the AirPods are the most popular pair of true wireless earbuds around, they’re not the only ones available—and they definitely aren’t the best. There have been plenty of other releases in the last year or two, and some of them might be worth looking into. If price isn’t an object and you still want all of the cool features that the AirPods have, then you should check out the Apple Powerbeats Pro.
- Apple AirPods Pro: The long-awaited successor to the AirPods was launched on October 30, 2019, and host a slew of updates that fix the worst things about the original AirPods—aka their lack of a seal. Additionally, they have active noise canceling, and enhanced features. Unfortunately, they cost $250 before tax and shipping, which may not be worth it to you. Be sure to check out our head-to-head article comparing the two true wireless earphone models.
- Apple Beats Powerbeats Pro: While there are plenty of people using the AirPods for fitness, that isn’t what they’re made for. If you want to hit the gym with true wireless ‘buds, check out the PowerBeats Pro. These have an IPX4 certification to protect against sweat, 10 hours of constant playback, and of course the around-ear hook design to keep these in place while you move around.
- Samsung Galaxy Buds: The Galaxy Buds are another option for Android users that nail basically all of the important things. They have Bluetooth 5 for a stable connection, access to the Google Assistant, an IPX2 certification, and about 6.5 hours of constant playback as well. Plus, the AKG-tuned drivers sound pretty sweet.
- Creative Outlier Air: The problem with good true wireless earbuds is that they’re expensive, but they don’t have to be. The top spot on our best true wireless earbuds list actually belongs to a sub-$100 pair of ‘buds called the Outlier Air. These Bluetooth 5 true wireless earbuds also offer AAC and aptX codecs for high-quality streaming. Best of all, they’re small and discreet, have an IPX5 certification, and can pump out sound for just shy of eight hours.
- JLab JBuds Air Executive: You don’t have to break the bank to have a good true wireless experience. JLab is one of the industry leaders when it comes to bang for your buck products, and the JBuds Air Executive is no exception. It has an IP55 certification and touch controls on the side so you can control your music without even reaching for your phone.
Should you buy the Apple AirPods?
Let’s be honest, you’re probably not buying AirPods for sound quality. The reasons to buy the AirPods have everything to do with convenience, but that only works if you have an iPhone and ears that fit the product—otherwise you’re spending a lot of money on a disappointing product. The charging case is amazingly built and easy to carry; removing one bud to pause or play music works perfectly, and the connection rarely drops. Plus, the new version gives the AirPods even more battery life and you can charge the case wirelessly; which is nice.
That said, they’re clearly made for iOS users and they still don’t offer much in terms of extra functionality—Android users have little reason to buy these. The Jabra Elite Sport Wireless or Bragi Dash also offer things like heart rate monitoring, workout tips, sweat or waterproofing, and a nicer design in my opinion. But they’re also significantly pricier. If you don’t care about any of those features and just want to listen to music, the new AirPods with the updated wireless charging case aren’t terribly priced at $199.
We also now have to point out that the Apple AirPods also have a bigger, badder brother in the AirPods Pro. For an extra $50-100, these offer a sealed listening experience with active noise canceling and a bunch of iOS-specific features not currently enjoyed by the AirPods. But $250 is a lot of money to slap down on something that has a lot of competition below its price bracket, so you may want to save your money.
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