Apple AirPods: 9 Months Later (An Updated Review)
Almost exactly one year ago, Apple made the “courageous” decision to kill off the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Much hand-wringing, gnashing of teeth, and proclamations of “Steve Jobs would have never done this,” (aside — the headphone jack removal was the quintessential Jobsian move. I can think of very few things more sublimely Jobs than to remove a standard I/O port in exchange for thinness and aesthetics) but a year later not only has most of the world moved on (realizing, correctly, that most people just use the terrible headphones that come with the iPhone anyway), most major phone makers have followed suit.
But along with the headphone jackless iPhone, Apple also announced AirPods, its first-party solution, designed to make wire-free music bliss something the masses (well, the masses who are willing to spend $160 on wireless earbuds that aren’t branded Beats, a brand that Apple also owns) would want to use. I got hands-on time with AirPods back in September of 2016 and then Apple seeded me with a pair of pre-production units that I dutifully used until the real things were available in December.
I reviewed the AirPods back in December for Gizmodo, and while I gave them a positive review, I put in the caveats that some of the simplicity around the design and features could make them frustrating to use. As I wrote in the opening of my review:
While they’re the best buds of their kind in the world, they come with some inconveniences that some people might not like.
When they were first announced in September, it was obvious that AirPods were Apple's attempt to distract everyone from…gizmodo.com
But despite those inconveniences, I have continued to wear and use AirPods over the last nine months.
Given some of the improvements that have come to the AirPods thanks to iOS 11 (which will be officially available on Sept. 19, but that I’m already running the GM of on my iPhone 7 Plus), the fact that AirPods are finally shipping within 1–2 weeks (and are available for pickup in many Apple stores), and the potential wireless charging upgrade (whether it will only be available via a new charging case or will also be sold with that case as its own SKU isn’t clear), I decided I wanted to do an updated review. Seeing as I no longer work at a tech website (I work at Microsoft, as with all other posts, opinions are mine and do not reflect my employer), I figured I’d just do the update here.
In the nine months since my original review, I’ve continued to use and wear AirPods. Initially, my usage of AirPods was slightly tempered because of my preference for the Beats Solo 3 Wireless headphones (in rose gold, naturally), which have the same W1 chip for instant-iOS/macOS pairing and terrific battery life (the battery life on the Beats is actually 40 hours) as a choice for using when taking the New York City subway. I’ll never argue that Beats are the best-sounding headphones you can buy — they are largely fashion — but to me, they are the perfect subway headphones because they block out the noise around you, look good (especially in rose gold), and make it obvious that you do not want to make small talk with anyone around you.
I still used AirPods, but it was mostly on the weekends when I would take walks in the neighborhood, or when I wanted an un-obstructive and wireless way to listen to music in bed (something my very nice and expensive headphones make difficult). The small size also made them ideal for the times I was going out and having Beats around my neck wasn’t a suitable endeavor, but I still needed my tunes. But then at the end of May, I went and moved from my beloved New York City to Seattle for a new job.
That meant packing up my Sony MDR-7506 work headphones and saying goodbye to them for the two months I spent in corporate housing (side note, I still haven’t found them in the shit I need to unpack, but I know they are around. My other pair of 7506s are attached to my podcast microphone in my home office), and as a result, I started to leave my Solo 3s at work as my “work” headphones and use the AirPods as my daily commuter earbuds.
The nature of my new commute, which is shorter (at least in the morning) than the one in New York City, and takes place almost entirely on a fancy Wi-Fi equipped luxury bus (fucking tech companies, am I right?!), instead of a crowded subway train where Siri didn’t work (because there was no cell service), also makes AirPods even more ideal.
I stand by what I wrote in my original review: I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable going on long runs with AirPods in my ears, as I’m not confident they would stay in. That said, I know plenty of people who do just that and haven’t lost them — and each ear is different. Although I won’t run with them (Beats X are great for that!), I have done the gym and Soul Cycle with them without any issues at all. And I’ve definitely done the whole “oh shit, I need to sprint across campus to make my bus” move with AirPods on more than one occasion.
The Importance of Size
What I’ve really come to appreciate about AirPods, that I didn’t capture in my original review, is just how much of a difference the small size makes. I can slip my AirPods case in almost any purse (save the tiniest of clutches) and it fits in the pocket of my smallest/tightest jeans (and I’m a 0/00, so my pockets are often small).
As I said, pre AirPods, my wireless headphone situation was mostly with over-the-ear models or with something like Powerbeats. I’ve reviewed/used other pure wireless buds and every single pair has been bulkier in my ears and in my pocket. I do love having wireless over-ear headphones when on an airplane or on the New York subway, but the smaller size really is great for everyday kind of use. This is even more true if you’re going to use the AirPods to make phone calls.
The downside of small size is that it could make misplacing AirPods much easier than buds with a larger footprint. Most of the time, mine are stored in the front pocket of my backpack, and I won’t lie, I’ve certainly feared that I’ve “lost” them in larger bags because they disappear. Still, I think this small size is really perfect, especially when it comes to quickly putting the buds away, or pulling them out again.
Small size is also a boon when it comes to using AirPods to talk on the phone. As I said in my original review, the microphone on AirPods is fantastic. I almost prefer to take phone calls or conference calls with AirPods versus using the regular headset. If you make a lot of calls, AirPods are actually a great accessory.
Since my original review, Apple has added a number of software improvement to AirPods. The first came with iOS 10.3 and the “Find My AirPods” feature. This is nice if you happen to misplace a bud or it falls out of your ear. Other than to test, I haven’t actually used this feature myself, but I’m glad it’s there. The replacement fee for AirPods and for the case are very high ($70 per bud, $60 for the case), so anything that makes losing them more difficult is a good move.
But the bigger software improvement has come with iOS 11. My biggest complaint about AirPods was the fact that using Siri to do tasks such as raising volume, play/pause, and skipping tracks was needlessly cumbersome. This is how I described the volume process in my original review:
Just look how stupid the AirPods’ volume control is: Double tap a bud, wait for Siri to turn on. Speak “volume up” or “volume down,” wait what feels like eternity for Siri to respond, then wait for your music or podcast to resume at the new volume. If that volume isn’t what you wanted, start the process over again. Not only does it take far longer than hitting a button on the side, you look kind of stupid talking to yourself in public. Oh, and you better be connected to the internet, otherwise Siri doesn’t work. What a waste.
The bad news is that volume control remains idiotic and requires either using Siri or pressing buttons on your phone/iPad/whatever, but the good news is that you now have more options of what double-tapping on each bud will do.
In the past, you could only customize play/pause or Siri, and you could only set it universally for both buds. Now you can customize so that the right bud does one thing and the left bud does another.
In the settings app (when connected, go to Bluetooth > AirPods and tap on AirPods, additional options will appear), you’ll now see this screen:
Tap on each bud and you can now select what actions you want to trigger when double-tapping on the sensor.
Pro tip: If you’re using an iPhone 6S or newer and close to your phone, saying “Hey Siri” will trigger you phone and you can do all the same Siri stuff you did by triggering it on your AirPods. Don’t waste a command on Siri on your AirPods.
I wish there were more gestures and that volume was one of the options, but this is a huge improvement to usability. I’ve also confirmed that these settings also work on macOS Sierra (I’m not using High Sierra yet, but I’m sure it’ll work in the latest OS too). Since this feature was added in the iOS 11 beta, my enjoyment of AirPods has improved tremendously, if only because I can pause and skip tracks without having to talk to myself.
Apple has also made other firmware improvements, but nothing that I really notice versus when I first got my AirPods.
Using AirPods With Non-Apple Products
I did a cursory pairing of AirPods with other non-Apple Bluetooth devices last year to make sure it was possible, but I’ll admit, I didn’t really do significant testing until later this year.
Now that I use a Surface Book as my work computer, I’ve become intimately familiar with the process of using AirPods with non-Apple products. In short, it works, but it’s not nearly as seamless.
I had a lot of trouble getting AirPods to pair with my Surface Book, in part because they wanted to stay paired to my iPhone. On the Mac and iOS, if you’re signed into the same iCloud account across devices, you can just connect to AirPods in your Bluetooth settings on whatever device you’re on and AirPods will pair (even if they are currently paired to your iPhone or iPad). Starting with tvOS 11, this will also be true for the Apple TV (in tvOS 10, you could manually pair AirPods in the Bluetooth settings, in tvOS 11 AirPods are listed as an output option automagically). The OSes are smart enough to “pair” across devices. This is not true on Windows (or on Android, if that’s the type of phone you use).
I had to turn off Bluetooth on my phone, wait for the Surface Book to see AirPods and then go through the pairing process. It didn’t help that the place I paired AirPods (my office at work) was picking up on everyone else’s Bluetooth devices. Once I got it paired, I was able to easily pair AirPods when necessary, but handing off between my Surface Book and my iPhone sometimes still requires me to toggle Bluetooth off on my phone. That’s annoying. My workaround is that I usually use my Beats Solo 3 Wireless with my Surface Book, either connected through Bluetooth or through the headphone jack, and don’t bother using AirPods.
I understand why Apple devotes most of its AirPod connectivity focus on its own products (Beats, for what its worth, tends to be a bit more cross-platform), and I don’t expect the company to go out of its way to improve Windows or Android support, but if you don’t live in the Apple ecosystem, the value and convenience of AirPods just isn’t as great as if you primarily or exclusively use it with Apple products.
Battery Life and Charging
The five hours of promised battery life has remained true in my testing. Likewise, charging AirPods and a case can be done quickly. Plug the case into Lightning for 15 minutes to get an hour of charge time. A bit over an hour plugged in will have everything at 100%.
As with most Bluetooth headphones, your battery life is often based on how loud the volume is, so if you have stuff cranked way up, expect AirPods to have a shorter battery life.
Do note that the charging case tends to drain even when not in use. It doesn’t drain as fast as the Apple Pencil, but it’s not as if it’s not slowly sipping on power either.
I have had an experience a few times where one bud would have more juice than another. I don’t know if there us a problem with how one bud is sitting in a case or what, it’s been a rare enough problem for me not to worry too much. But even Apple products aren’t immune from niggles.
It’s cool that Apple is selling a $60 Qi-compatible AirPods charging case to use with the AirPower pad, but unless Apple starts to sell a version of the AirPods with that case included standard, I don’t think I would even consider buying it. The current method of charging is fast and relatively hassle-free.
Although I would love a new version of AirPods to come out with improved gestures and maybe improved battery life (five hours is great, but more would always be better), I’m still VERY happy with my AirPods today.
In fact, nine months after reviewing them, I like them even more today. The competition for truly wireless airbuds is getting stronger every day, but for my money, AirPods are my pick for anyone who largely lives in the Apple ecosystem.