Apple just revealed its AirPods Pro for $249, which feature noise cancellation. Here’s everything that was wrong with the $159 pair of the wireless headphones.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: AirPods are the bestselling wireless earbuds. If you live in a city, you can’t walk two blocks without spotting the iconic shape. But their environmental impact has been called a “tragedy,” and their sound quality isn’t much better than the earbuds Apple includes for free. Why pay $159 when there are $30 earbuds that claim to be just as good? Just because they’re the most ubiquitous doesn’t mean they’re the best.
Let’s start with what they get right. AirPods work with other Apple products really well. The W1 or newer H1 chip pairs instantly and has less interference compared to other wireless earbuds. And features like taking out an AirPod to pause your music or audio sharing are really useful. But AirPods also have some huge flaws.
The biggest downside? Their sound is just OK. AirPods produce a perfectly average sound that’s clear in the mid-tones and is good for podcasts but doesn’t pack much in the low end. And because of their open design, sound isolation is terrible. There’s also no noise cancellation, so you’ll be stuck hearing traffic or crowds around you. The Jabra Elite 65Ts produce much better sound at about the same price. Even budget alternatives like the $80 Anker Soundcore earbuds offer just-as-good sound for half the price. You might think you can put up with the sound quality, but there’s one issue you can’t avoid: the battery life.
Five hours on a single charge sounds great on paper. But since their release three years ago, there have been numerous reports of decreased battery capacity. And often the battery capacity of one AirPod will deteriorate faster than the other, leaving you with an uneven charge.
In March, AppleInsider compared AirPods from 2016 to a new pair from 2018. It found that after one hour of listening, the older pair had 52% and 19% less battery in each bud compared to the newer pair. Apple seems to be aware of this issue. It even offers a special battery-repair service. But that costs $49 to $69 per AirPod. If your charging case is having battery issues, that’s another $49 to $69. Out of warranty, replacing each bud and the case costs $38 more than a brand-new pair. The short battery lifespan might force you to buy new AirPods after two or three years.
Even if your battery still holds a charge, you might have to replace your AirPods after getting caught in the rain, because unlike competing earbuds, AirPods have no water resistance. Apple doesn’t even advertise sweat resistance. It’s a real bummer to worry if your $159 earbuds will survive some light rain. But the broader impact of all of this is much more serious.
AirPods are a waste nightmare. iFixit gives AirPods a 0/10 repairability score. That means if something breaks or your battery isn’t holding a charge, your only option is to replace it with a new unit. Apple’s repair is really just a replacement. All electronics create waste, but the short lifespan of AirPods means waste is created much faster than it is with something like a laptop. And this will likely get worse as AirPods and other wireless earbuds become more popular. But doesn’t Apple put a lot of focus on recycling? Yes, and they do offer a program where you can send in your AirPods to get them recycled. Which is great. More companies should do this. But most people don’t know that this exists or won’t bother to do it. Those dead AirPods will sit for years in your drawer or a landfill.
Now, you might be thinking that some water protection or noise cancellation would increase the price. It might. But one thing Apple could have included for free? More customization. AirPods have several double-tap functions that you can set for each individual bud, like play/pause or next track. But other functions require you to use “Hey Siri.” So if you want to adjust your volume without taking out your phone, you have to assign one of two double-tap options to Siri and then ask the voice assistant to lower the volume. But depending on where you are, this isn’t always possible or convenient. AirPods would be a lot more useful if they added single-tap functions to each ear.
If you’re a die-hard AirPods fan, you might be typing a comment about how AirPods aren’t the only wireless earbuds that have these issues. You’re right. But with AirPods, you’re paying a premium for mediocre features and quality just to be part of the Apple ecosystem. AirPods integrate seamlessly with other Apple devices and are well built. But that doesn’t automatically make them worth the price. Removing the headphone jack forces consumers towards expensive options that have to be replaced more frequently than wired headphones. A lot of consumers would be better off with a cheaper alternative. And the environment would be better off with a more sustainable one.Apple AirPods are the best selling wireless headphones. But their sound quality and battery life could be a lot better and they lack useful features.
Apple AirPods review
Are the original Apple AirPods still worth buying?
The Apple AirPods are still a perfectly respectable pair of true wireless earbuds – even now that the upgraded AirPods (2019) have replaced them. With decent sound quality and seamless device pairing, all you have to worry about is if they fit your ears and if you can deal with the lack of an in-line remote to control your music.
- Battery life is exceptional
- Sound is great
- Pairing is quick and easy
- One-size-fits-all design
- No in-line remote
- Controversial looks
Hold up. Before you fall in love with the original 2016 Apple AirPods, it’s important to note that these super popular true wireless earbuds were upgraded last year with the more recent AirPods (2019), and then the even newer AirPods Pro. Plus, we think the brand could be on the verge of releasing the first Apple over-ear headphones, the rumored AirPods Pro Lite, and the Apple AirPods 3.
This doesn’t mean we don’t still recommend the original AirPods, though – especially given how much of a discount you can get on the original model these days (if you can still find them, that is).
The Apple AirPods could be your best solution if you’re an iPhone owner, with every new model, from the iPhone 7 to the iPhone 11, lacking a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Although we think these true wireless Apple earbuds were impressive for their time (and still recommend them for those on a budget), that doesn’t mean they’re the best true wireless earbuds you can buy.
One bugbear is that they rely almost entirely on Siri for controlling audio playback, which isn’t convenient for many of us – especially if chatting to Apple’s voice assistant has never really become second nature to you.
This is why they remind us of Apple’s button-less 3rd generation iPod Shuffle, which relied entirely upon the included headphones’ in-line remote to be controlled at a time when no other headphones included this functionality.
Saying that, there’s still plenty to love about the Apple AirPods – read on for our full review.
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Best Apple AirPods deals on Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday
Sale season is here, with Black Friday deals starting to roll in from the beginning of November. There could be some great opportunities for you to get discounts on the best earbuds. But, as usual, don’t expect great Apple discounts.
We can’t say for sure which products will be discounted in the 2020 sales. But it’s safe to assume that although some Apple products are included in the discounts, they don’t tend to see the big, surprising price reductions you’d get with other brands – saying that, the AirPods did drop to their lowest price over Amazon Prime Day, so we could be proven wrong.
Here on TechRadar we’ll be showcasing the best audio deals, so be sure to bookmark our guides to the best Black Friday AirPods deals and Black Friday headphones deals.
Price and release date
The AirPods were expensive upon their release on December 12, 2016.
Back then, they cost $159 / £159 / AU$229, which is relatively expensive for a pair of true wireless earbuds – although wireless earbud prices can range from $50 / £50 to well over $200 / £200.
However, since the AirPods (2019) resulted in the discontinuation of the original AirPods, you may find cheap AirPods deals at some retailers – that’s even more pertinent now that the AirPods Pro have been released and the world is waiting for the AirPods 3.
- If you want a true wireless listening experience, but don’t necessarily need Apple’s seal of approval, check out our favorite true wireless AirPod-alternatives
Design and comfort
Apple has a very distinctive style, and the AirPods, for better or for worse, adhere rigidly to this aesthetic.
In fact, if you’ve used Apple’s wired EarPods (which come as standard with the company’s phones and iPods) then you’re probably familiar with how the AirPods look, since the they’re are almost identical, minus any cables.
The biggest difference between the two is the small arm which comes down from the earbud section. The AirPod’s arm is significantly thicker than that of the EarPods to fit the device’s battery and microphone.
This thickness means that the AirPods aren’t as stylish as the classic Apple buds, which is unfortunate given Apple’s history of treading the fine line between technology and fashion.
Sticking with the classic EarPod design also means that the AirPods dispense with modern conveniences like replaceable silicon eartips that secure the earphones firmly in your ears.
Instead, the AirPods rely entirely on their one-size-fits-all plastic housing to keep themselves sat firmly in your ears.
We tried the earphones in a number of the TechRadar team’s ears, and they sat well in each of them. Everyone was able to shake their heads without the AirPods falling out, but none agreed that they felt completely secure.
This was an ongoing theme with the AirPods, which was that although they never physically fell out of our ears, they never felt all that secure either, and we’d think twice before leaving the AirPods in while we ran for the train.
We forgive this when it comes to the standard EarPods, but when there’s no cable to catch the earbud when it falls we think it’s more important for that extra feeling of secureness.
The downside of a lack of silicon is the fact the AirPods don’t feel secure, but the upside is that because they’re not pressing on the insides of your ear, they feel very comfortable over long listening periods.
For all our reservations about the fit and feel of the AirPods, they actually sound pretty good.
The days of weak, tinny sound are over. Listen to a track like Turbowolf’s Nine Lives, and the bass nicely cuts through the track without overwhelming the mid and treble notes.
It means the headphone’s sound has energy and rhythm to it, whether you want to relax with some Slayer, or get pumped up with Enya.
There’s also a good amount of space in the soundstage. Turn on Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, and the layering in the orchestral backing is impressive. Instruments are able to share the soundstage without it feeling overcrowded.
There’s not quite the same crispness or detail across a track as a similarly priced pair of wired headphones, but the AirPods nevertheless provide an impressive listening experience.
The AirPods blow the Lightning-equipped EarPods, the ones bundled with recent iPhones, out of the water in terms of sound quality. The EarPods offer a flat and thin sound experience compared to the AirPods, which is comparatively buzzing with energy.
To be clear, this sort of performance difference is absolutely warranted when the AirPods cost over five times the amount of the EarPods, but it’s reassuring to know all the same.
Connectivity has historically been a bit of a mixed bag with Bluetooth headphones on iPhones.
We’ve found that some will happily connect automatically just by being turned on, while others will require you to dig into your phone’s Bluetooth menu every time.
The AirPods, in contrast, are a dream.
Simply open the AirPods’ case next to your phone, then select the option on your phone screen to pair them.
The AirPods themselves will then happily automatically pair each and every time you put them into your ears, and will automatically disconnect when you take both out.
Of course, Android users have enjoyed the delights of NFC pairing for some time now, and the AirPods don’t quite feel as revolutionary when paired with non-iPhone devices. You’ll have to press the Bluetooth pairing button on the case to get them paired, but after this is done they work almost identically.
It’s fast, it’s simple, and frankly we think this is how all wireless headphones should work.
This convenience also carries across other Apple devices including iPads and the Apple Watch.
Unlike most portable headphones released nowadays, the AirPods don’t include remote controls.
Instead, you’ll rely almost entirely on Siri (activated by a quick double-tap on either bud) to adjust volume and skip tracks, in addition to performing a number of other voice-activated functions.
We say ‘almost’ because taking a single AirPod out of one of your ears will automatically pause whatever you’re listening to.
This pause functionality is excellent, but we wish the AirPods had just a couple of buttons to handle other common music playback tasks.
Having to double tap one of the earbuds just to skip a track or raise the volume never feels as quick or easy as using a simple in-line remote, and worse still, feels embarrassing in public, which is where you’re likely to spend the most amount of time listening to these headphones.
The AirPods are small and convenient due to the way they pair quickly and easily with your phone, but it’s unfortunate that you feel the need to take your phone out of your pocket to perform most controls if you don’t want to look like you’re talking to yourself on the bus.
Outside of music controls, Siri works very well. We were able to use voice-dialing to make calls, which were nicely audible to the person we were speaking to, and Siri felt just as accurate as using it on the phone itself – which is to say it’s good, but isn’t the best voice-assistant out there.
The long stems protruding from the bottom of each earbud might be bulky, but the plus side of that bulk is that the AirPods’ battery life is really great.
Apple’s claim of five hours battery life from the AirPods appeared to be completely accurate in our tests, and even better was the amount of time it took to recharge them using the charging case, meaning that charge was never far away whenever it did dip low.
This convenience is only going to improve in the future with the rumored addition of a wireless charging case that will allow you to charge your AirPods wirelessly.
The current charging case is an excellent work of design. You charge the case up via its Lightning port, and once fully charged the case holds enough power to fully charge your AirPods over four times.
A small LED underneath the charging case’s lid glows red or green to indicate the AirPods’ charge status, and you can open the lid near a paired phone to see the relative charge levels of both pop up on the screen.
In short, the battery life of the AirPods is great, and much better than the competition. It’s just a shame that they’ve had to be made so big to accommodate the battery.
The pairing process is a breeze, and we were very happy with the way the AirPods were able to automatically pair without having to delve into a Bluetooth settings menu. We wish other Bluetooth headphones were this easy to pair with Apple devices.
Sound quality is the best we’ve ever heard from an Apple-branded pair of headphones.
The built-in microphones pick up your voice loud and clear, and are as good as the phone for using Siri.
The AirPods’ single biggest problem is an over-reliance on Siri to control music playback, and though Siri has gotten much more capable over the years, it’s hard to argue that it’s the ideal means of controlling music on the go, which is where you’re likely to spend the most time listening to their ultra-portable pair of earphones. It’s just not responsive enough to use reliably.
We’ve grown to love having an in-line remote with our headphones, and having to constantly pull out our phone to skip to the next track feels like a step backwards.
We’d also like to have seen a silicon eartip which we could switch out to find the best fit for our ears. The hard plastic just doesn’t feel secure enough.
The AirPods are also bulkier than we’d like, and don’t feel fashionable in the way Apple’s products have in the past.
There’s a lot about the AirPods that we like. They sound great, their battery life and charging speeds run laps around the competition, and it’s hard to overstate just how seamless the pairing process is.
But ultimately the AirPods end up disappointing because other Bluetooth earphones allow you to control your music more quickly, and more easily. Siri is no match for a dedicated in-line remote, and it feels counter-productive having to constantly take your phone out of your pocket to control music.
There’s no getting away from the fact that these are an expensive pair of headphones, and for that kind of money we think that you can find better products elsewhere.
Original review by Jon Porter.
Need an alternative?
The best true wireless earphones 2020
If you’re after the best truly wireless headphones, there’s a very good chance the Apple AirPods are not the product for you. For many people, there are options out there that offer better sound quality and more features for controlling your music. See all of our top recommendations here!
The best wireless earphones 2020
If you’re not completely set on getting true wireless earphones – and that’s forgivable as you’d be making some big sacrifices on functionality and battery life to name just two – take a look at our guide to the best ‘normal’ Bluetooth earphones.