Apple AirPods long-term review: Until recently truly wireless earbuds remained ensconced in the realm of Hollywood but the tipping point has now been reached, legitimised by Apple’s appearance on the scene with its distinctive AirPods. Here’s what we discovered after four months of wear.
Apple AirPods long-term review: Design
Take the company’s signature white EarPods, snip off the wires and you've effectively got the design for AirPods. OK, there’s a little more subtlety to it than that but it’s not hard to imagine Jony Ive and his industrial design cronies looking inward when sketching up these new cord-free buds.
Each ‘Pod is over an inch and half tall, with the same sculpted glossy white plastic that we’ve seen on a number of Apple accessories over the years. The primary ‘port’ fires sound forward, whilst additional mesh-covered outlets help disperse it in various other directions throughout your lug hole. Based on the technical details Apple spouted for the EarPods each apparently focuses on a different frequency range; although it's near enough impossible to tell whether that's the case in real-world use.
Aside from the obvious absence of wires, AirPods also integrate outward-facing proximity sensors and dual beamforming microphones for noise cancellation when speaking. One sits high on the outside of each bud, whilst the other is at the end of the distinctive stalks, surrounded by metal contacts that integrate seamlessly into the design.
There is actually a third component to the AirPods experience in the form of a specialised case. Like the buds it’s primarily finished in gloss white plastic, resembling an oversized Tictac and measuring in at around the same size as a case of dental floss. It’s pleasant to look at but will pick up small scratches over time from everyday use, even if they're only visible against the light.
It’s nearly featureless, with almost invisible seams that ooze ‘Apple cool’. On the front is an indentation deep enough to slide in a fingernail, whilst around the back above the company’s ‘Designed by Apple in California’ hallmark is a stylised metal hinge. Further down on the case’s back you can just about make out a physical button, whilst on the underside is a single Lightning port.
As you might be able to guess, the reason for the port becomes more apparent once you lift the lid. Apple’s clearly spent time refining the hinge action, at least enough to make it a noticeably enjoyable experience every time you open it up, whilst snapping it shut again produces a satisfying audible ‘click’ as magnets draw the lid back down and hold it closed securely.
Peek inside and the tops of the AirPods poke out from perfectly sculpted cavities, at the base of which lie contacts that marry up with those integrated into the stalks on each AirPod mentioned earlier. It all feels incredibly well considered and heavily refined with a level of polish seldom seen outside of Apple’s products, particularly for accessories such as these.
Apple AirPods long-term review: Setup and pairing
For iOS users about to test their new AirPods out for the first time, Apple’s promise of ‘magic’ really doesn't seem all that far off considering we're talking about the oh-so-glamourous experience of pairing wireless headphones here.
Provided your Bluetooth is already switched on, lifting the lid of the AirPods case will immediately result in a card appearing from the bottom of your iPhone’s display with a slick video of the AirPods rotating in-case and a large ‘connect’ button underneath. Once you’ve hit that button, from then on every time you flip the lid up you’ll see a readout of the collective battery percentage of both AirPods and a separate indicator for the case. Words like ‘slick’ and ‘seamless’ once again rise to the fore.
Pairing your AirPods with an iPhone also ties them to your Apple ID, so once you're setup you'll also notice that they become an output option on Macs and MacBooks that you’ve signed in on with the same account.
For Android users or those looking to connect AirPods to any other Bluetooth-compatible hardware, the process isn’t quite as smooth, but still relatively effortless alongside other Bluetooth pairing experiences.
It's simply a matter of opening the case lid, long-pressing the button on the back until the LED nestled in between each AirPod’s resting place pulses white and then tapping on ‘AirPods’ from within your device’s Bluetooth pairing menu.
Apple AirPods long-term review: Comfort and audio quality
Depending on what you're after (and the shape of your ear holes) you'll either love or hate the fit and feel of AirPods. Each rests in your ear and remains held in place by their natural shape, however, they don't form a complete seal against the ear canal, meaning there's almost no external sound isolation whatsoever. This makes them great as buds for those who want to be able to listen to their tunes and still hear what's going on in the environment around them but unquestionably less so for those in search of a cleaner listening experience.
You may also find yourself pushing them further into your ears or twisting them to both improve overall output and offer a more secure fit. Despite this, in rigorous testing (shaking our heads around violently) we never actually had a ‘Pod make a bid for freedom, which is a good thing too, considering at £65 each, replacing them could get costly quickly.
As for audio quality, if you're a long-time EarPods user, you'll immediately notice a difference. Despite looking like Apple's basic buds, AirPods offer a surprising amount of range and notable bass to boot. They're never going to compete against on-ear or over-ear cans but if you're not deterred by the lack of passive noise cancelling, they actually render music and speech with real competency.
Apple AirPods long-term review: Performance and battery
It should come as no surprise that the best AirPods experience comes from using them with an Apple device. As well as the seamless setup, automatic playback when placing them in your ears and easy device switching, the W1 wireless audio chip doing all the legwork inside the AirPods offers an impressively reliable connection over a respectable distance from the source too.
Seldom will you notice a drop in quality or a stutter from playback whether the source device in your pocket or the next room or two over. And should you lose connection, it's quick to pick it back up the moment you're within range again.
Reliability definitely takes a hit when using a more conventional Bluetooth connection with other devices, with performance dropping in both range and dependability. That said, audio quality remains consistently solid no matter what you're connected to.
As for battery life, we have to hand it to Apple, whose claims were right on the money. Collectively the tiny 93 milliwatt-hour batteries concealed within the stalks of each AirPod last up to a respectable five hours at a time with normal usage and anything other than maximum volume, whilst the case’s 398mAh cell can recharge them up to five times before it needs to be juiced back up.
With the stop-start nature of real-world usage, you can expect up to three days of consistent AirPods play time before both the buds should collectively be powered back up to full; a wholly respectable effort in our opinion.
Apple AirPods long-term review: Verdict
Whilst some have likened AirPods to electric toothbrush heads and the verdict is still out on whether or not anyone can really pull them off, they do an excellent job of realising the promise of truly wireless buds thanks to their smart engineering, near-seamless operation, respectable battery life and pleasantly surprising audio quality.
Sure, they could pack better mics, integrated volume controls would have been extremely useful, double-tapping for Siri is a little hit-and-miss and they don’t cut out background noise like Jabra’s Elite Sport buds (£230) but at £159 they make for the most balanced offering out there right now.
With the availability issues surrounding the purchase of AirPods direct from Apple, you can also pick them up from the likes of O2 for the same price.