Ap­ple Airpods

FOR Tiny and light; weighty sound; pure wire­less­ness AGAINST Lack de­tail; de­sign is strik­ing, but not in a good way

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

First of all, let’s get this off our chest: the new Ap­ple Airpods look a bit daft. For one, they look like a pair of the wired Earpods with the ca­ble snipped off, and they draw the eye like a pair of gaudy ear­rings. The Airpods' dis­tinc­tive de­sign has drawn a lot of at­ten­tion, and it’s rarely been pos­i­tive.

How­ever, if you’re pre­pared to put up with the odd stare, the Airpods are a mar­vel, tech-wise. Even in this age of minia­tur­i­sa­tion they’re ab­so­lutely tiny, weigh­ing just 4g per ear­phone, and they aren’t con­nected to one an­other via ca­ble. This is 'pure wire­less', with no wires at all.

Per­fect pair­ing

Al­most as im­pres­sive is the pair­ing process. With the Airpods you sim­ply open the car­rycase lid in the vicin­ity of your IOS de­vice and a win­dow pops up ask­ing if you want to con­nect. Your Airpods are now paired with that de­vice and also with ev­ery other Ap­ple de­vice you’re signed into via icloud.

It’s all thanks to Ap­ple’s W1 chip, which is (so far) built into only the Airpods and Beats’ Power­beats3 and Solo3 head­phones. It’s so quick and sim­ple it makes the con­ven­tional Blue­tooth pair­ing method seem ar­chaic. You can still use that to con­nect the Airpods to a non-ap­ple de­vice, though, thanks to a pair­ing but­ton on the back of the carry case.

The case isn’t just a neat place to keep your Airpods, it also keeps them juiced. They can han­dle about five hours of mu­sic, but the case holds an­other 19 hours of charge. Pop your Airpods in there and within 15 min­utes they’re ready to rock for three hours. This in­cred­i­bly neat set-up means you should never pop the ear­phones in only to have them die on you.

If you have stan­dard shaped ears, the Airpods will be not only com­fort­able but also sur­pris­ingly se­cure. We are able to run and cy­cle without them fall­ing out, though some mem­bers of our test team find them un­com­fort­able. So will the Airpods work for you? Your best bet is to find an Ap­ple Store and try them out, but if the sim­i­lar wired Ap­ple Earpods ‘t you should be okay.

The min­i­mal­ist de­sign and gen­uine wire­less­ness also in­tro­duce a co­nun­drum – how do you con­trol the Airpods? The an­swer, per­haps pre­dictably, is via Siri – but it’s far from per­fect. Let’s say you want to in­crease the vol­ume or skip a track. With a reg­u­lar three-but­ton re­mote you’ve got ded­i­cated vol­ume con­trols and a play/pause but­ton. With the Airpods you tap the shell, wait for Siri to ac­ti­vate, say ei­ther “in­crease vol­ume” or “skip track” and then wait while Siri car­ries out your in­struc­tion. Even as­sum­ing you don’t mind look­ing like you’re talk­ing to your­self, the whole ex­pe­ri­ence is slug­gish. You can, of course, just re­move your phone from your pocket, but that feels like a back­wards step for such a fan­tas­ti­cally fu­tur­is­tic pair of head­phones.

Tak­ing a back­seat

Ap­ple has al­ways been a tech, rather than a hi-fi, com­pany so it’s no sur­prise au­dio qual­ity takes a back­seat com­pared to de­sign and fea­tures. There’s noth­ing too bad about the per­for­mance, but you can find bet­ter sound for the same money else­where.

The first thing to bear in mind is that this is not an iso­lat­ing de­sign, which means the Airpods don’t block out­side noise. There’s some­thing to be said for be­ing able to listen to pod­casts and mu­sic while main­tain­ing some de­gree of aware­ness of what’s go­ing on around you, par­tic­u­larly if you plan to use them dur­ing a com­mute or jog.

The Airpods’ de­liv­ery is sat­is­fy­ingly weighty, with a solid bot­tom end that doesn’t over­play its hand. Vo­cals are clear and the tre­ble is rounded off just a lit­tle at the top to avoid harsh­ness. The big­ger dy­namic shifts are han­dled deftly, so there’s no chance you won't be swept away by your favourite sound­track.

But it’s in the fine details and sub­tleties that the Airpods are found want­ing. Play Ra­dio­head’s Burn The Witch and those low-level dy­namic vari­a­tions are miss­ing, as is the full tex­ture of the strings. As more and more in­stru­ments are added to the en­sem­ble, the Airpods strug­gle to main­tain con­trol, al­low­ing strands to merge into one an­other and con­fus­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion.

Licence to thrill

Ul­ti­mately, it's the sort of sound you’d ex­pect from an aver­age pair of af­ford­able wired ear­phones, but con­tained within a pretty in­cred­i­ble feat of en­gi­neer­ing. In the end, it prob­a­bly comes down to whether you’re pre­pared to put up with pass­able sound in or­der to get on-board with the next gen­er­a­tion of wire­less tech.

Of course, at What Hi-fi? we care about sound a great deal, and we'd rec­om­mend that you pass on the Airpods. How­ever, we can’t help but get ex­cited about what might hap­pen when Ap­ple li­censes its W1 chip to other man­u­fac­tur­ers.

The neat case is also a charger, hold­ing an­other 19 hours of juice The ap­pear­ance of the Airpods draws the eye, but they are mar­vels of head­phone tech

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