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