Apple AirPods Review: Almost Magical

The $159 AirPods, Apple's first foray into wireless headphones, offer near-instantaneous pairing with your iOS device and impressive audio performance. And thanks to their custom-built W1 chip, the AirPods boast 5 hours of battery life, one of the longest times for wireless earbuds. However, the earbuds' over-reliance on Siri and the time it takes the digital assistant to respond detract from what could have been the audio product of the year.

Design

Outside of the obvious lack of wires, the AirPods look exactly like the EarPods that are typically included with your iPhone. Constructed from glossy, white plastic and capped off with a tiny chrome band at the ends, the AirPods are designed to rest just inside your ears, leaving the long skinny rods to gently graze your earlobes.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideCredit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideUnless I saw myself in the mirror, I couldn't see how ridiculous the ends of the AirPods looked hanging off my ears. I definitely felt subconscious as I hit the subway. At first, I used my long locks to hide them. I asked several friends what they thought. The nicest comment I received was that the AirPods looked like some cool space-age jewelry. The worst was that it looked like I was mimicking that infamous hair-gel scene in the film There's Something About Mary.

I'm all for innovation and crazy design, but if this is the future of headphones, I think I'll pass.

When they're not in use, the AirPods reside in their charging case. Like the AirPods, the case is made from shiny, white plastic. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd say it looks like a fat dental-floss box. The lid is attached via a silvery rear hinge, which opens to reveal a pair of AirPod-shaped grooves and a tiny indicator light to signal battery life. At the bottom of the device is a chrome-lined Lighting port for use in the event the charger's getting low on juice. The charger's small dimensions mean that you can easily slip it into a bag or pocket.

Comfort and Stability

As subtly outlandish as the AirPods look, my real concern was whether these $159 buds would stay secure in my ears. Since the they're wireless, the potential for inadvertently losing one or both of the AirPods is high. So is the price. Apple is planning to charge $69 to replace a lost bud.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideCredit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideI'm happy to report that after two days of braving the New York City subway, and another day traveling from New York to Austin, Texas, I found that the AirPods stayed firmly secure in my ears. They stayed put when I found myself running down the stairs to catch the 6 train. However, the left bud felt a little loose after I leaped through the closing doors. Outside of that incident, the AirPods sat comfortably in my ears, even during a serious head-bobbing session as I listened to Jay Z's "You Don't Know (Remix)."

Setup

Setting up the AirPods is blink-and-you-might-miss-it fast. Within 2 to 3 seconds after I turned on the iPhone 7 Plus and opened the charger lid, a prompt launched to connect the AirPods.

Once they were connected, every time I opened up the charger lid, a widget popped up on the iPhone displaying the remaining battery on the AirPods and the charger. What's really cool is that once you've connected the earbuds to one of your iOS devices, they get connected to the others, too, thanks to iCloud. It's a little Big Brother-esque, but convenient nonetheless.

If you want to use your AirPods with an Android device, simply press the small button on the back of the charging case to activate pairing mode. The button can also be used to reset pairing with iOS devices, in case you want to let a friend borrow your AirPods for a while. The buds will cheekily show up as Not Your Airpods on an unpaired device.

Smart Earphones

Even though they look like the EarPods, the AirPods are smarter than your average in-ear headphone. For instance, if I started listening to music with only one earbud in, the AirPod would switch over to mono, which combines the dual channel into one so you can hear everything with one Pod. The one-Pod solution comes in handy when taking calls.

When I had to take a bud out to hold a conversation, the music paused almost instantly, resuming once I placed the AirPod back into my ear.

The AirPods were definitely built with Siri in mind. Tapping twice on either bud would pause the music and bring up the familiar pair of beeps along with the digital assistant's voice. I used this function to skip tracks, adjust the volume, play specific songs and ask about the weather for my trip to Austin.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideCredit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideAs convenient as this function is in theory, in practice it wasn't as seamless. Even after using the AirPods for a couple of days, I'm still having trouble tapping that right spot to summon Siri. And once I do tap the right area, it takes about a second for Siri to set up and another couple of seconds for the personal assistant to recognize and carry out my command. For volume and track selection, using my phone is the more time-efficient option. In the future, I hope Apple can add a few other gesture controls to eliminate the need to use Siri for basic controls.

The AirPods can work with third-party apps, but only if those apps have added Siri integration. Unfortunately, neither Spotify nor Tidal is currently showing Apple any love. When I tried using Siri to perform commands on either service, the AirPods enacted my commands in Apple Music instead.

The AirPod's functionality carried over to my work-issued MacBook. Thanks to the latest macOS Sierra update, I had no problem tapping to summon Siri on my notebook. 

Audio Performance

OK, they're wireless and smart, but how do they sound? Pretty darned good. When I was listening to Floetry's "Hello," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" or Wyclef Jean's "Mona Lisa," the AirPods consistently delivered crisp, clean vocals with balanced highs. The bass could be boomy at times, which could be somewhat distracting on tracks like the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Going Back to Cali."

Still, I was impressed with how clear other details sounded, like the bell-like chimes and crisp snares on Fabolous' "Baby Don't Go" or the electronic wind instrument bolstering the background of Quincy Jones' "You Put a Move on My Heart."

MORE: Best Headphones - Top Rated Headphones and Earbuds

I wish Apple would figure out some kind of ear-tip solution for the AirPods and EarPods. While the AirPods will fit comfortably in most ear canals, very rarely will you get a tight enough seal to block out ambient noise. The only way I could completely block out the roar of the NYC subway was to crank up the volume, which isn't good for your hearing. At regular volume, you can expect a reprieve from nearby conversations and some street noise if you're walking around.

Battery Life, Charging Pod and Bluetooth

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideCredit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideApple claims that the AirPods can last 5 hours on a single charge, which is longer than most of the current competition. Four hours and 29 minutes into wearing the Pods, I got the heads up that it was time for a charge.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideCredit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideThat meant I had to make a trip to the charging case. Apple estimates that the earbuds can provide 24 hours of juice on a full charge. Even better, the charger can deliver about 3 hours of charge in a mere 15 minutes. I put that claim to the test, popping the Pods into the case with 10 percent power remaining. After 15 minutes, the AirPods had 70 percent battery life.

Overall, the charging case delivers on Apple's promises. However, like with the AirPods themselves, I'm worried about misplacing the case. As this is the only way to charge the Pods, you're out of luck if you forget or misplace the device. It costs $69 for a replacement. I suggest that Apple find a way to let you track the case from your phone.

Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideCredit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideDuring my time with the AirPods, I've encountered only a few instances in which the sound has cut out, usually when my iPhone sunk to the recesses of my pocket. It's a problem that plagues most Bluetooth headsets, but so far, it's a rare occurrence with the AirPods.

While the AirPods might briefly lose the connection with my phone, they haven't lost connection with each other, which is becoming a common complaint from wireless earbud owners.

Call Quality

As weird as the little rods hanging from the ends of the AirPods look, they do serve an important purpose. Apple has placed a special voice accelerometer and dual mics in the rods to ensure your caller can hear you loud and clear. The voice accelerometer detects when you're speaking, while the dual-mics amplify your voice while eliminating background noise.

When I called my boyfriend on the way to my train, he said that he could hear a bit of traffic in the background. But to be fair, there was a fire truck passing by. Other than that, he reported loud, clear audio, which is what I heard on my end of the call.

Bottom Line

For $159, the AirPods offer a seamless, no-fuss setup for iOS devices, with a relatively hands-free way to access Siri. The Pods offer almost-instant connection with your iOS device, with 5 hours of battery life and an additional 24 hours via the handy-dandy charging case. And let's not forget the impressive audio quality.

On the other hand, there's still work to be done, starting with the design. While I cringe at a future in which people will have these weird rods hanging out from their ears, I know the Apple faithful will embrace and normalize the look. Design aside, I'm hoping Apple will add more tap-based commands instead of making users wait for Siri to launch. I'm also worried about losing either one of the AirPods or the charging case, and paying the $69 to replace each component.

Overall, though, the AirPods' ease of use, strong audio quality and impressive endurance make them the wireless earbuds to beat going into 2017.

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