Apple's AirPods have been the talk of the tech sphere in a relatively slow tech news cycle (yes, even during CES). Originally announced at Apple's September keynote which introduced the iPhone 7, and slated for October delivery, the AirPods have been extremely difficult to get from Apple or other electronic device providers. I had originally placed an order on Dec 31st with Apple using the Apple Store app which promised a late February delivery. Having heard that orders were being shipped much quicker from AT&T online, I decided to order from them and cancel the Apple order. Glad I did, since the AirPods from AT&T came less than a week after the order was submitted. I have had some time with them and have formed some pretty solid opinions on the overall experience. This article is not a review per se of the AirPods, but rather a report card of several categories that I deem applicable to any wireless BT headphone or earbuds. In my rating, I will attempt to justify the category rating by my experience using the AirPods. Each category will be given a letter grading (A - D). The categories are as follows: 1) Setup, 2) Fit/Comfort, 3) Connectivity Reliability, 4) Sound Quality, 5) Convenience, 6) Battery Life, 7) Miscellaneous, and 8)My AirPod summation and musings, and finally my overall AirPods rating .
By far, the AirPods are the easiest and slickest Bluetooth pairing experience out there. Sure, there are some BT headphones with compatibility with Near Field Communications (NFC) chips, but Apple takes this process even further towards simplicity. Upon taking the AirPods out of the box, just a flick to open the battery case and hold the case near the iPhone prompts the pairing process. Just click the connect button and the AirPods connect almost instantaneously. Apple's extra sauce is that the connection information is synced up to your iCloud account which makes all Apple devices that use iCloud account (including the Apple Watch), able to connect simply and easily. I did not experience any issues with setting these up with the iPhone 7 and having them accessible to my iPad and Mac. I haven't attempted the manual process of pairing the AirPods with the Apple TV, but what I have read, it's also a simple process. Thank goodness the process is so simple, as I have had to remove the AirPods bluetooth profile from the phone due to flaky behavior (more on that later).
Setup score: A+
2. Fit and Comfort
While I understand fit and comfort is primary based on an individual's ear shape, I can say that I have zero issue with keeping the AirPods in my ears and having them sit comfortably. I can wear them for hours and not experience any discomfort. I can shake my head like a 80's metal head banging rocker and have these stay in BOTH ears. No issues here.
Fit and Comfort score: A
3. Connectivity Reliability
This category primary is concerned with how strong the bluetooth signal is between the phone and both AirPods. It is important to note that when connected to the iPhone, dual BT signals are sent to each individual AirPod unlike some of the other wireless solutions on the market that send a BT stream from the device to one earbud and then that earbud sends that signal along via wire or BT to the second earbud. Apple has nailed this in every sense of the word. Whatever magic Apple put into that glorious W1 chip, it has improved the all around connection experience. Indoors the signal is rock solid even when my iPhone is in the kitchen and I am upstairs in my office with the AirPods on. That's impressive, Even more so is the connection reliability when outdoors. I can walk down a busy Manhattan street and have other bluetooth headsets crackle and experience signal skip. Not the AirPods. I can have the iPhone 7 in a coat pocket, or even in my back pocket and still maintain a solid connection on those very same treacherous Manhattan streets. This is one of the BIG wins for the W1 chip.
Connectivity Reliability: A
4. Sound Quality
I suspect most people, myself included, didn't expect much from the AirPods given the relatively crappy quality of Apple's prior generations of wired EarPods. I know many people swear by the EarPods, but hey, they are free and you get what you pay for. I never found EarPods to be anywhere near decent sounding and definitely lacking bass and sounding tinny. While the AirPods on not magnitudes better than EarPods, they do have better bass and overall quality has improved. Another thing here to consider is the fit. The better the seal in your ear, the better bass response and overall quality will you experience. In my opinion, Apple has improved the audio quality of the AirPods, and while they don't approach my Bose QC30's wireless, they do provide good enough sound for me to not throw them into Jerry's drawer of headphone oblivion. Bass response has been improved and, mid's are clear. Higher volumes can tend to push the AirPods a bit depending on the type of music, but heck, after all these are tiny buds.
Sound Quality score: B
As a daily commuter to and from work and someone who is on-the-go on the weekends, the convenience of any mobile device is really important. What I consider to be convenient when referring to wireless devices is the ability to control audio from the AirPods independently from any other device, including the iPhone itself and even the Apple Watch. Sure, I could reach into that coat pocket to press a volume button, but that becomes more difficult if the phone is in the back pocket. Forget the using the Apple Watch - a) because winter coats and gloves make accessing a watch difficult, and b) I just don't want to have to raise the watch, bring up the dock, scroll and select the Now Playing app, then finally adjust the volume. This is where the AirPods fall down. Using Siri for simple audio commands, can be done, but forget that if you are in a quiet area (i.e. commuter rail car, library, etc.), or where signal is not that great. It can sometimes take up to 5 - 10 seconds to issue a verbal command to Siri, transmit it to Apple servers, and get the action back for action on my phone. It should also be noted that while playing audio in a 3rd party Podcast app (i.e. Pocketcasts, Overcast) and activating Siri for a non-audio command (i.e. "What time is it?"), the audio from the 3rd party apps do not resume when Siri completes the request. To solve this particular problem, I have gone back to using Apple's Podcast app which works well with Siri.
Apple provides user customization for double tap on an AirPod to either activate Siri or Play/Pause. I use Siri for other functions too much to sacrifice losing the function. Another convenience plus is the ability for the audio source to automatically pause when one of the AirPods are taken out of the ear. A strange quirk is when you are listening to an audio stream using only one AirPod. Removing that one AirPod from your ear will indeed pause the audio, but putting the loose AirPod back in will not continue the audio. Another strange user experience quirk.
Overall, the lack of volume controls offered by the AIrPods is the major black-mark affecting this categories score.
Convenience score: C
6) Battery Life
Apple claims 5 hours for each of the AirPods with an additional day of battery charge with the battery case. In my daily use, I have had no problems with battery. The most I have run down the AirPods battery is 6o percent during a long commute. The battery charging case can usually last one day before it needs to be topped off. I don't spend long periods of time on the phone so I can't attest to how much of a drain have on the battery using the built in mics. I have been reading about many people having extreme battery drain with the battery case. Since I can get a full day, maybe two from a charged battery case, I won't complain about that.
Battery Life score: B
For this category, I will cover a couple of things. First, is call quality, which has been a hit or miss experience for me. When the AirPods work and I can successfully answer a call by double-tapping, the dual beam-forming mics do a commendable job, even in a noisy Manhattan street environment. I was able to hear the person on the call and I came in without too much background noise interference. On the negative side, I have experienced several calls when I have double tapped to answer, and the voice coming from the other side was in slow motion, garbled mess. I would have to end the call, try using Siri to call the person back (if that worked), and finally had to re-dial the person directly from my phone. At other times, I have totally missed calls that I knew were coming in as I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket, but was unable to get the AirPods able to answer by double tapping, no matter where or how hard I tapped. Nothing is more frustrating when tech doesn't work and missing an important call can become a deal-breaker. On several occasions I was able to activate Siri by double tapping, I would see the Siri voice wave line on the iPhone, however no audio was being sent to the phone through the mics.
I will have to monitor the inconsistent behavior pertaining to answering calls and Siri functionality. I am hoping that Apple will have a firmware update to improve the reliability of phone functions.
Miscellaneous score: C
8) Summary and AirPods Musings
Let's get one thing out front and center. I have used many Bluetooth wireless devices over several years, including some very good devices from Bose, Jaybird, and Beats. The level of technology that is packed into the size of a small AirPod is amazing, especially when consider the signal strength, and battery life offered by these little marvels. For a first generation totally wireless set of audio buds, the AirPods show that Apple has a bright future with accessories such as these. Many have been extolling the AirPods as the best thing to come out of Apple in a long time. While I think that may be a bit hyperbolic, I do appreciate everything Apple has put into the product from the quality to the performance of these devices. With all the praise though, I have experienced some really annoying bugs with Siri, incoming phone calls, and inconsistent behavior. As much as I really like the AirPods, I am still scratching my head over how Apple could leave out simple volume and next/previous controls. I can appreciate Apple's desire to "keep it simple" and leverage Siri for basic commands, it's what they do. Read or listen to most AirPod reviews on the web, and the overwhelming consensus is that Apple should have designed the AirPods to support either swipe gestures up and down the stem for volume or have each AirPod support a certain tap combination or function. For example, have the left AirPod double and triple tap for volume adjustment, while the right can activate Siri or skip/next track. This could pose a problem as if you listen with only one, then you would lose the functionality provided by the AirPod that is not in your ear. I would think that would be a more acceptable inconvenience as the majority of listening I do is in stereo with both AirPods in my ears.
Aside from the various lack of controls, there are several quirks that need to be fixed and I am hoping that they can be address via a firmware update. Most modern Bluetooth manufacturers support designing their headsets to install updates for fixes and feature improvements. Obviously, the hardware design dictates how much the software updates can change functionality but most of the time updates provide improvements to connectivity or other issues that may affect the overall use. I am hoping that Apple provides timely updates and fixes for the AirPods. Whether it be for quirky call behavior, voice issues, or inconsistent Siri behavior, it would be nice if Apple can fix these via a firmware update. It would be disappointing if Apple ignored these issues and made people go out an buy a 2nd generation set of AirPods to get feature updates and fixes. I'm on the fence on whether Apple will go that route but I put nothing past them.
Overall the AirPods are an amazing piece of technology at this stage of the wireless headphone market. While other manufacturers offer their own models with various features and levels of battery life, the Apple AirPods are designed to work best with various i-Devices. When AirPods work, they work well. When AirPods fail or don't work as expected, it can be a very frustrating experience. More often than not, in my own use-cases, the AirPods have performed as expected with the occasional snags and annoyances. Ok Apple, you finally shipped them, I bought a pair, now the ball is in your court to get updates out to iron out the bugs. I will continue to use the AirPods as my primary headphones but in the back of my mind, if the bugs occur more over time, I have several really good (but not totally wireless) alternatives I can go back to.
Overall AirPods Score: B+
As an avid tech fan I look forward to sharing my tech experiences both personally and professionally with those that have similar interests and passion for technology.