One of the first criticisms lobbed at AirPods — even on the day they were announced — was how they seemed too easy to lose. So we have to start with the way AirPods fit, or don’t fit, in your ears.
I cannot get them to stay in my ears for long periods of time. This isn’t a new problem for me — I’ve always had a hard time keeping AirPods’ wired predecessors, EarPods, in my ears. It was a side effect of Apple electing a one-size-fits-all, somewhat open-air design for EarPods, instead of designing earbuds that insert and form a full seal in your ears.
If you’ve had trouble with EarPods staying in your ears, there’s a good chance you’ll also struggle with AirPods. There are slight differences in the shapes, which you can see when you put them side by side — EarPods are a bit more round and AirPods are slightly more contoured, which makes them a bit more comfortable — and Apple says this means AirPods should fit more ears than EarPods.
If EarPods don't fit you, there's a good chance you'll struggle with AirPods
That doesn’t mean AirPods stay in my ears, though. They don’t. Every time I wear AirPods it’s a constant battle to keep them in. They don’t fall out immediately, and when I first twist them in I can get what feels like a snug fit. But they inevitably slide out, especially in my right ear.
When this happens they wind up dangling on the outer cradle of my ear, where sudden or even not so sudden movements knock them loose. Standing up from my desk, turning my head too fast, chewing through a bag of pretzels, touching down on a runway in an airplane — these are all situations where AirPods popped out of one of my ears because I wasn’t constantly readjusting the fit.
Apple says that they’ve tested thousands of ear shapes and they think this design is robust enough to please most people. The Verge’s senior editor Lauren Goode has almost no problem with them — she’s even been able to work out with AirPods with no troubles. But I can't bring myself to be happy with AirPods because of this issue, and I've been looking forward to wireless earbuds for a while.
Apple is playing a numbers game here. The company is basically saying it thinks number of people who won’t be able to keep AirPods in their ear is small enough that they don’t need to change the design. And it’s a shame, because despite this problem, there is a lot that I like about AirPods — enough that I might have gotten over how strange they look.
For one, AirPods actually sound great, even better than EarPods. Apple claims the audio components are virtually the same between the two products, but there are noticeable differences in the output, especially in the low end. I actually gasped the first time I heard the bass drop in Childish Gambino’s "Me and Your Mama" when using AirPods. The same section didn't sound nearly as dynamic on EarPods.
AirPods reproduce music clearly for such tiny earbuds, though that’s provided you can get them to stay in your ear canal; the sound quality was harder to enjoy as the earbuds slid toward the outer part of my ear.
AirPods actually sound good
Apple also deserves enormous credit for solving the two biggest problems with Bluetooth earbuds, and Bluetooth headphones in general: pairing, and providing a robust connection. This is all thanks to the W1 chip that Apple introduced with AirPods and the two other Beats headphones that were announced in September.
W1 makes the initial pairing process with AirPods a breeze — the moment you flip the cap up on the carrying case, a screen pops up on your iPhone asking you to connect. From that point you ostensibly never have to look at the main Bluetooth menu again, because AirPods connect every time you take them out of the case. They’re always visible and accessible in iOS’ Control Center.
The W1 chip erases another Bluetooth headphone headache, too, which is using them across multiple devices. Once your AirPods are set up, it’s as easy as tapping on them in Control Center on whichever device you want to use them with, like iPhone, Apple Watch, or iPad. They also are automatically paired with macOS Sierra-equipped laptops.
The other thing that W1 does really well is it solves a problem unique to wireless earbuds. It’s hard to sync audio to two earbuds when you don’t have a wire running between them. Every other wireless earbud company starts by sending the audio signal to one earbud over Bluetooth. And it’s this first step that trips up most products — Bluetooth is awful at traveling through your body. This is why many wireless earbuds so far suffer from constant, irritating hiccups in the Bluetooth connection.
In most pairs, after establishing that initial connection, the first earbud relays the signal to the other one. But playback on that first earbud doesn’t start until the sync is achieved, which means you wind up dealing with latency of about 30–50 milliseconds. That’s fine for audio, but it means wireless earbuds often aren’t good for videos or games.
The W1 chip solves some of Bluetooth's biggest problems
Apple took a totally different approach with AirPods. Each AirPod is actually receiving its own Bluetooth channel independently at the same time, and it’s the W1 chip that handles the syncing. The result is very low latency and also a very reliable connection. This is an approach that every other wireless earbud company avoided, and yet Apple found a way to make it work very, very well.
W1 is Apple at its best — it’s a proprietary technology that solves real problems, helps open up new use cases, and pushes the industry forward. The trade-off is you just have to submit to some ecosystem lock-in.
AirPods lose some of their magic if you use them on Android — pairing and device switching involves the traditional slog through Bluetooth menus, for example. (The earbuds do have optical sensors that pause the music when you take them out, and this works on Android, too.) But the W1 chip is still so good that AirPods were one of the best-performing pairs of wireless earbuds that I’ve tested on an Android device.
Perhaps the thing I liked the best about Airpods, though, is the case. I’ve tested a lot of wireless earbuds so far and my biggest takeaway is that they’re only as good as the case they come with. You always need somewhere to stash the earbuds, and it helps if that case also charges them, too.
The AirPods case is one of the best around. The earbuds magnetically lock in to the point that you can’t even shake them loose, and it offers an extra day or so of battery life. It’s also small, meaning it fits comfortably in almost any pocket, and it’s also white so you won’t lose track of it in a bag.
The ability to constantly charge AirPods is comforting, but the battery life of the AirPods themselves is also fantastic. I got every bit of the five hours Apple promises, and that’s not even considering the fact that you’re almost never going to use these for five hours straight. My typical usage went something like: one or two hours of music playback, which would shave about 10 to 20 percent, and then a quick dip back in case before using them again, where they would be fully charged after only 10 or 15 minutes.
There are a few things about AirPods that I wanted to like but didn’t, such as Siri. Apple’s not the only company trying to bring AI and other smarts right to our ears, but AirPods are one of the first products to actually make it to the market.
Accessing Siri is easy — just double tap one of the earbuds and you summon the digital assistant like a genie. And AirPods do a decent job capturing your queries — that’s part of the reason for the long stems in the first place, to keep the microphones as close to your mouth as possible. But Siri’s inherent limitations — like its often unhelpful answers and inability to handle multiple follow-up questions — ruin the experience. The dream (or nightmare) of the tech from Her is on the horizon, but it’s still very much a dream. Phone calls, at least, work just as well as you would hope.
For all their internal tech, I do wish there were more ways to interact with AirPods. I’ve come to love having quick access to volume, play / pause, and track skipping on earbuds like Bragi’s. You can assign the double tap to perform play / pause in the iPhone’s settings menu, and it’s the default on Android. But the only way to adjust the volume using AirPods is to ask (and wait for) Siri to do it for you or pull out your phone.
Despite great battery life, wireless performance, and good sound, too much of my time with AirPods was spent fighting to keep them in my ears. I couldn’t stare down a bowl of ramen or navigate a puddle of New York City winter slush without worrying that the earbuds would meet their untimely fate. And at $69 a pop to replace a lost unit, it’s not a problem I’d want to deal with. It’s also a problem I’ve never had with any other wireless earbuds I’ve tested — especially because those companies ship an array of tips or rubber fit sleeves with their products.
That might not be the case for you, however. In fact, Apple’s betting it won’t be. So if you share Apple’s wireless dream, and EarPods fit you pretty well, there’s a good chance you’ll like AirPods, too. Just make sure you try them on first.
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales
Video by Phil Esposito
Edited by Dan Seifert
Correction: Apple released four pairs of W1-equipped headphones at the September event, not three, as this article previously stated.