“Have you got tissue sticking out of your ear?”
Two weeks into owning the Apple Airpods and that is the most ridiculous question I’ve been asked; probably on purpose to get a rise. And honestly… I don’t care.
Yes, there are better sounding headphones out there. For comparison, I tested the Airpods against the other headphones in my stable; a set of Sony MDR-1R over-ear headphones (a personal favourite for their neutral sound and my go-to music production headphones), AKG K712PRO open back over-ear headphones, Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 IEM’s and Apple’s own lightning Earpods.
The Airpods weren’t at the bottom of the pile (sorry Earpods, there’s a reason you’re free in the box) but they also don’t compare to a well-tuned precision pair of headphones. The Airpods seem to take a play from the Beats handbook, too heavy on the bottom end at the expense of clarity and sparkle from the treble. Also at loud volumes (and they do go quite a bit louder than Earpods) the soundstage is a muddled mess with it being near impossible to pull out single instruments from the mix. Luckily you don’t need to push them to max, I’ve been two measures below whilst on the tube and all outside noise was isolated.
And again… I don’t care.
See, the Airpods prime target audience is iPhone owners. Primarily owners of an iPhone 7 or newer which omit the 3.5mm headphone jack. Now iPhones haven’t had a decent DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) since… well… ever. In fact, pretty much every mobile phone I have come across since the advent of the smartphone doesn’t have a decent DAC, primarily because of space. Now some audiophiles go to the Nth degree hooking up USB battery powered DAC’s via micro-USB or lightning ports with adapters just to chase that premium sound. Those users are most definitely not the target market for Airpods and never were.
The majority of users don’t keep music on their iPhone anymore thanks to the likes of Spotify, Tidal, Deezer and Apple’s own Music service. Those who do keep music on their iPhone definitely aren’t storing lossless ALAC or HD audio due to the large file size and limited storage capability.
Just for fun, I tried lossless copies of a bunch of tracks through all the headphones mentioned above using the Onkyo HF player app. I then played the same tracks encoded to a 320kbps mp3 and finally streaming the tracks using Spotify premium which is also 320kbps mp3. There was no difference in the sound quality between the file formats for each pair of headphones, nothing that affected the portable listening of the music; again, more of a testament to the poor DAC inside iPhones rather than the Airpods as using an iFi Audio iDSD micro external USB DAC is a revelation when moving to HD Audio sources but that only supports wired headphones.
So, they are adequate (but not amazing) sounding headphones, this has been established by many reviews before this so what is the USP? Airpods are a product of convenience. An extravagant luxury to free you from a cable that you never knew was a problem. Yes, Bluetooth headphones existed before Airpods and will continue to exist after but you have to pair them to everything individually and some can only remain paired to one device at a time; another inconvenience that you didn’t know existed. Airpods pair to every iCloud capable device you own the first time you pair them to one of your Apple devices. iPhone, iPad, Watch, Macbook, they were even paired to my custom built hackintosh (heathen! I hear you cry!) And that’s it; like a cock push-up; one is all you need. You have the same sense of novelty as when you first walked out the door with 20gb of songs in your pocket that you just grabbed off Napster all those years ago.
But the convenience doesn’t stop there… With the Airpods in your ears, take one out and the music will pause. Put it back in and the music resumes. Put just one Airpod in your ear and your devices will send both left and right stereo channels to the single headphone. This also works for 5.1 audio when watching a movie on a Macbook with the mix down-sampled to mono so no dialogue or effects are lost. You can assign double tap controls to each Airpod (summon Siri, Play/Pause, Next Track, Previous Track). Take an Airpod out of your ear and whatever you are listening to is paused. Pop the Airpods back in the charging case and the connection is closed. On the subject of the charging case it is a tiny little pillbox affair that is easily pocketable. It holds enough charge for a good 24 hours of usage for the Airpods; which themselves hold enough charge for roughly 5 hours of listening and 3 hours of talk-time. Open it near an iOS device and a card pops up letting you know the current charge level of the case and each Airpod.
It’s that pocket-ability that makes the Airpods. They are protected and charging in something the size of a tic-tac box which is always with me. Want to listen to some music on the commute? In go the Airpods and let me tell you it is a true treat not getting wrapped up in cable during winter when trying to get off a bus or the tube. Conference call? In go the Airpods (call quality is great, a product of the stems sticking out the bottom with beam forming microphones) and they are paired instantly. I haven’t used my Android work mobile since getting the Airpods. Wife watching I’m not a celebrity nonsense on the telly? In go the Airpods to listen to some music while writing a lengthy review piece. I’ve ran with the dog, held a conference whilst sprinting across Kings Cross and for the sake of this review shaken my head violently from side to side and they stayed firmly in my ears.
Since the release of Airpods Apple have released the Apple Watch 3 with 4G which also has the ability to run Apple Music without needing an iPhone; essentially making the world’s largest music library available on your wrist along with the wireless Airpods. Alas I haven’t had the chance to test this due to EE being the only UK Network with the backend tech to make sharing a standard sim and eSim on the same network possible but it is an interesting proposition.
Good… For what they are
There are flaws… As mentioned earlier sound quality is good, markedly better than Earpods but if you’ve got a favourite pair of high-end headphones already these won’t replace them for dedicated music listening periods, but I’d argue that they are not meant to. Also, the lack of the trusty in-line remote might be a problem for some; however, for those with an Apple Watch as soon as you start playing music the controls automatically appear on the watch face (note that this behaviour can also be turned off, as it also does this for any videos that you are watching so don’t let your wrist betray your incognito mode browsing… if you know what I mean). The other flaw is they are bright white resulting in the question I was asked at the start of this review; yet most people who see them just want to know what they are like and if they’re worth the £159 entry fee.
And that’s where I’ll end this review; for me I would say definitely and I almost feel a bit bad that I waited to be able to snag a pair at £129 in sales as I would happily pay the RRP now I know how much usage they are getting. If you don’t have multiple Apple products, don’t listen to a lot of music with headphones or don’t have a need for hands free calls then they might not be for you.
Mark Patterson – Guest Contributor