With no headphone socket on Apple iPhone you've either got to go Lightning connector or Bluetooth wireless. Apple is hoping you'll opt for the latter and buy into its wireless in-ear AirPods, but is its wire-free vision the future of wireless listening, or does its divisive design render them a disaster?
We've been using the AirPods since the launch in 2016. Here's what we think:
- Best in-ear headphones: 10 great wired, wireless and wire-free earphones
- The best Lightning headphones for your iPhone or iPad
Wireless and wire-free headphones
- Uses dedicated Apple W1 chip to connect to Apple devices
- No wires
- Either use as single or stereo pair
The dinky Apple AirPods have no wires connected to your phone. There are also no wires to connect the two earphones together. They're genuinely wire-free and connect via Bluetooth.
Like other Bluetooth headphones on the market, the AirPods are intelligent enough to wirelessly connect to each other and then to your iPhone, iPad, Watch, or MacBook.
The design is simple, white, and typically Apple. The 'Pods sit in the opening of your ears, with a small rod protruding out and down your face. That outer rod is touch-sensitive to allow you to engage with Siri, or pause the music. The design is very similar to the wired EarPods that ship in the iPhone box, albeit with their connecting wire cut off.
With no connectors, the only way to charge the AirPods is via the accompanying charging case, which is also a battery that gives you more juice when on the go. The size of a dental floss box, it will easily slip into a bag or even pocket.
With the promise of five hours of listening time from one charge and a up to 24 hours of total listening time from the case, worries about the AirPods running out of battery are probably moot. In the two years we've been using the AirPods we've not had any problems when it comes to listening to music, but you you can easily work your way through the battery if you're making lots of phone calls.
Aside from the concern of what happens if you lose the charging case, you'll also have the fear of losing the headphones themselves: as they are small and light. Sadly, there isn't a lost-and-found feature that could ping you a tracking signal if you've left them behind somewhere. You'll just have to remember to be careful.
Apple AirPods review: Connecting the music
- Automatically switches to the device you are using
- Works with all Apple devices
Connecting the AirPods to your iPhone, and in fact any of your Apple devices, is easy: simply put the headphones and charger near your phone and that's it. Done.
Once you've connected it to one device, the AirPods will be available via iCloud to all your Apple devices and automatically know which one you are listening to music on (be it the iPhone, the Apple Watch, or a MacBook).
AirPods are connected and ready to go when you are - just put them in your ears when you want to listen. They seamlessly switch from a call on your phone to listening to music on your Apple Watch, Mac or iPad, although if you do switch between multiple devices and then sit surrounded by all the devices you will still have to tell it what to connect to - first world problems.
It really is that simple. It's very cool.
Apple AirPods review: One headphone or two?
- Features built-in microphone for talking
- Detects when you remove them and stops the music automatically
It's not just about listening to music in the same old way you've always done. The AirPods include a wireless processor, dubbed the W1, which has some tricks up its sleeve.
Pop the AirPods into your ears and the music starts playing. Take one out, and the music will pause - and rather than playing in stereo, will only play mono on the remaining single headphone in your ear. Remove them completely, and they automatically pause the music until you pop them back in. We do love that feature.
You can access Siri with a double-tap to your AirPods to select and control your music, change the volume, check your battery life, or perform any other Siri tasks. There are no buttons whatsoever.
An additional accelerometer in each AirPod detects when you’re speaking, enabling a pair of beam-forming microphones to focus on the sound of your voice, filtering out external noise to make pickup of your voice clearer for the best results.
On the Mac the experience isn't as intelligent though. There is no auto-pausing or single-to-stereo functionality - but a double-tap still engages Siri. However, they do work just as you would expect a set of Bluetooth headphones to work.
Apple AirPods review: Hey Siri, skip track
- No controls means you have to use Siri to change volume
With zero physical buttons on the AirPods, everything is controlled via Siri if you're not handling your iPhone.
Want to turn the volume down? Tap the AirPod, wait for a beep, then give Siri the command, wait for that command to be processed, and then carry on. It's the same with skipping tracks and other commands. All the while the music has stopped.
It feels sluggish - certainly not as easy as tapping a remote on a wired set of headphones. Using your voice might sound futuristic, but some form of basic controls like volume and skip track - either through strokes or taps - would have been welcomed. Since we've started using them we rarely use the volume feature, but then that's probably just us.
Apple AirPods review: Listening to music, taking calls
- Sound virtually identical to EarPods
- Clear microphone for voice calls
We've tested the AirPods with an array of different Apple devices - MacBook Pro, iPad Pro, iPhones and Apple Watch - and are really impressed with the simplicity of connection and switching between devices.
In terms of sound performance, the AirPods are virtually identical in performance to the EarPods included for free in the box. That £159 price tag is for the wire-free freedom, plus the included charger, rather than an audio upgrade.
Like the EarPods, the AirPods have clearly been designed to suit a wide range of music tastes rather than a specific segment. They aren't as bass heavy as Beats, for example, but should be more than suitable for most people.
Importantly we've experienced zero drop outs and zero pops whichever device we've been using to listen. That's something that can otherwise hurt the Bluetooth listening experience in so many other devices.
When it comes to taking calls, the AirPods' microphones allow you to be heard and to listen clearly. We've tested it in a variety of situations - from busy London bars and streets, through to quiet rooms with no one else around. No callers could tell we were using the AirPods compared to the iPhone's speaker, although a few did mention that when we were in a loud environment they could tell there was some form of noise-cancellation and compression.
Apple AirPods review: Sitting, walking, running
- Just sits in your ear with no clips or clasps
- Can run with them, but be careful they don't fall out
The AirPods have been designed to sit in your ears and come with no additional clasps, clips or paraphernalia to stop them falling out. That is clearly going to worry a lot of people as to whether the AirPods have the ability to stay put. It will also likely depend on the shape of your ears and how well you get on with in-ear headphones in general.
Sitting at your desk, mincing around the house, or generally lounging on the sofa and you'll have no problem. Walking to the shops and back and the AirPods are comfortable. They stay put.
With a lack of wires there will be an appeal to run in them, especially if you connect them to your Apple Watch. We've run various distances over 5km and 10km with the AirPods in.
On the 5km run the AirPods stayed in our ears, worked flawlessly, and we enjoyed the freedom of not only running wirelessly, but also without a joining cable between the two 'Pods bashing on the back of our neck.
On our 10km run we found the experience wasn't as pleasurable. Not only did the sound performance deteriorate as the headphones loosened in our ears with the constant movement, but the left headphone fell out twice when we went to wipe our brow of sweat - sending it flying into the road. Apple doesn't sell these as a pair of sports headphones, sure, but that does negate one of what could be a potential strength.
If you're not a runner, but a walker these are great though and ideal for listening to podcasts on the move.
The AirPods have already polarised opinion when it comes to their design. Everyone we've asked would be conscious about wearing them, both because of the stick that protrudes from each ear and the fear of them falling out and getting lost. Now that so many people are wearing them those concerns have pretty much fallen away. Get on the train or walk through any city and you'll see dozens of the white buds on a range of people. Men, women, children, and grandparents are all rocking the AirPods in 2019.
Regardless of what you think of the design, the AirPods are great in terms of connectivity, which is where they come into their own. They are really clever in terms of functionality and sound isolation for voice calls, whether you like the look of them or not.
The simplicity of connectivity, automated cross-device use via iCloud, and automatic stop/start controls based on whether one or both AirPods are in your ears is a glimpse into the future of wireless listening. In these regards Apple is setting the benchmark for a wire-free future.
We first reviewed the Apple AirPods in 2016.