This won’t be an unboxing review of the Apple AirPods, neither will I discuss about the technical specifications of the W1 chip or the pairing process.
This review will focus mainly only on the sound quality of the Apple AirPods, considered to be the spiritual successor to the EarPods — but that’s only in its shape and form. The second half of the review will focus on the aesthetics — or lack of, if you consider its similarity to the EarPods.
The AirPods look like the EarPods, save for the missing cables. The sound quality has been improved though. The Apple AirPods sound like a better version of the EarPods. First, let’s do a quick recap on the sound quality of the Apple EarPods.
The Apple EarPods (2012)
The EarPods were unveiled on September 12, 2012 and feature an all-new design and electronics. The speaker diaphragm was re-engineered by Apple acousticians to increase the fidelity and maximize the sound output.
Needless to say, the EarPods were a significant upgrade compared to the original Earbuds which tend to sound flat and thin.
This Is How the Apple EarPods Sound
- Overwhelming bass — not the good type
- Muffled low-end; muddies up some song genres
- Muddy low-mids
- Acceptable mids to high-mids
- Clear highs — no sibilance or harshness
- Highs are not sparkly or brilliant
- Stereo imaging is acceptable
- Soundstage is acceptable but not particularly wide
- Overall tone is acceptable, but not fun or energizing
In order for the Apple EarPods to sound good, they have to be pushed into the ear canal so that the sound port is facing the ear drum. A loose seal in the ears means the EarPods will end up losing bass response and fidelity.
Because the EarPods are lightweight, every time the cables get snagged on your clothes, the EarPods shift in your ears. This has been a common complain for people commuting or exercising.
The Apple AirPods (2016)
Now that we’ve established the sound and tonality of the EarPods, let’s see how the AirPods stack up.
In order to compare both, I had the EarPods connected via the audio-in jack on my iPhone 6S Plus, and the AirPods connected via Bluetooth (not simultaneously of course).
This Is How the Apple AirPods Sound
- Big bass, but not as overwhelming as the EarPods
- Clearer low-end
- Low-mids are not as muddy as EarPods
- Mids and high-mids seemed to have received a bit of a tuneup — more depth
- Clear highs, no sibilance or harshness
- Highs are slightly more brilliant than EarPods
- Stereo imaging is rather similar
- Soundstage is also similar to EarPods
- Overall EQ signature and tone is more engaging and fun than EarPods
It’s worth noting that the sound signature of the Apple AirPods is rather similar to the EarPods. The difference is not night and day. However, the true difference lies in the bass and low-mids. By reducing the woolliness of the low-end and clearing up the mids, the AirPods sound clearer and less fatiguing on the ears. The highs also received a tiny boost to give it more presence.
With the Apple EarPods, I could never listen to them for long. The muffled bass covers the nuances of a track, and can’t quite keep up with quick bass runs. With the AirPods, I found myself listening to them for 2-3 hours without experiencing heavy fatigue.
An interesting thing to note is the weight of the Apple AirPods. While not significantly heavy that you’ll notice them weighing on your ears (they feel very light actually), they do seem to carry more heft than the Apple EarPods. In comparison, the EarPods feel plasticky. I believe this is due to the myriad of electronics Apple had to cram inside the AirPods, such as the W1 wireless chip, a Texas Instruments power management chip, proximity sensors, a stereo audio codec, and batteries. I suspect it’s this weight difference that partly contributed to the slight change in the AirPods tone.
Audiowoo? You could say so.
Design and Aesthetics
The AirPods and Earpods look almost exactly the same. The difference?
- Metal ports on the bottom of the AirPods to facilitate charging, where the cables of the EarPods used to be
- Bass ports on AirPods are relocated to the top of the earbuds
- Sensors on the inside and outside of the AirPods
That’s basically it. Other than the missing cables, in-line microphone, and audio controls, you couldn’t tell a difference between the two.
As discussed previously, the AirPods do feel slightly heavier than the EarPods. But trust me when I say you won’t feel them in your ears.
Fit and Comfort
The Apple AirPods fit in my ears nicely. Pushing them in nearer the ear canal helps to get a proper seal for increased bass response. They don’t come loose that often as well, unlike the Apple EarPods — which shift around in ears because of the dangly cables.
I found myself adjusting the fit of the AirPods probably once every hour. The same goes when I’m commuting and on the move.
The AirPods are great if you enjoy napping on the couch or listening to music while sleeping. With no cables and a slim profile, you could lie down sideways without feeling the AirPods digging in your ears.
I find myself often watching Netflix with the Apple AirPods, then taking a break and walking away from my desk. I know many Bluetooth earphones are capable of doing the same thing. Still, nothing beats pulling out one AirPod and having the video pause immediately. Come back from a break, pop that AirPod back in and playback resumes.
Frankly, none whatsoever. The AirPods—like the EarPods—have an earbud design which allows ambient sound to leak in. This is not a design flaw, nor a fault of Apple’s. It’s just the way earbuds perform. If you need noise isolation, then IEMs are the way to go.
Perhaps Apple will update their In-Ear Headphones to W1 wireless in future?
Final Thoughts On the Apple AirPods
I’ll be honest, I was expecting the AirPods to sound similar to the EarPods. The only thing that got me curious was the W1 chip and Bluetooth pairing efficiency.
The AirPods pairs with my 6S Plus within 4 seconds on opening its charging case. On my Mac or Macbook Air, a simple click on the “Connect” button in the Bluetooth menu connects the AirPods. Cloud sync ensures that my AirPods are automatically paired to all my iOS and macOS devices.
Taking the AirPods out pauses the music or video playback. Putting them back in continues the playback. In terms of functionality, I am very satisfied. Sure, there are still ways Apple can improve on them. For example, allowing users to set custom tap actions, or offering other color variations. Space Grey or Piano Black, anyone?
Sound quality wise, the slight improvement surprised me. The AirPods don’t sound upper-end audiophile-grade. There are better earbuds for less than half the price that will sound brilliant and better than the AirPods. What you’re buying into is the technology.
Overall, I’m satisfied with the Apple AirPods. They’re a tad expensive, that I’ll admit. But the long battery life and quick charging on-the-go more than makes up for the cost. As with anything in life, sometimes you want things to ‘just work’. With the AirPods, music and audio just works. Pairing and connecting is painless. It’s because of this that I actually find myself using them more than my other earphones lately.
If you think about it, that’s what life is about sometimes, isn’t it? Getting rid of excess so we can focus on the important.
Where To Buy the AirPods?
The Apple AirPods are available for order from apple.com, Amazon, or from your local online Apple store. At the time of publication, shipping is still 6 weeks for many countries.
September 10 update: The AirPods are now down from a six-week estimate, and are expected to ship within one to two weeks in the United States, Europe and other regions.
8 Alternatives to the Apple AirPods
Guess what, Apple aren’t the only ones to make wireless earbuds. There are some companies that make semi-wireless earphones that connect via bluetooth dongles, like the PowerBeats3, Beyerdynamic Xelento and RHA Audio M750. They’re not truly wireless because the bluetooth dongle hangs around your neck, making them somewhat cumbersome.
So what are your options beside the Apple AirPods? Plenty – the Bragi Dash, Here One and Earin M-1 are all true wireless earbuds that have independent bluetooth connections. Here’s the complete lineup if you want to check them out.