You may be asking yourself why are the Apple AirPods, postgenitus of the Apple Earbuds, the subject of a review in an audiophile magazine targeted 'for the serious audiophile'? Good question. This huge Apple fanboy has done his fair share of hating on the Earbuds, and on earphones/headphones in general. Wireless? Even more so. As such, think of it as a post-Christmas public service announcement for audiophiles.
While you're grinning happily at the goofy look of the AirPods and non-audiophile sound (whatever that means in headphone/audiophile terms?), think of this—the AirPods are most always sold out, make up 85% of the wireless headphone market, and have sold 25 million pairs. Now, quantity usually never means quality—hello, jazz and classical sales in comparison with Bieber and Rihanna—but I thought the numbers and the immaculate technology deserved at least a cursory look. And listen.
Before I dissect the sound, a little about the tech and why, like many Apple products, they just work. When giving up wires for wireless, one expects a certain freedom, ease of pairing, and convenience. Great sound has never been an expectation (though many expensive models are making this expectation obsolete). The vagaries of interference and wobbly connections have been the norms. A couple of years ago, when Bluetooth stopped being so flaky, connections began improving. But pairing! What a pain in the butt. Most of my connective devices are poor in this area, dropping in and out as they see fit. Sometimes it takes five or ten times to pair, if ever.
Apple's nemesis, Google, just shipped its wireless 'Pixel Buds', replete with a connective wire between the two speakers. The reviews have been disastrous, especially where the pairing is concerned. As in, they don't! Manufacturers like Jabra and Bose have had more success, but no more than Beats, the Apple subsidiary. There's a good reason Beats, like Apple AirPods, pair like long lost lovers. The W1 chip.
The Apple-designed W1 chip is also used by Beats. And it makes pairing simple. A joy. Open the floss-like AirPods case, and they pair with your iPhone or any Apple device instantly (you can also use them effectively with Android devices). The AirPods use Siri to adjust volume and you can tap the pod to stop, skip, etc. Take out one pod, the music stops. Place it back, it begins where it left off. Apple says: 'AirPods use optical sensors and a motion accelerometer to detect when they’re in your ears. Whether you’re using both AirPods or just one, the W1 chip automatically routes the audio and engages the microphone. And when you’re on a call or talking to Siri, an additional accelerometer works with beam-forming microphones to filter out background noise and focus on the sound of your voice.'
The little case must be charged every once in a while, but the pods continually charge in the case. The pods hold the charge very well. For casual use or a daily workout, they'll last for days without charging (up to 5 hours listening time—need more time, charge the case with pods in for fifteen minutes and you'll get 3 hours of listening). As for workouts, they stayed in my ears without a problem. Your mileage may vary as the pods do not come with alternate sized tips. It's a 'one size fits all' approach. 25 million sets of ears seem to be fine.
For all of Apple's meticulousness in design and marketing, I'm always at a loss why they think so little of music lovers. Its 'breakthrough' speaker, HomePod is delayed yet again, iTunes has been a disastrous mess for years, Apple Music has the worst sound of any streaming platform, and the earbuds that come with every iPhone are serviceable at best. I thought Apple might buy SONOS and take them to the next level. No. They seem to be music stick-in-the-muds.
So, why pay $159 for more Apple mediocrity? The first reason we've discussed, convenience. So convenient. As for price, audiophiles will pay $159 for 'audiophile' contact cleaner, so, the cost won't leave any audiophile with buyer's remorse. You're buying these for the convenience and the pairing. And if you are deep into the ecosystem, for Apple completion. Remember, these are not noise canceling. You'll hear the outside coming in.
Giving them a fair hearing, they sound better than their wired siblings. The plastic is smooth and comfortable for lengthy listening sessions. Presently, I'm reviewing 2Ks worth of Audeze headphones with sheepskin/leather ear cups and superlative drivers—plugging in the little plastic marvels after an Audeze session is quite a shock. No depth of field or timbral accuracy. Everything is homogenized. Not a blur as they are quite detailed, but it's vanilla time, baby. They'll be almost zero spice in everything you hear.
You'll get fair bass—listening to Dead Again from Thomas Newman's American Beauty you hear some good 'oomph' from the synthesized bass but no weight, no slam of any kind. The bass drum at the opening of Dudamel's DG Mahler 7 was there in name only. You all get the picture. Play some House or Electronica and they'll work better. Looking for resin on strings in a quiet section of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, you're in the wrong TidalHiFi section.
I can recommend the AirPods for workouts or audiophiles on the go (just don't show up to an audio show with them stuck in your ears), but for late night listening sessions or more serious sound, there are many wireless models that leave the AirPods in their dust (the sibling wireless earphone by marriage, the BeatsX at only 20 bucks more are significantly better).
Apple has the means to up the sound quality of every one of its products, but like the unloved Mac mini or even the iMac, they see their standards for music products as 'good enough'. Too bad.
As such, recommended for frustrated pairers, wireless fans, Apple completists and fanboys (and girls).
Weight: AirPods (each): 4 g (0.14 ounces); Charging Case: 38 g (1.34 ounces)
Dimensions: AirPods (each): 16.5x18.0x40.5 mm (0.65x0.71x1.59 inches); Charging Case: 44.3x21.3x53.5 mm (1.74x0.84 by 2.11 inches)
Connections: AirPods: Bluetooth; Charging Case: Lightning connector
AirPods Sensors (each):
Dual beam-forming microphones
Dual optical sensors
Further information: Apple