Review: Apple AirPods Wireless IEM Earphones

Apple AirPods AVS Forum Top Choice

It’s fair to say that Apple is a heavy-hitter in the consumer electronics space. When the company tackles a product category, it aims to deliver a consumer experience that stays true to the vision of the company’s founder, Steve Jobs. And while the company’s track record may not be perfect, Apple AirPods ($159) wireless IEMS have garnered largely positive reviews.

While they may have been on the market for 18 months at this point, there’s little indication that a replacement is on its way anytime before next year. And since I repeatedly get asked the question “what’s the best wireless headphones for my phone” I figure it’s crucial to know what Apple’s offering is capable of, hence this review.

Features and Specifications

I’ve heard people complain that Apple products are overpriced. However, when you look at the technology contained within the AirPods, there’s plenty to justify a $159 price tag. I’m not talking about audio fidelity, these days you can get great sound for a hundred bucks. I’m talking about effortless wireless pairing and long battery life and wireless charging and dual beamforming microphones for clear speech.

Airpods are rated for up to five hours of battery life when listening to music. What’s more, these earphones come with a charging case that holds extra juice. With it, you can stick them inside the case for 15 minutes and get 3 hours of additional play time. With it, you can recharge the AirPods for up to 24 hours of play time before you need to recharge the case.

Apple does not publish frequency response specifications for the airpods, and I don’t own a dummy head for headphone measurement. But, I used my own “dummy head” i.e. my actual head to listen to sine wave sweeps and compare what I heard (subjectively speaking) to a pair of reference-quality headphones, HiFiMan’s Edition X V2 ($1199 on Amazon).

For one thing, I had no issue pairing the AirPods with my Windows 10 PC laptop and playing test tones using the tone generator module in REW (Room EQ Wizard). The long story short is bass output begins to noticeably drop somewhere around 40Hz-45Hz, but nonetheless there is good extension. I’d peg the “usable” bass response of the AirPods at least as low as 26 Hz, and generously… 23 or 24 Hz. This works out just fine for most music, and frankly is a better result than what I was expecting.

Use and Listening

As you’ve likely read elsewhere by now, the joy of using AirPods is directly tied to how small, light, easy to use, and truly wireless they are. And while the AirPods are an Apple product that’s optimized for use with Apple devices—pairing is instant and foolproof—you can use Bluetooth to pair them with other devices. And with iOS, a double tap lets you tap into the capabilities offered by Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant.


Connecting AirPods to an iOS device is as easy as opening the charging case.

Mostly, I used the AirPods with my iPad Pro 10.5. I depended upon their dual noise-cancelling microphones to accurately recognize the words you’re reading right now. I used ’em to listen to my AVS Forum Test Tracks playlist on Tidal HiFi (lossless), and to compose tracks while walking my dog using Novation’s Launchpad software. Of course, I also streamed music with iTunes and Google Play, and frankly there’s no way you’ll hear the difference between those services and Tidal lossless using AirPods.

So are they great-sounding? Not exactly. Now, it would be unreasonable to expect all these features and mind-blowing audiophile sound for $159. And while it’s true that if you’ve been spoiled by really good IEMs, you are not going to love what you hear, keep in mind that with the AirPods, ultimate fidelity is not the main selling point. What’s important is that the level of fidelity they possess is also not a dealbreaker because it’s definitely good enough for casual listening.

My primary complaint about the sound quality, coming from an audiophile perspective, is that there is a touch of stridency to the treble–not enough it was fatiguing, but certainly something I recognize as being a bit of a compromise. On the other hand, it wasn’t an issue on the Note 8 with Adapt Sound active; proper EQ fixes whatever is “wrong” with the native frequency response of the AirPods… and I use quotes there because I suspect the tuning is intentional.

However, for some listening, I used the AirPods with my Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (horror of horrors!), which allowed me to apply Samsung’s “Adapt Sound” function to personalize the response curve to my hearing. The end result sounded great and provided some extra oomph to the bass that was missing without it. indeed Apple should consider adding such a feature to its iOS devices. See the difference it made by clicking here.

It’s worth noting that the lack of noise cancellation means that these might not be the ideal commuter in-ears, especially because they do not seal off your ears, so there’s little passive attenuation. The upshot is it makes these safer for walking around the city, but other headphones do better if you are in an airplane, train, or loud office environment.

I do wish that an option existed to create a tighter seal. If I press against the AirPods to create a seal, I can hear noticeable improvements in bass response as well as passive background noise attenuation. But then you’d have to get into eartips and the fact they wear out and there’s no universal fit… not very Apple-ey.

Speaking of wear and tear, I expect unless I step on them or run them through the wash, Airpods ought to be among the more durable IEMs I have used because there’s no cable or USB connection to wear out or break.

Conclusion

Let’s face it, Apple occasionally creates a product that’s genuinely ahead of its time. AirPods are a perfect example, they strike a balance between price, fidelity, and overall performance as a wireless headset that is not merely uncommon, it really can’t be had any other way.

I strongly suspect that people don’t understand you can use Airpods with just about any Bluetooth audio device. But they do, and this makes them my new go-to wireless headset, period.

As long as you’re aware that when you wear ’em, everyone will know that you are wearing Apple earpods, and that you are giving up some audio fidelity–as well as any semblance of noise cancellation or isolation–in order to enjoy the most convenient, cord-free wireless earphone experience around. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because they are made by Apple, AirPods are not a solid choice for us with other Bluetooth devices.

Ultimately, the light weight, the wireless charging case, and the overall comfort/convenience factor convince me that they are the right choice for my Android phone as well. Indeed, don’t tell Apple, but they actually sound better on my Samsung thanks to the audio personalization function.

Anyhow, long story short is that you shouldn’t buy these if ultimate fidelity is your top goal. But if you want wireless IEMs that represent the state of the art when it comes to the design, AirPods are a winner. So much so, they qualify as an AVS Forum Top Choice for 2018.


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