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I compared $35 AirPods knockoffs to the real thing. Here's what I found out

Should you spend $159 when you can get virtually identical true-wireless earbuds for less than one-fourth the price?

airpods-vs-airsounds-earbuds-and-cases-2

Can you spot the AirPods imposter?

Rick Broida/CNET

Take a look at this photo. Two pairs of Apple AirPods, right? Nope: One of them is a clone, a knockoff, an off-brand replica. If you've seen these before -- and they're kind of everywhere -- I'll bet you wondered the same thing I did: How do they compare? Can $35 true-wireless earbuds possibly rival Apple's $159 ones?

As the Cheapskate, I desperately wanted to find out. I've tested loads of earbuds before, but they all had different designs; none of them were exact AirPod copycats. This time, I truly wanted to compare, well, apples to Apples.

AirPods vs. AirSounds

Apple AirPods $159 See it at Apple
AirSounds $35 See it at ZDNet Deals

Read more: The best true-wireless earbuds for 2019

For this test, I ended up going with the AirSounds True Wireless Earbuds, which cost $35 and are sold by ZDNet Academy + Deals. (Cheapskate readers can get them for $28 with promo code CNETBUDS20.) Not only do they have "Air" right in the name, they bear an incredibly close resemblance to AirPods -- at least in photos.

But how would they fare in real life? Would they be comfortable? Easy to use? How would they sound? The results were surprising -- but also not surprising. Read on.

Fit

I've always found Apple's EarPods -- the wired headphones that are included in the box with iPhones -- to be a comfortable fit, and the same goes for AirPods, even though the latter are just a hair larger. That's not true for everyone, though; some folks find them too large or too small. It really just depends on the size of your ears.

Although the AirSounds and AirPods cases are physically identical and within a millimeter of being the exact same size, the earbuds themselves are slightly different.

airpods-vs-airsounds-open-cases

With their cases open, it's easier to tell which earbuds are Apple's.

Rick Broida/CNET

Specifically, the earbud part of the AirSounds is larger -- just a tiny bit, but enough to put a little pressure on my ear cartilage and feel uncomfortable after maybe 20 to 30 minutes.

Your mileage may vary. If EarPods or AirPods tend to fall out of your ears, the AirSounds might prove a perfect fit.

Features

In terms of features, the AirPods blow the AirSounds out of the water; the latter has none of the advanced features of the former, like automatically pausing playback when you take one out of your ear.

I can live with that, but I can't live without auto-connect. With AirPods, you flip open the case and presto: They power on and connect to your phone. The AirSounds must be powered on manually (using an awkwardly small button on each earbud). Once you've done that, they quickly pair with each other and your phone (and provide an audio cue that that's happened). It's hardly a hardship, but once you've grown accustomed to auto-connecting earbuds, you can't go back.

Similarly, the AirPods automatically disconnect and recharge when you put them back in their case. The AirSounds must be manually powered off, and charging doesn't happen unless you push the button on the case. 

Oddly (and, I guess, conveniently), you can turn both AirSounds off just by pressing and holding one of the power buttons. But a double-press doesn't replay a track, as indicated in the instructions. Instead, it invokes Siri (arguably a better result).

The AirPods case charges via Lightning (or a Qi charging pad, if you paid extra for the wireless charging case) and promises a whopping four full recharges, for upward of 24 hours of total listening time. The AirSounds case: Micro-USB and two to three recharges, for around 11 hours of total listening time.

Outdoor performance

Although the AirSounds employ Bluetooth 5.0 (according to the accompanying manual; the product page indicates Bluetooth 4.2), they have some connectivity issues. Indoors, if I simply cupped my hand over one ear or the other, the sound would drop out. Even worse, when I ventured outside to go for a run, dropouts became a real problem -- to the point where I simply can't recommend these for runners.

I've encountered similar issues with other Bluetooth earphones; some of them simply don't work well outdoors because your head gets in the way of the signal, which has nothing to bounce off like when you're indoors. But my AirPods don't have that problem, and neither do most of the other Bluetooth 5.0 true-wireless earbuds I've tested lately.

Sound quality

This is arguably the single most important aspect of any headphone, and it's where I expected the AirSounds to fare the worst. I won't say AirPods are the best-sounding earbuds in the world, but to my ears they're nicely balanced, if a bit lacking in bass. (No surprise there: They don't create the inner-ear seal of earbuds like the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air, and it's that seal that really amps up the bass.)

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the AirSounds sounded pretty darn good. Better than the AirPods? No. But decent overall? Yes. They don't give you the range, the detail, afforded by AirPods, but if you're just knocking around the house doing chores, sitting on a train listening to podcasts, etc., I think they're absolutely fine, especially considering the price.

Verdict

rick-broida-wearing-airsounds

Whether it's made by Apple or some no-name company, this still isn't a good look.

Rick Broida/CNET

So, assuming you like the look of Apple's AirPods (more on that in a second), should you save yourself $124 (!) and buy the AirSounds instead? As much as I'd like to say yes, that they're good enough for what they are, the truth is there are better true-wireless earbud options in this price range.

Indeed, my question is whether an AirPod clone makes sense at all. They're still pretty dorky-looking, if you ask me, so unless it's a status thing -- like wearing a fake Rolex -- I'd look at any number of AirPod alternatives.

For example, the aforementioned Soundcore Liberty Air are half the price ($80) and better at bass thanks to their noise-isolating design. You can also enjoy decent sound from the TaoTronics TWS TT-BH053, which run $50. Although both models mimic the AirPods' "pipe" design, they're black, not white, and therefore less conspicuous.

I also continue to be a fan of the BlitzWolf BW-FYE1, which are the most comfortable earbuds I own and offer the auto-connection and auto-recharging features I love. They're a steal at $33 with promo code CNETBWFYE1. Update: BlitzWolf proper is currently sold out of these, so that link may land you at a page with a different seller listed, in which case the promo code won't work. If so, try this link, then make sure to order from BlitzWolf. The earbuds are due back in stock soon.

Hey, I like the AirPods well enough, I just don't feel they're worth $159 -- not when there are better-sounding, better-looking alternatives priced considerably lower.

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Apple AirPods 2019 (Charging Case)
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