Apple AirPods review:

Why Apple's weird headphones are better than you think

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CNET Editors' Rating

8 user reviews

The Good The ultra lightweight Apple AirPods are fully wireless headphones that offer a reliable wireless connection, effortless pairing with Apple devices, decent sonics and good call quality. The included compact charging case quickly charges the buds.

The Bad Their open design allows for a lot of ambient noise to leak in. There are no controls on the buds (except Siri). Similarly priced wireless models deliver better sound. And yes, they look pretty dorky.

The Bottom Line Look past their offbeat design and you'll find that Apple AirPods' compact size and high convenience factor are a winning combination.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Sound 7.0
  • Value 7.0

Yes, wearing Apple's AirPod headphones makes you look positively goofy. But you already knew that.

Here's the bigger question: Are they actually good headphones? And are they worth buying versus other "true wireless" models, with separate left and right earpieces, let alone versus "regular" Bluetooth in-ear headphones, those quaint old-fashioned wireless models that connect the two earbuds with an actual cable?

The short answer is that these $159 Apple headphones (£159 in the UK and AU$229 in Australia) are better than you'd expect, especially for Apple product owners. But their unique design makes them somewhat limited and occasionally frustrating.

I tested the retail version of the AirPods, now that they're finally available after being announced alongside the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus way back in September. That's how long my colleague Scott Stein has been living with preproduction versions of the headphones. Check out his first take, essentially an FAQ on the AirPods, and know that this review represents a consensus on our shared experience with the product.

The AirPods and their charging case.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What I (mostly) liked about the AirPods

There's a lot to like about the AirPods. Here's what I found to be good -- or great -- while wearing them.

Fit and comfort: The AirPods are super lightweight and stayed in my ears better than Apple's EarPods. Although the AirPods look similar to their wired siblings, they have some small design upgrades that are supposed to help create a better fit. The EarPods' cords are slim but still add weight to the buds, which can cause them to slip out if your ears aren't EarPod friendly (mine aren't). But with nothing dragging them down, the AirPods sat loosely nestled in my ears.

I also found them very easy to get in and out of my ears and very comfortable to wear, thanks to how light they are.

W1 chip makes for seamless pairing: Apple's custom Bluetooth chip, the W1, is designed to allow for automatic pairing with Apple devices running iOS 10, WatchOS 3 or MacOS Sierra. And it totally delivers: Just place the headphones near your compatible device and they'll automatically be detected and ask for pairing, no diving into settings menu needed. You can also transition easily between Apple devices, toggling between the sound of your computer to your iPhone or iPad's.

Yes, AirPods work with non-Apple Bluetooth audio devices (I paired them to a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge), but you can't access their special features.

Flexibility and special features: The AirPods work very well as a stereo or mono headset -- if you want, you can use only one bud, left or right. According to Apple, they're equipped with a pair of "beam-forming microphones to focus on the sound of your voice." I made several calls and the people I spoke to were generally impressed with the call quality.

Thanks to dual optical sensors and accelerometers in each earpiece, the connected device (iPhone, iPad, Mac) knows when the AirPods are in your ears and will pause your music when one or both of them are removed. Depending on the music app you're listening to, they'll unpause your music when you put them back in your ears.

Not surprisingly, everything works flawlessly with Apple Music, but with Spotify, when I took both AirPods out of my ears, the music had to be restarted manually.

Reliable wireless: The wireless connection between the two earbuds is almost rock solid, with only the occasional hiccup. I've tried several "truly wireless" earphones and some of those early models were prone to dropouts. The AirPods' latest competitors, including Jabra's Sport Elite, Bragi The Headphone and Skybuds, offer reliable connectivity, but the AirPods are at the top of the class in this department.

The AirPods nestled in their case.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Good sound quality: The sound has an open, airy quality to it because, well, these are open, non noise-isolating earbuds. That means the buds don't require a tight seal to get the best sound. You just plop them in your ears and you're good to go.

The AirPods sound good in a quiet environment. They're fairly well balanced and deliver a reasonable amount of bass. The upcoming BeatsX have more bass -- at least that was my impression from my short session with a preproduction unit -- but the AirPods had more than I thought they would.

Although the treble isn't great -- it's got a little bit of an edge to it -- compared to other totally wireless earphones, the AirPods' sound quality is above average. The Jabra Elite Sport, which has a noise-isolating design and integrated hear-rate monitor, arguably sounds better but costs more.

The AirPods' sound is similar to that of the wired EarPods, so if you like those you should like the AirPods.

The charging case and battery life: The AirPods slide beautifully into a charging case that's the size of a container of Glide dental floss (and looks like one, too). The case and AirPods charge via an included Lightning cable. The case seals shut magnetically. It's pretty sweet.

The 5-hour battery life may not be fantastic, but thanks to the charging case, it's not a drawback. I rarely had the buds in my ears for more than a couple of hours, and when I took them out, I stowed them in the case, where they charged quickly. Apple says a 15-minute charge will give you 3 hours of battery life.

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