Apple AirPods review: Apple's AirPods have improved with time

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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. You can now control playback of your music with a double tap.

The Bad Will fit more securely in some ears than others. Their open design allows for a lot of ambient noise to leak in. Similarly priced wireless models deliver better sound. And yes, they still look kinda 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.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Sound 7
  • Value 8

Editors' note: The AirPods reviewed here are the original model released in late 2016. As of late March 2019, they have been replaced with a second-generation version. Read the new AirPods review

Whether you think Apple's AirPod headphones make you look goofy or not, 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 owners of Apple products. That general sentiment has led to them being the runaway hit that they are today. It also helps that they're comparably well priced, particularly when you consider that such competitors as the Jaybird Run and Bose SoundSport Free cost more (in the case of the Bose, significantly more).

Read more: Best Apple AirPods accessories

But if there's one thing I've learned from using them for several months -- and from hearing from other people who've used them -- is that a person's love for them is correlated to the shape of their ears and how securely the AirPods fit inside them. While they fit most people's ears reasonably well, for a certain percentage of users they fit really well. They drop them in their ears and they stay there. For that latter group, AirPods are fantastic.


AirPods are a great Apple Watch accessory, too.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For others (like me) who have ears that aren't designed to be the perfect AirPod vessels, the experience using them isn't quite as awesome. They're still conveniently compact in their tiny charging case (a new, wireless charging version of that case has been announced and is rumored to arrive soon). And they still sound the same and work just as well. But my love for them is tempered by a niggling fear that they'll fall out of my ears if I try to do too much while using them, like run down a set of stairs in the subway to catch a train. 

That said, I've a grown to like these headphones more over time. Apple has quashed a number of early bugs, including one where the AirPods would cut out during phone conversations on the iPhone 6S (Apple never acknowledged the bug). And with the arrival of iOS 11, you can now double-tap on a bud to advance tracks forward or back (you can assign a few different functions to the double-tap feature for each bud).

Those tweaks and the fact that a year after their launch the AirPods remain well-priced for premium truly wireless earphones, led me to bump up their rating by half a point (from 3.5 stars to 4). My thoughts on the pros and cons of the earphones listed below have largely remained the same, but I've made some updates throughout as well.

It's also worth noting that -- after almost a year of weeks-long backlogs -- AirPods are finally available with little to no wait. You should be able to find them in stores and online at most Apple retailers.

Editors' note: This review has been updated from the original version published on Dec. 21, 2016, with additional impressions on software fixes and iOS 11 features. The rating has been raised from 3.5 to 4 stars.

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, the default wired headphones that Apple includes with every iPhone. 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. (The key word here is "loosely." As I mentioned earlier, some people will get a very snug fit).  

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 or later, WatchOS 3 or later or MacOS Sierra or later. 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 that of your iPhone or iPad. For Apple Watch owners, that seamless transition between Watch and iPhone is critical, and it's one reason that AirPods are something of an appealing accessory for Watch owners. 

Yes, AirPods work with non-Apple Bluetooth audio devices (I paired them to a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus), 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. That's still the case a year after they were launched.


iOS 11 adds some nice usability features to the AirPods.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

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 the early models were prone to dropouts. The AirPods' latest competitors, including the Bose SoundSport FreeJabra Sport Elite, Bragi The Headphone and Skybuds, offer reliable connectivity, but the AirPods are at the top of the class in this department.

Double-tap enhancements: Unlike the inline remotes -- with volume and play/pause controls -- that you're used to on traditional wired headphones, the only control on the AirPods initially had was the ability to access Siri with a double tap. You can give voice commands to Siri to advance tracks forward and back, but those commands are designed to work with Apple Music and not rival streaming services like Spotify and Tidal. You can also use your Apple Watch as a remote, but not everybody has an Apple Watch.

In our initial review, we cited the limited controls as a downside. However, when Apple released iOS 11, it came with a small but important AirPod enhancement: you can now program the double-tap functionality of each bud separately (you go into the Bluetooth setting on your Apple device and click on the info button to getting to the AirPod settings).

When I double-tap on the right bud, it advances the track no matter what music service I'm using. Double-tapping on the left bud brings up Siri, but I could have have assigned "Previous track," "Play/Pause," "Next track" or "Off" to it. It's worth noting how quickly the track advances when you double tap. There's virtually no delay.

It'd be nice to have touch volume controls on the buds, but it's not as important as being able to advance tracks quickly without pulling out your phone. 

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