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

Apple's AirPods still aren't perfect, but a series of small software upgrades have made them better.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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11 min read

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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

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8.2

Apple AirPods

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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. Bose's pricier SoundSport Free headphones, which have more of a noise-isolating design, deliver more bass and richer overall sound (they also stay in your ears better). But the AirPods have more bass than I thought they would (though not as much as the BeatsX, which has a cord between its wireless buds).

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 heart-rate monitor, arguably sounds better but costs more. Meanwhile, I also thought the Jaybird Run sounded a little better -- it, too has a noise-isolating design -- but we did experience some small interference issues with the Jaybird that may eventually get fixed (see the Jaybird Run review for details).

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

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A forthcoming AirPods charging case (sold separately) will add wireless charging capability to the AirPods.

Apple/Screenshot by Juan Garzon/CNET

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 of the buds 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, and that's close to what I got.

Audio/video sync latency wasn't an issue: Bluetooth headphones are known for having an issue with audio lag when watching video or playing games. The AirPods aren't totally immune to this problem but they're among the better Bluetooth headphones -- particularly truly wireless earphones -- when it comes to staying in sync.

I tested the AirPods with YouTube, Netflix and a movie I downloaded from iTunes. When I was streaming an episode of "The Office" on Netflix, but everything synced up after about 15 seconds. There was no problem with YouTube or the movie I watched. I was using an iPhone X with iOS 11. Your iPhone is supposed to compensate for the Bluetooth audio lag by delaying the video. 

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This is how you look wearing the AirPods.

James Martin/CNET

What's not so great about the AirPods

Of course, not everything is perfect in AirPodland.

The price: $159, £159 or AU$229 isn't super expensive, but it seems like a lot to spend for plastic earbuds. Yes, they have some high-tech components on the inside, but from the outside they look like cheap earbuds. Also, if you're a stickler for audio, you can get a better-sounding wireless headphone for $150 (Bose's SoundSport Wireless, for example, as well as the BeatsX from Apple's own Beats subsidiary, which can now be found for under $110). Meanwhile, the great Jaybird X3 retail for $130, but they've been discounted for as low as $100 over the past few weeks.

No noise isolation: While the AirPods' open design has pluses, it does allow for a lot of ambient noise to leak in and compete with what you're listening to. So I can't say these were the best headphones to walk around with in the streets of New York -- or ride the subway.

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EarBuddyz is a silicone cover and earhook for your AirPods.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Your new hipster earrings: I didn't feel like a dork wearing the AirPods because I couldn't see myself wearing them, but some people, including my wife, had some unflattering comments about my new look. As Scott Stein observed, "I look in the mirror. One AirPod looks like a futuristic Bluetooth headset. With two in place, they look like hipster earrings. Or tiny vape pipes. Or sci-fi jewelry. Or worse."

The AirPods aren't as ridiculous looking as some critics made them out to be when they were first announced. But there's still something slightly unfashionable or off-putting about them.

Fit will vary from person to person: The AirPods won't stay in everybody's ears equally well. Scott got a more secure fit than I did, for example. Wearing these day-to-day in the streets of New York, they stayed in my ears when I walked around, but whenever I had to make a dash across the street to make a light or rush to get into a subway, I had this perpetual fear that one or both buds would fall out of my ears and get stepped on. Scott got over his fear; mine still dogs me.

The AirPods are sweat-resistant so you can use them while working out. If your ear is shaped right, you can even run with them, though I personally had some problems keeping them in my ears while running. They didn't sit in my ear quite deeply enough, so they never felt truly lodged in place.

You can could buy third-party sports fins that allow you to get a secure fit. Adding the fins gives the AirPods a grippy finish and allows you to lock the AirPods in yours ears. The only catch -- and it's a big one -- is you'd have to take the covers off every time you put the AirPods in their charging case.

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The Catalyst AirPods case is open at the top but still makes your AirPods' case watertight.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lost and found: So yes, they're easy to lose. While that goes for any of these full wireless headphones, you'll need to take some precautions to avoid having them disappear. One of the problems is that the charging case has a high-gloss finish and can easily slip out of your pocket, if, say, you're sitting on a deep couch or chair. And it's enough to drop a bud while putting it in your ear or taking it out. Hopefully, it won't end up falling into an area where you can't retrieve it.

Because of the AirPods small size, I've grown to really appreciate the Catalyst AirPods Case, a $25 accessory (pictured above) that keeps the headphones securely attached to a belt loop.

You can take solace in the fact that if you lose one bud Apple will sell you another, left or right, for $69, £65 or AU$99. That's no bargain, but it's cheaper than having to buy the whole package over again.

Sound quality quibbles: Like a lot of Bluetooth headphones, this one does better with less demanding music. Throw some hard rock at it, or tracks with several instruments playing at the same time, and you might not have such a favorable impression of the sound. (Needless to say, Steve Guttenberg, who writes our Audiophiliac blog, wasn't impressed the AirPods' sound, but I don't think he's ever met a Bluetooth headphone he's liked.)

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Watch this: AirPods vs. BeatsX

A good deal for Apple fans 

I like the AirPods and have become more of a fan of them over time. They're not ideal for my ears, but I really appreciate their convenience factor -- the idea that you grab your little dental floss case in the morning, slip it in a pocket, and have a set of wireless headphones at the ready. Unfortunately, the small size of the charging case and tiny size of the buds increases the potential for you to lose them. 

They work really well in the office and quieter environments, but not so well in noisy places. Battery life isn't a problem. Apple has eliminated several bugs and their performance with a series of firmware updates. And while they don't sound spectacular, they sound quite decent for small Bluetooth headphones. Comfortable, too.

When I first started using them, there were times when I felt they should be a little better for the money. But I've come to believe they're a better value than I once thought. They're priced fairly reasonably -- by Apple standards, anyway.  

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8.2

Apple AirPods

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 7Value 8