Hands on: Apple AirPods review

Apple's fully wireless earbuds solve its newest problem

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The dream of wireless headphone is here in 2016, and although Apple isn't the first, it's trying to be the best with easier syncing and long battery life than its primary competition.

For

  • No more tangled headphone cables
  • Intelligent connectivity and pause functionality
  • Familiar EarPods design and comfort

Against

  • Funky design isn't for everyone
  • Yet another thing to charge
  • What happens when you lose one?

Apple's AirPods are fully wireless earbuds that solve its newest problem of no longer having that old 3.5mm headphone jack in the new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

But they're more than that, really. The design of these cord-free earbuds match that of Apple's wired EarPods, and they have a few novel functions you won't find anywhere else.

They're designed to work with iOS 10, macOS and watchOS 3 better than normal Bluetooth earphones, and, yes, they still have Bluetooth inside to work with non-Apple products, too.

We tested them out at Apple's latest event, along with the iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2. Here's our first impressions on how the AirPods worked.

Release date and price

You can't get the AirPods right away with your iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and Apple Watch Series 2. They're not launching on September 16 like everything else.

Apple AirPods review

Instead, Apple pegged the AirPods release date as "late October." That's a good thing if you're already upgrading your phone and watch (and downgrading your bank account) this month.

Apple's AirPods will cost $159 at launch. That seems like a lot of money when the wireless (but connected together) Beats Powerbeats2 Wireless Earbud headphones cost $120.

Good news: AirPods are still cheaper than Samsung's fully wireless earbuds, the Samsung Gear IconX. Apple's version may lack its fitness functionality, but the Apple Watch already has all that stuff anyway.

Between now and late October, you can use the Apple EarPods that will have a Lightning cable on the end and come free with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

Or, you can continue to use your current headphones thanks to an included Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter. That is, until you lose it, then the AirPods might not seem like a bad choice...until you probably lose one of those, too. Great.

Magical connectivity

What's sold us on the AirPods is the seamless connectivity and pause-and-play functionality that has Apple trotting out its favorite adjective, calling them "magical" wireless earbuds.

Apple AirPods review

Here's the magic: Take them out of the special AirPods case and they instantly turn on and connect just by being near your iPhone. You don't need to dive into a hidden setup menu at all.

Even better, Apple's new wireless earbuds can sync up with a newer iPad, iPod touch, Mac or Apple Watch just as quickly with a one-tap setup in Control Center. Super easy.

Maybe the coolest thing is the fact that someone from Apple began speaking to us when we were demoing the AirPods, saying,"It'll pause if you take out one of the AirPods."

We took out the right AirPod from our ear to say "What was that?" and the music stopped right on point. Very clever. We popped it back in and it started the music again.

Do AirPods really work?

You may have heard that they work perfectly, or maybe you read that they're fraught with problems. For us, we saw them demoed twice; perfectly the first time and with some pairing issues the second time.

Apple AirPods review

The effectiveness of the AirPods connectivity really depended on the Apple rep (or maybe the AirPods they picked up). So all of the other first impressions you read may have been based on one encounter and one demo.

Then there's the fact that these are not final production models, with the AirPods release date still a while off in late October. There's still time to work out any software syncing glitches.

If they work as well as they did for us the first time, it'll live up to Apple's "magical" description.

Familiar comfort and style

An Apple designer's toddler yanked the cable from their EarPods and said "Eureka!" Thus, the idea behind AirPods was born. Or, that's at least how we like to think they came about.

Apple AirPods review

They really do look like EarPods minus that always-tangling cord. AirPods still have the plastic stem on the ends, which at first looks odd hanging from your ears. But it's there for good reason.

The stems point toward your cheek and contain microphones to pick up on what you're saying. You can chat away on phone calls, or issue Siri commands by double tapping either AirPod.

Do they stay in your ear? So far, we gave them a solid "early 90s grunge headbanging" test and they didn't fall out once. That'll vary for people with different ear shapes, of course.

Our biggest issue with normal EarPods falling out has been tugging at or brushing up against the cable. That's obviously not an issue here since these are truly wireless earbuds.

Sound quality

Trying out the AirPods in a noisy, crowded room isn't the ideal way to test sound quality. But it's a good way to gauge how well they filter out external noise.

Apple AirPods review

These aren't giant, noise-canceling headphone cans that fit around your ears. However, they were still able to pipe music to my ears without much ambient noise leaking through.

The headphones are able to pull this off thanks to dual beam-forming microphones that filter out background noise, according to Apple. That leaves us with wirelessly transmitted high-quality AAC audio.

I could still hear voices at the level of a murmur. That's what I've come to expect from current EarPods, and the AirPods don't stray too far from this sound quality.

Battery life and charging case

Apple's AirPods battery life is five hours, which means it lasts longer than Samsung's Gear IconX and many of the Kickstarter-funded fully wireless earbuds out there.

Apple AirPods review

Five hours is just enough to last you on a cross-country flight from San Francisco to New York, but what do you do when you run out? There's a great answer for that.

Apple designed a case for its AirPods that holds more than 24 hours worth of additional charge on top of those five hours of the earbuds. Pop them back in and they'll juice up again.

You can stow this small white case in your carry-on travel bag and recharge them almost six times before seeking a Lightning port.

Best of all, if you're short on time, 15 minutes of charging equals three hours of battery life, according to Apple's test at 50% volume.

Early verdict

Apple's lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack is one of its biggest risks in years, and, assuming that you've got money to spend, AirPods act as great way to quickly get over such a shocking change.

Apple AirPods review

They look and feel just like those familiar EarPods – minus the cable – and their play-and-pause connectivity is so intelligently designed, it's enough to bring back the "magical" descriptor.

With five-hour battery life and a charging case for 24 hours of additional battery life, AirPods could stealthily set the bar fully wireless earbuds in October, all while everyone is focused on the past and the missing headphone jack.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.

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