If you’re a keen reader of TechRadar.com (and if not, why not?), you’ll have noticed that the team has lately acquired something of a bee in its collective bonnet about the apparently imminent arrival of new Apple wireless in-ear headphones.
It seems that both AirPods Pro 3 and AirPods 4 are incoming, and there’s possibility of a model called something like AirPods Lite (or maybe AirPods SE, or something equally inspired) too. Anticipation around these parts, it seems fair to say, is keen.
That’s why I’m here. To explain why Apple's AirPods, in all their many and various guises, are a supreme irrelevance. For context, I should probably point out that I’m not down on Apple just for the sake of it.
I’m writing this on a MacBook Pro from 2021 – and when I finally ruin this laptop (as all journalists inevitably must), I will buy another MacBook Pro. Because the MacBook Pro is the best, highest-performing, most reliable and most effective laptop around.
Same with my smartphone: my go-to is the iPhone 14 Pro. Great camera, flawless operating system, 1TB of memory and very acceptable battery life indeed. Soon enough it’ll become antiquated, and then I’ll buy another iPhone.
"They're bang average"
In my work as a reviewer of audio equipment, though, I also use an Android smartphone (currently a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra with 256GB of memory). That’s because it uses Bluetooth 5.3 and has codec compatibility way beyond what Apple considers necessary. When I’m testing wireless headphones, it’s important to give them every chance to perform to their best - and connecting them to an iPhone via AAC is not anyone’s idea of ‘best’.
This is a big part of what makes the best AirPods – no matter if it’s the originals from 2016 or the most recent AirPods Pro 2 from 2022 – inconsequential. Sure, they fulfil those criteria that Apple (and its devotees) deem to be important. They’ve been overtly designed, they have a certain amount of cachet among the cognoscenti, and they don’t come cheap. But unlike many Apple products – the ones I own, for example – they don’t offer anything approaching class-leading performance. In fact, they’re bang average.
I’m not entirely sure why this should be, I just know that it is. When it sets its mind to it, Apple is capable of turning out profoundly impressive equipment. But the company’s back catalog is not without its missteps – and when it comes to audio equipment, the AirPods are just the latest example of Apple’s inability to trouble the market leaders. The original iPod HiFi from 2006 sounded like someone shouting into a bucket. Every incarnation of the HomePod has been left for dead by any number of price-comparable alternatives.
Spatial Audio isn't enough...
When you consider the sheer number of brands, both venerable and upstart, with the best wireless earbuds that comfortably outperform every model of AirPod at every relevant price-point, it staggers me that I ever see anyone wearing the daft-looking Apple offering. And yet they’re ubiquitous.
It’s not as if there’s any compelling reason to choose AirPods over the raft of available alternatives. Spatial audio? It’s far from a unique selling-point these days – from entry-level stuff from the likes of 1More and Soundcore to premium alternatives from Bose, JBL and Sony, everyone wants to make your music sound like you’re sitting right there on the drum-riser.
Active noise cancellation? The AirPods don’t even have it – and while the AirPods Pro get ANC, its effectiveness is not a patch on the class-leaders. Listen to the amount of external noise a pair of AirPods Pro 2 is capable of dealing with, and then compare it to a pair of Bose QuietComfort Ultra earbuds – not even a contest, is it?
And despite everyone from Qualcomm to Sony busily working away at wireless transmission protocols that allow ever-increasing amounts of information to be streamed in the name of ‘high resolution’ audio, Apple blithely ignores them in favour of an alternative that was fit only for the knacker’s yard many years ago.
The biggest let down?
But the biggest problem of all for AirPods of every type is sound quality. After all, unless you’re profoundly odd you spent your money on some true wireless in-ear headphones in order to listen to them – so why wouldn’t you want to buy the best-sounding model of the best headphones available within your budget? Because as sure as night follows day, the list of the best-sounding true wireless in-ear headphones at any given price does not include the Apple AirPods.
Want to spend the $159 / £159 / AU$249 or so it costs to buy a pair of AirPods second-generation? Sony’s WF-C700N are cheaper, sound better and are more comfortable (although it’s worth pointing out here that you’d be hard-pushed to find a pair of true wireless in-ear headphones at any price that fit less securely than AirPods – quite how Apple hit upon its ‘one size fits no one’ arrangement defies logic). You can pick up a pair of Bowers & Wilkins’ Pi5 S2 for not much more than a pair of AirPods 2, and they’re so much more accomplished in sonic terms, it’s almost embarrassing.
How about the third-generation AirPods at $179 / £169 / AU$279 or thereabouts? Again, you’re better off with the Pi5 S2 – or you can locate a pair of Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 for pennies more, and enjoy sound quality of an entirely different order. Thinking of chucking £229 at Apple for some AirPods 2 with active noise-cancellation and spatial audio? I don’t really have the space here to list all the products that can outclass them, so let’s just invoke the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, Final Audio ZE8000, Sony WF-1000XM5, Technics EAH-AZ80… the list goes on, but I think the broad point is satisfactorily made.
It's your choice
Ultimately, choosing a pair of AirPods over any of their numerous superior alternatives can mean one of only two things: either you’re an Apple employee, or you’re more concerned with the way you look when wearing your earbuds than you are with the sound they make. And one of those reasons is considerably less valid than the other.
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Simon Lucas is a senior editorial professional with deep experience of print/digital publishing and the consumer electronics landscape. Based in Brighton, Simon worked at TechRadar's sister site What HiFi? for a number of years, as both a features editor and a digital editor, before embarking on a career in freelance consultancy, content creation, and journalism for some of the biggest brands and publications in the world.
With enormous expertise in all things home entertainment, Simon reviews everything from turntables to soundbars for TechRadar, and also likes to dip his toes into longform features and buying guides. His bylines include GQ, The Guardian, Hi-Fi+, Metro, The Observer, Pocket Lint, Shortlist, Stuff T3, Tom's Guide, Trusted Reviews, and more.