Gear Review: Apple AirPods

by: Jon Levey | June 06, 2019

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Tags: The Pro Shop

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This is the first in a multi-part series reviewing true wireless sports earbuds. Check back in the coming weeks for reviews on models from Bose, Jabra, Jaybird and others. 


Pros                                                                 Cons
Light and comfortable                                   Limited audio controls
Simple to use                                                 No equalizer
Good battery life                                           One size fits all                       

Website: apple.com
Price: $159 ($199 with wireless charging case)


The Apple AirPod army is everywhere. Whether on the daily commute, in a coffee shop or walking through a supermarket, the familiar white stems are hard to miss. They’re the best-selling true wireless earbuds on the planet. And while not technically designed for sports or exercising—they’re not water or sweat proof rated—they’re still suitable and popular training partners. If you’re thinking about getting wireless earbuds for working out and already an Apple user, there are lots of good reasons why it makes sense to stay close to home.

First Impression
The white, Apple elegant charging case resembles a pack of Glide dental floss. It’s light and compact and fits comfortably into jacket or pants pockets without feeling bulky. In fact, it’s easy to forget it’s even there, causing minor panic when trying to remember where you put it. This is the first set of earbuds I’ve tried that charge in the case, and it’s a marked improvement over having to hook up a wire directly to the buds. The AirPods get five hours from one charge, and about 19+ more hours in the charging case. And the quick charge feature gets you three hours of playback from just 15 minutes of case time. Without even thinking about it, the things were basically always charged. This second generation of AirPods is also available with a wireless charging case that works with any Qi compatible charging mat. It’s a cool feature, but using the lightning cable is faster and fine for most needs. 

Synching the buds via Bluetooth is simple. Click on the button on the outside of the case and watch for the Airpods to pop up on the phone’s Bluetooth menu. Perhaps it’s the long list of wireless earbuds currently on my Bluetooth, but I did have a few instances of the AirPods taking a while to find the phone. Occasionally I’ve had to disconnect and connect again for it to work. But I wouldn’t classify it as a serious problem. And if you have other Apple products like a Mac or an iPad, it makes synching between all those devices rather seamless. Just sign in to iCloud and all your other devices will recognize the AirPods. Integration doesn’t get much more convenient. 

Fit
Unlike many sports earbuds, AirPods are one size fits all. There are no foam or rubber attachments to refine the sizing. As such, Apple has spent considerable time coming up with a proper universal mold that works well. However, it won’t suit every ear and there’s no way around that. The lightness of the pods (just 4g each) and the way they gently sit in the ear make for a comfortable experience. Because they don’t form a tight seal in the ear like other sports buds, there’s not as much pressure on the ear. So, they’re well-suited for extended periods of time at the gym, on the phone or watching video.

The downside is they can be a little loose in the ear. Bringing them into the tennis realm, I wore on-court for warm-ups before playing. I didn’t try them during competition because that would be completely foreign, and probably rather rude to my opponent. Hitting groundies and moving around at a steady pace caused no movement issues. Same goes for lifting weights at the gym, or light running. But more explosive activities like burpees or box jumps or going after a serve brought a bit more wiggle. The lack of adjustment capabilities means it won’t fit like a glove. But for the most part, with the stem positioned in the lower crease of my ear there was a high degree of security.  

The absence of a true seal also lets in more ambient noise. Depending on whether you want to eliminate the outside world or prefer to be more aware of your surroundings, that’s either a demerit or a plus. The stem of the bud can also get in the way. If you forget you're wearing them, sliding a sweaty shirt over your head can cause the pods to fly from your ears.

Performance
I find music indispensable for working out; it's practically a slog without it. But I’m no soundphile. I’m generally not one to fiddle with the equalizer. If it’s loud and clear then I’m generally good to go. So, for me, the audio quality of the AirPods was perfectly acceptable. Not spectacular—bass could be richer—but did the job. The one caveat was if there was significant external noise, which subtracted from the fullness of the sound. Under those circumstances, it was more noticeable that AirPods aren’t true in-ear buds. And if you do like more refinement to your audio, the option to manipulate sound characteristics doesn’t exist. 

Music controls are programmable, which is a nice feature, but the options are somewhat limited in scope. A double-tap on a bud can handle one chore: skip/go back, play/pause, summon Siri. Which makes for a two-setting max. The music will also automatically pause if one of the buds is removed from the ear, and will start up again once it returns. The biggest fault is the inability to raise or lower volume. If your personal anthem comes on and you want to crank it up, you need to do so with your phone in hand. 

There is the option of asking Siri to handle some of the DJ responsibilities: “Hey, Siri? Louder.” However, it wasn’t something I enjoyed doing. For one thing, there was a noticeable lag time; I often couldn’t tell if Siri heard me, repeated myself, and wound up with no extra volume and usually an unwanted phone call. But even worse is the specter of being that guy talking to his ear buds in a crowded gym. That’s a tough guy to be. 

The range of the AirPods was excellent. I left my phone in my bag on the side of the court and had zero connection issues during play. When I brought them to the gym I put the phone in the corner of the room and experienced no distortions. The only cutouts occurred when I wandered into another room behind a wall. 

Although not necessarily a performance note, if you’re an ear-waxer (guilty), beware that the whiteness of the pods and the charging case makes it readily apparent. You’ll need to have some alcohol wipes handy to keep the equipment looking shiny and clean.  

Bottom Line
The genius of Apple has always been its user-friendliness, and its AirPods are no exception. The convenience for those already part of the Apple ecosystem, comfort and intuitive design make these true wireless earbuds truly attractive. If you’re particular about the sound quality of your music, or engage in highly strenuous workouts, particularly outdoors, you might want something more sophisticated and sports-specific. Otherwise, if you’re looking for an all-around, dependable, comfortable everyday wireless earbud, you may want to think about joining this particular army.

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