The Steve’s Audio Blog Apple AirPods Review (AKA, “Better Late Than Never”)

Okay, so let’s get this out of the way first: Apple’s AirPods Bluetooth earbuds have been around for quite awhile, making this review rather “late to the party” (to put it kindly). Given that there are already plenty of AirPods reviews all over the Internet, why bother posting yet another? 

(Apple stock product photo.)

My answer (or “excuse”) is that I purchased my AirPods for pragmatic reasons (more on that below), with pretty low expectations in the audiophile snobbery department. When those expectations were exceeded in nearly every way (and how often does that happen?) I decided that a Steve’s Audio Blog review was in order.

But first, here’s how I ended up trying the AirPods to begin with.

We interrupt this AirPods review for a brief Public Service announcement on SNORING… 

Bear with me here:

I have a medical condition called “mild obstructive sleep apnea.” You can think of sleep apnea as The X Games Of Snoring. The airway around the back of the nose and throat loses its muscle tone during sleep and the air passage narrows, resulting in a transient blockage to the flow of breath. The sufferer will actually stop breathing for very brief periods of time, repeatedly, throughout the night. Every time the blood oxygen level drops to a certain point, the body freaks out and starts sending “Wake up and breathe!” alarms to the brain. The sleep apnea suffer may never wake up to the point of full consciousness, but that repeated neurological rousing by a panicked respiratory/nervous system means that the sleeper keeps getting deprived of the deep, REM sleep that leaves you feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. 

Thus there are at least two telltale signs of sleep apnea:

  • Waking up in the morning feeling utterly wasted, in spite of having “had a full night’s sleep.”
  • Waking up next to an exhausted and frustrated bed partner, who had to listen to you snorting and gagging all night.
Guess which one of these supermodels has sleep apnea?

But sleep apnea is more than an annoyance. Untreated, it puts a strain on the cardiovascular system and is associated with increased risk of heart attack, stroke and obesity. Yikes!

So, if you think you might have this condition, it’s crucial to get yourself to a Sleep Medicine physician (it’s a  subspecialty of neurology). If the Doc suspects you have the condition, s/he’ll schedule you for a sleep study: you spend an evening hooked up to a bunch of monitoring equipment that determines if you have sleep apnea, and if so, how severe it is. 

The Treatment… 

Stock photo of my beloved Fisher & Paykel CPAP machine. (It’s made in New Zealand, which gives it a mystical connection to international singing sensation, Lorde.)

There are a variety of ways to treat sleep apnea (such as minor surgery or wearing an oral appliance that repositions the jaw at night), but my doctor and I opted for using a CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machine. The CPAP machine sits on the floor or nightstand and blows air through a lightweight plastic tube about the diameter of a garden hose. At the other end of the tube is a mask worn by the sleep apnea patient. Some masks cover the nose and mouth, but if like me you’re fortunate enough to sleep with your mouth closed, you can use a nose-only mask that’s far more comfortable and less intrusive than a full face mask. A nasal-only mask also allows you to sleep on your stomach, if that’s your thing as it is mine. 

The Philips Respironics “nasal pillow” mask that I use. But why does that dude look so perplexed? By the way, the specific trade name of the mask is the “Dreamweaver,” and it comes with a free MP3 download of the Gary Wright ’70’s hit of the same name (not).

Anyway, the positive back pressure created by the air gently blowing into the nose/mouth serves to keep the airway from collapsing and, viola, no more sleep apnea!

“%$☹️@🤬!!!^🤨,” or, Using Wired Earbuds and a no-earphone-jack iPhone with a CPAP Machine.

Raise your hand if you enjoy listening to something relaxing as you fall asleep. Ah, I thought so!

Sometimes I’ll go with music (Buena Vista Social Club is a favorite sleepy time selection). Or, if it’s been a particularly stressful day, I’ll fire up a meditation app called Insight Timer on my iPhone 7 Plus. Listening to something soothing to help you fall asleep should be easy, shouldn’t it? But now consider what’s physically involved in listening to an iPhone 7 or above, sans earphone jack, hooked up to a CPAP machine. 

You’ll have to trust me on this, but whether you put on the CPAP mask headgear first and then thread the earbud cables through the headgear, or you put the earbuds on first and then put on the headgear for the mask, you are now trapped in a tangled mess of hoses and cables that restricts your range of movement in the bed. Imagine rolling over just as you’re falling asleep to Chan Chan and being jarred awake by a crashing noise as the twisted web of hose and earphone cables yanks your phone off your nightstand. Yes, that happened more than once.

Wind Tunnel

Here’s another annoyance: If the cables of your earbuds or IEM’s (In Ear Monitors) are at all microphonic (if the cables transmit amplified rubbing noises to you ears when they brush against your clothing) then they’ll also amplify the sound of the air moving through the CPAP hose when your earphone cables come into contact with the hose or mask. So now you’re hearing Chan Chan performed in a wind tunnel. No bueno

Walking and Chewing Gum

When I upgraded from an iPhone 6 to a 7 Plus, I sacrificed the earphone mini-jack that Apple decided its users no longer needed. (I won’t go down the rabbit hole of whether Apple’s repeated ditching of “legacy” technologies like optical drives, USB-A/B ports, MagSafe power ports and others constitutes visionary genius or corporate hubris.)

X marks the spot where you used to plug in your headphones. 

 “Well,” I thought, “at least Apple thoughtfully included a flimsy, little Lightning-to-audio-jack adaptor for those not prepared to buy Bluetooth earbuds and mothball their expensive, wired IEM’s.”

If you don’t lose this adaptor, you’ll be all set until it shorts out.  (I understand that this $10 dongle is no longer included with that latest iPhones. Nice.)

So you’ve got your adaptor, or you’re using Apple’s wired, Lightning cable earbuds. All’s right with the world — until you realize that with the elimination of the iPhone’s audio port, you can either charge the phone or listen to music through the Lightning port, but not both at the same time. You’re therefore out of luck if you’re in the habit of charging your iPhone overnight while falling asleep to music. Either sacrifice your Bedtime Playlist, or doze off to your tunes but wake up to a dead iPhone battery. Unless you buy one of these gadgets… 

Pure genius, when it actually works.

This Wesoo adaptor will set you back $20 on Amazon.com. I bought several of them over the course of a year. They currently have an average 3 stars in the Amazon review section. Most of the complaints involve the Wesoo doohickey just ceasing to work after a few months. For me, the issue was more that its functionality was hit or miss. The instructions specify plugging the accessories into its two Lightning ports and only then plugging the adaptor into your iPhone. Even following those directions, sometimes the audio wouldn’t work, or the iPhone would complain that the accessory was “unsupported on this device.” Wesoo clearly has packed some clever tech into that adaptor that’s designed to do something that Apple doesn’t want you to be able to do, but the implementation is dodgy. Now just imagine dealing with this kind of unreliability at bedtime, while already trying to wrangle a CPAP hose and earbud cables, and you’ll understand why I finally threw in the towel and started considering wireless earbuds. Extra aggravation just before hitting the sack wasn’t what I was looking for.

Cheaping Out

I’d heard that Bluetooth, wireless earbuds sound terrible, but was fed up with the above-chronicled hassles, so I picked up a couple of very cheap pairs of no-name earbuds at CVS and Walgreens to try out. They sounded terrible, tinny and hollow, even on spoken word meditation recordings, but they freed me from most of the wires and made bedtime less stressful.

Google searches of Best Sounding Bluetooth Earbuds turned up a variety of recommendations, but I purchased my AirPods on impulse during a visit to Austin MacWorks, a local, authorized Apple reseller. “They’re the best earphones if you have an iPhone,” said the service rep. “How do they sound,” I asked. “Pretty great,” he answered. That was enough. Out came my credit card.

The Design

Some Bluetooth earbuds have a cable connecting the two sides, but the AirPods are “true wireless” IEM’s; there’s no physical connection between the two buds.

An astonishing amount of technology is packed into each of those tiny earbuds. There are primary and secondary mics, which facilitate noise cancellation when using the AirPods for phone calls. There are infra-red proximity sensors and accelerometers that enable the AirPods to detect whether or not they’re in your ears. There are wireless antennas for Bluetooth and external contacts for charging the ‘pods in their charging case. There are four separate, tiny microprocessors handling wireless communication (Apple’s “W1” chip), amplification and other tasks. Each earbud also contains its own tiny battery, of course.

And then we get to the charging case, a little guy reminiscent of a dental floss package (but rounder and shinier). It contains its own battery, an LED to indicate charging status, a lightning connector, and its own logic board hosting chips that handle charging, power management and other tasks. And of course, the charging case has its own battery for charging the ‘pods. The level of miniaturization here is astonishing. If you want to learn more, the ever-helpful iFixit.com web site has a teardown of the whole shebang.

The Function

The result of all that miniaturized, technological whizz-bangery is that:

  • The AirPods detect when they’re in your ears and, after an initial device pairing, their Bluetooth connects instantly with any iDevice registered to your Apple ID. A soft “bong” chime and a little “headphone” icon on your iPad, iPod or iPhone home screen confirms the connection.
  • Remove one AirPod from one ear and the music will stop playing. Leave it out for a few seconds and it will begin playing again through the remaining earbud. This proves to super convenient when someone suddenly wants to talk to you.
  • Open the charging case near your iDevice and a charge status screen, showing you the battery percentage charge in the right and left earbuds, and in the case’s battery, slides up automatically.
  • When you open the charging case, a tiny LED between the two AirPods shows you the battery status for the charging case (amber for under 100%, green for fully charged) if the earbuds are removed, or for the AirPods themselves when they are in the case.
  • Magnets are used to lovely kinesthetic effect here. The AirPods snap satisfyingly into their molded receptacles in the charging case, and the lid of the case itself snaps shut magnetically, too.
  • Battery life is excellent. Although I’ve never run a scientific playing time check from full charge to empty battery, slipping the AirPods into the charging case — even if the case isn’t fully charged — brings the AirPods back to a full charge in no time. I’ve rarely run out of battery power, even when traveling.
  • Double tap with your index finger on either AirPod and you’ll hear the Siri chime, waiting for you to speak any command that Siri understands, including “skip this song,” “increase volume,” “play me some King Princess,” and “call Mom.”
  • If you drop or just misplace one of your AirPods (this has happened to me when I fell asleep with them in my ears and couldn’t find one or both in the morning), it turns out that the Find My iPhone app also works with your AirPods! Select them on the map and then choose “Play Sound,” and a surprisingly loud chirping sound will issue from both earbuds, helping you find your wayward AirPod. This is very cool, indeed.
  • Microphone noise reduction is excellent. I’ve never had anyone on the other end of a phone call notice that I was speaking into my AirPods rather than the iPhone mic itself, even walking outside near a busy street on a breezy, Austin day.

But how do they sound?

As a card-carrying audiophile snob, I have to admit that I had very low expectations for the sonics of my new AirPods. Apple might have a lot of “cred” when it comes to computers, tablets and phones (i.e., gadgets with an operating system) but surely they’d be better off leaving audio equipment to the likes of Grado, Audeze and Hifiman. This was just going to be a “lifestyle” product, drenched in convenience and design elegance but “meh” in the sound department.

But you know what? The more time I’ve spent with my AirPods, the more I’ve been startled by how darn good they sound. No kidding!

While the AirPods aren’t going to trounce your custom-fit IEM’s (or my new Audeze iSINE 20’s, which I’ll review in an upcoming post) nor will they replace your full-size, electrostatic cans, they will exhibit the following desirable traits:

  • The sound is smooth and balanced from top to bottom.
  • Highs are well defined but not peaky or harsh.
  • Mids, especially vocals, are generally spot on in timbre and (if called for) warmth.
  • There is (or seems be) some kind of mid-bass “hump,” but it is well controlled and appropriate here. After all, these earbuds sit rather loosely in the outer part of your ear and they don’t make any sort of actual “seal” with your ear canal, which is essential for decent bass with most IEM’s. So while the low end of the AirPods isn’t overblown or inappropriately hyped, there’s just enough emphasis to give a satisfying bass hit when the music calls for it.
  • Imaging (to the extent that IEM’s exhibit imaging) is quite good, with solid, defined placement and separation of instruments and voices.
  • Finally, the AirPods are particularly good at simulating a wide soundstage, so that elements in the mix that the recording engineer has panned to the extreme right or left will seem to come from well outside your head. Don Henley’s hit The Boys of Summer begins with rhythmic hi-hat hits that seem to originate way to the right of your right ear. The repeating guitar arpeggios from Christopher Cross’ hit Sailing (hey, don’t judge me) exhibit a dreamy spaciousness that’s appropriate to the mood of the tune. And so on…

Downers?

Truth be told, I have only three issues with the AirPods. The first (one that may be a deal-breaker for a few of you) is that they provide little to no isolation from outside noise. They’ll be pretty much useless in your local Starbucks or on the commuter train or bus. This lack of isolation is a safety advantage when I need to be aware of my surroundings, such as when I take my lunch-break walk at work and want to be aware of traffic sounds… but that’s about it. You have been warned.

Second, the AirPods are neither repairable nor recyclable. Period. As documented in this AirPods tear-down article on the indispensable iFixit.com web site, the AirPods earned a reparability score of “0.” They consist of tiny parts, secured with globs of glue, crammed into tiny, sealed enclosures. iFixit says,

If jamming complex components into a small form factor and sealing it with a copious amount of glue were a game, Apple would be winning.

This means that when the your AirPods’ minuscule batteries inevitably wear out, those AirPods will end up in a landfill because there’s no way to even disassemble them for materials recovery. So, environmentally, these little wonders are a disaster.

Finally, although the AirPods pair quickly and easily with iPhones, they don’t seem to be as graceful and pairing back and forth between iPhones and Mac computers, like my touch-bar MacBook Pro. Enter a little app called ToothFairy, which provides a handy, one-click menu-bar icon for pairing and unpairing any Bluetooth headphones from a Mac OS computer.

Summing Up

Apart from their lack of isolation and environmental crappiness, I like my AirPods a lot. If you have an iPhone, their interoperability, easy pairing and true wireless convenience (I’m looking especially intently at my fellow CPAP machine users here) make them kind of a no-brainer purchase if you can afford the $150.

Postlude:

A few weeks ago, Apple released their second generation AirPods. Externally, they’re identical to the older model discussed in this review. Internally, they sport some updated chips, somewhat longer battery life, an optional wireless charging battery case, quicker Bluetooth pairing, and the ability to say “Hey Siri”(rather than double-tapping an AirPod) to enable Siri commands. But do they sound any different or better than the “generation 1” AirPods? General consensus on the Internet seems to be “not really.” See for example this installment of Unboxing Therapy on YouTube.

So, friends and neighbors, this wraps up another Steve’s Audio Blog review. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

As always, be kind to others and enjoy your music.

Steve


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