Apple’s iPhone 7 isn’t the first phone to ship without a headphone jack. But the iPhone 7 is definitely the most important and popular phone to discard the headphone jack, and Apple is dragging the industry toward a wireless future, whether we like it or not. At least the company provided its own solution, eventually: its $159 AirPods are one of the newest truly wireless earbuds you can buy. By “truly wireless,” we mean they’re just two buds that sit in both ears without anything connecting them. Much like other Apple technology, AirPods are not the only truly wireless buds on the market. They’re certainly not the only regular wireless buds available.
But again, like other Apple technologies, AirPods have a unique spin that sets them apart from the competition. Apple hopes to convince consumers that its buds are the best to pair with their iPhones, but consumers have many options to choose from when it comes to competing wireless earbuds. I tested a handful of wireless buds to see how the AirPods stack up in terms of ease of use, comfort, music quality, and battery life. I’ve done an anecdotal assessment of music quality for all the buds I reviewed. I spent hours with each pair, listening to a variety of music including pop, rock, jazz, and classical in environments with different levels of outside noise.
|Specs compared: AirPods and competitors|
|Onboard call and music controls||Voice with Siri only||Inline remote, voice with Siri||Onboard buttons, can access Siri and Google Now||Onboard buttons, can access Siri and Google Now|
|Interchangeable ear tips||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Included charging case||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Local music storage||No||No||No||No|
|Compatibility||Android and iOS||Android and iOS||Android and iOS||Android and iOS|
|Battery life||5 hours||12 hours||4 hours||4 hours|
|Battery life with charging case||24 hours||N/A||12 hours||24 hours|
The first thing you’ll notice with the AirPods is how easily they pair with an iPhone or other Apple device. The W1 chip inside of them lets you flip open the lid of their charging case, and your iPhone will pull up a pairing window. This takes the headache out of pairing another Bluetooth device to your iPhone, and it’s especially easy compared to other wireless buds that use regular Bluetooth pairing (something the AirPods can also do, if you need to pair them with something that doesn’t run iOS).
The W1 chip also handles syncing audio to both AirPods. Instead of having an “anchor” bud or one earbud that receives the Bluetooth signal before relaying information to the other bud, each AirPod’s W1 chip individually receives information via Bluetooth. This should eliminate any audio syncing issues typically found in other truly wireless buds.
I never experienced latency when using the AirPods, and I never had one AirPod work while the other failed to connect. Bluetooth range, however, was an issue: at its worst, the AirPods completely lost connection and shut off when I walked 20 feet into another room in my apartment while my iPhone stayed behind. Audio doesn’t automatically resume when you’re back in range either—losing connection pauses the audio you’re listening to. You have to manually start it again.
Let’s talk about audio quality: since Apple says the AirPods have nearly the same components as EarPods do, they should sound similar. They do. The biggest difference is that AirPods produce stronger bass than their wired counterparts, which is likely due to the larger opening on their backs.
When compared to EarPods, prominent bass lines like that in The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” are more noticeable throughout the entire song on the AirPods, and demonstrative bass drops, like the one in DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What,” are more powerful and booming in your ears. Highs and mids are generally better-defined as well. But in busy songs, like Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” the highs and mids can get muddled within the entirety of the track.
Fit is important for a good pair of wireless earbuds. Unfortunately, the AirPods will be hit or miss for most. They’re shaped almost exactly like Apple’s EarPods, so if you found those too loose, too tight, or generally uncomfortable, you won’t like the AirPods. Ars’ Andrew Cunningham had no problem with the fit of the AirPods, but I’m a different story. My ear canal is just slightly too large for the AirPods, which made me constantly feel like they were one wind gust away from falling out. One bud fell out of my ear when I was walking outside and turned my head quickly to assess traffic. One positive is that music will stop when an AirPod is removed from your ear, and it turns back on immediately when you put it back in. But they popped out with the slightest jerky movement.
The white tail on the AirPods also led to them popping out on me. Unlike the Skybuds and the VerveOnes (and any other pair of truly wireless buds), the AirPods are burdened by this rigid piece of plastic sticking down out of the bud itself, over your earlobe, and atop the side of your face. Whenever I tilted by head to one side, this tail hit the side of my face, just underneath the earlobe, and forced the bud loose from my ear. Those stems aren’t wasted space, though, as they each house the buds’ 93 milliwatt batteries and point the microphones used for Siri in the general direction of your mouth.
Out of the three truly wireless buds I tested, the AirPods lasted the longest amount of time on a single charge—about 5 hours. I would love to see Apple make the buds themselves a thicker to house the batteries in their bodies rather than in extraneous stems, but for now you’ll have to live with sticks on each bud.
The AirPods lack physical buttons, but you can tap on them to activate Siri or play/pause music (and that’s “or” in the sense that you can set them to do one or the other but not both). By default, you’ll have to control music from your iPhone, with another connected device like an Apple Watch, or with Siri. I’m not a big Siri user, and I didn’t find Siri music controls very useful either. I don’t like speaking to my devices in general, and I much prefer small buttons to control playback and volume. And there’s no Siri capabilities in the AirPods themselves—when you control them using Apple’s assistant, you’re still essentially giving a command to your iPhone. You just hear Siri through the AriPods when she responds. I will say that the AirPod voice commands did work well: you can ask Siri to adjust the volume or pause playback and it happens almost instantaneously.
For obvious reasons, Beats is the only company that has access to Apple’s W1 chip to use in new headphones and earbuds (as of this writing, Apple has said that it has no plans to license the chip to third-party headphone makers). The $199 Powerbeats3 wireless buds were among the first to come out. The Powerbeats line has always been geared toward exercise with earbuds that have some level of sweat- and water-resistance level. The Powerbeats3 are in line with the rest of the family, and they have that traditional over-ear design that places a flexible piece of plastic over the outside of your ear. I was never a big fan of this design until a few years ago when I used a bunch of them and found that bendable hook really helps keep the buds in place.
Beats also includes various-sized ear tips in the Powerbeats3 box, letting you adjust the fit of the buds in your ear canal. As mentioned before, not having these interchangeable ear tips is a huge letdown of the AirPods. There will be people who buy AirPods and can’t wear them because they don’t fit. Apple may not be an audio company, but even the cheapest earbuds have interchangeable ear tips—it’s a form of audio democracy and everyone should be afforded that. Silicone or foam tips also help block outside noise from interfering with your music. Since AirPods don’t have ear tips, you will hear every bit of noise surrounding you—unless you kick the volume up to eardrum-crushing levels. But you will get some noise-blocking solace with the Powerbeats3, as well as the Skybuds and VerveOnes. None of them support active noise canceling, but the extra padding in your ear keeps some unwanted sounds out.
Let’s talk about the pros and cons of the connecting wire in wireless earbuds. Until recently, all wireless earbuds were connected by a single wire that runs across the back of your neck. The Powerbeats3 are the only buds like this I tested in this scenario, and one of the best things about the wire is that it keeps the buds in check no matter what. The AirPods, Skybuds, and VerveOnes can get lost easily if one pops out and rolls somewhere unseen, but that won’t happen with the Powerbeats3. That wire also lets you take out the buds at random and rest them around your neck—try to take a break from any of the others, and you’ll be left holding the loose buds or fumbling in your bag for their charging case.
The inline remote lives on the wire as well and lets you pause/play/skip music and adjust the volume easily. Inline remotes may be archaic, but there’s no learning curve, so you can pick up the Powerbeats3 and intuitively know that pressing the center button will pause your music.
The connecting wire only annoyed me when it fell too much to one side and pulled the opposite earbud along with it. The bud never fell out, but there’s a pull you’ll feel that you’ll instantly want to adjust. The Powerbeats3 has a small circular adjuster on the wire that lets you shorten it by bunching the middle of it together, or extend it to as the length you’re most comfortable with. I like being able to move my head without feeling constrained by a tight wire, so I left the wire at its longest length—that gave me better access to the inline remote as well.
If you’ve never used a pair of Beats headphones, you’ll be surprised at the ridiculous bass performance they offer. Bass lines and drops are more pronounced on the Powerbeats3 than on any of the other devices I tested, to the point where you can feel the vibrations in the a back of your skull. I love this type of audio when I’m working out, but it can get overpowering when you’re just listening to music casually during your commute or at work. Midrange instruments and vocals take a back seat to bass. That becomes apparent when you’re listening to jazz songs like Nicole Henry’s “Make It Last” where you want to hear the richness, breadth, and nuance of the singer’s voice.
The Powerbeats3’s onboard battery life is the best out of the devices I tested; it’ll provide about 12 hours of playback on a single charge. The body of the buds has more space for a battery, and they don’t have to transmit audio information to each other like other truly wireless buds do. This type of wireless earbud design has pros and cons in terms of comfort and innovation, but longer battery life is a huge positive aided by design.
The Powerbeats3 come with a microUSB charging cable and a separate carrying case that you can keep the buds in so they don’t get lost. Unfortunately, the case will not charge the buds—you’ll have to plug it into a power source for a while, unlike the others which can power-up on the go in their charging cases.
https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2017/02/battle-of-the-buds-how-apple-airpods-stack-up-against-other-wireless-earbuds/ via https://arstechnica.com #CIO, #Technology