Apple Airpods Outer-Ear Bluetooth Earbuds review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Dec 24, 2016.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review:


    Sources: iPhone7-plus, Macbook 12-inch (2015).

    Review notes:

    [1] My first impressions of the sound of the Apple Airpods are based on direct comparisons to other earphones and headphones, including a few premium types. I'll describe how I relate to the Airpods (i.e., my personal tastes and how I use the earphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    [2] In long-term use, I haven't experienced any 'glitches' or hesitations in the music playback as I have with some Bluetooth headphones. Some are better than others, but I've had no problems with the Airpods, using Apple devices. The maximum range from music player to Airpods in my apartment is about 30 feet, through 3 rooms, and I haven't had any dropouts anywhere in those rooms.

    [3] Some Bluetooth headphones have a small amount of high-frequency noise in the sound, due I suppose to the Bluetooth DSP, but then again those that have both Noise Cancelling and Bluetooth are more prone to that. The Airpods do not have Noise Cancelling, and also no isolation. The Airpods have a much greater treble output than the average $200-$500 headphone, and while it's possible to hear a smidgen of background noise when played 'flat' (sans EQ), I do use some EQ to increase the deep bass and decrease the treble. So any such noise (if it exists) won't be heard in EQ'd audiophile listening, and also won't be an issue in other listening, such as radio, TV, Internet, or outdoor use.

    The Airpods impress me as unique in certain ways: They're wireless (Bluetooth), but not IEM's - that is, they sit in the outer ear like earbuds, like the original Apple Earbuds which preceded the Earpods. The other unique thing along with the foregoing, is the "out of head" sensation I experience with some tracks, which I don't experience with regular headphones or IEM's. I can't suggest that the soundstage is any better than the better open-back headphones, only that there's something about not having a headphone on my head, or IEM's inside my ear canals, that create a sense of freedom from listening to a device, and from that a sense that the music isn't inside of my head. This could well be an illusion rather than a true acoustical phenomenon, but even so compared to the most-open headphones, the Airpods don't give me any sense that I'm wearing a device. That's because they weigh almost nothing, there is no headphone weight or pressure, and there is no entrance into the ear canal.

    The Airpods out of the box sound pretty good, especially for earbuds (not IEM's or ear-canal 'phones), and in fact sound extremely similar to Apple's Earpods with the Lightning connector. The Airpods' bass seems to me to be about halfway in-between the Lightning Earpods and the original Earpods, whereas the treble on all of those (and the Airpods) is boosted. I boosted the lower bass around 40-50 hz, but with a 'Q' of 1.5 to keep the upper bass from being bloated. I reduced the treble broadly around 5 khz, but your results could vary, mainly due to the fact that these sit next to the ear canal. I've found that regular headphones sound essentially the same to me as they do to the most reliable reviewers, but I don't hear ear-canal 'phones the same way. Someday if there are more of these Bluetooth earbuds (not IEM's) available, I can determine whether they perform (for me) more like IEM's or regular headphones.

    The EQ that I use can be seen in the graph linked above, or on my website under Photos and Audioforge - Apple Airpods. The result sound is not as smooth and as ultimately detailed as with some of the best headphones, but it's good enough for hi-fi listening indoors on most of my tracks (a wide range of genres and years), although some tracks are still not highly enjoyable with a hi-fi EQ. For portable listening, outdoors etc., irritations from the less-enjoyable tracks aren't as much of an issue, however the lack of any isolation will usually make for an outdoors background noise level well above the irritant factors in the tracks that suffer from those. Leakage from the Airpods is so low that even when playing music at audiophile volume levels, only a faint, wispy sound can be heard from 3 feet away, and only then when the loud volume is fairly constant.

    The Airpods are a lightweight plastic, they fit my ears very well, and they seem very stable under nearly all conditions, except for some users who might move their heads in different directions very rapidly. There was a time when I was walking through some trees and a small branch caught one Airpod and knocked it out of my ear, and down onto solid concrete. That's a 6-foot fall, with zero damage or scratches. The Airpods come with a tiny plastic case that's 2 x 1.75 x 0.75 inches in size, and charge up automatically in the case. Charging times in the case are very short, and the case itself will take only a couple of hours to charge when fully depleted. Apple's stated runtime of 5 hours for the Airpods and 24 hours of runtime for the case (charging the Airpods several times) are reasonably accurate I think.

    There are questions I had that weren't resolved anywhere on Apple Support sites, or elsewhere on the Internet via google search. One was whether the Airpods charge with the case's lid open or closed. Closed. Another was how to get my iPod and iPad to recognize the Airpods, and where Apple's instructions say that Android pairing requires pushing the tiny button on the lower back of the case, I needed to do that for the iPod and iPad both. All of my devices were running the latest iOS version (10.2).

    In previous reviews I've included the following music examples with comments about how the various earphones and headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the Airpods compare with each individual track. NOTE: All comments below apply to using the Airpods with the EQ as shown in the graph linked above, or on my website under Photos and Audioforge.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has great detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The Airpods play this very well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled extremely well by the Airpods.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel some of the weight they carry with the Airpods.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The Airpods play this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the Airpods.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The Airpods play the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The Airpods reproduce the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the Airpods render the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The Airpods play this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is clearly identifiable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Airpods reproduce the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The Airpods play this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have some of the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates a useful deep-bass response. Overall, the Airpods play this music extremely well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The Airpods play this music very well.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce fairly well with the Airpods. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The Airpods provide excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the Airpods do those very well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The Airpods play the fundamental with a light weight but good detail, so that you can "hear" some of the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the Airpods is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle with the Airpods.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the Airpods render this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The Airpods reproduce the 'clop' portion of that sound with a lighter tone than the best headphones.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The Airpods convey that drama fairly well although the deep bass is a bit shy. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the Airpods render the tones and transients extremely well.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The Airpods' reproduction is near-perfect, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong, and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The Airpods deliver the impacts with great weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

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