Apple's AirPods took over the wireless earbud market with their ease of use and integrated features with iPhone. There are four models for sale today from the low-priced entry model to the ultra-premium over-the-ear headphones. The H1 processor enables long battery life and long-range low-latency connection with Apple devices.
● Truly wireless, bluetooth earbuds
● H1 processor in latest models
● "Hey Siri" functionality
● Spatial Audio with head tracking
● Automatic device switching
● Find My network support
● Starting at $159
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Apple introduced the AirPods alongside the first iPhone without an integrated headphone jack in 2016. The company made its stance known — the future is wireless.
The AirPods brand has evolved to become more than Apple's wireless earbuds. There are two generations of Apple's standard AirPods, the AirPods Pro with more premium features, and the over-the-ear AirPods Max.
What makes something an "AirPod" is its Apple-first design and vertical integration of hardware and software. The H1 chip leads to better battery life, "Hey Siri" support, better connectivity with low latency, and operating system specific integrations in software.
When an Apple AirPods device is near an iPhone or iPad, it will show up onscreen in a special UI for pairing and viewing battery life. Any device with an H1 or W1 chipset is paired with the user's iCloud account and will fast-switch between devices when selected in the AirPlay menu.
Find My AirPods was introduced in iOS 10.3, allowing a user's iPhone, iPad, or Mac to keep tabs on the whereabouts of the tiny earphones. Utilizing the host device's positioning hardware, GPS, Wi-Fi, or other component packages, the connected device could tell a user where a missing AirPod was last seen.
iOS 13 and later allow a user to pair two sets of earphones to one iPhone or iPad. This lets two people watch a movie or listen to music in tandem.
The latest versions of iOS also allow text-to-speech reading of messages from iMessage and third-party apps like WhatsApp. This lets users keep tabs on their messages when it isn't practical to look at their iPhone.
iOS 14 enables "auto-switching" of devices with an H1 chip, including all current models of AirPods and select Beats by Dre headphones. Alongside iOS 14, Apple also launched a firmware update that added spatial audio, compatible with select video streams, to AirPods Pro.
iOS 15.1 adds improved Find My features that include a new Lost Mode and Find My network integration. Users who misplace their AirPods will see their device's location updated as other Find My network devices pass nearby.
The third-generation of AirPods takes on a new design that mimics the AirPods Pro. The shorter stems have pressure sensitive controls for pausing audio and summoning Siri. The ear buds are bulbous and direct sound into the ear.
Apple implemented a few of the AirPods Pro features into its new mid-tier earbud. These have Adaptive EQ, which have customized audio that is adjusted in real time based on the listener's ear shape and earbud fit.
Apple also made the new AirPods water resistant. That means sweat and rain won't damage the earbuds, but they still aren't optimized for anything more intense.
The battery life of each earbud is now six hours. The charging case can fully recharge the earbuds four times, leading to 30 hours of use. Five minutes of charging enables one hour of use.
The charging case is also wirelessly capable and can be placed on a MagSafe Charger.
The third-generation AirPods cost $179 and are available in white.
The AirPods Max are Apple's first over-the-ear headphone. They use the proprietary H1 chip and include Adaptive EQ, Active Noise Cancellation, Transparency Mode, and Spatial Audio.
Apple is shipping the over-ear headphones in five colors: space gray, silver, sky blue, green, and pink. The unique design aims to achieve ultimate comfort while remaining easily identifiable as an Apple product.
AirPods Max introduced Adaptive EQ to the line, adjusting audio based on the ear-cup seal and sound within the headphones. It measures the sound signal and adjusts the low and mid-frequencies in real time. Apple's goal is to use the real-time data to provider richer and more detailed audio.
Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos support enables music to surround the listener when properly formatted for the feature. Thanks to further updates to the format, users can use the gyroscopes in the AirPods Max to move their head within the sound as of iOS 15.
AppleInsider scored the AirPods Max 4 out of 5. Its integration into Apple's ecosystem, premium design, and good quality audio add up to justify the $550 price point, but just barely.
We believe the AirPods Max have one of the most bespoke designs ever created for a set of headphones. The stainless steel headband is coated with a soft-touch material similar to silicone. The canopy is made of a proprietary mesh that lets the headband rest atop your head while evenly distributing weight.
The steel and aluminum construction, the internal batteries, and everything else adds up to a heavy set of headphones. At 14 ounces, these land heavier than competitors which are usually nearly half the weight. However, we've worn AirPods Max for many hours and the weight hasn't been an issue.
Of course, weight feel and tolerance of that weight will vary person to person. Accessories and third-party ear pad options will let users customize the fit and weight distribution of the headphones as they see fit.
Apple chose design over function for the AirPods Max case. While other sets of AirPods have charging, pairing, and other functions built into their case, this one is a simple piece of fabric with magnets.
Customers and pundits alike have had rather visceral reactions to the case, and while we don't hate it, we believe it could be better. Apple seems to have chosen a form factor for the sake of being different, which sacrifices functionality and practicality.
The fabric cover does little to protect the expensive headphones, and offers only one actual feature — low-power mode. A magnet within the case activates a low-power sleep function of the AirPods Max that keeps them from pairing to devices. After 18 hours of being in this state, Bluetooth and Find My is disabled entirely.
Third-party cases can build in this functionality, so those who particularly dislike this case can find one that fits their needs. We didn't mind some aspects of the case, like having the headband exposed. This makes them easier to grasp when taking them out of your bag, and takes up less space when packing.
Our biggest critique of the case is its lack of protection for the ear cups. The soft aluminum casing seems to be the most vulnerable part of the AirPods Max, yet they are barely protected by the case. We'd be happier if Apple made a case that completely encased the ear cups.
The Active Noise Cancellation for AirPods Max is easily best-in-class and performs much better than the AirPods Pro. The larger drivers, ear isolation, and additional microphones make the ANC perform great when compared to other models.
The Transparency Mode is also quite good, though we ran into a few shortcomings during our tests. This mode allows external noise to be passed through the headphones into your ears, so things like vehicles passing by or people's voices can get through. While Transparency Mode works great in most conditions, high-pitched noises and subtle rustling can creep through and there's no way to fix this.
The effect of watching properly mixed media can be quite jarring for first-timers on AirPods Max. Thanks to the Spatial Audio with head tracking feature, central channel audio will always sound like it is coming from the device, like your iPad. This makes it seem as if your headphones aren't actually working since it sounds like the audio is playing from the device speakers.
When listening to multi-channel content, especially content mixed in Dolby Atmos, this effect expands to surround you. So, if a sound is coming from your left during a video, you can physically turn your head and "face" the sound.
Since our review, Apple has added the ability to listen to Apple Music in Dolby Atmos. The same head-tracking effect will occur when enabled, and let users move their head through the music audio.
We were underwhelmed by the audio produced by Apple's ultra-premium headphones. While the audio is pleasing and improves at higher volumes, audiophiles and those expecting $550 sound will be disappointed.
Apple built these headphones to offer premium sound and offer a range of features to cater to its customers. The combination of technology and premium materials pushed the price higher, not the audio fidelity. However, we believe the average consumer will be fine with the sound produced.
Those who want premium headphones deeply integrated with Apple's ecosystem will find value in the AirPods Max. They are above average and compare favorably to popular consumer choices in the $350 range, but it is difficult to justify the higher $550 price tag.
We believe the price is worth it, however, and Apple users are going to enjoy all the deeply integrated experiences. Customers shouldn't be buying these based on sound quality alone, but the feature set, build quality, and sound as a whole.
- Excellent, premium design
- Dual H1 chips for audio processing, range, and signal robustness
- Extremely comfortable
- Deep iOS integration
- Spatial audio is killer
- Better than average audio
- Good battery life
- Excellent ANC
- Solid physical controls
- The case — enough said
- Controls are easy to bump when removing headset
- Audio quality could be better
- Transparency mode harsh on highs
- No aux cable included and Apple's is expensive and fragile
In 2019, Apple introduced the AirPods Pro – a new high-end version of Apple's earbuds. While they look similar, the pro-level earphones have silicone ear tips which allow for noise isolation and customizable wear.
Features include Active Noise Cancellation, a new touch-control system, and a Transparency Mode that allows users to mix ambient noises with audio from the user's device.
This model has similar battery life to the previous generation, though using Active Noise Cancellation will reduce that somewhat. They utilize the same H1 chip, which enables quick switching between devices and "Hey Siri" voice commands.
Apple added Spatial Audio to the AirPods Pro in a September 2020 firmware update alongside iOS 14. The feature uses accelerometers and sensors to figure out which direction sound should be coming from. It supports Dolby Atmos and multiple-channel surround sound up to 7.1 channels.
The update also included automatic device switching when a user starts playback from different devices. Users can turn off automatic switching on certain devices to make the experience more useful.
AppleInsider scored the AirPods Pro 4.5 out of 5. The improved audio quality, ANC and Transparency modes, and sweat resistance make this an obvious choice for anyone looking for a truly wireless earbud, but existing AirPods users may not need to make the jump.
Fit and Audio Quality
When testing the AirPods Pro we knew we wanted only a few things to justify the upgrade from the standard model. First and foremost was a more secure fit.
We hit the gym and tested all of our common routines with the AirPods Pro in our ears. To our surprise we made it through an hour and a half without a single earbud coming free.
Apple includes three sizes of ear tips with your purchase, so you have some choice out of the box. We'd have preferred more size choices, but appreciated the ear tip fit test that told us if our fit was secure enough and sound wasn't bleeding out.
Speaking of sound, the quality was great. While it isn't audiophile quality or able to compete with over-the-ear cans, the sound was enough for us to say "wow."
ANC and Transparency Mode
Active Noise Cancelling came in handy in some situations, but we feel that we're not using it as much as others may. The sound mode we defaulted to most was Transparency Mode.
Being able to hear your environment, hold conversations, and move around safely with Transparency Mode active made this one of our favorite features. The sound felt more natural when compared to the noise blocking ANC mode.
We feel that customers will fall into one of three camps when shopping for AirPods Pro — existing AirPods users, new users, or budget-concerned users.
If you're looking at the AirPods without the wireless charging case, then the $100 price jump is difficult to justify. Those whose priority is price should look to Apple's cheaper models. However, if you're at all tempted by the AirPods with wireless charging case, then the $50 price bump is a no-brainer.
Existing AirPods owners will be the most difficult to convince. The customizable fit, better audio quality, and water resistance may be enough to justify an upgrade, but only just.
- Smaller design
- Much better audio quality
- Great ANC
- Transparency mode is outstanding
- Stay in much better
- Work with Audio Sharing
- Announce messages with Siri is particularly useful
- Water/sweat resistant
- Needs more granular ear tips
- Force sensors are awkward to use
- Charging case is awkward
- Higher price tag and no price decrease on second-gen
Apple launched the second-generation AirPods in March 2019, with the first hardware update providing a host of new features that improved Apple's earbuds.
Swapping out the W1 chip for the H1 processor means it's now twice as fast when switching between active devices and one-and-a-half times faster for phone calls, with 30 percent lower gaming latency. The H1 chip included support for hands-free "Hey Siri" functionality, allowing users to control volume and swap songs via voice commands, so owners of this version don't have to tap the earphones with a finger to activate Siri.
Beam-forming speakers work in tandem with accelerometers to detect vibrations in a user's skull, giving AirPods improved background noise reduction. Tap gestures let users change tracks or volume and activate Siri if one doesn't want to use "Hey Siri." A separate voice accelerometer kicks in to block ambient sound.
When listening to music, AirPods provide up to five hours of battery life, and the case provides an additional 24 hours of use. The addition of the H1 chipset increased talk time an entire hour to three total. Popping them in their case for 15 minutes yields more than three hours of playtime, according to Apple.
Second-generation AirPods use Bluetooth 5, which improves stability and range, especially on newer iPhones.
In addition to a new processor chip and Bluetooth 5, the second-generation earphones also add a new Wireless Charging Case. The Wireless Charging Case is compatible with any Qi-enabled charging mat. Users can also purchase it separately for $79 to upgrade the first-generation AirPods.
When opening the Charging Case, the earphones inside automatically connect to a nearby device, and, using built-in sensors and an accelerometer, they can detect when they are in-ear, playing and pausing audio accordingly.
Phil Schiller, Apple's former SVP of Worldwide Marketing, debuted the AirPods onstage at the September 2016 iPhone event that also debuted the iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2. Inside the AirPods is Apple's custom W1 wireless chip, which affords a fast and robust connection while allowing for five hours of use.
Apple had filed its first AirPods-related patent in June 2015. The primary motivation for creating an all-wireless earbud was the headphone jack and the desire to remove it.
“We’ve got this 50-year-old connector — just a hole filled with air — and it’s just sitting there taking up space, really valuable space," said SVP of Hardware Engineering Dan Riccio. “It was holding us back from a number of things we wanted to put into the iPhone. It was fighting for space with camera technologies and processors and battery life. And frankly, when there's a better, modern solution available, it's crazy to keep it around.”
The additional space allowed Apple to more easily install the Taptic Engine that powers the solid-state iPhone 7 home button; include bigger batteries; and remove a key point of liquid ingress, permitting the company to meet the IPX7 water-resistance specification. The AirPods went on sale in December 2016 and started shipping later that month.
Since their debut, Apple's AirPods have made a sizable impact on the wireless headphone market, with the audio accessory reportedly capturing more than a quarter of the market by early 2017.
AppleInsider scored the second-generation AirPods 5 out of 5 stars. The update added more features to an already near-perfect set of earbuds.
Audiophiles will tell us that there are better sounding headphones out there, but we won't care. In our testing we found the audio of Apple's truly wireless earbuds to be great, and an improvement over the first-generation model.
The louder volume and better audio quality make for great sounding headphones in a compact form factor. Combine that with Apple's integration in to its device ecosystem and you'll have trouble finding something that matches these earbuds feature-for-feature.
The ability to summon Siri with the "Hey Siri" command rather than a double tap is a game changer. Having hands-free Siri at our beck and call enabled us to interact with the assistant more frequently and easier than ever.
Apple also sped up the interaction so you can belt out your entire command without waiting for the "beep" to indicate Siri was listening. While this leaves you wondering if it heard you correctly, it does make each interaction faster and smoother.
Siri isn't without its downfalls, however. The "Hey Siri" command will activate any device within listening range, and the devices will poll who is meant to answer based on a number of metrics. While this polling works, it isn't fool proof and we've had a HomePod and AirPods respond to the same command.
AirPods with standard charging case cost $129. The third-generation model is $179, and AirPods Pro ring up for $249. AirPods Max cost a premium $549.