Living with the AirPods: How Apple's first smart earbuds stack up to rival hearables

A surprisingly smart set of headphones bring hearables into focus
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It's time to cut the cords and crank up the volume: the delays have ended and the Apple AirPods have dropped. Having already conquered our pockets and wrists, tech is now targeting our ears, and with Apple having joined the charge, there'll soon be no escaping the smart ear attachment.

Okay, so this isn't full-on hearable territory. There's no inbuilt heart rate sensor or fitness-tracking credentials here. At the same time, though, these are far more than your standard pair of in-ear headphones.

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Siri is on board to help control your life with just a word, and integrated sensors bring smart skills to your sound sessions. What's more, thanks to Apple's W1 chip, the same it's squeezed into the latest Beats headphones, there's effortless cross-device connection and a battery that – when not being boosted by the accompanied charging pod – has solid staying power.

Is that enough though? Dedicated hearables such as the Sony Xperia Ear, Here Active Listening and the Bragi Dash already deliver more enhanced smart skills and some will keep an eye on your health while they're at it. I've been living with Apple's smart wireless headphones to find out if they're a wearable worth, well, wearing.

The smartest smart-free wearable going

Living with the AirPods: How Apple's first smart earbuds stack up to rival hearables

Okay, it's true, the AirPods aren't a true smart device. Not officially anyway. It's evident from the off though that these wireless audio-enablers are smarter than the average pair of buds. Crack open the lid of their little charging pod while near your iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple Watch and they'll instantly appear on your screen. Click to pair and… well, actually, that's it.

The set-up and sync process here is effortless. That's not all the magic the W1 chip has to wield either. Once connected to one device, they'll be paired with all the devices associated with your Apple ID account. It's that easy. We've yet to use any wearable device that's this easy to set up, so it's a great start.

We've yet to use any wearable that's as easy to set up

That's not where the smart skills end, either. Once playing, a quick double tap on either ear bud will launch Siri on whatever device you're connected to. This is where the beamforming mics squeezed into the end of each ear pod come in. Cutting out background noise, they let you talk to your headphones and ask Siri to do everything from playing that song you want to hear, to checking in on the football scores.

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All answers are relayed directly to your ears, and follow-on questions batted back with the rightful response. No, Android handset owners won't get these skills, but for iPhone users out there, these voice-assistant abilities are as good as on any hearable.

So far, so ordinary though, even if particularly elegant and well implemented. What hearables like the Jabra Sport Elite and Samsung Gear IconX have going for them is their inbuilt fitness tracking skills. Here, although the AirPods have sensors built in, they're not necessarily the ones you're after.

Accelerometers and a pair of integrated optical sensors in each ear bud ensure the individual headphones know when they're in your ear. They won't track how far you've walked or how quickly you've walked there, but these sensors really do make listening to music more enjoyable. Removing one will automatically pause your tunes. Place it back in and the music will start playing again, automatically.

Living with the AirPods: How Apple's first smart earbuds stack up to rival hearables

It might not sound like a big deal, but it works, and so instantly and reliably, that you'll question why your headphones haven't always done this. Switch to another pair of cans and you'll instantly feel enraged that they failed to pause when you took them off to chat to someone.

Sadly, although a joy to use, the AirPods aren't faultless. While the Bluetooth range is strong, the connection isn't always that great. At busy train stations I've found interference creeping in and the sound cutting in and out at times. The same has happened, more than once, when walking past building works.

When they play without fuss, sound quality is fine without ever excelling. They're capable of pumping out deep, full sounds, but they're not particularly powerful. Crank the volume up and you'll get a bass-rich mix of well-balanced highs and lows, but you'll also force your listening options on those around you – at higher volumes, these are pretty leaky.

On the plus side, you can enjoy long listening sessions thanks to their solid staying power. The tiny earbuds themselves store five hours of playback time, with the charging pod hosting a further 24 hours of tune enjoyment. They charge seriously quickly too. Just 15 minutes in their housing pod will add a further three hours of playback . If only we could use this battery to do more.

A fit that won't quit

Living with the AirPods: How Apple's first smart earbuds stack up to rival hearables

Thought you'd lose these headphones? Think again, they're not going anywhere. Sure, when the AirPods were first announced the internet spewed forth endless scathing attacks on their design, and the expectation that they would end up littering drains, puddles and pavements across the land as they refused to stay in wearers' ears. In practice, however, they're seriously sticky.

I've been using these headphones for a couple of weeks now, and I've yet to have one drop out of my ear. I've jogged, squatted and sat up with them in, and never had a bud fall out. I've knocked them with collars and scarves and failed to jangle them free. I've also danced myself giddy while wearing them, and they're yet to jiggle loose.

Rarely though have I felt truly comfortable with them in my ears. They're not uncomfortable – compared to the Jabra, Sony or Bragi hearables they're actually the most ear-friendly – but despite having yet to nudge one loose, they make me feel uneasy. The design fills you with fear, however unjustified. The smooth plastic body is comfortable but hardly reassuring, and the lack of a rubberised ear bud or wing-tipped attachment means they never feel locked in place.

They fit my ears nicely, but I always feel the need to push them deeper down my lug holes just in case they are about to drop out. Walk down the street and you'll fret about the possibility of them popping loose. Wear them while at work or on your commute home, however and you'll quickly forget you're wearing them at all. They're simply that comfortable and light.

They're not exactly lookers though. As well as being a little bit feminine thanks to their silver tips and earring style dangle, there's just something slightly off about the finish.

Yes, they look like the future, but it's a future where a Something About Mary-style accident has made friends with Pat Butcher's stylist. Some will love it, others, however, will mock, as I've experienced first hand. Within the first 24 hours of wearing them, I'd been heckled in the street and overheard a kid on the bus telling his mates that I look like an idiot. Sadly, part of me agrees.

Should you buy them?

The Apple AirPods are a great bit of kit, but they're far from the finished article. Even in the still-developing hearables space, they feel underserved. Yes, Apple will say this isn't what they're supposed to be, but it feels so clearly where they are heading.

Adding fitness-tracking skills would have made these a must-buy. As it is, they're a luxury that you're going to crave, and be perfectly satisfied with if buying, but which you'll always wish had that extra killer feature. There might be better sounding wireless headphones out there, smarter ones too, but in that slightly annoyingly/equally brilliant Apple way, there's nothing out there that works quite so seamlessly.

If you're after a decent pair of wireless headphones, the AirPods will more than fit the bill. But if, like us, you want something smarter, we'd have to point you in the direction of something like the Bragi Dash. At least until the second-gen AirPods drop that is…

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Luke has years of experience of writing, subbing and editing across both online and print media, and now works for Apple.

He has written for the likes of MailOnline, Daily Star, Express, Tech Radar, Pocket-Lint, Digital Spy, Wareable, Gizmodo, T3, Trusted Reviews, Photo Technique, MOTO Magazine, EK One and the Liverpool Daily Post to date.

Luke also produced content for sports, and regional and national publications, as well as making appearances on a variety of televised and radio broadcasts, including ITV and BBC news.

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