Apple’s new AirPods have sold surprisingly well, but are they the best wireless iPhone headphones for your money? Wondering how best to stream audio from your Mac to a speaker or digital receiver?
You don’t buy the device, you buy the ecosystem. If you own Apple stuff, you’re generally better off buying more Apple stuff than dipping your toes into other closed platforms.
So here are our top picks for iPhone, iPad and Mac users who want to cut the cord.
Apple’s W1 Chip
The W1 is Apple’s answer to wireless audio. It uses the Bluetooth standard, but improves things a fair bit in more ways than one. For convenience, W1-enabled headphones pair effortlessly based on proximity. Turn them on, hold them close to your iPhone and they’ll pair automatically.
From here, your Mac and iPad will pair with your earphones using iCloud, so you can quickly switch between devices without having to re-pair over Bluetooth. You can still pair non-Apple devices using regular old Bluetooth, which is handy if you also have a Windows laptop or use an Android device for work.
The W1 chip is also incredibly power-efficient, and offers fast charging to boot. A few minutes of charge time can mean a few hours of listening time, while ultra-low power consumption reduces the need for large battery packs. Since Apple purchased Beats, charging is all performed using a Lightning cable — which is handy because many iPhone users won’t leave the house without one.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the W1 chip also offers what is probably the best wireless audio quality on the consumer market. Ultimately the resulting sound quality depends on which W1-enabled product you buy, but your choice to use wireless audio over a traditional cable won’t result in noticeably worse sound quality.
While it’s unlikely these points will convince you to buy AirPods or Beats headphones on their own, as a package, the W1 brings together some compelling advancements: excellent wireless sound quality, low power consumption, convenient fast charging over lightning, and an end to the often irksome process of pairing over Bluetooth.
The takeaway is that W1 devices are convenient, even if you can get better sound quality elsewhere.
AirPods are Apple’s flaship earphones, which means they’re a bit fancier than the other W1-enabled options on this list. The design itself is notable, as each earphone is worn separately with no cord to join them in the middle. Personal preference will dictate whether you like the AirPod look.
You’ll get five hours worth of listening on a full charge, with 15 minutes of charging providing four hours of listening time. When not in use, your AirPods will live in a chargeable case that keeps them powered up, for up to 24 hours of listening time on the move.
The smart tech doesn’t stop there. AirPods use optical sensors and accelerometers to detect when you’re wearing them, which starts and stops the music automatically. Microphones are used to isolate background noise and focus on your voice during calls.
You can also double-tap or just say “Hey Siri!” to invoke Apple’s digital assistant, and do all sorts of things without ever touching your iPhone. You can even use your iPhone to help find a lost AirPod, which highlights a big drawback to Apple’s wire-free design.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to AirPods is that they fit just like Apple’s free EarPods that come with every new iPhone purchase. There are no tight-fitting silicone earbuds to isolate background noise, and the hard plastic isn’t particularly comfortable.
The other option for iPhone users who want to go wireless is to opt for Apple’s BeatsX. These lack most of the fancy tech that makes AirPods so special, while focusing on providing a fitted earphone and the signature Beats bass boost.
There’s no “Hey Siri!” functionality, no sensors or automatic music control, and no microphones to remove background noise. The BeatsX are joined in the middle by a wire that hangs around your neck, with a simple three-button remote and microphone.
You do however get four pairs of fitted silicon ear buds in the box, and BeatsX run for a full eight hours on a single charge. A quick five-minute charge provides two hours of listening time, with a full recharge barely taking 20 minutes. They’ve even toned down the mushy bass response to a point where non-electronic music is listenable.
Read our full BeatsX review to see what we thought, but ultimately they’re the more comfortable and slightly cheaper option right now. If you don’t care about hands-free Siri and don’t mind a bass-heavy sound, then you’ll probably be very happy with a pair of BeatsX.
Powerbeats 3 Wireless ($199)
If you’re looking specifically for sports headphones, the Powerbeats 3 Wireless ($199) are a good choice. While the BeatsX come with removable “wings” to keep the earbuds in place, Powerbeats take this to the next level with a clip that attaches your headphones directly to your ears. They’re built for listening to music during vigorous workouts come rain, wind, or shine.
That means they’re also sweat and water resistant, while the BeatsX and AirPods are not. I wasn’t able to find a specific water resistant rating for the earphones, and while they’re suitable for a run in the rain or a particularly sweaty workout, they’re not waterproof and you can’t take them swimming. You’ll need to spend a bit more money for truly waterproof earphones.
Expect the bass-heavy sound of Beats, a battery life of up to 12 hours, and fast charging to boot. Users seem split over how comfortable the clip is, so it’s worth trying them on before laying down $200. The Powerbeats 3 Wireless are available in six different color designs and use a similar “necklace” design to the BeatsX.
Beats Solo 3 ($299)
At present there’s only one pair of over-the-top headphones that use the W1 chip: the Beats Solo 3. Based on their design, they’re probably the most comfortable pair currently available for sale. The traditional yet bulky construction makes them ideal for longer listening sessions, though you might find them a bit too big for use outside of the house or office. Alternatively, you might not care.
While they lack the subtlety of the BeatsX in-ear headphones, they pack a huge 40-hour battery into the headband and come in your choice of eight different colors. We haven’t had a chance to listen to the Beats Solo 3, but expect a heavy bass response that’s befitting of modern music. Better yet, try them on and have a listen to a variety of music before you buy.
The Solo 3 headphones also include the same fast-charging technology found in Apple’s other W1-enabled headphones. A quick five minute blast is enough for three hours of listening at a moderate volume. They also include the same dual beam-forming microphone tech seen in Apple’s AirPods, which results in better voice clarity while taking calls or barking orders at Siri.
While the Beats Solo 3 are larger headphones to be worn over the head, they use an on-ear cup design which might not be to everyone’s tastes. These tend to be more compact than over-ear headphones, but can be uncomfortable for those who wear glasses or have “incompatible” ear piercings. Try before you buy!
Alternatively: Regular Old Bluetooth
If none of these appeal to you, then you might want to wait and see what the future holds. There will surely be a W2 chip arriving at some point, and it’s even possible that Apple may license the W1 chip in the same way they have their AirPlay technology to third-party manufacturers. The other thing you could do is buy a different pair of wireless headphones that don’t use Apple’s W1 chip.
The problem with the W1 chip is that so far, there are only a handful of models available. Apple also happens to make them all. If you don’t like any of the current crop, you’re either going to have to wait or grab a decent pair of regular old Bluetooth headphones. Most new Bluetooth headphones offer excellent wireless audio quality, though pairing can be a hassle and not many models offer fast charging either.
If noise cancellation is a priority, you’re out of luck. If you’re really looking for the best quality sound then AirPods or Beats just won’t cut it either. You might want to reconsider cutting the cord if sound quality is your number one priority. You should also make sure you’re streaming the highest quality audio you can find.
Did you buy a pair of AirPods? Is the W1 chip the Apple audio revolution you’ve been waiting for? Let us know what you think in the comments below.