Ease of use, no wires, and a tiny form factor are all very attractive, but should you consider Apple AirPods for cycling?
Many people are offended by the idea of people using a personal music player while out in public – whether it’s cycling, running, or just walking around. If you are, this probably isn’t the review for you.
Cycling, like many endurance sports, can be a pretty solitary activity. It doesn’t matter if you’re putting in long training rides or just trying to get to work; the reality is that there’s a lot of time cruising along where some music or a podcast would help liven things up a bit. It’s definitely the case for me.
As someone who listens to headphones through most of the day, doing the same while cycling has never really been a question. Like a lot of people, I tend to put in just one earphone while riding.
My usual setup has been the same for a long time. Relatively cheap wired headphones plugged into my phone, which lives in a sandwich bag in my jersey pocket or rucksack. One earphone in, the other tucked into the front of my jersey to try and keep it from swinging around.
It’s not ideal. Often the weight of the unused earphone will pull the wire taught, leading to the other being yanked out of my ear while looking around, or just me having to pull the wire back up every now and then. Additionally, skipping tracks or turning off the music is a faff. In-line controls always seemed to stop working, or in the case of my current favourite cheap IEMs (the MEE Audio M6), were not included.
Cutting off one earbud is not a solution for me. The ‘bike’ earbuds often got used elsewhere, and setting sound to mono and back is hidden away in a menu on my iPhone.
Wireless headphones would be ideal, but all of the options I could find either came as an inseparable pair, were unacceptably bulky, or had terrible battery life. Enter the AirPods.
I’d originally written these off. They’re not cheap at £159, and include all of the usual criticisms that come with Apple products. What’s more, it’s not a style of headphone I usually like. It wasn’t until I’d tried a friend’s pair that I started to consider them.
I mean look and feel here, and wow. I think this is Apple’s real strength nowadays. For me, no wireless earphones look anywhere near as good. The form factor is just about perfect for the product. Any smaller and I’d lose them, and the tiny charging case is great too. Everything closes or falls into place with a satisfying magnetic attraction.
This is where a lot of tiny Bluetooth earphones fall short, which makes sense. The AirPods claim up to 5 hours of battery life on the earphones, and the charging case can recharge the earbuds enough times for 24 hours total listening time. Especially useful is that a 15 minute charge in the case gives you another 3 hours of listening time.
I’ve found this to generally be quite accurate – perhaps 5 hours solid is ambitious, but it’s certainly close enough that it’s a non-issue on most rides. Anything longer than that and I’m happy to put the case in my pocket or frame bag for a quick recharge. Since I often find myself taking a little break from the music on those long rides anyway, that works out fine for me. Obviously for anything shorter, which is the vast majority of my riding (or running), I leave the case at home.
The AirPods have a few really nice little touches that make them ideal for me on the bike. Firstly, you can double-tap the earbud to perform the usual audio commands. This is configurable in your settings, but means I can skip the songs I’m not in the mood to hear. It’s also a little bit contextual, meaning I can answer calls or dismiss alarms too. Perfect for when the phone starts ringing mid-ride.
If you take just one AirPod out of the case, only that earbud will be active, and your sound will automatically switch from stereo to mono. I really like this, since I’m always too lazy to go into the settings, and usually just deal with slightly weird sounding tracks every now and then.
Lastly, when you take an AirPod out of your ear, the playback pauses. Put it back in, and it starts again. This is great, since it means you can take out the earbud when you’ve had enough and put it in your pocket without having to mess with your phone.
All these little touches improve the experience when you’re using the AirPods, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you find yourself forgetting to pause your music with other earphones.
You don’t want your expensive earbuds falling out of your ears and getting broken or lost, and this is where the AirPods deliver a bit of a mixed bag. Some people have absolutely no issues, while others find the fit loose.
I quickly discovered my AirPods weren’t secure, and one went flying within a few steps of my first run with them in. A little disappointing, sure, but some super-cheap (2 pairs for £3) silicone hooks from eBay has resolved this for me, and now they’re super secure. It’s a minor task putting them on before a workout, and they won’t fit in the case with them on, but the trade-off versus organising wires from my older headphones is worthwhile – to me, at least.
After getting most of my opinions about Apple’s earbuds from the internet before trying them, I wasn’t expecting a lot in terms of sound quality. At the same time, however, it wasn’t such a concern to me – I’d mostly be using them with just one ear on the bike, after all.
I’d rate the AirPods as ‘OK’ when it comes to sound quality. It was a nice surprise to find them much better than I was expecting, but I personally think my MEE M6 earbuds perform better. Yes, they’re a different design, and aren’t Bluetooth, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me for keeping the £159 price tag in mind.
Off the bike
I didn’t really expect to use my AirPods all that much off the bike, since I have a few sets of much bigger headphones to use around the house. However, the amazing form factor has meant that I’ve found myself using them around the house and garden, and even sometimes at my desk instead of my ‘proper’ headphones. Convenience really does go a long way.
Similarly, I also find myself using them all the time for making and taking calls. The sound is good, and again, being free of wires is really nice for longer conversations.
The experience when running is much the same as while cycling, and I’d say that the AirPods are much better for running, as long as they fit your ears or you’re happy to use silicone ear hooks.
I’ve only recently moved onto the Apple ecosystem, so am by no means biased towards them as a company. I’ve been really impressed by the AirPods, and if something happen to them, I’d almost certainly pick up another pair. The convenience of having tiny wireless earbuds with a decent battery life means that they’re getting far more use than my old in-ears, and the sound quality is absolutely acceptable for the use case. To me, AirPods are the best wireless cycling headphones available at the moment.
That said, the £159 price tag seems a little steep to me, and is only an acceptable cost while there’s no real competitor (in my eyes, at least). I’ve not had a chance to test the AirPods in the rain, due to the current weather conditions in the UK. They’ve been fine with sweat, and I’ve heard stories of people accidentally putting them through the washing machine, but it’s a concern nonetheless.
It’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s worth paying the ‘Apple tax’ for these. In my opinion, and for the amount I use them, it definitely was.