Pictured above left to right: ~a pair of 2.5 year old AirPods paired with my phone that I use for day-to-day podcast/audiobook consumption (whose batteries I’m grinding down to uselessness), a pair of 1.5 year old AirPods I’ve paired with the AppleTV that I use as “TV ears,” a pair of 4+ month old AirPods I use for travel & phone calls and rarely use (in order to preserve battery) and a pair of $40 knockoff AirPods I’ve been testing out for a few days.
I love me some audio, whether music, podcasts or audiobooks and there are plenty of days where I have AirPods in my ears a dozen hours a day. I’d guess my usage rate is very high relative to the field, perhaps preposterously so. I probably can’t really complain about the battery life.
On the other hand the MSRP on those things is $159 (I don’t have the new Pros — silicon tips aren’t for me, nor do I have any pair with the charging case that can be charged wirelessly) and the least I’ve ever paid for a pair is $139.99. As much as I love (and use) the things, whenever I look at my charging station, inevitably I have some kind of “Thank you sir, may I have another!” reaction which I don’t love having.
But I’d seen a lot of cheap knockoffs on Amazon and I wondered if it was possible to give the hooded Tim Cook the virtual finger so I recently took a flyer on a $40 pair which were $37 with a coupon Amazon was advertising at the time and were a few cents over $40 after taxes.
Prettay Prettay Prettay Good
After only a few days of testing them out I’m resoundingly in the “Fuck off hooded Tim Cook!” camp. Other than battery life I’ve never had a single problem with the Apple AirPods that resetting them didn’t solve so the big caveats with the knockoffs are will they still work in a week/month/a year and how will the battery hold up?
I don’t know yet, but they only have to hold up for six months for me to consider them an equivalent value to the AirPods and today I’m optimistic (my general theory on electronics is if it works out of the box it’s reasonable to expect it will work for a while.)
With a few more caveats that I’ll get to eventually, I don’t really find them better or worse than the AirPods, just different.
Here are the major differences:
1. The buds are a little bit bigger. After regularly wearing AirPods (and the similarly sized Apple wired buds for years before that) I *do* notice the difference. One reason I’ve always loved the Apple-sized buds is because they’re nearly perfect for my ears. I can wear them for hours (and even fall asleep in them) without discomfort and with these buds being a little bit bigger, I’m not surprised I noticed the difference. Did that difference necessarily mean the new buds weren’t comfortable or couldn’t be worn for hours at a time without irritating me? Three day verdict: nope, they’re different and I notice, but they’re comfortable enough.
2. The stems are a little bit longer than the AirPod stems and I regularly wear hoodies. Sometimes I move in ways where these stems hit the resting hood (when it isn’t over my head) and I never had that issue with the Apple buds but this doesn’t knock the buds out and it isn’t a regular occurrence. Verdict: for $120 less I can live with it.
3. The sound quality is different, but my guess is this is entirely because the buds are bigger and get more of a seal in my ear. The low end bass and high end treble (cymbal crashes, triangle, etc.) are more pronounced with these buds where the Apple sound profile is more down the middle. For music, I prefer the knockoffs but for spoken audio, in some cases where the speaker has a very bass or very baritone voice, I prefer the Apple sound profile. Verdict: I can live with it and these are minor preferences and nothing that will irk me (I’m fairly easily irked.) I’m no big audiophile/audio snob these days, but if you’re already using AirPods and are fine with them, you’re probably not either.
4. Unlike Apple’s AirPods the knockoffs lack the sensor to know whether they’re in your ears. Once paired a one-time effort where you have to go to your Bluetooth settings to pair (not quite as simple as the AirPods approach but not a hassle either) the knockoffs pair and activate as soon as you remove them from the charging case and they will not unpair simply by removing them from your ears. If you regularly pull your buds out and set them on a desk, table, counter or whatever without manually powering them off (via button press) they will remain paired and continue to drain their charge. Verdict: the sensors in the Apple AirPods aren’t worth nothing but as far as I’m concerned they’re not nearly worth $120 either.
5. I saved the worse for last. While the AirPods will notify you of low battery in stages via beeps, I can still use them until they’re completely drained without major irritation. Once these buds get under 5% or 10% (the charge remaining only displays in 10% increments) there is a spoken warning to recharge the battery every 30 seconds or so. If there’s some way to turn that off, I couldn’t find it and it’s way too irritating to drain them down to zero. Verdict: $40 knockoffs have their tradeoffs, but they only cost $40!
My primary use case is to use my Apple Watch (yes, the hooded evil Tim Cook is smirking at me) to control volume, play, pause, next track, 30 second skip, skip back etc. Even with the AirPods I never bothered with the “tap side of AirPod” controls and I’m also not a fan of Siri. The knockoffs do have some play, pause, next track, answer/hang up call functions and can be used with Siri but I didn’t test any of that.
I’ve only used the knockoffs for a couple of phone calls and both were fine, but both were indoors in relatively quiet settings. I should probably note that for my purposes even if they weren’t capable of handling phone calls at all, for $40, I’d have still been willing to take a flyer.
The charger for the knockoffs I ordered charges via micro USB: you won’t be able to charge them with an Apple lightning cable and they won’t charge wirelessly.
Final caveat: If you’re into status and think AirPods give you any, at close range anyone who’d confer such status on you will know you’re using knockoffs.
What comes first $100 AirPods or $100 Knockoffs?
If I were a betting man I’d bet the cost of the knockoffs increases to $100 before the cost of the AirPods decreases to $100. I’m somewhat tempted to buy 10 pairs of the knockoffs at $40 each right now. I’m gambling the price of the knockoffs won’t increase drastically in a month but I need to use them for a month to make sure they still work and the battery still lasts at least a few hours on a charge.
If my knockoffs are no longer working or the battery will no longer hold much of a charge within a year I will update this post. Otherwise, especially if you listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks via AirPods, and the knockoffs still cost $40, I think they’re worth taking a flyer.