For years, I've used bone conduction headphones from [Aftershokz](http://www.aftershokz.com]. A few weeks ago, I got myself an early Christmas present: a set of Apple's AirPods, the wireless earbuds Apple released in late 2016. I'd heard a lot about AirPods, and had held a set some days prior to my purchase, which physical handling finally pushed me over the edge and sent me to the nearest store that had my new toy in stock.
Having used Aftershokz for years, and having eschewed earbuds as a rule all that time, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two. Many people love AirPods, and many blind people also love Aftershokz, so a resource talking specifically about the two seemed like a good idea. This article is meant to explore where one device is better than the other, what each could learn from the other, and which you may want to consider. Before you read what follows, though, you will want to be sure you understand what Aftershokz headsets are. I therefore direct you to my review of the Aftershokz Bluez 2. This review is of an older model, but the principles, and even physical controls, are the same in the newest Aftershokz as in the one in that article. The newest model, the Trekz Titanium, is lighter, sturdier, has better sound, leaks sound far less, and, to me, is more comfortable than the Bluez 2.
I'm going to use some odd terms and phrasing in this article, so I want to make sure you're on the same page. First of all, I've fallen into the habit of writing about Apple products the way the company does. That is, I'll say something like, "when AirPods do this" instead of, "when the AirPods do this" (note the lack of the word "the" in the first sample).
Next, I'll say "headset" a lot. This refers to both AirPods and the Aftershokz, even though many might not consider AirPods to be a headset at all. This is for convenience and because I can only think of so many words to describe what these devices are without repeating myself too much.
Finally, AirPods are plural. Though it ends in an s-like sound, Aftershokz, to me, is singular. It's a single unit, whereas AirPods is two units working together. I realize an argument can be made either way on this point, but this is how I think of things, so it's how I'll be writing. I hope it doesn't confuse anyone. Speaking of two units working together, I'll refer to a single AirPod as just a "Pod" from time to time. All this means is one of the two matched units that make up a set of AirPods. It's my own term, as far as I know, but it's how I think of them.
Both of the devices under consideration have great value in different areas, but there's rarely a point where they do equally well. Therefore, we'll go over the main features you probably want in any headphones, and see how I feel each product performs in that area. Remember that this partially depends on your use case, and even your physical build. Some people find that AirPods don't stay in their ears, and some people find Aftershokz uncomfortable to wear, for instance. But I get along with both products, so won't be considering fit too much here.
My Trekz Titanium headset is bone conduction, which is it main selling point. It doesn't block my ears at all, letting me hear perfectly. It also means I'm not leaving things inside my ears for hours on end, something that may not be great for ear health.
AirPods, of course, are earbuds. They live in your ears, as any earbuds do. That said, they don't block sound as much as I expected. Yes, there's a little muffling going on, but I haven't found it to be problematic. Plus, I can hear AirPods better in loud environments, letting me more easily hear GPS directions over traffic roaring past me, for instance. The trade-off for Aftershokz not blocking sound at all is that you can't hear sound from the headset quite as well when things around you get loud.
The Aftershokz includes physical controls. Using buttons, I can play or pause, skip ahead, change the volume, check my battery level (the battery of the Trekz, not the device to which it is connected), and even talk to Siri.
AirPods, on the other hand, lack physical controls. You can double tap either one to issue any of the usual commands (play/pause, skip ahead, skip back, Siri). You can also set the left one to do something different from the right, and AirPods will pause what you're listening to if you remove one Pod. However, you can only have up to three controls this way, with no volume control at all, and removing an AirPod means you have to keep track of it until you re-insert it. Apple could solve all of this by allowing triple taps as well as double taps, but they haven't done so yet. For the moment, the Aftershokz is the clear winner for controls.
There's one important caveat, though. AirPods may lack physical controls, but that makes them easier to manage with gloves on. Where I live, it's glove weather several months of the year. Rather than finding the approximate place where a button should be and trying to press it twice to skip ahead, I can just tap the general area of an AirPod twice. When you can't feel what you're doing, AirPods are actually easier to control. Still, I'll take buttons on the Aftershokz if it means getting a full set of controls. Aftershokz lacks a rewind function, but it offers everything else you could want, and there's a lot to be said for not needing to dig out your iPhone just to change the volume.
However, the double tap detection isn't perfect, and I sometimes have to try two or three times to get it right. I'm sure I'll get used to it over time, but there's no practice needed to press buttons.
This one's easy: AirPods win, hands down. No, they won't satisfy an audiophile, but that's not what they're meant to do. They sound good, with plenty of bass but not so much that it gets annoying. The stereo spread is good, and the overall detail is just fine, to my ear at least.
The Aftershokz sounds less rich and immersive by comparison. It sounds fine, and if you listen to a lot of spoken content, you won't care at all. But music and movies sound worse on the Trekz, there's no way around that. It's not so bad that you shouldn't use this headset, but if good audio is your goal, you may be underwhelmed.
This is very subjective, and depends on a lot of factors. For me, the Aftershokz are more comfortable over long listening or wearing sessions, but neither device can go too long before I want to remove it. However, AirPods not only reach this limit sooner, but when I do remove them, I often have an odd muffled feeling in my ears for a few minutes. This doesn't happen with the Aftershokz.
When laying down in bed, I find AirPods uncomfortable pretty quickly. I'm not sure why laying on my back causes this effect, but that's the only time I notice it. Still, given that Aftershokz have a band that goes around the back of your neck, the ability to lay down at all is a point in the AirPods' favor. This also affects anything with a headrest; AirPods don't care, but that band on the Aftershokz means I'm always adjusting my position, or tilting my head back so as to shift the back of my neck forward and not have the Aftershokz pushing on the back of the seat. It's a trade-off either way, but overall, I much prefer AirPods if I know the back of my neck will be in contact with anything.
Two to four times a week, I go to the local YMCA to exercise. This involves swimming, where neither of our devices can help, or weight machines and aerobics, where they both help a lot. The room where the workout equipment lives is kept rather warm for my taste, so I always end up sweating during these sessions.
With their lack of cabling, bands, clips, or anything else touching my head, the AirPods are my choice for workouts. There's almost no contact between them and me, apart from what's in my ears, so I don't have that feeling of sweat getting trapped against my skin or hair. It's also easier to towel off, as there's no headset to work around or remove. That said, I've almost sent an AirPod flying once or twice, when my hand caught the little stem extending down from the earbud portion.
On the other hand, the Aftershokz inclusion of more controls makes it easier to quickly adjust things between sets or while plodding along on a stair stepper. With AirPods, I have to use my phone for more, and that's slower and more prone to accidents (pair an iPhone with sweaty hands and shaky muscles, and you can imagine what might happen). Still, being able to lean back on a weight machine with no headband to worry about is a plus for AirPods, as is their mild sound blocking, shutting out the annoying radio the gym always has playing.
This is a hard one to compare. The Aftershokz generally last me all day, unless I spend most of that day actively using them. But for a few hours in the morning, an hour or so at work, and a few hours at home or the gym, I rarely end the day having received a low battery warning. AirPods don't last nearly that long on a single charge, but that's the problem: there's no single charge. Once you're done with them and put them back in their little case, they start charging off the case's battery. So long as I plug in the case every few days, I'm fine.
At first, I had to adjust my habits, as I was used to just leaving my headphones on or around my neck all the time. Now that I've gotten myself to put my AirPods in their case when I won't be using them for a while, I almost never run out of battery on them either. In fact, having to charge the case less often than I charge the Aftershokz means I have less to worry about. Plus, I can use the same Lightning cables scattered around the house to charge the AirPods case as I use for any of my Apple devices. The Aftershokz needs micro USB, and while I have plenty of those, I don't have them plugged in all over the place like I do Lightning connectors.
While we're talking about battery, let's go over checking the charge. Here, the Aftershokz win, more or less. With a single button, a voice tells me if my Aftershokz battery is high, medium, or low. To check the battery on AirPods, I have to do more. I either wake up my iPhone and swipe right on the lock screen, then find the battery widget and listen to the information that way; or I open the AirPods' case (with AirPods inside) near my unlocked phone and get a popup with battery levels. I can also ask Siri for the battery level so long as the device I'm asking is connected to my AirPods, and that's the most convenient way I've found so far. Still, it's more than a quick, discrete, push of a button, and I rarely remember that it's available. While the information I get about AirPods is a percentage, rather than a high/medium/low estimate, it's certainly less convenient to find said percentage.
Finally, I'll discuss charging the battery. For Aftershokz, you use a fingernail to open a rubber cover in front of the volume buttons, on the underside of the right side. Connect a micro USB cable, and leave the headset to charge.
AirPods are easier. Take out the charging case, flip open the top, and drop the Pods in. The stem of each Pod fits into a hole in the case, and magnets and the shape of the case and Pod will do the rest. The left Pod goes on the left side, the right on the right. It's quite easy once you get used to doing it. To charge the case itself, just connect a Lightning cable to the port on the bottom of the case, on the one opposite the openable top flap.
Pairing and Multi-Device Usage
Initial pairing is one area where AirPods shine, which isn't surprising as easy pairing is a selling point of this product. You simply pull AirPods out of their box, open the case near your unlocked iPhone, and tap "connect" when the alert appears on your screen. Not only are your AirPods connected to your phone, but they're known by any other Apple device using your iCloud account. Once I did this, my iPad, Apple Watch, and MacBook all knew about the AirPods with no additional paring. I even switched my Mac to AirPods a few minutes after initial setup, just because I could. Apple TV is also included, so you can start watching content from Apple's set-top box in privacy if you want to.
When you want to switch devices, you just, well, switch devices. There's no need to turn things off, forget devices, or any of that. You go to the device you want to use, switch its audio output to your AirPods, and that's it. The device that had been using them stops doing so and the new one takes over, complete with a chime from the AirPods themselves once the new device is active. This is one of my favorite features, as I can switch between using AirPods on my iPhone and Mac with a few taps or keystrokes. I wish audio device selection were easier, especially on iOS, but it's still better than what I have to do with the Aftershokz.
The Aftershokz, by contrast, uses the usual pairing method. To switch it from my phone to Mac, I have to shut down the headset, start it in pairing mode, then connect to it. It's not a great deal more work, but I find myself using AirPods with multiple devices far more often than I do with my Aftershokz.
While Aftershokz can't switch easily between several devices, there's a key feature that needs to be talked about: multi-point support. The Trekz Titanium can support two devices at once, letting you use it with a Mac and iPhone, iPhone and iPad, and so on. If one of the two connected devices is making noise, sound from the other is not played. If both are silent for a couple seconds, whichever starts making noise first will get the Trekz. Thus, if you're using your Mac and pause for a moment, you can start using your iPhone and the Trekz will play the iPhone's audio automatically, if you've set things up to use this feature. The main problem with this is an odd one: when I used it with Apple Watch and iPhone, I found that notifications on Apple Watch didn't cause any vibration anymore. Thus, I missed a lot of notifications, and had to stop using this setup.
Multi-point is a great option to have, so long as you only need to use two devices at once. AirPods can be moved between any number of sources, but you have to do this manually each time. The Aftershokz, on the other hand, will automatically play sound from either of two devices you decide to use them with, no extra work needed. Just watch that notifications bug in watchOS if Apple hasn't fixed it by the time you read this.
Again, the AirPods take the prize. They have far better mics, but more than that, they have better bluetooth. I don't know how, but sound is far clearer and snappier when using Siri or dictation with AirPods than with the Aftershokz. It takes less time to start a Siri session, and I'm understood better while getting speech that, while not full quality, at least doesn't sound like it's coming over a telephone as it does with the Aftershokz. Plus, the mics are better overall, letting Siri and those with whom I speak hear me much better than happens with the Aftershokz mics. Note that this increase in sound quality also extends to VOIP calls, like Skype or FaceTime. These calls sound like regular phone calls over the Aftershokz, but they sound far, far better over AirPods.
I mentioned the speed of starting a Siri session, but I want to expand on that a bit. On the Aftershokz, I press and hold the play/pause button for two seconds. After that, a voice says "voice dial", to tell me the functionality worked. Then, I wait a good three or four seconds before finally hearing a low-quality version of the Siri tone telling me I can speak. Often, bits of what I say are cut off, making things still more frustrating. When I get Siri responses, they can be harder to understand thanks to the low audio quality. Compare this to AirPods, where a double tap gets you Siri in under two seconds. Plus, if your phone isn't in your pocket, you can still use "Hey Siri" on supported devices. This works with Aftershokz as well, but that headset introduces the delay I mentioned a moment ago. Overall, Siri is a faster and better-sounding experience over AirPods.
A big question VoiceOver users have about bluetooth audio is the responsiveness. When you listen to speech as fast as many of us do, having the first half second of audio get cut off, or each command take a quarter second extra time to respond, can add up to a lot of reduced productivity. Do either of the headsets in this article have such problems?
The Aftershokz are quite responsive for bluetooth audio. Yes, there's a delay, but it's short. It's hard to say for sure, but I feel like the Trekz have less delay than the Bluez series before it. There's also no lag if no audio has played for a while.
The AirPods have about the same delay on iOS, and a surprisingly large delay on macOS. I haven't used the Trekz with my Mac enough to know if this lag is the fault of the headphones or the operating system. On watchOS, both devices have a good deal of delay, which I chalk up to the Apple Watch itself. I'm running the latest watchOS4 on an Apple Watch Series 2. I haven't had the chance to try a Series 3 at all, to see if it improves matters.
AirPods go into a power-saving mode after a few seconds of silence. This doesn't cut off any audio when something starts them pumping out sound, but it can mean a small lag before they wake up and start playing. This isn't a deal-breaker, but it's something the Aftershokz doesn't do at all. Also, one Pod will sometimes be ready slightly ahead of the other. They sync up just fine, but there's often a weird effect where sound will seem to move from one side of my head to the center as it starts to play. This quirk isn't a problem, just something to note as we're talking about latency.
Which wins here? As both have similar delays, I have to give the edge to the Aftershokz. It takes no power-up time to start playing, and while this time is minimal on AirPods, it's still there.
Each device has its share of odd little things that are either annoyances or simply things worth noting. Here, in no particular order, are the missing features and random little behaviors I've noticed with AirPods and Aftershokz Trekz.
- AirPods let you customize what happens when you double tap either Pod, which works as expected on iOS and watchOS. However, macOS doesn't seem to care about your settings, calling up Siri no matter what. This is likely a bug that will be fixed, not a hard limitation of the product.
- For no reason I can think of, Aftershokz removed the "skip back" command years ago and never brought it back. Currently, only AirPods offer this as an option.
- I walked about a mile recently while wearing AirPods. The temperature, including the wind chill, was around negative fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, and yes, it was as cold as you're imagining. Oddly, both double tapping and removing AirPods failed to pause or otherwise control my audio book. Once I was back inside and had removed and re-inserted the Pods, all was back to normal. Extreme cold seems to do funny things to them, though, behavior I haven't yet experienced with Aftershokz. Although, I don't make it a point to test my equipment at such extreme temperatures.
- The AirPods have a barely audible hiss when they're on, like the quiet hiss of many powered speakers. It's not a problem, but you can hear when it kicks on and, after a couple seconds of no audio, turns off.
- It's worth noting that you can use one AirPod at a time. Use one for a few minutes while charging the other, swap them back and forth some, and you can charge both pretty quickly. Or, leave one in and let your other ear remain open for listening to your environment, a conversation, or anything else.
Who Should Buy AirPods
AirPods are the best earbuds I've ever used. Most of the wired bluetooth earbuds I know are meant to block a lot of sound, and have a controller box and wire to worry about. This can be annoying during active use, but also when storing the earbuds. Fitted magnetically into their tiny charging case, AirPods have none of these problems. They also sound good while not blocking too much ambient sound, at least for me.
If bands around the back of your neck are annoying to you, if you need to hear your headset over loud noises, if you want to be able to very easily carry your earbuds, and if you have multiple Apple devices which you switch between with your current headphones, consider the AirPods. At $159 at time of writing, they're only $30 more than the Trekz Titanium. Plus, they charge with the same cable as your iPhone, iPad, or iPod, and give you good microphones and a great Siri experience.
Who Should Buy the Aftershokz
My Trekz Titanium has several advantages that are hard to ignore. Physical controls are my biggest one, since I have volume, Siri (such as it is on this headset), and playback controls at my fingertips. Yes, it's more annoying to manage this with gloves on, but it's doable, and it's only a few months out of the year that this is a concern for me. It may not be a problem for you at all. AirPods let me have just two controls at a time, three counting auto-pausing upon removal of a Pod, and volume is nowhere to be found among the options I have.
Ease of storage is a toss-up, but Aftershokz can be removed and rested around my neck in under a second. With AirPods, I have to take out the case, remove and insert each Pod, close the case, and put it away. It's not hard, but it takes longer and runs the risk of dropping a Pod. While being worn, the bone conduction that leaves my ears completely unblocked is really nice to have, especially outside. Yes, the Aftershokz fails in loud environments, but it's quite nice in most other situations. Besides, if you don't mind blocking all sound, you can put in earplugs; doing so will let you hear very little except the Aftershokz. This is good for long trips where you don't need to hear what's around you.
If you are prone to dropping small objects, if you don't mind wearing an odd-looking headset, if you are okay with wearing the Aftershokz around your neck (it's hard to pocket, after all), if you want physical controls, and if you don't want anything in your ears, the Aftershokz is the best option.
Each of the products we went over has its strong and weak points. I prefer Aftershokz for the controls, bone conduction, and ability to stay around my neck, ready for quick use. However, I prefer AirPods for louder areas or while working out, ease of use with multiple Apple devices, automatic activation when I put them in, the charging case that makes them easier to carry without having to wear something on my neck all day, and their superior sound and Siri performances.
After two weeks with AirPods, I considered returning them. In the end, though, I find them too convenient to let go of. I love not having a band on my neck or a headset on my head while working out, and there's something to be said for the fashion statement. Wearing AirPods looks far more normal than wearing a set of Aftershokz, after all. Fashion is a minor concern for me, but it's there. If and when I need to look professional but still hear my phone or watch, popping in a single AirPod is far more discrete. At the same time, the larger number of controls on the Aftershokz makes them more useful, since I often skip around podcasts, skip songs, and change volume. Apple could address a lot of this by expanding the number of taps needed for a command, but so far, that hasn't happened.
In the end, I have both, and I'm glad I do. I use AirPods a lot, but there are definitely times I want to fall back to the Aftershokz. Using either one means making trade-offs, so the situation dictates which features I do or don't need. If I were forced to pick only one, though, I honestly don't know which I'd take. If triple tap commands are added, then my decision would have to be AirPods, for their ease of use and sound. Without that, though, it's a toss-up. I'd look at the features you need and the features you can live without, consider the physical requirements of each, and make your choice from there. If you can, you should physically try each option, to make sure AirPods will fit your ears, or that the Aftershokz won't interfere with your glasses, hair, seat-back, and the like. All I can say is that both are great options with their own strengths and shortcomings. If you're trying to decide which one to get, I wish you good luck.