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I compared $32 AirPods knockoffs to the real thing. Here's what I found out

Updated! The new AirSounds 2 have touch controls and a wireless charging case. How do they compare with Apple's $200 earbuds?

airsounds-2-vs-airpods

Can you spot the AirPods imposter?

Rick Broida/CNET

Take a look at this photo. Two pairs of Apple AirPods, right? Nope: One of them is a clone, a knockoff, an off-brand replica. If you've seen these before -- and they're everywhere nowadays -- I'll bet you wondered the same thing I did: How do they compare? Can $32 true-wireless earbuds possibly rival Apple's $159 ones?

As the Cheapskate, I desperately wanted to find out. I've tested loads of earbuds before, but they all had different designs; none of them were exact AirPods copycats. This time, I truly wanted to compare, well, apples to Apples.

AirPods vs. AirSounds 2

Apple AirPods with Wireless Charging Case $199 See it at Apple
AirSounds 2 $31.99 with code CNETSOUNDS20 See it at ZDNet Deals

Read more: The best true-wireless earbuds for 2019 | The best-sounding true wireless headphones of 2019

When I first conducted this test a a few months ago, I opted for the AirSounds True Wireless Earbuds -- a dead ringer for the real thing save for the tiny power/function button protruding from each 'bud. Although I found the sound quality to be surprisingly decent overall, I had issues with the fit, outdoor performance (dropouts were a real problem) and lack of auto-pairing. My ultimate verdict: Not bad for the price, but why bother when there are so many other true-wireless earbuds that don't look like AirPods but perform as well or better?

But here comes the AirSounds 2 (normally $39.99, but $32 with promo code CNETSOUNDS20), with a host of compelling upgrades: Bluetooth 5.0, touch controls, auto-pairing and, surprisingly, a case that can charge wirelessly. This last puts them more in line with the Apple's higher-end AirPods, which also have a wireless charging case and sell for $199.

OK, but at less than one-sixth the price, the AirSounds 2 can't possibly be any good, right? Do the new features solve the first version's problems and add up to a more compelling alternative? Read on.

Read more: The best cheap true-wireless earphones for 2019

AirSounds 2 vs. AirPods: Fit

I've always found Apple's EarPods -- the wired headphones included in the box with iPhones -- to be a comfortable fit, and the same goes for AirPods, even though the latter are just a hair larger. That's not true for everyone, though; some folks find them too large or too small. It really just depends on the size of your ears.

The AirSounds 2 case is all but identical to the AirPods case; I'd need a caliper to measure any size difference. However, while the original AirSounds earbuds were a hair larger than the AirPods, and therefore uncomfortable in my ears, the AirSounds 2 are a perfect fit. I wore them for 30 minutes and never noticed the slightest discomfort. Your mileage absolutely positively may vary, however.

airsounds-2-vs-airpods-open-case

The AirSounds 2 (left) have exterior LEDs that indicate charge status.

Rick Broida/CNET

AirSounds 2 vs. AirPods: Features

As noted above, the AirSounds 2 really stepped up on the feature front. For starters, no more power buttons: You take the earbuds out of the case and presto, they pair with your phone. However, they don't have the sensors that automatically detect when they go in and out of your ears, an AirPods feature I really like. You'll have to pause/resume playback manually.

Speaking of that, the AirSounds 2 does offer touch controls -- but the instruction manual gets their functions wrong. It say you tap the left earbud once to play/pause music or answer a call, twice to skip to the next track and so on. However, turns out it's two taps of either earbud to play/pause and three taps to skip. That's not a huge deal, but if you don't tap in just the right spot, any given function might not work, or not work correctly. Sometimes, for example, when I triple-tapped, the earbud only recognized two taps.

If you've ever seen AirPods, you know that Apple's charging case has one measly LED -- under the case lid -- to indicate charge status. The AirSounds 2 case has four green LEDs on the front, and the earbuds themselves glow red while charging.

To my surprise, the AirSounds 2 case also has a Lightning port for charging, not Micro-USB like on the previous version and many other true-wireless earbud cases. But the real surprise here is that the case can juice up just by lying on a Qi charging pad. That feature costs $40 extra when you're shopping for AirPods.

I wasn't able to test the AirSounds 2's battery life, which is rated at up to four hours -- with up to eight additional hours afforded by the charging case. That's about on par with the original AirSounds, but AirPods still crush them with an estimated 24 hours of total listening time.

AirSounds 2 vs. AirPods: Outdoor performance

As noted above, the first-gen AirSounds couldn't handle the outdoors: Audio would drop out as soon as I ventured into an open area. But the AirSounds 2? Zero dropouts, at least in my tests. I went around the block with my phone tucked away in my pocket, but audio came through perfectly clear.

I'm not sure if this can be attributed to Bluetooth 5.0 or something else, because I've also been testing another AirPods clone -- also with a wireless charging case -- and it suffers the same audio-dropout issue, despite having Bluetooth 5.0. Whatever's behind it, the AirSounds 2 have solved a major AirSounds 1 problem.

AirSounds 2 vs. AirPods: Sound quality

This is arguably the single most important aspect of any headphone, and it's where I'd expect any cheapie product to fare the worst. But I thought the AirSounds were decent, and I can say the same of the AirSounds 2. Great? No. Good enough for walking the dog, listening to podcasts, doing housework and all that? Yeah, I think so.

AirPods are better, no question, offering broader range and more bass. But $167 better? Oh my heavens, no.

Of course, if it's bass you want, you need to bypass this design altogether in favor of earbuds that create an inner-ear seal -- something like the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air, already an attractive AirPods alternative at $80, and often on sale for even less. But I actually favor this design for aforementioned outdoor activities like walking and running, because I feel it's safer to let some ambient noise (like from oncoming cars and scooters) in.

AirSounds 2 vs. AirPods: Verdict

rick-broida-wearing-airsounds

Whether it's made by Apple or some no-name company, this still isn't a good look.

Rick Broida/CNET

So, assuming you like the look of Apple's AirPods (more on that in a second), should you save yourself $167 and buy the AirSounds 2 instead? That's a much tougher question now, because the latter greatly improve on the original and have evolved into a product I can recommend.

Of course, there are still plenty of other true-wireless earbuds that cost less than AirPods, some of them priced at $50 or less.

What I continue to wonder is whether an AirPod clone makes sense at all. They're still pretty dorky-looking, if you ask me, so unless it's a status thing -- like wearing a fake Rolex -- I'd look at some of the other options.

Indeed, you can enjoy good sound from something like the TaoTronics TWS TT-BH053, which runs $50 and mimics the AirPods' and AirSounds' "pipe" design -- but comes in matte black, not glossy white, and are therefore a bit less conspicuous.

Still, if you just want to make people think you're wearing AirPods, but don't want to pay $159 to $199 for the privilege, the AirSounds 2 are worth a look. They're not perfect, but they're surprisingly good for the price.

Note: This post was published previously and has since been updated to include a newer version of the AirSounds.


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