Apple’s AirPods may not have been the first product of its kind, but as is usually the case with Apple products, they have quickly become one of the most popular choices for wireless audio listening. The compact, wireless headphones stay true to Apple’s usual ethos of having things be simple and elegant, so it can sometimes come as a bit of a shock when Apple products stop working correctly.
One of the more common problems you might experience with AirPods is suddenly muffled sound. This not only makes for a horrible listening experience, but it can even be a little disorientating. After all, your ears are responsible for balance, and anyone who has had blocked ear will be able to tell you how grating muffled sound can be.
Before you throw your AirPods away in frustration or make the long trek to the nearest Genius Bar in the hope that Apple will take care of it for free, there are some common causes of muffled AirPods that can be handled with little-to-no expertise. So keep reading, and we’ll go through them all, as well as possible solutions where applicable.
Causes of Muffled AirPods Audio:
Unfortunately, there is more than one way in which your AirPods can start outputting muffled audio. We’re going to cover the known causes—as well as ways to resolve the problem if there are any—but we can’t guarantee there aren’t other ways this problem could happen. If you don’t find the cause of your muffled audio here, it still does not necessarily mean that your AirPods are done for.
Unfortunately, the most common cause of muffled audio from AirPods is also a little bit gross, but there’s not much we can do about how our bodies work. The most common cause of muffled audio is the speakers becoming clogged with grime, dust, and, yes, ear wax.
You have to remember that we are essentially dealing with little tubes that you are shoving into your ear canals. Even if you obsessively clean your ears, your body is constantly producing earwax, and some of that is going to get into the opening of your AirPods where the speakers are. Of course, anything that obstructs the soundwaves coming out of the speaker is going to negatively affect the audio quality, so how do we deal with this problem?
The answer, of course, is cleaning. You have unwanted grime obstructing your speaker, the only course of action is to remove it. Of course, you can’t just drop them in some soapy water and leave them to soak—your AirPods may sound bad now, but they will sound much worse if you submerge them in liquid! Or, rather, they won’t sound at all as they’ll likely be broken. They are water-resistant but not waterproof. It is the difference between being able to wear them in the rain or while you’re sweating and being able to go swimming with them in.
You will need to remove the tips of the AirPods to make it easier to get the mesh covering that protects the speakers inside. This covering is where the offending substances will build up—as it is meant to do—but when enough of it has built up, it will affect the sound by muffling it or, in extreme cases, making it almost inaudible.
The first thing to note is you should not dive in there with something sharp and attempt to pick the gunk out, as this could result in damaging the mesh. If that happened, any future muck would be able to get into the AirPod casing itself, where it would be considerably more difficult to get out. Not to mention dirt on the speaker itself can damage it beyond repair.
The next thing to not do is aggressively rub at the gunk in an effort to get it off. This can result in the debris being pushed through the mesh, giving you the same problem as you would have if you inadvertently broke the mesh with something sharp.
It is tricky, but the best approach is to gently brush a dry, lint-free cloth across the muck, not pushing too hard against the mesh. This will hopefully pull the grime away, though it may take a few goes to get it completely clean.
It should be noted that this process is much easier if you keep on top of it. If you allow too much grime to build up, it can become compacted to the point that gentle wiping will not be enough, which is a very bad thing considering that, as we’ve highlighted, pressing too hard can make things much worse. If things get to this stage, unfortunately, you will have to ignore our previous advice about using something sharp to pick out the build-up in your AirPod grills. It should go without saying that you will need to be especially careful if you do this.
So that’s clogged speakers, but what if your AirPods are clean as a whistle and you are still getting muffled sound?
Bluetooth is the wireless protocol through which your AirPods communicate with your phone (or whatever other devices you are listening to). Given that this is the single road through which your music or podcasts travel, it can naturally cause all manner of issues if things start to misbehave. Granted, muffled audio would be something of an unusual symptom of Bluetooth issues, which tend to present more in the form of skipping audio, reduced quality, or completely losing the signal. That being said, Bluetooth is responsible for processing the audio before transmitting it, so it is not impossible that it could cause muffled audio. It’s also worth noting that people don’t always describe things in the same way, and, for some, the reduced audio quality that can occur might be seen as “muffled.”
So, what can we do to resolve Bluetooth issues?
The first and most obvious step is to give your Bluetooth the old “turn off and on again.” The idea here is to force the Bluetooth to reconnect, so if you are using something like an iPhone, you can disable the Bluetooth for a short time and then turn it back on. If you are using some other device, you might need to reboot the entire device in order to force that reconnection.
If you are using your AirPods with something more substantial, such as a MacBook or any other kind of fully-fledged computer, things can get a little harder to diagnose. Assuming you have tried disabling and re- enabling the computer’s Bluetooth as mentioned above, you can next try rebooting your laptop. If that doesn’t work, try disconnecting any USB devices that you might have plugged in, especially if your AirPods stopped working shortly after you connected one of them.
Finally, if none of those things solve the problem, you can try restarting your AirPods. If you’re not sure how to do this, skip further down the post where we explain the procedure.
So, what else?
Bluetooth is a very specialist wireless protocol, designed for use over short distances with a stable and secure connection in mind. It is supposed to be reliable, as the convenience of something like wireless headphones is mostly negated if the wireless signal it is receiving is unstable and keeps dropping out. That being said, even Bluetooth can be susceptible to interference from outside sources, so it is worth ruling this out if none of the above solutions have worked for you. But how do you go about fixing an interference problem with your AirPods?
The first solution to this problem may seem a little obvious, but you might be surprised at how often it is the right solution. We mentioned above that Bluetooth is a wireless protocol designed for short-range use (or rather, it is designed to use minimal power, and short-range is a result of that); well, if you wander out to the edges of your Bluetooth range, you will start to see degradation in your connection. This degradation can result in different symptoms, such as crackling and reduced audio quality. The solution, of course, is to move back within range. If you have gotten up to make a cup of coffee and left your phone upstairs, bringing it down with you will probably solve the problem.
The next thing to consider is interference from other Bluetooth devices, especially devices that you might have connected your AirPods to in the past and could be trying to connect to them now while you are using them. For this, you will need to do a little debugging. Using a phone or laptop, check for the available Bluetooth devices in range and see what is around. Next, try turning each one off individually, checking to see if any of the Bluetooth devices you have disabled have fixed the problem as you go. If you find that disabling one of those devices clears up your AirPods audio, you’ve got your culprit.
From there, you can either leave the device’s Bluetooth disabled when you are using your AirPods in that area or, if you have previously connected your AirPods to that device, you could have the device “forget” the AirPods, which should prevent it from trying to connect to them in the future.
Problems at the Source
Are final potential cause for muffled audio with your AirPods—and, if we’re being honest, the least likely culprit of your audio woes—are issues with the device or software that is playing the audio in the first place. We should clarify, the source causing problems with your audio playback is not necessarily uncommon, but specifically causing muffled playback would be one of the less common problems.
In any case, diagnosing the source as your problem should not be an issue. Simply connect wired headphones or speakers to your device and see if the audio is still muffled. If you are using a phone or laptop, play the audio through the speakers. If the audio is still muffled when you are not listening through your AirPods and you are not using a Bluetooth connection, then you can rule out both of those things as a cause.
Unfortunately, fixing this kind of problem is not as straightforward as diagnosing it. The first thing you can do is rule out the device itself. Try playing something different, such as a different song or podcast. If that doesn’t make a difference, try using a different app. If you have been listening to music through iTunes, try listening through Spotify. If either of these things make a difference, you can rule out your device (iPhone, MacBook, etc.) as the cause of your audio problems.
If changing the audio (song, podcast, audiobook, etc.) makes a difference, it would suggest that the audio file you are playing is the cause of your problems. It could be corrupted; it could even be the physical location in your device’s memory that is faulty. Try redownloading the file or copying it to another location and playing the copy to see if that makes a difference. If changing the audio file didn’t make a difference but changing the app did, try restarting it. If that doesn’t work, you may need to remove and reinstall the app.
Resetting Your AirPods
If nothing we have covered above works, you can try resetting your AirPods. To do this, you will need to place them in the case as you would when charging. Underneath, you will find the Setup button, press and hold that button for roughly fifteen seconds. You should see the LED indicator turn white, flash amber a few times, and then start flashing white again. Once that is done, your AirPods have now “forgotten” their previous Bluetooth connection. You can then set about reconnecting them to whatever device you want to listen to.
As we mentioned above, restarting devices works surprisingly often, and AirPods are not exempt from that fact. Of course, there are always problems that can’t be fixed with a simple reset.
If All Else Fails…
Unfortunately, there are times when no amount of attempted fixes or rebooting will remedy the issues you are facing. If nothing we have covered above has been able to resolve your muffled audio problems, it would suggest there is a problem with your AirPods that may warrant replacement or attention from an Apple Genius, at least.
In order to save time, be sure to test your AirPods with a different device to the one you first experienced the problems with. You should already have tried this as part of the Bluetooth troubleshooting, but if you haven’t, try connecting your AirPods to a completely different device and listen to something other than what you were initially listening to. The goal here is to completely rule out external factors that could be causing the problem. If you are listening to a different song on a different device and in a different location to where you were experiencing the problem, it is safe to assume the problem is with the AirPods and not your audio device. Of course, be sure to try resetting your AirPods as described above before attempting to get Apple to repair or replace them.
Repair or replacement would be the natural next step, of course. If your AirPods are still within their warranty period, don’t hesitate to head over to your nearest Apple Store and hit up the Genius Bar. Apple is very keen on providing the best, most seamless experience they possibly can. And, as such, tend to be one of the better companies for honoring warranties. If your AirPods are out of warranty, however, we’re afraid you
may be looking at purchasing a new pair of AirPods. Of course, it is always worth paying a visit to the Apple Store first. Even if you can’t get your AirPods replaced under warranty, the clever people at the Genius Bar may be able to offer you advice or repair the AirPods for much cheaper than you could replace them for yourself.
A muffled sound from your headphones—particularly in-ear headphones—is incredibly frustrating, but more often than not, there is a simple solution to remedy the problem. Granted, in most cases, that simple solution boils down to turning something off and back on. It may be your device, the Bluetooth functionality of the device, or even your AirPods themselves. Whichever it is, rebooting works a lot of the time.
That being said, the most common cause of muffled sound remains a build-up of unwanted gunk and grime over the speaker grills. It is not particularly nice to think about, but everybody’s ears produce earwax, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just remember to be careful when cleaning your AirPods, as it can be quite easy to make the problem worse by diving in with a sharp object or aggressively trying to wipe the gunk away.
And, remember, it is much easier to keep your AirPods clean if you do it regularly than it is if you let it build-up to the point where it is causing problems with the audio.