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How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones
(Image credit: Future)

It's a common predicament: you've seen a great AirPods deal but something doesn't feel right. You've never bought from this seller before and you can't be sure whether the product is genuine. Risk it, and you could save yourself a fortune. Then again, buying from an unauthorised dealer could mean ending up with a pair of counterfeit headphones that might look similar to the real thing but don't perform anywhere near as well. And remember, unscrupulous sellers aren't exactly known for their generous refund policies...

Apple's current AirPods lineup (AirPods 2, AirPods Pro, AirPods 3 and AirPods Max) is a quartet that can easily count itself among the most popular wireless earbuds and wireless headphones on the planet – a simple fact that has resulted in swathes of, er, extreme flattery from competing audio brands keen to pay homage to (and hone in on) those popular designs.

While there are plenty of legitimate AirPods alternatives on the market today (many of which actually beat AirPods offerings in terms of sound quality), the desirability of Apple's earbuds has led to a concerning issue: fakery. It is rife out there. 

So, what to do? How do you make sure you're getting the real deal, not just with AirPods but any pair of branded headphones? By reading this guide, that's how. We are about to help you make sure every pair of headphones you buy are 100 per cent genuine, come with a full guarantee, and provide you with many hours of listening pleasure. So, let's get to it...

(Oh, and if you just want our pick of the best legit AirPods deals, all from trusted and affiliated retailers, click the link. You're welcome.)

Check for fake AirPods in 4 easy steps 

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

(Image credit: Apple)

Already bought a pair of what you were led to believe were authentic AirPods and now questioning their authenticity? Or, are you considering a purchase from an online auction site but want to know what to look for? Read on. 

Copycat manufacturers are good at their game. In fact, these days they're very good. Moody manufacturers can even copy the software aspect of Apple's AirPods nowadays. But they are not perfect, and while distinguishing fake AirPods from real ones is not getting any easier, these four steps will allow you to separate the wheat from the chaff.

First off: the serial number. Think of this combination of letters and numbers as the fingerprint of a product. By assigning a unique serial number to a boxed set of AirPods, Apple is able to track specific units during inventory, help owners to find lost or stolen AirPods, pinpoint defective batches and so on.

Every pair of authentic AirPods has a one-of-a-kind serial number. It can be found either in the Settings, inside the charging case lid, on the driver housing and also on the box beneath the barcode. To check whether the serial number on your product is genuine or not, head to the Apple Coverage Check page (opens in new tab). If your AirPods are original, you’ll see something similar to the image we've shared below. 

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

A simple Apple serial number check (Image credit: Apple support)

Don't get too excited yet, though. Checking the serial number alone isn't the definitive way of authenticating your AirPods that it used to be, because counterfeit manufacturers have started pinching serial numbers from real AirPods to use in batches of fakes. That said, their process is often flawed. Looking at a pair of AirPods with a different serial number on the box to the one on the earbuds themselves? That's a big red flag. 

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

(Image credit: Apple)

Next up: the packaging. Funnily enough, it's here that copycat manufacturers often struggle the most. Apple's attention to detail when it comes to the presentation of its products is hard to imitate convincingly and consistently. 

Did you know, for example, that Apple's trademark tight-fitting lid and inner box, whereby you have to raise the lid and wait for gravity to do its thing (creating an odd, somewhat dramatic feeling of suction) is intentional? It's very hard for counterfeit outfits to replicate that. If the lid of the box doesn't feel especially snug, you could have a fake on your hands. 

Elsewhere, check for typos, a big single label on the side of the box (Apple AirPods packaging sports three smaller labels) and minor inconsistencies with the font. If you do not have an authentic box for comparison – and why should you? – Apple currently uses a font called San Francisco, so you can try downloading this from Apple's font library (opens in new tab) and printing out some words to check. Does the font on the packaging look thinner, taller and slightly more squashed together? You could be looking at a counterfeit item.

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

(Image credit: Apple)

Third on our check-list is the box contents. Fake AirPods will often only come with a manual. Authentic AirPods, however, include two extra documents: a safety sheet and the warranty card – and the paper they're printed on will have rounded edges.

Finally, there are the physical differences between real and fake AirPods. You could argue that we should have put this clause first, but the flaws here can sometimes be a lot more subtle, especially if you don't have the real deal to hand as a comparison – and if you've just bought a pair of AirPods, it stands to reason that you didn't own a set beforehand. 

These two checks do not require a bona fide pair of AirPods for comparison, though. First off, look directly at the speaker grilles of your AirPods Pro, AirPods 3 or AirPods (2019). The transparency of these grilles is key here. If they are authentic, you will see the silhouette of two circular drivers behind the grille. The innards will not be visible if you have fakes.

Secondly, original AirPods house magnetised components. Bring the two earbuds together and one should actually repel the other. If the earbud you're holding above the other doesn't seem to be pushing it further away along your desk, there may be an authenticity issue.

So, that's our advice on how to check if you've inadvertently purchased a fake Apple AirPods product. Not taken the plunge yet? Keep reading. 

Only buy from authorised dealers

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

(Image credit: Future)

Buying from authorised dealers not only ensures the product you're buying is genuine; it also means you get a high level of pre- and post-sale service.

When you buy from an authorised dealer, whether at a shop or online, you can be sure you're buying a genuine, factory-new product. Authorised dealers will have access to the latest product knowledge, so can better serve your needs, and can offer a full warranty in case the headphones don't work as advertised.

See the links at the bottom of this page for our recommended list of authorised dealers based on brands – or use our dedicated Apple AirPods deals page and you can't go wrong. 

Not sold on AirPods? See our roundup of the best wireless earbuds deals live now. 

Buying safely from auction sites

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

(Image credit: Apple)

While Amazon is an authorised online dealer of many headphone brands, a lot of third-party resellers who sell through Amazon are not. To make sure you're buying from an authorised reseller, make sure you check where the product is being "shipped from and sold by". This should be clearly stated on the product page.

Many headphone sellers on eBay are not authorised resellers either. Buying from these sellers also means you won't get the warranty or the level of after-sale support that manufacturers provide – and it will essentially come down to your word against theirs should it end up in a dispute with eBay.

Lastly, if you are still intent on buying here, check (and double-check) you're happy with the condition of the headphones you're purchasing. If you want a brand new set of cans, for example, make sure that's what you're getting as opposed to a 'Like New', 'Open-box', 'Refurbished' or 'Used' pair.

If in doubt, ask

If you're in any doubt about the retailer you're considering buying from, check the manufacturer's recommended list below. 

Still uncertain? Contact the seller directly before you buy. You can always politely ask them if they are prepared to provide more photos – and regardless of whether you're considering a set of AirPods or headphones made by another brand, it's well worth checking the serial number with the manufacturer to see if it's genuine. Many are not.

Understand the risks

How to spot and avoid buying fake AirPods and headphones

(Image credit: Future)

If you do buy from an unauthorised dealer, it's important to know what you're getting yourself into. The headphones you buy could be faulty, fake or even stolen.  Even if they are perfectly fine, you'll have no warranty to fall back on if they do develop a fault.

Headphones sold by unauthorised dealers can come from a variety of sources. They could have been bought from a 'grey' secondary market (often somewhere outside of Europe with no warranty cover). They may be damaged or defective stock (so-called 'B' grade stock). They could even be stolen, or fake – i.e. not actually produced by the manufacturer of the brand. 

Many unauthorised resellers sell via sites such as Amazon Marketplace and eBay, but it has also been known for some more established stores to obtain stock through these unauthorised channels.

In some cases, unauthorised resellers have changed their name, website address and location to avoid dealing with customer problems. So if you were to have an issue, you would be on your own.

Where to buy safely online

Before buying a pair of headphones, we strongly advise you to check that you're buying from an authorised dealer. As an example, click the links below to find authorised dealers for each of these respectable brands:

AKG (opens in new tab)

Apple (opens in new tab)

Audio Technica (opens in new tab)

B&W (opens in new tab)

B&O (opens in new tab)

Bose (opens in new tab)

Denon (opens in new tab)

FiiO (opens in new tab)

Grado (opens in new tab)

JVC (opens in new tab)

Monster (opens in new tab)

Sennheiser (opens in new tab)

Shure (opens in new tab)

Sony (opens in new tab)

SoundMagic (opens in new tab)

Again, a quick one-off auction deal it is not, but buying directly from the manufacturer largely absolves the issue of authenticity (go direct to Apple (opens in new tab), and you'll get Apple AirPods) – but always check it is the manufacturer you're buying from. 

In headphones as in life, it is always better to be safe than sorry...

MORE: 

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Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.