AirPods (2nd generation) review: Apple's mega-hit headphones get a few modest improvements Credit: Jason CrossIDGIDG
IT & Systems Management

AirPods (2nd generation) review: Apple's mega-hit headphones get a few modest improvements

When AirPods were first announced in 2016, people were skeptical. Apple wants us to pay $160 for EarPods without wires? What’s with those sticks sticking out of your ears? The case looks like dental floss!

But then, everyone who actually used them fell instantly in love. Easy pairing, auto-pausing, lightweight comfort, and rock-solid connection—Apple took all the pain points of Bluetooth headphones away. AirPods flew off the shelves and were backordered for months as Apple ramped up production to meet demand.

So what does Apple do for an encore? We’ll have to wait for a while to find out. Apple’s new AirPods are just that—new AirPods. They’re not AirPods 2 or AirPods X. They’re not a revolution or even a new design. But if you rely on Apple devices, they’re still the best true wireless earbuds around.

Everything old is new again

If you go to the Apple site and look up AirPods, you will find this new model and nothing else. The old model has been completely replaced by this new one, still simply called "AirPods." When Apple really needs to make a distinction between this new model and the old ones, it calls them “AirPods (2nd generation).”

airpods 2nd gen 03 Jason Cross/IDG

Can you tell the difference between the old AirPods and the new ones?

The implication is clear: You should not expect these to revolutionize the wireless earphones market all over again. You should expect AirPods, as you’ve always known them, just a little bit better. Refined, you might say.

They have the same look, the same shape, the same glossy white finish. The case has the same design. You still pair them with your iPhone by simply holding the case open nearby, just as before. You use them just as you used the old ones: Double-tap to skip tracks forward/back or invoke Siri. Music pauses when you take one out of your ear and starts playing again when you put it back in.

In fact, with the exception of a new optional Wireless Charging Case that has a tiny LED on the front, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any difference between the new AirPods and the old ones.

airpods 2nd gen 05 Jason Cross/IDG

The new Wireless Charging Case has the reset/sync button in the middle, so the charging coil fits around it.

The new AirPods have the same battery life as the old ones, too: about five hours of music playback, with the case holding enough power for four recharges. The sound quality is also the same—slightly better than Apple's wired EarPods, slightly worse than most $150 wired earphones.

The H1 chip: Faster sync, hands-free Siri

The second-generation AirPods may look and sound the same, but they’ve changed inside. They use a new custom-designed H1 chip that Apple says is “developed specifically for headphones” and allow for improved efficiency.

airpods 2nd gen 02 Jason Cross/IDG

The 2nd-gen AirPods do everything the original AirPods do, plus hands-free "Hey, Siri."

The chip enables the one truly new feature of the AirPods: the ability to invoke Siri by simply saying “Hey, Siri” instead of double-tapping (though double-tapping still works). In my testing, it worked quite well, even on a fairly noisy street. Sound playback will dim after a couple of seconds to let you know Siri is listening, but you don’t have to wait for that. As with your iPhone, simply say your entire command without pausing for best results.

We still think Siri needs to get a lot better, and desperately needs the ability to fully function with third-party music services just as well as it does with Apple Music. But AirPods are best in situations where your hands are occupied: at the gym, riding a bike, bundled up in freezing cold weather. I didn’t realize how useful it would be to use Siri with my phone in my pocket and my hands full until I had the ability to.

The H1 chip enables a few other minor improvements, too. The new AirPods switch from one device to another twice as fast, connect to phone calls up to 50 percent faster, and offer slightly lower latency (up to 30 percent less). These may sound like big improvements, but in practice, taking two to three seconds to switch from my iPhone to my Mac isn’t all that different from taking four to five seconds. Gamers crave lower latency, but the difference is quite small. You have to be really sensitive to that sort of thing to notice it, and the new AirPods still don't compare to wired headphones in that regard.

Remember when I said battery life was the same? There’s one important exception to that. The battery life when making calls has risen from 2 hours to 3 hours. If you make lots of long phone calls with your AirPods, that’s a huge benefit you’ll immediately notice. Long dial-in meetings would regularly decimate my old AirPods’ battery life, while the new ones have plenty of power left.

Wireless Charging Case optional

Together with refreshed AirPods, Apple introduced a Wireless Charging Case. It was meant to go with the AirPower charging mat before Apple cancelled it. It does work with any Qi-compatible wireless charger, though.

airpods 2nd gen 06 Jason Cross/IDG

For this particular product, wireless charging isn't a big deal. It's probably not worth $40 extra.

The new case is optional—you can still get AirPods with the standard Lightning-only charging case for the same $159 price the old ones cost. If you want the ability to juice up your AirPods by setting the case down on a little pad, you can get the Wireless Charing Case together with your AirPods for $199. It works with the old AirPods, too, so you can buy just the case alone for $79.

In my experience, the case charges more slowly on a wireless charging pad than plugged in. Given the relative infrequency of charging up your AirPods case (compared to, say, your iPhone) and the inability to work with wireless charging stands (which don’t lie flat), I would say it’s probably not worth the extra money. It’s a curiosity, but it doesn’t solve a pressing need.

A great buy, but not a great upgrade

If you already own a pair of AirPods, you probably shouldn't upgrade to the latest model. The improvements in switching speed and latency aren't game-changers, and the ability to use Siri hands-free, while useful, isn't worth the cost alone. Those who make a lot of long phone calls will love how much longer the battery lasts, but everyone else will notice no real difference in longevity.

If you haven't bought AirPods yet, the improvements in this second-generation model make them a little more compelling. Still, we can't help but anxiously await a true successor to Apple's near-ubiquitous wireless headphones. 

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