The latest AirPods look familiar, but it’s what’s inside that counts. Starting at $159/£159 ($199/£199 with wireless charging case), the second-generation AirPods are smarter and faster than before, thanks to the new H1 chip. You can summon Siri by simply speaking its name, have it read incoming messages and answer calls hands free. AirPods owners can also share audio with friends just by quickly tapping their iPhones together.
However, for the price, Apple doesn’t push the envelope when it comes to features. The second-gen AirPods are not water or sweat-resistant, and there’s no ambient-listening mode. For those features and noise cancelling, check out our AirPods Pro review. However, the AirPods Pro cost $249. For those on a budget, the regular AirPods are among the best wireless earbuds for the money.
See our AirPods vs AirPods Pro face-off if you need help deciding which wireless earbuds to buy.
AirPods price and availability
The AirPods with the standard charging case costs $159/£159, and you’ll pay $199/£199 if you want the wireless charging case included. Be sure to check our best AirPods deals page for the latest discounts.
When the original AirPods debuted back in 2016, I thought they were reminiscent of the hair gel joke from the movie “Something About Mary.” But Apple has had the last laugh, as the disembodied buds have gone on to become a status symbol, launching several popular memes. Hell, it’s rare for me not to see several pairs of the white doodads over the course of my morning-evening commute.
It goes without saying that Apple didn’t have to tweak much of anything, so it didn’t. The 0.14 ounce, 0.7 x 0.7 x 1.6-inch buds are still cased in glossy white plastic protruding into a long stem that’s capped off by silvery chrome. A series of diminutive dark-gray grilles adorn the head of the buds.
While I didn’t expect Apple to deviate wildly from what’s obviously a successful design, I was disappointed that it’s not taking a page out of Samsung’s book and offering different color palettes. At least match your phones and give me a black or space gray, sheesh! And it would have been nice if the company made the AirPods truly sweat- and water-resistant. But I doubt the lack of certification will stop these babies from showing up at the gym.
The only clue that these are indeed the 2nd-generation AirPods is the wireless charging case, but it’s very easy to miss. Both the current and previous-generation cases are made of the same shiny white plastic as the buds, with the same rear-mounted pairing button and the chrome-lined Lightning port.
But if you want to determine whether you’re looking at a standard charging case or a wireless case, check out the front. If there’s a pinhole light, you’ve got a wireless case. It’s a small change, but it keeps me from incessantly flicking the lid open and closed.
The other way to tell is the hinge. The hinge on the new wireless charger is made of anodized metal, whereas the standard case has a shiny metal strip. Due to the extra components, the 1.4 x 0.8 x 2.1-inch wireless case is slightly heavier than the standard one (1.7 x 0.8 x 2.1 inches) at 1.4 ounces compared with 1.3 ounces.
But no matter which case you choose to get, you can now get it laser-engraved for free after popular demand.
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Since they share the same dimensions as the previous AirPods, the second-gen AirPods have that lightweight effortlessness that I love. The 0.14-ounce buds nestle gently into my ear, never causing any uncomfortable pressure. Once they’re in, they kind of fade into the background, which speaks to their comfort, but also freak me out.
The buds are small, even with my freakishly small ears, and I’m always anxious about losing an AirPod, especially on those occasions that I’m barreling down the stairs in Grand Central Station trying to catch the 6 train. There’s never been but the slightest jostle, but in that moment I’m picturing myself trying to protect the runaway bud from being stepped on, falling down a crevasse or onto the tracks. It’s never happened (knock on wood), but the AirPods are so tiny and so expensive ($69/£65 per replacement bud) that it worries me.
Paranoia aside, I wore the AirPods for over 2 hours, taking meetings, watching videos and listening to music in the utmost comfort. They’re one of the most comfortable truly wireless buds I’ve had the pleasure of testing. I think the Samsung Galaxy Buds come closest to matching them.
AirPods pairing and switching speed
Connecting the original AirPods to an iPhone was fast — wicked fast. I put this to the test with an iPhone XS Max and found that it took the AirPods only 3.2 seconds to connect to the smartphone while the older pair took 5.1 seconds. Like the original AirPods, once the buds are connected, a small widget pops up showing the battery life of the Pods and the charging case.
The extra bit of pick up and go comes from Apple’s new H1 chip, which the company says enables the AirPods to offer longer talk times, greater battery life and device switching that is twice as fast as its predecessor. Switching between the XS Max and my MacBook Pro took the new AirPods 2.8 seconds, while the older model finished in 4.3.
If you’re like me and own an Android phone, figuring how to connect AirPods to an Android device will take a little more work, but not much. In order to use the new AirPods with my Samsung Galaxy Note 8 I just needed to press the round button on the back of the charging case. The old AirPods took 4.9 seconds to connect while the new models finished the task in 3.1 seconds. The button can also be used to reset the Bluetooth connection to an iOS device.
But the speed doesn’t stop once you’re connected. The H1 chip is also good for mobile games, cutting audio latency while gaming by 30 percent.
AirPods Siri intergration
Not only are the second-gen AirPods faster, they’re also smarter — at least when it comes to Siri. This is the first pair of Pods to feature hands-free Siri. That’s right, instead of having to tap out your Siri requests on those long, thin AirPod stems, you can simply say “Hey Siri,” and launch the ubiquitous digital assistant.
Naturally, the feature worked beautifully in the fairly quiet environment of the Tom’s Guide office. But I was really impressed when I uttered the magic words on a New York City street during rush hour with police sirens and horns blaring. I didn’t even have to yell — in fact, I’m pretty sure I mumbled the phrase, but, just like that, my music paused as Siri waited to hear the rest of my command. Of course, “Hey Siri” doesn’t work with Android phones, but for iPhone users, it’s pretty cool.
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Just in case you have to get tactile, you can adjust the buds’ double-tap shortcuts in Settings. For instance, I set the right bud to skip tracks forward and the left to skip backward.
Hands-free Siri is cool and all, but what I really need Apple to work on next is adding adjustable ambient noise, similar to what the Jabra Elite Active 65t offers.
While I expected to hear the heavy-hitters of NYC traffic as I made my way to the subway stop, hearing the conversation of the two women walking in front of me was a bit jarring. I had the volume at 75 percent, but could clearly hear what they were saying. I’d rather be an empowered eavesdropper with the ability to adjust how much ambient noise gets in via a companion app than an unwilling one.
It’d also be nice if Apple would create an equalizer so I can finally have the opportunity to hear my music the way I prefer. And it wouldn’t hurt to add a fitness tracker that keeps tabs on heart rate and other metrics for all the gym rats. Oh, well, maybe next time.
AirPods sound quality
While Apple made several improvements to the AirPods, audio quality didn’t make the cut. Don’t get me wrong, the AirPods deliver good audio quality, with a solid soundstage and clean vocals. However, the bass can be a little cold and boomy at times, while the highs can be somewhat recessed.
When I listened to Lizzo’s “Tempo” featuring Missy Elliot on the second-gen AirPods, the deep bass was always at the cusp of overtaking the rest of the track, save for Lizzo and Missy’s bombastic vocals. The electric guitar at the top of the track was scratchier than what I heard with the Jabra Elite Active 65t. And while the bass was definitely aggressive, there wasn’t any crowding, especially on Lizzo’s flute solo toward the end.
I noticed that the higher parts of Kevin Ross’ mostly acapella rendition of “Prototype” were a little stretched on the AirPods, but I heard every piece of the three-part harmony. However, I couldn’t hear the quick piano component of the track as cleanly as I did on the Elite Active 65t. And thanks to the Jabra’ buds wider soundstage, the harmonizing vocals had more room to breathe, making for a warmer presentation
The AirPods delivered a better performance on H.E.R.’s “Focus,” delivering a beautifully delicate harp that was crowded by the big bass, but not so much that the artist’s vulnerable vocal couldn’t shine through. Still, the Elite Active 65ts had more precise lows, which allowed me to hear the percussion better.
AirPods battery life and charging case
Just like the old AirPods, Apple claims the second-gen AirPods can last 5 hours on a charge. And thanks to the H1 chip, the company also says the Pods deliver 50 percent more talk time. I got 4 hours and 49 minutes out of the AirPods. That time was spent binging the last four episodes of Season 2 of The Dragon Prince and falling into the oozy rabbit hole of Dr. Pimple Popper on YouTube, I listened to Solange’s latest album, and I talked to my dad for 30 minutes.
When it’s time for a charge, just pop the AirPods back into their charging case, which will provide up to 24 hours of additional charge when charging either wirelessly or over Lightning. And just like its predecessor, the wireless charging case will deliver 3 hours of listening time and 2 hours of talk time from 15 minutes of charge.
But as the name suggests, the biggest difference between the two charging cases is one can wirelessly charge. All you need is Qi-compatible charger. Sadly, Apple cancelled its AirPower charging mat, so you’ll have to turn to the likes of Mophie and Anker. When I used my colleague’s Mophie charger, the amber indicator lit up in seconds. Granted, it’s not as cool as the Galaxy Buds wireless charging feature, where you just place the earbuds and their case on the Galaxy S10’s rear panel, but it really comes in handy when you don’t have a Lightning cable handy.
AirPods Bluetooth 5.0 benefits
Powered by Bluetooth 5.0 instead of last gen’s 4.2, the new AirPods offer a more stable connection. Walking through NYC, you’re going to encounter a dead spot sooner or later that causes your wireless headphones to drop out for a brief second. I didn’t have that experience with the AirPods 2. I walked from Bryant Park to the 33rd Street stop on the 6 train bopping every step of the way without any drop out.
In terms of range, I managed to leave my phone at my desk and walk to the center of the office — a distance of 50 feet. It’s not surprising as Bluetooth 5.0 promises longer wireless range and improved battery life.
AirPods call quality
With its four integrated microphones, the Elite Active 65t are the gold standard for truly wireless earbuds. But Apple’s H1 chip and dual mics are not to be trifled with. When I called my mom on a NYC street, the call quality was so clear she heard the nasalness in my voice. And while she couldn’t hear much background noise, I could tell that she was talking to me from the Bluetooth in her car. I agreed with mom’s assessment that the Jabras sounded just as good, with one difference— the Jabra’s were clear enough that I could hear my niece shyly saying hi in the background.
While I don’t think I’ll be taking advantage of this (I text more than I talk), the AirPods’s estimated 3 hours talk time is a plus.
Faster, smarter, longer-lasting, the AirPods are still at the top of the heap for iPhone owners. Apple has given people what they want with wireless charging and a hands-free approach to Siri. And the fact that the buds offer longer talk time and faster pairing are icing on the cake, especially since the old AirPods’ pairing was near instantaneous.
However, $199/£199 is a bit pricey for a pair of truly wireless buds, especially when you’ve got the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Buds offering wireless charging for a mere $129/£139. And ounce-for-ounce when it comes to features, the AirPods can’t hold a candle to the $175/£149 Jabra Elite Active 65t with its host of adjustable add-ons. Still, if you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem, you’ve got to have the new AirPods.
Credit: Tom’s Guide