When Apple first released AirPods in 2016, I was skeptical that anyone would actually be willing to wear them—and .
Fast forward two-plus years later, and all the memes mocking AirPods are what look ridiculous. The earbuds are almost totally inescapable in public life and . The most relevant meme they're associated with now .
Apple finally followed up on that massive success with a quieter update than you might expect from the biggest, showiest tech company in the world. Second-generation AirPods , without the typical fanfare Apple rolls out for even incremental hardware releases. There weren't any hugely noticeable upgrades to the earbuds—Apple didn't even designate a new name or number for the new version, keeping the AirPods moniker—but a few new features do separate them from the original, including enhanced Siri controls, better battery life, and (if you're willing to shell out some extra cash) a wireless charging case.
We had the opportunity to test out a pair of the new headphones shortly after launch, and found that AirPods 2.0 are a solid (if unimaginative) second effort—but they are especially useful when you take them into the gym.
Getting Started with AirPods
The feature that most people get excited about when they start using AirPods is the seamless connectivity with iPhones (other devices work too, but the iOS experience is the main draw here). Pairing the devices is extremely simple—just open the AirPods case and pop the earphones in your ears, open your phone's Settings menu, and boom, music.
That's in part thanks to the new H1 chip inside, which makes the connection from phone to earpiece even faster than the previous generation, according to Apple's specs. I haven't used AirPods 1.0 enough to have a reference point, but I have paired enough Bluetooth audio devices to my phone to notice how much quicker the AirPods were to sync than usual. That ease-of-entry is one of the main reasons so many casual users have made the switch to AirPods, and I found that it works more or less exactly as advertised.
Another subtle design feature highlights how convenient AirPods can be. I've been using 'true wireless' buds for almost two years now, and the biggest problem I've encountered—outside of battery life, of course—is with the carrying cases. The AirPods case is compact and shaped perfectly to slide into a pocket, even if I'm carrying something else like a wallet in the same space. The case became just as familiar in my pockets as my omnipresent wallet and keys during my test—no small feat, after using so many cases that have been bulky and annoying to carry. I don't stress about schlepping the case out onto the gym floor or on a run, either, since it's not going to take up too much space next to my workstation and fits into even the smallest zipper pockets.
The new wireless charging feature makes that handy case even more useful. I have Qi chargers on my nightstand and my desk at work, so there was always power available if I needed it. Removing cords from the equation was a bigger lift than I expected; this didn't necessarily solve any problems, but it took away any need to plan or carry extra gear around when I could just plop the case down for some extra juice. I found that the AirPods' battery performed as advertised (about 24 hours total listening time between charges, accounting for power-ups from the case).
How Well Do AirPods Actually Work?
AirPods have a distinctive look and a well-designed case—but that doesn't say anything about their performance once you stick them in your ears and press play.
Once I had the headphones paired, I cranked up the volume and was pleasantly surprised by the result. The sound was rich and full, without any tinny effects or blowouts. The atmospheric, layered instruments in Death Cab for Cutie's latest album were fully realized, and the base line and drums from A Tribe Called Quest's "Excursions" were just as smooth on AirPods as they were on Under Armour's True Wireless Flash headphones, which have in-ear tips for a more sealed-off experience.
That listening test was at my desk in a quiet office. When I took the AirPods out into the world, however, the results were different. I've spent a ton of time walking around New York City with let in more ambient sound than I was used to hearing with in-ear buds on, so I was surprised at how much ambient sound made its way into my ears. In some senses, that was a good thing—it's not always smart to lock yourself into a sound bubble in the middle of a busy street or train platform. But when I was listening to audiobooks, the outside world crept in more than I would've liked, and I found myself rewinding to catch parts I had missed.
I faced the same dilemma in the gym. It was easier to keep my wits about me and hear other people approaching, but when I wanted to totally tune out the anathema that is Pitbull blasting on a gym speaker at 7 a.m., I couldn't escape. Ultimately, the choice will be up to the wearer—how much sound do you want to be able to block?
One of the new features added with the new H1 chip is enhanced voice controls powered by Apple's digital assistant, Siri. I found the commands where mostly accurate (I was on train platforms or around bustling streets with lots of background noise when it didn't work, so I'll chalk it up to interference), but I felt foolish saying "hey Siri" out loud in public every time I wanted to skip a track.
I also missed being able to control my music physically on the earpiece—most of the buds I've worn before have manual controls built-in, so you can pause, switch tracks, and control the volume with a quick tap or swipe. You can change the cues in the AirPods' settings on the phone to control the music with a double tap, but it's not as easy to use as Siri and only allows one command per ear, so you're limited in what you can do. again, this is a matter of preference, and in a few years it might be common for everyone to be talking to their devices in public—but until then, I'm not going to make it a habit.
If you're worried about AirPods falling out when you exercise, don't. They stayed in my ears through weight room sessions, runs, and everyday life just as well as in-ear buds, but their small carrying case made them even easier to take anywhere. I have heard that some peoples' ears aren't well-suited to the teardrop shape, but that wasn't the case with me. The exposed stems weren't an issue, either—and it's hard to deny the cachet that comes with walking around with the sticks poking out of your ears given their "it accessory" status.
Overall, AirPods 2.0 are more impressive than I expected them to be, but I'm not exactly sold on their status as the top wireless bud on the market. Given my qualms about sound and control, I'd still be more likely to grab an in-ear option for my workout—but I can see why someone who has never used true wireless headphones would gravitate toward AirPods first.
They're easy to use, sound good enough, and have more brand recognition than anything else on the market by a mile. At $159 (or $199 for the new wireless charging case), they're actually not all that expensive for a set of true wireless buds, either, as many cost about the same or even more.
If you already have a pair of AirPods, though, don't feel the need to upgrade the whole set. What you should consider is snagging the wireless charging case, which Apple is selling on its own for $79. If you're cutting one cord, you might as well go all the way.