The second generation AirPods landed on my desk today, and as a big fan of the originals, I was excited to review the AirPods 2. At first glance it’s immediately evident that it’s not a radical change from the original design, even the box is more or less the same outside of a few changes.
The second-generation AirPods are more like AirPods version 1.5 than they are AirPods 2, but that’s primarily a testament to how right Apple got the product on its first at bat. Watch our hands-on AirPods 2 review video as we explore top features, make comparisons with the original AirPods, and share our hands-on impressions.
Same earbud design
If you hated the original AirPods then I have some bad news to share with you — the new AirPods are indiscernible from the originals. When comparing the individual ear buds, the exterior design is, as far as my eyes can tell, 100% identical to the last generation.
The only way I was able to tell the difference between the earbuds was by, and this is disgusting, identifying small traces of lingering dirt on the mesh that goes into your ears, along with scuffs on the outside shell. I clean my AirPods regularly, so I almost couldn’t tell the difference between the two.
Video: AirPods 2 review
If the original AirPods fit your ears well, and you were happy with the feeling of them in your ears, then you’ll be happy with the AirPods 2. If the original version didn’t fit your ears well, then neither will the new version.
It’s unfortunate, but there will remain a sizable contingent of users that still won’t be able to use the AirPods due to lack of fit. If you have lingering problems with fit, you may want to try a set of ear hook attachments. It’s not the most ideal solution from a looks perspective, but they can be a big help.
There were rumors that Apple was exploring the possibility of applying a specialized grip coating to buds to provide more friction in the ear canal, helping them stay in the ear. Perhaps that’s a feature that Apple’s saving for AirPods 3.
The biggest visual change between the first and second-gen AirPods involves the Wireless Charging Case. The new Wireless Charging Case features a matte-finished hinge versus a mirror-finished hinge on the wired Charging Case, an LED charging status indicator that’s been moved from the inside of the case to the front of the case, and a setup button on the rear that’s been placed a few millimeters higher.
Somewhat confusingly, Apple sells two versions of the AirPods 2 — a $159 model with a regular Charging Case that accepts a Lightning cable for recharging, and a $199 model that comes with the new Wireless Charging Case.
In other words, Apple demands a $40 premium for the privilege of wirelessly charging your AirPods. It would also be happy to sell you its new Wireless Charging Case separately for $79, which you can use with your original AirPods.
Selling the Charging Case separately is fine, but why not just forget the AirPods 2 SKU with the regular Charging Case and give everyone access to Wireless Charging for $159? Apple would probably recoup the difference from the money it stands to make from the long-delayed, but soon-to-be-released, AirPower wireless charging accessory.
In any case, wireless charging is a handy feature to have, and the lack of it stuck out like a sore thumb on the original version of the AirPods. Third-party accessory makers stepped up to the plate with their own take on the wireless charging case but, predictably, none of them are as good as Apple’s svelte new first-party solution.
Lightning remains an option
Apple could have ditched the Lightning connector on its new Wireless Charging Case and forced AirPods 2 owners to get on board with wireless charging, but it still includes a Lightning connector along with a Lightning cable in the box. This is great news for those that either don’t have access to a wireless charger, or for those that want the fastest charge possible.
No AirPower, yet
I suspect that this will be changing soon with all of the evidence we’ve seen, along with the fact that Apple outright name-drops AirPower on the box of its new AirPods. AirPower should be arriving soon, but it’s a shame that it’s taken this long.
Voice-activated hands-free Hey Siri
Ever since we saw Siri being invoked using Hey Siri with a pair of AirPods during the September 2018 keynote opening film for Apple’s iPhone XS event, it’s been obvious that such a feature was in the cards. Voice-activated Hey Siri works just as expected via the AirPods 2, affording users an assistant experience that’s more personal than ever before.
Apple’s new H1 chip, the successor to the W1 wireless chip found in the original AirPods, brings performance efficiencies, quicker connect times, and additional talk time. But the H1 chip’s biggest contribution to the new AirPods is hands-free, voice-activated Hey Siri.
With voice-activated Siri you can say things like Hey Siri…
- What’s the weather like tomorrow
- When do the Warriors play next
- Call my wife
- Turn up the volume
- Play my summer 2K19 playlist
- Skip to next song
…and virtually anything else you’d normally use Siri for.
What’s special is that you can do it all without raising a finger, and Siri will respond in private, directly in your ears. This is one of the biggest advancements to come to the 2nd-generation AirPods; it’s a killer feature for those that use AirPods on a regular basis.
If you’ve installed watchOS 5.2 on your cellular-enabled Apple Watch, it’s even more futuristic feeling. You can leave your phone at home, and talk to Siri hands-free while exercising.
Enhanced Siri voice
When manually invoking Siri on the original AirPods, you may have noticed the lackluster sound quality of the assistance’s voice. Siri’s voice with the AirPods 2 sounds noticeably better; it’s more crisp, and more clear, which makes it more pleasant to listen to.
Increased talk time
The original AirPods featured two hours of talk time, which I thought was plentiful given how little I talk on the phone, but I’m sure others found two hours to be a bit limiting. Thanks to the more efficient H1 wireless chip, AirPods 2 users will enjoy 50% more talk time, for a total of three hours on a full charge.
But what if your AirPods are completely drained? A mere 15 minute charge yields two hours of talk time, the same amount of talk time derived on the last-generation AirPods when fully charged.
Faster device switching
Another benefit of the H1 wireless chip is faster device switching. The AirPods 2 are twice as fast when switching between active devices, and that’s not just some random number that Apple put in a press release. I compared the original AirPods with the AirPods 2, switching music playback between my iPad Pro and iPhone XS Max, and the difference was immediately noticable.
Switching between sources on my old AirPods could take upwards of 10 seconds. With the second-generation AirPods, switching often took just five seconds or so.
Faster connection time for phone calls
Apple notes that the new AirPods gain a 1.5x faster connection time for phone calls. In this test, I didn’t notice as much of a difference between the two. Both the original AirPods and AirPods 2 accepted transfers from my iPhone to my AirPods seamlessly.
Lower gaming latency
Latency is a given for any wireless connection, whether it’s Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc. While you can’t fully eliminate latency, you can try to limit it as much as possible. That’s what Apple’s done with its new Bluetooth 5.0-enabled AirPods. The AirPods 2 feature 30% less latency when gaming, so that the sound in your ears more closely matches what you see on the screen.
As previously stated, figures are nice, but real world performance is what matters, so I compared the latency of the first-generation AirPods versus AirPods 2. Although I’m not able to place a percentage on the latency difference, I could definitely tell that there was less latency while using the AirPods 2.
To test latency, I compared how long it took for a sound to register in my AirPods when interacting with a game title in a way that causes a sound effect to occur. For example, when pressing a button on the title screen of Riptide GP Renegade, there is a subtle, but noticeable delay in the resulting sound effect when using my original AirPods. This delay was minimized when performing the same test with the AirPods 2.
I also tested Doodle Jump, a game that Apple cites in the footnotes of its AirPods 2 marketing page. The sound effect that occurs when jumping from platform to platform is more in sync with what’s actually occurring on screen when using AirPods 2.
Better battery life (for longtime AirPods owners)
If you’ve had your original AirPods since launch, then you’ve no doubt experienced a decrease in battery life over the years. The new AirPods don’t promise more battery life than their predecessors when new, but the fact that you’re getting a brand new battery may result in substantially more battery life depending on how old your original AirPods are.
The biggest downside with the AirPods 2 is that the buds are exactly the same from a design perspective. Actually, that’s both an upside and a downside. It’s a downside for those whose ears simply don’t work with the AirPods, whether due to lack of fit or lack of comfort. It’s an upside for those that currently enjoy the fit of the AirPods, because it’s exactly the same as before.
Although I think the AirPods sound good enough, and sound better than competing wireless offerings like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, some may be disappointed that the sound quality wasn’t improved at all. The AirPods 2 sound exactly the same as first-generation AirPods, but if you notice any difference, it’s likely because your original AirPods are old and gunked up.
If you enjoy the fit of the AirPods, and you’re okay with the same sound quality, version 2 is a very good upgrade. It’s certainly not a release that moves the needle and changes culture like the originals, but it’s nonetheless solid.
The new Wireless Charging Case adds convenience, but the feature is overpriced at $199. That said, it will be quite handy once Apple’s long-delayed AirPower wireless charging accessory launches.
But wireless charging capability isn’t even the best feature of the new AirPods. The second-gen AirPods’ best new feature is the new H1 chip. Thanks to the new H1 chip, not only do you receive much-appreciated performance enhancements — faster connections, longer talk time, and lower latency — but you also receive Hey Siri. With the AirPods 2, Siri is your own private, personal assistant that’s always there, and you don’t even have do so much as lift a finger.
While these AirPods are much more iterative than they are innovative, they’re still by far the best truly wireless earbuds for Apple hardware users, and they come with even better seamless pairing thanks to enhancements made possible by the company’s brilliant in-house chip design team.
The AirPods 2 are a better product than the original, but not so much that I’d consider them to be a must-upgrade for existing users. The new AirPods are all about added convenience. If your current AirPods still meet your needs, and things like Hey Siri, wireless charging, slightly faster connection times, and similar things of that ilk don’t move the needle for you, then you’ll probably be best off waiting for AirPods 3.
What do you think about the new AirPods? Do they bring enough to the table to warrant their asking price? Be sure to read Benjamin Mayo’s first impressions of the AirPods 2 for more insightful commentary, and sound off down below in the comments with your thoughts and opinions.
Subscribe to 9to5Mac on YouTube for more Apple news: