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Apple AirPods second-gen review: even more wireless

The new AirPods look and sound familiar, but have a couple new tricks

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales. Video by Alix Diaconis, Becca Farsace, and Andrew Marino.

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Of the many new products that Apple announced over the past couple of weeks, none have been more hotly anticipated than the second-generation AirPods. And yet, the new AirPods are the least new product Apple revealed this month.

The new AirPods look so similar to the first-generation version announced nearly three years ago that they are virtually indistinguishable. The design, fit, and sound quality are exactly the same as before, as are many other features. Wearing the new AirPods isn’t any more of a flex than the first-generation because nobody seeing you will be able to tell the difference.

But there are changes here — some notable, some less so — that make the new AirPods even better than they were before. Apple hasn’t addressed many of the long-standing complaints leveled at the AirPods, such as their fit and ability to work in noisy environments, but it has added some things that improve the experience, without changing it much.

The biggest change from the first-generation AirPods is the ability to recharge the case on a wireless pad. Apple is selling the second-gen AirPods in two ways: with the new wireless charging case for $199 or with the standard case for the same $159 as before. If you have the first-gen AirPods and are interested in getting the wireless charging case, you can buy it a la carte for $79 and it will work exactly the same as it does with the new AirPods.

The wireless charging case uses the Qi standard — just like the iPhone and countless Android phones on the market — so you can use the same charging pad as your phone to charge your AirPods case. Put the case on the charger and the little charging light on the front of the case will turn orange and begin charging. The light will turn off after a few seconds, but the case will still be charging as long as it’s sitting on the mat.

The new wireless charging ability is convenient, but slow

Charging the case wirelessly is slow — Apple tells me the case charges at 5 watts, which is slower than the iPhone is capable of, and it can take up to three and a half hours to fully tank up the case wirelessly, compared to the roughly two hours it takes over the Lightning cable, which is still an option on the new case. Also, if you’re using a stand-style charger for your phone, that probably won’t work because the coils won’t line up — you want to be using a flat pad charger for the AirPods. I tested charging the case on a few flat pads we have in the office and had no problems charging with any of them.

If you’re the kind of person that puts your AirPods case in another case, wireless charging should still work, but you likely won’t be able to see the indicator light at all. Finally, if you have Samsung’s Galaxy S10 or a recent Huawei flagship phone, you can use your Android handset to wirelessly charge your AirPods, which is never not hilarious. And yes, you can use the new AirPods with an Android phone and they will work just as well with it as the first-generation models. The main things you’ll lose are the double-tap gestures and the ability to automatically pause music when you take an AirPod out of your ear, though that can be added with a third-party app.

Overall, the wireless charging ability is a nice convenience, but it doesn’t drastically change the AirPods experience. If you’re already charging your phone on a wireless pad or have one that can charge multiple devices at the same time (but sadly, isn’t Apple’s still-not-available AirPower mat), it’s nice to be able to charge your AirPods case the same way.

The second-generation AirPods near their charging case on a white surface.

The other big thing with the AirPods is the new H1 chip that replaces the W1 chip of the first model. Apple says the H1 chip has been specifically designed for headphones and enables most of the AirPods’ new features, such as always-listening, hands-free Siri access; faster switching between devices; better call quality in windy environments; lower latency when playing games; and longer battery life for calls.

Instead of having to double-tap one of the AirPods to launch Siri, you can now say “Hey Siri” to activate it, just like you can on an iPhone or recent Mac. Not only does this provide easier access to Siri, but it also allows me to map the double-tap gesture to another action, such as play / pause or skipping tracks.

But even with the new chip and hands-free ability, there’s still a significant delay from when I say “Hey Siri” to receiving a response in my ear. Unlike the iPhone, there’s no bell or ding to indicate that the AirPods actually heard my command, and there’s obviously no visual indicator unless my phone is out and I’m looking at the screen. As a result, I often end up repeating myself because I don’t know if Siri heard my command and is just being slow to respond, or if my command wasn’t heard at all. It’s a frustrating experience that could be greatly improved with an audible chime to confirm that Siri heard me.

Apple says the H1 chip lets the AirPods switch between your devices up to two times faster than before, so if you use an iPhone and an iPad or a Mac, you can quickly switch between them. Maybe it is technically faster, but it never feels faster in use because switching devices still requires going into the Bluetooth settings menu or Control Center on the device I want to switch to, selecting the AirPods, and then still waiting a few beats for them to make a connection.

The AirPods still cannot be connected to two devices at the same time

This is an area I really wish Apple had improved. I love how easy Apple makes it to pair AirPods to my iCloud account and have them automatically set up on every device I use, but I also just wish they could be connected to more than one device at a time. The Bose QC35s, the Sennheiser HD1s I have, and a lot of other Bluetooth headphones are capable of this already. With those other headphones, if I want to switch from my iPhone to my iPad, I just hit play on the device I want to use instead of having to fiddle with audio source settings. If you are a Mac user, the ToothFairy app makes this a slightly better one-click process with the AirPods and is totally worth the $3.

The new chip supposedly improves voice quality on calls in windy environments, too, but I haven’t really noticed much of a difference in my testing. That isn’t really a knock — I use the first-gen AirPods for taking calls all the time because they are already excellent for it. I also haven’t noticed much of a difference in latency or lag when watching video or playing games, largely because I didn’t ever experience any lag with the first generation. Of all the truly wireless headphones I’ve used, the first-generation AirPods have the least amount of lag or video syncing issues and the second generation is just as good.

Finally, the H1 chip also extends the battery life for talk time to a claimed three hours, a full hour more than the older models. The battery life for listening to music or audio remains at five hours, which, while no longer the longest battery life you can get in a truly wireless headphone, is still better than average and very good. The charging case extends that to up to 24 hours; a 15-minute charge will provide three hours of listening or two hours of call time.

Aside from those things, the new AirPods are still AirPods, which means they are really great wireless earbuds if they fit in your ears. Apple is quick to boast how last year the AirPods became the most popular wireless headphones on the market, so they clearly work for a lot of people. But they don’t fit everyone and the new iteration doesn’t do anything to address that. They also aren’t great in noisy environments like a plane or subway car because they don’t provide either passive or active noise cancellation.

As I stated earlier, the sound quality of the new AirPods is exactly the same as before, with no material changes. The sound is clear, full, and surprisingly detailed, without overwhelming bass or fatiguing highs. The lack of any seal or noise-blocking ability is frustrating when I’m on the subway, but otherwise makes the AirPods disappear into my environment, like I’m not even wearing headphones at all.

So should you buy them? If you have the first-gen AirPods and they are still working great, then no, you’re really not gaining anything here. If you must have wireless charging, you can buy the case separately without having to drop $200 on a full new set. But if your first-gen AirPods aren’t holding a charge anymore because you’ve been using them for years, then buying the new AirPods makes sense, since it’s basically impossible to fix these or replace the batteries in them. You’re getting the same basic experience, with a couple of new conveniences. (The fact that a nearly $200 product has a usage lifetime of less than three years, notwithstanding.)

The new AirPods are just as excellent as the prior models

If you haven’t yet jumped on the AirPods train and you know they’ll fit in your ears (if the wired EarPods that come with every iPhone fit you, the AirPods will, too), they are still among the best truly wireless headphones on the market, with great battery life, solid connectivity, great ease of use, and pretty good sound quality. They even work great for Android users, just like the first model. The new wireless charging convenience comes at an increased price, but for most people, the AirPods are still hard to beat.

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