The New AirPods Are Fine

Photo: Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo

The conversation is getting old. You know, the one about how Apple isn’t innovating with new hardware because the future of its business is in services and streaming video and this new Apple credit card that blah blah blah. But a lot of people point out one exception, one new Apple product that feels truly revolutionary and very good: AirPods. The second generation AirPods have arrived, and I can confidently say that they are very good. As an upgrade, I guess they’re fine. They’re not revolutionary, and that’s ok.

Let me be clear: I don’t have many bad things to say about the second generation AirPods. Most of the good things I have to say about them are also true for the first generation AirPods, which first shipped in December 2013.

Second Generation AirPods

WHAT IS IT?

Second generation AirPods

COST

$249 - $319

LIKE

Best connectivity, better battery life, easy Siri access

NO LIKE

Not meaningfully different from first generation AirPods

To the naked eye, the new AirPods are identical to the original ones, except they’re functionally better than the first generation AirPods, thanks to a new Apple-made H1 wireless chip. You also have the option to buy a wireless charging case which simply enables you to charge the case and AirPods wirelessly. The second generation AirPods cost $249 with a regular case and $319 with a wireless charging case. The wireless charging case can also be purchased separately for $129 and works with both generations of AirPods.

All that pricing information is important because it’s a clear indication that Apple is selling a second gen product that’s extremely similar to the first gen product. The new ones are better, and I’ll get into that in a minute. You do not need to spend the full $319 to get the best of the new features, though. To be totally frank, none of the new features really justify upgrading if you have a perfectly good set of first generation AirPods—unless you absolutely love talking to Siri.

As mundane as it may seem, the hottest new thing in the AirPods is that H1 chip. Unlike the W1 chip included in the original AirPods, the H1 chip allows you to beckon Siri using only your voice. That means no more tapping and waiting for Siri to listen, so you can just say, “Siri call Uncle Todd?” and Siri will do it. Apple also says the H1 chip makes the AirPods faster and more efficient.

There’s a technical reason for these improvements. Apple’s H1 supports Bluetooth 5, instead of the older Bluetooth 4.2 that’s in the W1 chip from the first gen AirPods. The new Bluetooth standard uses less power and offers faster data transfers. Apple says all of this adds up to 50 per cent more talk time (three hours in the new AirPods versus two hours in the old ones), an extra hour of listening time (five hours versus four hours), and faster switching between devices (twice as fast). I’m guessing that the faster data transfer speeds enable that new speech-activated Siri functionality, too.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like Apple’s new AirPods are just Apple’s old AirPods plus Bluetooth 5 support. There’s nothing wrong with that! The new standards promise a lot of benefits, which you can read about on the Bluetooth website. It’s also nice that Apple is adopting the new standard now, though many other companies—including Jabra and its Elite 65t as well as Samsung and its Galaxy Buds—have done so sooner. The second generation Apple AirPods are undeniably better thanks to this new technology.

The first generation AirPods (right) appear to have a stainless steel hinge, while the second generation AirPods (left) appear to have an aluminium hinge. (Photo: Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo)

Still, it remains unclear to me what Apple’s new H1 chip is doing other than supporting the new Bluetooth 5 standard, which might just be a glimpse into the Apple marketing machine. Apple has a new headphone chip that supports new standards. Again, nothing wrong with that. But really, Apple is just catching up with the pack and slapping its own branding on technology that everybody else is already using. That simple fact illustrates how the second gen AirPods aren’t a new product. They’re just a little spec bump.

The new AirPods do work really well, though. Just like the old AirPods, you can flip open the lid and get a prompt on an iOS device that invites you to pair. Once you do, every time you open that case and install that AirPod in your ear, you’ll get a pleasing gong sound when it connects with an iOS device. If you’re using an Android device—and I tested the new AirPods on both platforms—they also connect immediately. This dependability is the dream scenario for wireless headphones, which have a deserved reputation for being finicky and unpredictable.

In terms of sound quality, the new AirPods sound exactly like the old AirPods—which is to say, they sound fine. You shouldn’t expect the tremendous fidelity found in the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless, although you can enjoy a slightly better experience than in the slightly cheaper Samsung Galaxy Buds. Inevitably, the AirPods suffer seriously in certain conditions, because there’s absolutely no noise-isolation or noise-cancelation features, which is something that makes the Jabra Elite 65t truly wireless earbuds stand out.

Here’s a first generation AirPod (left) next to a second generation AirPod (right). Can you spot the difference? This is a trick question. (Photo: Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo)

Battery life is a slightly different beast. I ran a listen-time test with the new AirPods, and the buds lived up to their five-hour promise. A talk-time test also showed that the new AirPods do indeed last 50 per cent longer than the previous generation. They lasted over three hours in my test, which involved a very long phone call without moving around or doing anything else. And these improved results aren’t because Apple stuffed bigger batteries in the things. An iFixit teardown of the new AirPods shows that the second generation’s battery hardware is exactly the same as the first’s, which means any battery life improvements are thanks to the new H1 chip—namely, its Bluetooth 5 support.

The new AirPods really shine when you’re using multiple devices. Based on my tests, the advertised benefit of switching twice as fast between devices is true when using Apple applications. Device-switching using other applications, like Spotify, seem roughly the same for me, but I hardly ever felt like it was a chore. The new AirPods, like the old AirPods, simply work. This is also a good opportunity to point out that you do need to upgrade to the latest software versions (iOS 12.2, macOS 14.4.4, watchOS 5.2) in order to enjoy the full benefits of the new AirPods. They will not offer the full feature set with older operating systems, although they can work as regular Bluetooth headphones.

As I’m writing this, it feels like there’s a theme emerging. The new AirPods are a slightly better version of the old AirPods. That means if you loved the old AirPods, you’ll love the new ones just a little bit more. It also means that if the old AirPods weren’t for you, the new AirPods won’t change the game.

The new H1 chip is also supposed to improve microphone performance, especially in noisy or windy areas. (Photo: Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo)

Take fit, for instance. I’m evidently one of the few people who doesn’t have AirPod ears. The damn things just want to fall off my head and down a storm drain at all times. That might be part of the reason why I’ve gravitated towards the Jabra Elite 65t and the Samsung Galaxy Buds—both of which offer a tight seal for me. The AirPods tend to hang and dangle, which people must like since the AirPods are the best-selling wireless earbuds in the world.

Then there’s the sports angle, which is where I think the AirPods start to make less sense for some people. The way they fit into any given ear is a part of this equation, but the crux of it is water resistance. Apple has never claimed that AirPods are waterproof or water-resistant, and as somehow who’s seen a friend try to run a half marathon while listening to pump-up jams with AirPods, I can assure you that they shit the bed in the rain. Apple makes no claims about the new AirPods being waterproof. Because the new AirPods themselves don’t offer any improvements to the original design, we have to assume that Apple is waiting to release a more durable AirPods at some point in the future. That is, if the company ever does so at all.

I’ll just be blunt at this point. The new AirPods passed all of our tests. They do offer better battery life. They do switch between devices about twice as fast as the old AirPods. They do give you the ability to beckon Siri by saying “Hey Siri,” without tapping on anything. Also, the wireless charging case does charge wirelessly, which is super convenient if you’re someone with a wireless charging pad. (Reminder here that Apple has still not said anything about the arrival of AirPower, a product it announced a year and a half ago, though some AirPod packaging indicates that the new product is imminent.) The new AirPods are better than the old AirPods, and if you don’t own old AirPods, it’s probably worth spending the same retail price ($249) on them that you would’ve spent on the old AirPods a couple of weeks ago.

The only other difference on the wireless case is that the battery indicator light has been moved from inside the case to the front of the case, so you can see when they’re charging while sitting on a pad. (Photo: Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo)

But don’t feel like you need to upgrade. The only real reason to do so would be for that hands-free Siri experience, which is magical if you’re one of the few warlocks with a passion to use Siri in the first place. Otherwise, the battery life and speed upgrades are real, but they’re not life-changing.

If you don’t own wireless earbuds at all, it’s definitely worth shopping around. Again, the $329 Jabra Elite 65t and the $US130 Samsung Galaxy Buds are great AirPods alternatives, especially if you’re not committed to living in the Apple ecosystem. If you’re committed to being an Apple fan, though, the AirPods are better than ever. They’re a little bit behind their time in terms of being the very best wireless earbuds and being totally universal. But hey, that’s fine.

README

  • New H1 chip brings Bluetooth 5 to the AirPods which is great

  • Ability to talk for Siri could change the way you use AirPods (and Siri)

  • Wireless charging case charges wirelessly

  • Overall the update feels just fine

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