Apple AirPods full review
Apple's second-gen AirPods are more of a refinement than a reimagining of the original model, but I'm sure there’s enough here to tempt consumers.
The H1 chip makes the new AirPods faster, more responsive and capable of handling hands-free Siri activation, improving the industry-leading experience Apple created back in 2016, and there's wireless charging this time around too - well, at least there was until the release of the third-gen AirPods, at which point Apple pulled the wireless charging variant of the AirPods 2 from sale.
But despite providing a great overall experience, the second-gen AirPods aren’t the perfect earbuds for everyone.
Design: Wait, what's new again?
You'll struggle to notice the physical differences between the first- and second-gen AirPods, and that’s because, in terms of design, there’s no real change. That's not a bad thing; the bright-white-and-chrome AirPods are iconic at this point, featuring a clean, premium look and long stems that, along with the iPhone’s notch, are becoming a big part of Apple’s design history.
The earbuds themselves are very comfortable, not protruding too far into your ear canals, and the stem that so many other manufacturers have ditched not only helps keep the buds secure in your ears, but improves the beamforming mic technology too. This makes them easy to put in and take out, and that simplicity is often underrated by consumers, especially compared to smaller earbuds like the Pixel Buds.
Of course, the simplicity of the AirPods has a downside: they don’t provide the perfect seal for everybody. Ears, like fingerprints, are fairly unique, so creating a design that works for everyone is a challenge. Apple has done an admirable job, but it’s not perfect. They stay secure most of the time, but I've found that I have to adjust the position of the earbuds every now and again to get the optimal seal.
I can’t help but wonder how much the experience would be improved if Apple included swappable eartips like it does on the superior AirPods Pro, providing a more secure seal while also providing passive noise cancellation.
And just like the buds themselves, the design of the AirPod charging case has been largely unchanged.
The charging case is well-designed, sporting a satisfying magnet seal to keep your buds secure and contact charging to keep your them topped up, while somehow managing to pack a battery providing 24 hours of charge into an exceptionally small form factor.
There was initially a more premium case available, with wireless charging and an LED on the front to let you know when it’s charging, but Apple took it off sale when it released the updated third-gen AirPods, meaning you can only get a basic charging with Lightning support right now.
Features: It’s all about ease of use
The main reason why people like AirPods so much is arguably not the audio quality, but the ease of use and the overall experience the wireless earbuds provide.
The setup process takes seconds; open the lid of the charging case, unlock your iPhone or iPad (running iOS 12.2 or later) and follow the on-screen prompts to pair the device to your smartphone and link it to your Apple ID. From that point, it’ll be able to automatically connect to any Apple device linked to your Apple ID.
But it’s not just the setup that's focused around simplicity; small features, like automatically pausing music when you take an earbud out and resuming playback when you put it back in, or automatically switching from stereo to mono output with no drop in connection when you’re wearing a single AirPod, are what make the AirPod experience stand out from practically every other pair of true wireless earbuds on the market.
That has been further enhanced with the second-gen AirPods thanks to the upgraded H1 chipset, bringing improvements to synchronisation and responsiveness that provides a generally quicker experience that'll allow for low latency connectivity when playing games and watching movies - around 30 percent lower than the originals, according to Apple.
The H1 chip also brings enhancement to battery life, but it's not as clear cut as you might expect; like the originals, you’ll get an average of five hours of charge listening to music, but average talk time has increased from two to three hours. That’s probably not exciting for everyone, but it’s good news for the chattier amongst us - especially those stuck in virtual meetings all day long.
There’s no change in the 24-hour life the charging case provides, but that’s still an industry average in 2020, with few offering longer battery life than the AirPods.
Another new addition is the same ‘Hey Siri’ always-listening tech used in iOS, iPadOS and macOS devices. This allows you to activate the virtual assistant simply by saying ‘Hey Siri’ – ideal for those times when you’ve got your hands full and need to reply to an incoming text, read out by Siri in your ear.
Apple's virtual assistant works impressively well, and that's largely down to the beamforming mics. The mics built into the AirPods do an incredible job at filtering out noise and focusing on your voice, even in loud environments, which is great news both for Siri use and taking calls when out and about.
There were certainly no complaints about call clarity or quality from recipients during my tests, and it's something unmatched by most other true wireless earbuds on the market right now. There's a reason why most video call interviewees on TV at the moment are using AirPods!
Crucially, the Bluetooth connection is consistent, with no annoying drop-outs in busy signal areas, something that many rivals suffer from - especially as the earbud form factor gets smaller and smaller - so it’s quite the feat from Apple. It might not sound like much, but it’ll negate those annoying quiet moments during your favourite songs.
Audio: Same old, same old
Somewhat disappointingly, there's not much of a change in the audio department. The second-gen AirPods sound almost identical to the first-gen earbuds, although I have noticed that the overall volume has increased compared to the original buds.
While some will inevitably be disappointed that Apple hasn’t improved on what is the most important part of an audio product, the AirPods – both first- and second-gen – do produce decent quality audio, it's just not the best.
As with the originals, the new AirPods are suited to a wide range of music, though the output is tailored to favour bassy tones. That’s not a problem for those that love bassy music as it provides a more immersive experience, but it does so at a sacrifice of overall clarity.
It goes without saying the AirPods won’t be able to emulate the crisp audio of high-end headphones double the price, but even at a similar price, there are better-sounding wireless earbuds available right now.
But, the seamless connection with Apple devices is a huge selling point, as is the smart experience on offer. Apple is more focused on providing a well-rounded experience, from setup to everyday use, rather than providing the perfect audio experience - for now, anyway.
Pricing and availability
The second-gen AirPods are available for a discounted £119/$129, down from the original £159/$159 following the release of the updated AirPods 3, and they're available to buy from Apple and a little cheaper at third-party retailers like Amazon.
It depends how much you value the smarts, because there are certainly cheaper earbuds that sound just as good as the AirPods.
The second-gen AirPods are more of an iterative upgrade than a reimagining of the product - think of it like an 'S' upgrade of the iPhone range.
Fans of the first-gen AirPods probably won't find enough here to warrant an upgrade, but it’s a great time for prospective buyers to take the plunge. Alongside the suite of smart features unique to Apple’s offering, improved connection speed, talk time and Hey Siri support are welcome improvements, and it's often discounted at third-party retailers too.
But while AirPods easily provide the best all-around experience of any wireless earbuds on the market, there’s no improvement in the audio department, and while it was great by 2016 standards, there are other earbuds on the market in 2020 that provide better audio quality.
It all boils down to what you’re after; if you want a smart, fluid listening experience, the AirPods are the ones to go for, but if you’re looking for the best audio quality possible, you may want to look elsewhere.
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