Commentary: Apple's just-announced refreshed AirPods are an upgrade over the originals, but some hoped-for additions are missing.
David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
After much speculation and churning of rumor, Apple's second-generation AirPods are finally here and they're not quite what some folks were hoping the AirPods 2 would be. The rumored color options, design changes and biometric features are all no-shows. And there's presumably no boost to sound quality either, since Apple didn't mention that in its press release. And while there are certainly some improvements, the showcase item -- wireless charging -- comes with a hefty add-on price, at least for existing AirPods owners.
My biggest disappointment is the design: They look identical to the original AirPods, which are more than two years old. Some reports were claiming that version 2 of the AirPods would come in black and possibly other colors -- like the old
or the current
. Also -- and more importantly -- the new buds might have a new soft-touch coating with a subtle grip to it that helps the AirPods 2 stay in people's ears more securely (see posts by MySmartPrice and Economic Daily News).
Watch this: AirPods 2 vs. AirPods: What's the difference?
We got neither of those design updates, although it's possible Apple could add new colors this fall with the release of its next iPhones. Prior to the XR, the Product Red color options would hit about 6 months after an iPhone was first unveiled.
The long-awaited and previously announced AirPods wireless charging case is finally available, meaning it'll charge on a Qi-compatible charging mat, but it's not included with the base model of the new AirPods, which remain at $159 (£159, AU$249). Rather it's a $40 upgrade, or $199 total (£199, AU$319). Owners of the original AirPods, meanwhile, can buy it separately for $79 (£79, AU$129), which seems quite steep, in my opinion.
Watch this: Apple's new AirPods offer an upgrade, but...
The big change is on the inside, with the addition of Apple's new H1 chip, which the company says "features custom audio architecture to create a revolutionary audio experience and improved synchronization." According to Apple, the new chip allows for twice-as-fast connection times between all the Apple devices you own and 50 percent more talk time -- 1 hour more -- compared to first-generation AirPods. The battery life rating for music listening remains the same at 5 hours, however. A 15-minute recharge in the case gives you 3 hours of listening time and 2 hours of talk time, which helps mitigate any battery life concerns.
The H1 chip also helps facilitate the AirPods' other big new feature, the widely expected addition of always-on voice recognition. That means that instead of double tapping one AirPod to activate Siri, you simply say "Hey Siri" to activate Apple's voice assistant.
has the same always-on feature on its Surface Headphones, but it only works with Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant and not
Alexa or Google Assistant.
I haven't tried the new AirPods yet, but Apple didn't say anything about them sounding better. There were rumors that Apple's tweaks to the AirPods' internal design would supposedly improve the bass. The lack of bass is a weakness with the current AirPods, so there was some hope that Apple would engineer the next AirPods to sound a little better. It's possible that there's some sound improvement -- I'll have to get back to you on that -- but it's more likely the new AirPods sound the same as the originals.
There was some chatter about Apple adding biometric "wellness" monitoring sensors, and a Bloomberg report from last year hinted the next-generation AirPods could feature some kind of noise-canceling element. Now there's talk of this feature appearing in the third-gen AirPods, which would also include better water resistance and perhaps those biometric sensors. That model would potentially be larger and wouldn't come out till 2020, according to speculation from respected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.
The good news about all this is that original AirPod owners probably don't feel too bad that they didn't wait and hold out for this new model -- although if you bought the originals in the last couple of months, you might not be so happy. If you were on the fence about getting a pair of AirPods, this refreshed version may help you get off it.
Of course, it's hard to knock Apple for not upgrading the AirPods more substantially when it's already the "world's most popular headphone," according to Apple. There's no reason to risk creating something too different when you have a product as successful as the AirPods that's apparently not so easy to produce in huge numbers. That said, there's a lot more competition these days in the true wireless earphones arena, so I hope we'll see a real AirPods 2 in the next year -- with more significant upgrades.
Apple AirPods are nowhere near as ridiculous as they look