The Apple AirPods combines convenience and advanced software features that make it one of the best sets of true wireless earbuds out there. While the buds may not actually fit in your ears, for the lucky ones that can use Apple’s audio products, the AirPods is a real treat. As popular as it is, it was never perfect. Let’s dive in and see why the AirPods is such a popular pick for iPhone owners.
Editor’s note: this Apple AirPods (2nd generation) review was updated on October 18, 2021 to include a section on the new third generation of Apple AirPods.
What’s it like to use the Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?
Apple is king when it comes to build quality and design, and that’s still the case with the AirPods… kind of. Even though it’s made of plastic, the charging case feels great. It’s lightweight and sturdy enough to be tossed into your pocket. This is good because you’re going to want to keep the case on you at all times, even if it’s just to store the buds when you’re not using them. The new AirPods (or AirPods 2) still looks exactly the same and has exactly the same build as well.
Start here: What makes a good set of in-ears?
The bottom of the charging case has a single Lightning port, and a button on the back lets you enter Bluetooth pairing mode. But what really makes the case design stand out are the magnets that keep the lid shut. Magnets also rest inside the case to secure the earbuds. The only real difference that is visible to the eye when it comes to the original AirPods and the new AirPods (2nd generation) is the small LED light on the front of the case for charging and pairing. It was previously on the inside of the case, so you would have to flick open the case in order to see it. The case is absolutely necessary when using the Apple AirPods. If you don’t have it with you, it’s all too easy to misplace and lose the earbuds. We did a fit test video on how the original version fit, and since the build and design haven’t changed at all it’s still applicable here.
Then you get to the Apple AirPods earbuds, which haven’t changed much. Actually, the earbuds haven’t changed at all. The AirPods’ inability to seal your ears leads to a lot of problems that just aren’t all that easy to hand-wave away. For example, outside noise is a much bigger problem for users of AirPods than it is for users of Bluetooth in-ears because neither version of AirPods isolates you from background noise. On each earbud, you have a tiny microphone for voice calls and a small sensor that gives you a few controls when you tap them.
Additionally, because the open-fit earbuds don’t seal, some people will find that the AirPods sitting outside the ear canal makes it vulnerable to drop-outs and shifting positions. These are extreme problems for true wireless earphones, as losing one bud means the death of your product. Now I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of people do all kinds of physical activities wearing AirPods, and if you’re one of them consider yourself lucky because if the AirPods don’t fit in your ears, they really don’t fit. If you want true wireless earbuds that fit well and afford all the same benefits of the AirPods, check out how the Beats Powerbeats Pro compares to the AirPods. Or if you have a little more to spend, you can go for the newer AirPods Pro which has a much better fit.
You might like: Apple AirPods Pro vs Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
How do you clean the AirPods?
Whether you were an early adopter of the AirPods or you just got a pair, it’s a good idea to clean it consistently. That doesn’t mean drowning the buds and case in water and destroying them, but there are some steps you can take to make sure that your buds stay clean and sanitary. We have a full article going over it step by step, but it basically involves q-tips and some isopropyl alcohol. You should be more careful when cleaning the original AirPods as it doesn’t have any protection against liquids.
Is the AirPods (2nd generation) waterproof?
Unfortunately, this pair of earbuds is not waterproof. People still use the AirPods in the gym and for running, so anecdotally it may seem like it, but there is no official IP rating from Apple to say that it is protected against water damage. If that’s what you’re after then you might want to go for the newer AirPods Pro which is better in many respects, one of which being that its earphones have an IPX4 rating and are fine to use in the rain or at the gym.
How do you connect the AirPods (2nd generation)?
We’re splitting this part up into two sections: iOS and Android.
How to connect to AirPods (2nd generation) with an iOS device
Connecting to an iOS device is as simple as tapping connect on the card that pops up on your device. When you connect to one device it also connects to every device on your iCloud account. During testing music never skipped once while connected to my iPad Air (except for when I was really testing range but that doesn’t count).
You also get full access to all of the cool sensors and features on iOS. For instance, when listening to music you can take one earbud out to pause the music, and placing it back in your ear will resume music. Plus, the new AirPods comes with a new H1 chip (updated over the previous W1 chip) which lets you use the “Hey Siri” phrase to activate the voice assistant hands-free. Of course, you can also turn this option off in the settings of your iOS device if you want to squeeze a little more juice out of these batteries.
You’re going to have to get used to talking to Siri because that’s also the only way to control volume. In the settings on iOS, you can change the double-tap to pause or play music, which also makes no sense. If I’m reaching up to double-tap, I might as well just remove the earbud to automatically pause the music. It would have been much more helpful to include volume adjustments on the earbuds.
I can leave my phone on my desk and walk around my entire house easily without any connection hiccups. That’s about 18 meters away with walls and a floor in the way, not bad at all. Overall, the connection was pretty great with iOS.
How to connect to AirPods (2nd generation) with Android
This was more of a process and a much different story. The connection was still impressive, just not great. To connect you have to pop open the case, hold down the button on the back of the charging case to enter pairing mode, and also find the AirPods in your Bluetooth settings. Okay sure, that isn’t really a big deal. But once connected, the experience is different.
The connection strength to my Google Pixel 3 isn’t nearly as good as on my old iPad. I counted about nine hiccups in only two hours of listening. The range also suffers when on Android. I can reach the fringes of 15 meters before connection issues occur. With the new AirPods, I even experience a significant lag in audio between the left and right buds, which only resolves itself after I pause and resume the music. You also won’t be able to automatically pause music by removing an earbud—music just continues playing. Double tapping the side of the AirPod does access the Google Assistant, which will allow you some control, but not as much as say, the Sony WF-1000XM4
Additionally, testing by our crack team here at SoundGuys revealed that connecting to Android devices can mean lower audio quality (device depending), though just how bad it sounds varies from device to device. It’s peculiar—and frustrating—but it’s another reason why we don’t list the Apple AirPods as the overall best true wireless earbuds out there. A set of headphones or earphones that uses only AAC will introduce an element of variability to your listening, and that’s no fun for anyone.
How long is the battery life of the Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?
Apple claims that the battery will last you about 5 hours on a single charge, but during our objective testing, we weren’t quite able to reach that. Instead, at 75dB we found that the Apple AirPods lasts 4 hours, 7 minutes of playback time using an iPhone X over the AAC codec. Compared to the original version, the H1 chip seems to offer about 21% longer life on the newest iteration of Apple’s true wireless earbuds. Though this may seem like a significant increase, we’re only talking about 30 or so minutes of extra battery life because the power cell is so small.
The overall battery life is quite poor compared to even regular Bluetooth earbuds, or even Bluetooth over-ears—and that’s if you’re using it with an iOS device that has been optimized to work with the new H1 chip. If you’re connecting to an Android phone, battery life is basically unchanged from the first version at only 3 hours, 29 minutes. That H1 chip also helps switch between iOS easier (which works nicely between my iPhone X and iPad Air) and it also allows for a stronger connection when you’re on voice calls. To be fair though, the quality of your call is going to depend more on the service coverage you have, but the AirPods will still get the job done.
Because the Apple AirPods' batteries are tiny, it won't last very long
The other thing you have to keep in mind is that because the Apple AirPods’ batteries are tiny, it won’t last very long compared to other units. Battery cells can only last so long before degrading, and even moderate use of the AirPods will accelerate its degradation. Just like it is with all true wireless earphones, you can’t replace the batteries in the AirPods, and this product will wear out within a few years’ time. Please do your best to recycle it if you do buy it, as the materials in its batteries are not only hazardous to throw out, but also valuable to reclaim from the trash heap.
How do you charge the AirPods (2nd generation)?
Due to the small size, the AirPods doesn’t have giant batteries inside, so it doesn’t last too long. Thankfully, the charging case does a good job at keeping it topped off when you’re not using it. After every use, simply placing it back in the case for safekeeping will keep it charged up for your next use. On the bottom of each earbud are small metal connectors that, when they come into contact with the small metal connectors in the case, proceed to charge them up.
Now depending on which model AirPods you have, charging the case can be slightly different. To determine which generation you have, check on the inside of the lid. There should be text printed on the underside that will tell you. If you can’t find it you can also check the settings in your iOS device while connected to the AirPods. In the settings app, you should also be able to find the AirPods’ model number.
|Earbuds||AirPods (1st gen)||AirPods (2nd gen)||AirPods Pro|
|Model Number||A1523, A1722||A2032, A2031||A2084, A2083|
If you have the first generation, then your charging case can only charge via Lightning connector. So plugging in any old Lightning cable from Apple will get the job done. If you have the second generation charging case then you can also charge wirelessly with any Qi-compatible charger. This just means that while the charging pad needs to be plugged into an outlet, you can just place the AirPods case onto the pad in order to charge it up without plugging in the case. Pretty neat.
One thing worth mentioning is that if you have the original AirPods, you don’t need to completely replace your earbuds in order to get wireless charging. Instead, you can just purchase the wireless charging case without the AirPods separately for about $69.
Does the AirPods (2nd generation) block out background noise?
Isolation is very poor and among the worst we’ve tested simply because the earphones don’t seal to your ear (much like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live). The higher the pink line, the more that certain frequency is blocked out, but as you can see, the AirPods does little to affect even high-frequency sounds. This has its perks, though: you can remain aware of your surroundings while walking to work or commuting on the subway, which can keep you safer.
How does the Apple AirPods (2nd generation) sound?
Again, Apple takes a one-size-most-all approach with this pair of earbuds, so chances are it won’t fit your ears perfectly. This means that outside noises easily find their way into your ears and these things leak like it’s nobody’s business. If you don’t want the person next to you to hear your music, you’ll have to turn down the volume substantially. The theme here is that the AirPods has a very consumer-friendly sound, with a bit more bass than what our house curve suggests. However, this is only under perfect conditions. The AirPods targets a somewhat bass-heavy response, but most people will not hear it simply because the AirPods doesn’t cancel out sound, nor does it block it out.
If you’re a human with an ear that the AirPods don’t fit well (read: many of you reading this), you may notice a severe underemphasis in bass notes under 60Hz. While that sounds worse than it actually… sounds, you will immediately notice that kick drums, toms, and basslines will sound quieter or “off” from what they should sound like. Additionally, because the high notes are comparatively more emphasized: effects like echoes and the like will be much more pronounced.
Lows, mids, and highs
Right to the point, the low end isn’t great, but that’s entirely because of the lack of a seal. For example, the bass in California by Childish Gambino feels like it’s a very low mid rather than a bass.
Just like the regular wired EarPods, the mids are given a huge boost in these; vocals come through clearly. This goes for voice calls as well, by the way. The clearest phone calls I’ve ever taken on Bluetooth buds were with the AirPods (2nd generation). When it comes to music you can easily sing along to your favorite tunes, but background elements don’t really sit well with each other. Basically, every instrument in Generator ^ Second Floor by Freelance Whales seems to lose its weight and depth.
Considering how loud the headset can get, I’m actually really impressed with the highs. Sure, there isn’t a ton of detail reproduced by a cymbal hit, but nothing ever gets harsh or painful.
Can you listen to lossless audio with Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?
While you can enable lossless streaming on a compatible service, you won’t be getting it through the Bluetooth connection. Bluetooth currently does not support lossless audio in the way a wired connection can. Despite the addition of lossless audio to Apple Music, you won’t see any benefit to using it via your AirPods, so consider using a lower quality setting. Trust us, you won’t be able to tell the difference, even if you’re listening in a quiet room with no noise.
How good is the microphone on the AirPods (2nd generation)?
The Apple AirPods does a surprisingly decent job with their microphones, as its tiny capsules can only provide so much audio quality. However, we’re confident in saying that the headset should be just fine for conference calls and other voice chatting services, as it manages its shortcomings extremely well. You can hear the sample we recorded for our comparison between the AirPods and the Samsung Galaxy buds below.
Apple AirPods (2nd generation) microphone sample:
Should you get the AirPods (2nd generation) or AirPods (3rd generation)?
The AirPods (3rd generation) is the first set of open-type earbuds from Apple that supports spatial audio, which was once exclusive to the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, along with a number of hardware changes. It has the same open ear approach as the first and second-generation models, but now it features a contoured design to fit better in more ears. The third-generation AirPods also bring Adaptive EQ, which debuted in the AirPods Pro and accounts for the AirPods’ poor fit.
With a new IPX4 rating for water resistance, you can take the AirPods (3rd generation) to the gym without worrying about sweat damage. Battery life also sees a bump, and you get just over 6 hours of playtime on a single charge. The case has the capacity for four full charge cycles, and fast charging (5 minutes in the case means 60 minutes of listening time). The charging case supports wireless charging and will also use a MagSafe magnetic charging cord, which seems to be making a return across a lot of Apple devices.
Should you buy the Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?
Let’s be honest, you’re probably not buying AirPods for sound quality. The reasons to buy the AirPods have everything to do with convenience, but that only works if you have an iPhone and ears that fit the product—otherwise you’re spending a lot of money on a disappointing product. The charging case is great; removing one bud to pause or play music works perfectly, and the connection rarely drops. Plus, the new version gives the AirPods even more battery life and you can charge the case wirelessly, which is nice.
That said, the AirPods is clearly made for iOS users and it still doesn’t offer much in terms of extra functionality—Android users have little reason to buy it. We also now have to point out that the Apple AirPods also has a bigger, badder brother in the AirPods Pro. For an extra $50-100, the Pro model offers a sealed listening experience with active noise cancelling and a bunch of iOS-specific features not currently enjoyed by the AirPods. But $230 is a lot of money to slap down on something that has a lot of competition below its price bracket, so you may want to save your money.
Related: Best Apple AirPods alternatives
What are some alternatives to the Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?
While the AirPods is the most popular pair of true wireless earbuds around, it’s not the only pair available—and it definitely isn’t the best. There have been plenty of other releases in the last few years, and some of them might be worth looking into. If price isn’t an object and you still want all of the cool features that the AirPods has, then you should check out the Apple Powerbeats Pro.
- Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen): Amazon brings some great noise cancelling to its second-gen true wireless earphones, and it even outperforms the AirPods Pro. You get an IPX4 rating, wireless and USB-C charging, and a comfortable fit with an ear tip fit test that works on Android and iOS.
- Apple AirPods Pro: The long-awaited successor to the AirPods was launched on October 30, 2019, and hosts a slew of updates that fix the worst things about the original AirPods—aka its lack of a seal. Additionally, it has active noise canceling, and enhanced features. Unfortunately, it costs about $240 before tax and shipping, which may not be worth it to you. Be sure to check out our head-to-head article comparing the two true wireless earphone models.
- Apple Beats Powerbeats Pro: While there are plenty of people using the AirPods for fitness, that isn’t what it’s made for. If you want to hit the gym with true wireless buds, check out the PowerBeats Pro. It has an IPX4 certification to protect against sweat, 10 hours of constant playback, and of course the around-ear hook design to keep it in place while you move around.
- Beats Studio Buds: Apple-owned company Beats has a pair of noise cancelling earphones that cost little more than the AirPods and features a more comfortable, sealed design, IPX4 rating, and better sound quality. Oh, and it works on Android almost as well as it does on iOS. You can see a comparison of the AirPods and Studio Buds frequency responses here (cyan represents the Studio Buds; yellow dashes represent the AirPods (2nd generation); white dots represent the AirPods Pro).
- Google Pixel Buds A-Series: If you’re on iOS then you might as well just pick up the AirPods, but if you’re an Android user you should definitely first check out the Google Pixel Buds A-Series. While it has a different design that isn’t for everyone, it’s actually a pretty solid pair of buds that is worth giving a try, especially considering its affordable price.
- Jabra Elite Active 75t: I usually recommend the Jabra Elite 75t or the active version to just about anyone. It has solid battery life, good sound, a decent connection, and a great microphone. Best of all, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Android or iOS as you’ll get the same features anyway. Plus the active model is built for the gym and therefore has a sweatproof build that the regular AirPods doesn’t have.
- Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus: The Galaxy Buds Plus is another option for Android users that nails basically all of the important things. It has Bluetooth 5.0 for a stable connection, access to the Google Assistant, an IPX2 certification, and over 11 hours of constant playback as well. Plus, the AKG-tuned drivers sound pretty sweet. If you want a noise cancelling version, get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro instead.
Should you get the Apple AirPods Max instead?
There are quite a few differences between the original AirPods and the new AirPods Max, the most important of which is the type of headphones they are. The original AirPods is a pair of true wireless earbuds with an open design. This means that it doesn’t form a seal when you put it in your ears and outside noise will get in. This makes it harder to hear whatever it is you’re listening to if there is anything going on around you.
The AirPods Max is a set of over-ear headphones that will completely seal your ears against outside noise. On top of that, it also has the best active noise cancelling in the business, which will get rid of any noise that sneaks through. It’s worth mentioning that this is only the biggest difference between the two. There are many more features that the AirPods Max has that the AirPods does not have.
The AirPods Max has larger 40mm drivers, transparency mode, an H1 chip instead of the W1 chip (allows for better battery life and stronger connection strength), Adaptive EQ which constantly adjusts the EQ of your music depending on your environment, Spatial Audio so that you can get a 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos surround sound experience with compatible content and devices. It also has a much higher price tag. The AirPods Max will run you $549 USD, and you could get multiple pairs of AirPods for that price. However, the battery in the AirPods Max will last you several years longer than the tiny cells in the AirPods will.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, if you damage or lose one AirPod, you can buy a new one.
Yes, the case must be charged separately from the AirPods and you can do so with the included Lightning charging cable, or via Qi-compatible charging pad if you purchased the AirPods (2019) model with wireless charging case.
While AirPods don't have silicone earbuds, you can follow the first few steps of our AirPods Pro cleaning article. Just skip the bit about dunking the sleeves in warm soapy water and you should have clean and funky fresh AirPods with relatively little effort!