The Apple AirPods were released in 2016, and immediately kickstarted the true wireless earbud revolution. The headphones market is now dominated by these kinds of earbuds, and AirPods remain the best-selling range. As things evolved, Apple released an updated version of its earbuds in 2019, which introduced better wireless connectivity and some extra features, but kept the sound the same.
The last two years since the AirPods 2nd gen were introduced has been the busiest for true wireless earbuds of their short life, and from the top of the range to the bottom are new buds vying for your attention… and sadly the venerable AirPods have been left behind by all that movement.
However, that's not to say there's no value in them. They remain popular, and it's easy to see why: they have some special features that make them work better with iPhones than any rival from another manufacturer, and they still do their job well.
Their ability to instantly pair with your iPhone, or to switch to being linked to another of your Apple devices the moment you play something on that device, is clever and genuinely useful – as is support for the Find My feature on iPhones, since small headphones like this are pretty easy to misplace.
But when it comes to sound quality and battery life, rivals have leapt past them, and have done so either at the same price, or significantly cheaper.
Here, we'll take a fresh look at AirPods 2nd Gen and see if they belong on the list of the best Apple headphones, and how their features and sound quality compare to other models in the same price range.
Apple AirPods (2nd Gen) review: features
The AirPods are actually regular Bluetooth wireless earbuds that can work with any device, just about all of their actual features are tied into the Apple ecosystem – in particular on iPhone and iPad.
When you first get them, you simply flip open the lid to begin the pairing process – your iPhone will then ask if you want to pair with the AirPods, and that's it! It takes a number of seconds you can count on one hand. From then, whenever you flip the lid open, they'll connect to your iPhone, so by the time you have them in your ears, they're ready to play – no messing around with delayed connections.
The pairing applies to other devices signed into your Apple ID, including Apple Watch or iPad – and so you can choose AirPods as a playing location from those devices if they're in range, or the AirPods will even automatically switch if you start playing something on another device. So if you hit play on Netflix on your iPad, you don't have to do anything – you just start hearing the movie. It's clever, and very handy.
AirPods models can also share audio with each other, so if you're watching something on your iPad on a train, a friend with AirPods can watch along with you – the connection is daisy-chained from AirPods to AirPods. Again, handy – and this works with any AirPods model (except for the original model) or most current Beats headphones, as long as they use Apple's H1 chip.
You can invoke Siri just by saying "Hey Siri", which provides touch-free access to do all the things Siri can usually do from voice alone – play music, send messages, set reminders and so on.
The AirPods will pause when taken out of your ears, and you can double-tap one to skip a song, though this isn't what we'd call pleasant – the squeezy controls on the AirPods Pro are a vast improvement.
AirPods work with Apple's Find My app and network, so if you lose them, they will report back to you where you last had them, and will update their location whenever anyone's iPhone comes nearby.
Finally, you can get them with or without wireless charging – it adds a lot more to the price, though, so you have to really want it. Either version charges using Apple's Lightning cables otherwise.
You get around five hours of battery life from the buds per charge, and 24 hours of listening total when you include the charging case's power too. That total amount of power is totally respectable still, but the five hours per charge is lower than a lot of competition – though few people actually wear them for that long, so perhaps you won't feel that's an issue anyway.
Apple AirPods (2nd Gen) review: build/design
One thing Apple nailed from the start is the light weight of AirPods, at just 4g per bud. And the design with the extended sticks has had plenty of, uh, stick from people over the years, but it's a reasonably sensible design – it points microphones down towards your mouth, and gives Apple somewhere to put electronics without them jutting out from your head sideways much.
And it's an iconic, instantly recognisable design – we have a lot of respect for it, even if these days a shorter stem is really more the style.
The build quality is immaculate too, and is something you'll notice is better than the competition earbuds in the same price range – not so much in the case of the buds, but the case. Apple's case is smaller than just about any other, and is built as solidly as a pebble.
It's just a gleaming, perfectly formed lump of white, with a lid that opens easily yet has heft, on a hinge that's totally solid. And the lid closes again with a solid, magnetically-led thunk. As satisfying objects of industrial design go, the AirPods case is one of the most overlooked, despite the wild popularity of the product.
If you get the model with wireless charging, on the front is an LED, to sell you whether you actually managed to get it on the Qi charger correctly. It also lights up during wired charging.
The fit of the AirPods is probably the aspect of the design that most important, though. These are in-ear buds that don't actually go in the ear – there are no tips to insert into the canal. They still say in place pretty solidly, though we'd recommend that runners or general gym-goers should probably look for something more solid (including Apple's own AirPods Pro).
There are some people who prefer this kind of fit to a proper in-ear fit, so we're not going to say that it's outright worse that the AirPods are worse in this regard compared to competitors with proper tips.
But it does mean that there's less noise isolation, so outside sounds really leak through the AirPods, which can make hearing music a struggle when it's really noise. Now again, there is a weird positive quirk here, which is that you can wear AirPods while doing other things and still hear what's going on around you, and some people like that for offices or walking through town.
But if sound quality is your focus, it's not ideal. This reviewer also finds the fit much less comfortable than in-ear tips after 40 mins or an hour.
Apple AirPods (2nd Gen) review: price
Officially, AirPods (2nd Gen) cost £159/$159/AU$249 for the version with wired charging only – or the version with Qi wireless charging costs £199/$199/AU$319.
However, if you don't buy from Apple, you won't have to pay that much in the UK and US. At the time of writing, they cost more like £130/$120 – though in Australia, the price has held at the official price.
The headphones that are particularly worth comparing it to are the Beats Studio Buds – which share several of the same features – and Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+.
The Beats include active noise cancellation and superior sound quality overall, but have an official price of £129/$149. The Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ don't have ANC, but do feature aptX high-res support, nine hours of battery life per charge, as well as simply incredible audio for the price, and cost £120/$140.
Which is our way of building up to say that the single most important part of AirPods – the audio quality – simply isn't that great for the price any more.
Apple AirPods (2nd Gen) review: sound quality
AirPods offer sound that's well-balanced and warm. Bass is potent and smooth, but controlled enough not to overwhelm the mid-range. Vocals and treble both stand out decently.
But it doesn't sound open and natural – the overall range just feels restricted. It's like music is being played from a fantastic pair of speakers in the room next to you – it's lacking in the twinkliest and clearest highlights, and doesn't have strong definition between instruments.
Beats Studio Buds, for example, give the treble more room to stretch out, reaching higher highs and elevating aspects from the mix. In turn, this allows the mid-range to feel more dynamic – on AirPods, the line between treble and mid-range feels blurry, which is great for neither.
As a result of all this, the AirPods don't feel particularly accurate to instruments and to vocals, which isn't really what we want from headphones. This is especially noticeable in voice-only recording – listening to podcasts, for example, or when editing voices – which trend too much towards the low-end, feeling artificially rumbly, and therefore harder to hear over background noise.
You can certainly enjoy listening to AirPods – as we said, the audio range it has feels well-balanced overall. But it just doesn't have the range and precision that other headphones offer, and that you should demand.
Apple AirPods (2nd Gen) review: should you buy it?
There are certainly reasons to buy AirPods today, including the size and the iOS-specific features, and some people will like the fit. But we think that most people should choose something else these days.
Beats Studio Buds also offer fast pairing and Find My support on iOS (and offer this on Android as well, handily), though lack the audio sharing and auto device switching feature of AirPods. But their audio quality is much better, they include active noise cancellation, and they're pretty similar in price.
If you want to go cheaper, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ have sound quality to please audiophiles, plus giant battery life, and actually come in a similarly small case to the AirPods (though with a slightly less premium finish).