Tech Guide

Apple's new AirPods are great, but you don't need to upgrade if you already own the first model

Key Points
  • Apple's second-generation AirPods are great for calls, sound good and have long battery life.
  • You don't need to pay for the wireless charging case, though, which would have been more appealing if Apple launched AirPower.
  • They cost $159.99 without wireless charging, and that's the model you should buy.
Wearing the second-generation Apple AirPods.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I've been testing Apple's second-generation AirPods, which add a couple of new features including wireless charging, better battery life for phone calls and support for calling up Siri whenever you want by saying, "Hey Siri." They're very good and still my top pick for wireless headphones.

But you don't need to upgrade to these if you have the first-generation model.

Still, AirPods have turned into a blockbuster hit for Apple. In just 2½ years, they've become almost as ubiquitous as the standard wired Apple earbuds that have been around since the original iPod. Along with the Apple Watch, AirPods have helped grow the company's wearables and accessories category to $7.3 billion in revenue during the holiday quarter last year.

So even though the new AirPods aren't significantly different than the first version, you're still getting an improvement over one of Apple's biggest breakouts hits. If you didn't buy AirPods before, now is a great time to get them.

Here's what you need to know.

What's good

Second-generation Apple AirPods
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The second-generation AirPods look and function almost exactly the same as the first generation, and they cost just as much at $159. But they cost $199 if you want the optional wireless charging case that works with standard wireless chargers. You can also buy the wireless charging case separately for $79.99 and use them with your first-generation AirPods.

Wireless charging works well. Just drop the case on a pad and a small indicator light on the front of the case tells you they're getting juice. You don't need to plug them in, but you can if you want to with a Lightning cable. I did this most of the time by habit and rarely found myself using wireless charging. I wish I could charge them by placing them on the back of an iPhone, as you can with Samsung's new Galaxy S10, which can power other devices. That's a feature that might come in the next iPhones, however, which would make wireless charging more fun.

Second-generation Apple AirPods using a wireless charging pad.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The new AirPods switch between devices quickly, too. On a train ride, I switched from listening to music on my iPhone to my Mac in just a couple of seconds. Then I was able to switch to an iPad just as fast. You can still do this with the first-generation model, but it's slightly faster with the new model.

"Hey Siri" works well, too. Just speak that phrase and you can request a playlist. (But it only works for Apple Music. Other services, like Spotify, aren't supported.) The microphone is impressive and was almost always able to hear me. I liked the convenience of using this to send a text message, though it felt a little weird doing this in public, as if I was talking to myself. Plus, you can still pull up Siri on the first gen model by tapping the side of those AirPods.

The battery life is great. I never had issues with my first-generation model, but my colleagues said they would often die after about an hour-long phone call and would need to be recharged in the case. I talked on the phone for 40 minutes straight and that drained the battery to 81 percent, which is a big improvement. Apple promises up to three hours of talk time, so you'll probably get close to that.

Calls were clear, too. People thought I was talking right on my phone, and Apple made enhancements that specifically focus on call quality. It's even better than Samsung's new Galaxy Buds, which are a good alternative if you don't own an iPhone or want something different.

What's bad

The new model on the left looks almost identical to the old model on the right. Note the new charging indicator light on the left.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The price, $200, is a lot to spend on headphones, so save money and get the model without wireless charging for $159, which still includes better battery life and "Hey Siri" support. Wireless charging would have been a lot more appealing if Apple launched AirPower, a product that was officially canceled last week and would have allowed you to charge your iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods at the same time.

Without AirPower, you need to have a separate wireless charging just to juice up AirPods, and I found I just didn't use that function as much as I thought I would. Maybe if future iPhones let you wirelessly charge the AirPods that feature will be more compelling, but right now it isn't.

Ultimately, this model is a tiny upgrade over the first one. You don't get water resistance, a feature other sportier buds have. They also don't have noise canceling, like other pricey headphones have. The AirPods are the same size and shape as the standard wired buds that come with your iPhone, and they stayed in my ears just fine while working out in the gym. But I've heard that isn't the case for everyone. We all have different sized ears, so if the first models didn't fit right, these won't either. There aren't adjustable earbud covers to help them fit other ears, which you get with other products like Samsung's Galaxy Buds.

Should you buy them?

Second-generation Apple AirPods with wireless charging indicator
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you don't already own AirPods, then these are a great. They're still the best super-portable wireless headphones you can buy. I love that they have good battery life and, with the case, can offer up to 24 hours of music listening. They sound good, are great for calls,and can easily be used with Macs, iPhones and iPads. Just get the $159.99 model and save yourself 40 bucks by skipping the wireless charging case.

Apple announces new AirPods with wireless charging and voice control
Apple announces new AirPods with wireless charging and voice control