From the original that seemed so revolutionary back in 2016, through the declining battery, and on to the new AirPods in 2019 and now the AirPods Pro. Here's how Apple's wireless earbuds started great and became superb.
You can still buy the original Apple AirPods, but don't. They turn up on eBay and perhaps it's sometimes true when the listings say they're new. But usually they're used, and if there is one thing we don't like about AirPods, it's that they have zero resale value after a couple of years.
To be clear, the excellent sound quality remains the same, but over time the battery life drops from about five hours to about one and a half.
The original AirPods were a marvel, but they're gone. While thinking of them as disposable items makes us miss the $159 we spent, we don't miss those AirPods because we now have ones that are much better.
Now we have two models of AirPods that are much better. This is not a case of trying to decide whether you want AirPods or the AirPods Pro at all, because you do. It is a case of deciding which one, and justifying paying between $159 and $249 for them — perhaps plus $29 for AppleCare+.
And if you still have the original AirPods, it is a case of deciding whether you can conscience replacing them when they still sound good.
AirPods versus AirPods 2
Just give those original AirPods to someone. As long as you tell them the battery life is seriously declined, and you don't try gift-wrapping them as a new Christmas present, you'll be a mensch.
You could keep them as a spare set and that's what we did with ours. However, that spare set has sat on a shelf all year, not used since we tried comparing it to the then-new AirPods 2.
That's partly because the battery life on the AirPods 2 is five hours — it's not that it's longer than the original AirPods were, it's that they're new so the battery hasn't worn down — but that's not all.
There is also the fact that, optionally, AirPods 2 come with a wireless charging case and that proves to be so much more than a gimmick. As with all Qi charging, you know that you could just plug in a wire, you know that it's hardly inconvenient and you know it's faster, but once you've used wireless charging, you're hooked.
The ability to just pop the AirPods down on to a wireless mat and know they'll be charged when you pick them up later, it makes AirPods 2 far more convenient than AirPods 1.
You can buy AirPods 2 without a wireless charging case, and you can buy a wireless case to charge your original AirPods. There isn't that choice with the new AirPods Pro, though. Your only option is a wireless charging case.
You can tell that we come to praise AirPods Pro, but charging is one thing that does give us pause.
While you do have to have this wireless charging case, you can't get AirPods Pro without it, you can of course also charge that case up using an old-fashioned cable.
Except it isn't that old-fashioned. AirPods Pro come with a Lightning to USB-C charging cable, just as the new iPhones do, and just as last year's iPads Pro did. But unlike the phone or the iPad, AirPods Pro do not come with a plug.
To charge up your AirPods Pro using the cable provided, you have to provide a USB-C plug or have a Mac that has a USB-C port.
Fit and finish
Apple's including a USB-C to Lightning cable won't concern many or perhaps even most people, but if it affects you, it's a clear issue. You can't charge your AirPods Pro using just what's in the box.
Whereas the one criticism of the original and 2019 AirPods is much less straightforward, much more open to interpretation.
It's to do with how the AirPods fit in your ear.
There are people who can't wear them because they do not fit. Apple talks a good game about how the AirPods fit everybody, and it's remarkable how many they do, but it isn't everyone.
In retrospect, though, we're now wondering if AirPods fit fewer people than we thought. Specifically, we're thinking about whether they really fit us.
We've never had our AirPods fall out by themselves, not once in all the years we've had them. We have knocked them out, certainly, but they've never dropped and we've been happy with them.
Except now that we have AirPods Pro with their different fit, we remember regularly touching our old AirPods to make sure they were in. To give them a slight push and how that improved the sound because, presumably, they had begun to work their way out of our ears.
It wasn't ever a conscious thing, but it became a bit of a reflex and we are startlingly aware of it now that this is over. Once we put the AirPods Pro in, that was all gone. They fit thoroughly, they fit very securely.
Handling AirPods and AirPods Pro
If the new AirPods Pro fit our ears better, they're more fiddly to get out of the case first. Doubtlessly this is just because they're new to us, but it is harder to get these things out of their case than we're used to. Their different shape means they don't quite snap in to the case as clearly and easily as before.
We've never been unsure which AirPod goes in which side of the case, for instance, but with AirPods Pro we have got it wrong a couple of times.
Maybe because of that, or maybe just because they do fit our ears so well, we tend to leave the AirPods Pro in much more. That's unless we're talking to people, when it's rather rude to have these in your ears, although sometimes rather handy to be able to turn on noise cancelling and drown them out.
Even though the AirPods Pro are new, we're already also seeing that we talk to them more. If you have the original AirPods then the real reasons to upgrade are the better sound quality in the newer models and their longer battery life than you've become used to. But there is also Siri.
You will feel peculiar at first, walking down the street saying to empty air, "Hey, Siri, play Francisca Valenzuela Essentials," but you'll get used to it.
Unfortunately, you'll also get used to saying it several times in a row. There's a knack with AirPods 2, you need to say the "Hey, Siri" part and then give a slight pause, like you're deciding on just the right witty comment to make, then say what you want.
AirPods Pro don't entirely remove the need for that artistic breath between "Hey, Siri," and your command, but it's better. The improved microphones mean Siri hears us and responds much more often. And that means it starts to feel increasingly natural to just say "Hey, Siri, skip" or "previous track."
So you do. You use Siri more and more.
There is one Siri command that is exclusive to the AirPods Pro. You can say "Hey, Siri, turn on noise cancelling," and it does. Equally you can have Siri turn it off. There are other ways, including holding the stem of an AirPod Pro for a moment, or using your iPhone, but Siri has you covered too.
Our sole wish with the noise-cancelling feature of the new AirPods Pro is that it would've been great if someone had cancelled the noise we made when we first tried it. We're not going to say that we turned it on and muttered a rude word in surprise, because this is a family website.
But, seriously, the noise cancelling is amazing.
It's a nail in the idea that we will keep our AirPods 2 as a spare. We just won't. Tim Cook seemed to suggest on the latest financial earnings call that Apple imagines people will have AirPods 2 and keep AirPods Pro for those specific times when they need noise-cancelling, but no.
We're not going to keep nearly half a grand's worth of AirPod equipment on us, we're going to use AirPods Pro and probably even leave noise cancelling on all the time.
When we first tried AirPods 2, it seemed to us that the sound quality was noticeably better than in the original AirPods. We were more aware of instruments far down in the mix than before, we were noticing the breathing of singers more.
We had the same thing with AirPods Pro. It seemed we were hearing more, but then when we went back to try the same music on AirPods 2, we were hearing the same things.
Working through the specifications, and just to our ears, the new AirPods Pro sound the same as AirPods 2.
Until you turn on noise cancelling.
This is what we were noticing. With the sounds of the real world mostly stripped away from you, music does sound better on AirPods Pro.
Note that you can only switch on noise cancelling when you are wearing both AirPods. The Control Center display will even tell you to put the other one in before it will switch this on.
That makes sense of course, but we did accidentally manage to get noise cancelling working with a single AirPod Pro in our ear. And it is extraordinarily disorientating. We did it so you don't have to.
Making a choice
Apple has now made three versions of AirPods, and currently sells two of them of them at three different price points. That could be confusing, but it isn't.
Your choice comes down to money. If you can afford to buy AirPods Pro, just go buy them. And pick up a compatible wireless charging mat while you're at it.
If you can't justify spending $249, go for the $159 AirPods 2. That's the most economical price, and while it doesn't get you the wireless charging case, it does get you the excellent AirPods 2.
AirPods, in all their versions, are excellent. We sound like evangelising fans, but there is a reason for that.
It's because we've used them.