The Industry

Apple’s New AirPods Are the Future, Like It or Not

Apple's second-generation AirPods, announced March 20.
The second-generation AirPods have longer battery life, switch more easily between devices, and can be controlled by saying “Hey Siri.” Image courtesy of Apple

They’re expensive. They look dorky. The sound quality is just OK. And, at least at first glance, they don’t really seem to do anything in particular that ordinary headphones haven’t been doing for years.

And yet: It’s increasingly clear that AirPods—and devices like them—are the future.

If you’re an iPhone owner who didn’t buy the first generation of AirPods, there’s a decent chance you’ll buy the second, which Apple launched Wednesday morning in a surprise announcement. Not because they’re much better than the first, necessarily, but because they’re so much more convenient than conventional earbuds—and they’re poised to build on the momentum that was already driving them down a path to near-ubiquity.

The new AirPods—which you can order now at the Apple Store for $159, or $199 with a new wireless charging case—come with an “H1” chip that Apple says will give them 50 percent more talk time and allow them to connect to new devices twice as fast. Those are probably the biggest selling points in terms of everyday usability, because seamlessness is at the core of AirPods’ success. It’s what sets them apart from previous Bluetooth earbuds, whose connection foibles relegated them to niche status.

AirPods are, for now, mostly just super-convenient wireless headphones that pair readily, never tangle, and have a few nifty bonus features like pausing playback when you take one out. That alone has been enough to convince many who try them to never go back. At a time when Apple risks losing its reputation for brilliantly simple hardware design, AirPods “just work” in the way that the company’s best products always have.

AirPods next to an iPhone whose screen says "Set up 'Hey Siri.'"
You can now control AirPods without using your hands at all. Image courtesy of Apple

And in perhaps the strongest sign of their success, young people have embraced them, making them both a meme and a status symbol. People over 30 may find AirPods uncool, but we aren’t the arbiters of such things anymore. And people without a lot of disposable income will continue to find them out of reach, but that won’t stop Apple from selling a ton of them, which in turn will spawn viable competitors that offer similar gadgets at a lower price.

But there’s another feature of the second-generation AirPods that might turn out to be more important in the long run: the ability to control them directly by saying “Hey Siri.” That means you no longer need your hands at all to operate basic features of your iPhone, like making a call, sending a text, or playing a song. It turns your iPhone into something like an Amazon Echo for your pocket.

I wrote when AirPods were first announced that people writing them off as mere wireless headphones were missing the broader point. They weren’t just a listening device—they were, at least potentially, a voice-controlled wearable computer, that would become more independent over time. The movie Her, unrealistic as it is in some respects, offers a vivid glimpse into how potent this type of device could be.

As it turns out, AirPods have been a hit even without yet realizing their full potential as an A.I. that you can talk to wherever you go. But the new iteration brings them a step closer to that future, for better or worse. For those who don’t want to see Her become reality anytime soon, there remains just one saving grace: Siri is still pretty dumb.