It is half a decade since the original AirPods arrived on the scene and shook up the Bluetooth earbud status quo. Initially ridiculed for their long-stemmed design, it wasn’t long before they were ubiquitous – the standout leaders in a nascent, burgeoning market. They offered a design, form factor and user experience that captured the public imagination, and gave the technology almost instant appeal.
Over the past half decade, Apple’s line has changed infrequently. In March 2019, a second-generation product was introduced, which added the H1 chip for hands-free “Hey Siri” and improved wireless functionality, a better battery, and an optional wireless charging case. In the same year, the company added a premium product to the line: the AirPods Pro. The model adds active noise cancellation (plus a transparency mode), a standard wireless charging case, and silicone tips — the latter especially warmly welcomed by Apple headphone devotees.
The recently released AirPods (3rd generation) model feature a swish new design, the addition of spatial audio, sweat and water resistance, and comes with a MagSafe charging case (all shared features with the Pros). Furthermore, they get an additional hour of battery life on the buds, and six extra hours with the case, bringing the totals up to six and 30 hours of life, respectively. At £169 ($179), they fall in between the Pros (£239/$249) and the second-gen (£119/$129). The updated standard AirPods have further blurred the lines between the two SKUs. Indeed, the shorter stems and longer charge time bring the design language far more in line with the Pros.
The three key differentiators between the models are active noise cancelling, silicone ear tips, and, naturally, pricing. The Pros are still priced at a premium and are the company’s best earbuds, along with being one of the best premium earbuds on the market. Nevertheless, there are several compelling reasons to buy the new AirPods.
AirPods (3rdgeneration) are a notable step up from their predecessors in terms of features and sound quality. The new buds offer greater contouring and hence a more comfortable fit than their predecessors. I have average-sized ears, and the moulded plastic tips fit perfectly – in fact, I prefer them to the silicone tips, which I tend to find can inadvertently be pulled off. For those with larger or much smaller ears, however, having different-sized, removable tips is a lifesaver. The seal those tips provide also create passive noise-cancelling through a physical seal that effectively keeps in more audio frequencies and blocks out ambient noise. As a central London dweller, much of my life is spent immersed in street noise — and, for that matter, a constant barrage of construction. The Pros’ active and passive noise cancellation can make a huge difference when faced with the constant cacophony of city life: sirens, revved up engines and building work. On the flip side, there are reasons to appreciate this from a situational awareness standpoint.
Spatial audio has been a strong feature of AirPods Pro and now it’s available here. It provides a surround-sound effect for movie soundtracks from the iPad, for example. Spatial audio is wonderful, and it even comes with dynamic head tracking. If you watch a movie on the iPad and you turn your head, the earbuds adjust the output so that the audio is locked to where the screen is, which makes the overall effect more realistic. It’s also compatible with Dolby Atmos, unlike the previous model. There’s also adaptive EQ, which uses the AirPods’ inward-facing microphones, along with computational audio, to tune the sound output to the shape of your ear, to ensure the best sound for your hearing.
Another welcome update to the AirPods (3rdgeneration) is the wireless charging. You can pop the case on a MagSafe or standard Qi charger. Spatial audio is another nifty feature. On a FaceTime call with multiple parties, their voices are assigned locations based on where their boxes sit on the call. The effect is also novel in an app like Apple Music, which adjusts sound based on your location to the source (your phone, tablet, etc.) almost as if it were the speaker.
Unlike previous AirPods, the new model has an IP rating, IPX4, meaning that they are water-resistant enough to deal easily with sweat or precipitation. The shorter stalks on these AirPods are controlled from a touch-sensitive panel, as with AirPods Pro: squeezing the stalk changes the track, for instance.
The new AirPods also get support for the Find My feature, which adds a Bluetooth beacon-style layer onto the existing functionality. That makes it easier to find the individual buds in close quarters. The feature recently came into its own when it helped me track down my AirPods, which had both slipped down under the divan during the night. Finding them was the easy part. Recovering them required my husband’s superhuman strength and a lot of mattress manoeuvring.
Furthermore, AirPods (3rdgeneration) have certain features that even AirPods Pro do not, such as a new skin-detection sensor. AirPods have, since their inception, have been able to recognise when an earbud is removed and to automatically pause what you’re listening to until you put it back. Apple has now enhanced this feature to stop the AirPods thinking they’re in your ears when they’re in, say, a bag.
In conclusion, AirPods (3rdgeneration) are outstandingly good. In terms of sound quality alone, the new AirPods are fantastic: yielding full-bodied sound and plenty of power. Apple has tuned the sound subtly and authentically. Vocals are clear, mid-ranges bouncy. The new design is a big improvement, and the extra battery life a big bonus. As ever, your best bet is generally buying a pair of earbuds from the same company that made your phone. The pairing was certainly stronger on iOS, but the AirPods also worked well with my husband’s Android devices. Noise-cancelling apart, the audio is very nearly as strong as on AirPods Pro, and the £70/$70 difference between them and the Pros is worth considering. If you’re not fussed about active noise cancelling and/or prefer modelled plastic tips, then the choice is easy.
Apple AirPods third-generation Technical Specifications
Price £169/$179 | Dimensions Earbuds: 1.21 x 0.72 x 0.76 inches (30.79 x 18.26 x 19.21mm), Case 1.83 x 2.14 x 0.84 inches (46.4 x 54.4 x 21.38mm) | Weight: Earbuds 0.15 ounces (4.28g), Case 1.34 ounces (37.91g) | Water-resistance IPX4
To purchase, please visit apple.com/uk/airpods/