Review: Apple's new AirPods find middle ground between high-end and entry level segments

Third-generation audio device lacks noise cancellation, but Apple's advanced sound tech makes up for it

A combination of top-of-the-line sound quality and familiar designs all rolled into one makes Apple's new AirPods the true middle ground for the company's line-up of audio devices.

Apple's latest offerings are, technically, the third-generation AirPods after 2016's original and the second generation in 2019 that featured a case that can be wirelessly charged. The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max have to be seen separately from the three generations.

Apple strategically introduced the original AirPods five years ago alongside the iPhone 7 series, the first lineup without the 3.5mm audio port. Since then, the true wireless Bluetooth market has grown but the pace of growth has slowed in recent years.

The wireless Bluetooth market grew 6.4 per cent in the second quarter this year, the lowest increase in three years, according to a research company Canalys.

Apple maintained its lead in the audio market in 2020, shipping 108.9 million AirPods and Beats units during the second quarter, the report said. AirPods shipments are expected to grow 3.7 per cent year-on-year to hit 85 million units in 2022, according to TrendForce.

Here's what you need to know about Apple's latest audio device.

Design

At first glance, the new AirPods resemble the AirPods Pro, with shorter stems while missing the silicone ear tips. It's a welcome change because it keeps that minimalistic appeal (remember the jokes saying they're like toothbrushes dangling from your ears?), and emanates a more premium look and feel.

That said, fit could be an issue. While Apple's AirPods generally have a good fit, the comfort you get with those ear tips will be missed.

Those stems are, once again, your ticket to controlling the device using Apple's Force Touch tech: a single press plays and pauses music and answers calls, two presses skips a track forward and three skips backward. There's still no way you can control the volume with it and you can only do this on the device you're using.

Just like AirPods Pro, the new AirPods are easy to control, even with shorter stems. No touch controls are available, which eliminates the need to grip them with two fingers. The AirPods Max had lots of room to incorporate this, but Apple decided to stick with the controls on its digital crown (volume included) and dedicated noise control button.

While the new AirPods and the AirPods Pro look similar, the former doesn't support active noise cancelling and transparency modes (this action toggles the two modes on the latter), both of which are the key selling points of the higher-end accessory.

Sound quality

If you are on the lookout for an audio device with noise-cancelling tech, the new AirPods aren't for you. However, Apple is making up for this with their most important audio technology – spatial audio with dynamic head tracking.

In layman's terms, spatial audio brings 360-degree effects to sound. It is Apple's take basically on Dolby Atmos, also known as 3D audio.

Using accelerometers and gyroscopes in the AirPods, the technology tracks your head movement so the sound is positioned accurately. If you are listening on an iPhone or iPad, for example, it tracks the position of those devices so the sound is placed relative to them.

Compared with its two predecessors, sound on the new AirPods is certainly better, and you can feel the benefits of spatial audio. The only thing here is that without noise cancellation, you're guaranteed to hear sound and noise. Is this an advantage? Yes and no: they're alright when you're alone in a room, but once outside, you'll hear the cons of it.

But there's a silver lining to that: the lack of noise cancellation will make you more aware of your surroundings and even if you leave them on your ears while talking to someone, there's no need to switch noise cancellation off.

There is, however, a feature on the new AirPods that kind of makes up for this: there's an inset mic in each bud that minimises wind noise when you’re on a call. It does work, but don't expect a complete noise blackout.

Battery: best in the series

The previous two AirPods had a peak run of five hours on a single charge and over 24 hours, including the extra top-ups in their charging cases. Apple bumped that up to six hours and up to 30 hours, more than the AirPods Pro's 4.5 hours and 24 hours, making it the best in terms of battery life in the series.

Talk time, however, is listed to make the battery last four hours. Enabling spatial audio will reduce its use to five hours. That is more than enough, though, to get you through your commute, at work or in any other activity.

Charging, meanwhile, is at par with the AirPods Pro, as you can get about an hour's worth of listening or talk time when you let them sit in the case for just five minutes.

Keep in mind, however, that these numbers are for charging it with the Lightning cable. Doing so wirelessly – MagSafe on the new AirPods – will take longer.

It is quite challenging to fully gauge battery levels and charge speeds here – Apple has not listed any official numbers on how long it will take to fully charge the AirPods. But a battery upgrade on any device is good news.

Verdict

The third-generation AirPods get you a new look and Apple's advanced sound tech at a lower price. But it isn't a complete package as noise cancellation has been left out. Noise cancellation tech on headsets are practically standard nowadays, but it's still a choice – buy what you want, need or can afford.

The new AirPods are Dh749, which isn't exactly a stone's throw away from the AirPods Pro's Dh999. If you want the full Apple sound experience – and can afford Apple's other pricier products – that difference shouldn't be an issue. Think of it as the 'AirPods Pro Lite'.

Updated: October 28th 2021, 4:12 AM
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