Apple has finally released its much-anticipated follow-up to the AirPods (2019). Before I started testing the new AirPods, I wondered how the tech giant would improve the wireless earbuds that started it all without usurping the more expensive AirPods Pro.
This is especially important in 2021 when nearly every major tech brand offers competitive wireless earbuds with sought-after features like noise-cancelling, adaptive fits and impressive battery life.
Apple has added several new and useful features to make the 3rd-gen AirPods more competitive, including head-tracking, intelligent sound tuning, an IPX4 rating, a new design and more.
But, after about a week with the new AirPods, I think what draws me to them the most is Apple’s H1 chip and the convenience that comes with it. If you’re an Apple device user and not just an iPhone user, this remains the AirPods’ most significant appeal.
Better sound than I expected
This year, Apple has focused on a few new features, with one of the most significant improvements being a better dynamic speaker and ‘Adaptive EQ.’
There is no overselling how balanced the AirPods sound compared to the Beats Studio Buds and the Galaxy Buds 2, two excellent pairs of wireless earbuds that offer noise-cancelling. Especially given the 3rd-gen AirPods don’t feature a silicon tip to isolate sound, they still manage to sound fantastic.
Adaptive EQ, on the other hand, uses one built-in microphone to tweak sound tuning to better match the shape of your ear and ensure balanced audio regardless of what sounds or distractions might be around you. I found this feature worked well in practice, and music always sounded great, but I often found myself cranking up the volume a bit to block out background noise. With other wireless earbuds, I’d typically rely on active noise-cancelling.
This was before I even connected them to an Apple device to test out ‘Spatial Audio’ and head tracking. After listening to the new James Blake and Remi Wolf albums with the AirPods (2021), I’m sold on head tracking and Spatial Audio for music. Both albums feel like they’re recorded in large rooms with the sound coming from around me. It’s also great that the music reacts subtly when I move my head, making the experience of using the 3rd-gen AirPods that much more immersive.
“…this year, the case and AirPods are IPX4 water resistance.”
Like the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max before them, the new AirPods support Apple’s Spatial Audio and head-tracking technology. This means that music sounds fuller when mixed correctly and that audio is more natural when head-tracking kicks in as you turn away from your phone or computer. There’s no denying that head-tracking is a little gimmicky, but I’d argue that it’s practical and undeniably cool if you’re watching a movie or TV show, now that I’ve experienced it myself. I hope all audio moves to support Dolby Atmos to take advantage of this upgrade in the future.
It’s worth noting that the effect is subtle and there’s a possibility some people may not even notice it. However, after using Spatial Audio for a week, I’m convinced that this is the next logical leap for music recording. With Amazon moving to adopt the feature and Apple’s Logic Pro software making it easier to record in Atmos, hopefully, more artists start recording in the immersive format.
Other new features
The 3rd-gen AirPods’ new enhanced ‘Find My’ integration doesn’t seem as accurate as an AirTag — which makes sense given they don’t feature an ultra-wideband chip — but they do include proximity alerts for each bud to make finding them around your house easier.
Plus, if you lose the buds in their case when you’re out and about, you can turn on ‘Lost Mode’ so that the case and buds act as a slightly less accurate version of an AirTag and ping you if someone finds your AirPods. Further, you can also turn on separation alerts so your iPhone notifies you if you leave your AirPods behind.
Apple also added MagSafe this year. While the functionally adds nothing to the earbuds themselves, being able to stick the AirPods to my PopWallet+ with MagSafe is a fun touch and not needing to worry about the charging case being placed on my MagSafe charger correctly, is excellent. Still, this seems like more of a nice extra rather than a selling feature. However, my opinion could change if more cool accessories start to appear.
The new control scheme on the stems is better than the annoying touchpads featured in Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 and just about every other earbud I’ve tested except for the OnePlus Buds Pro, which offer a similar control scheme.
Beyond that, a new skin sensor is built into each AirPods, ensuring they’re better at not playing music when you don’t have them in your ears. This is a nice touch and the sensor works quite well in my experience.
For example, I often leave home without the case and just have the buds in my pockets. I tested them on Android, too, and while they auto-paired after the first connection, they still don’t auto-pause, unfortunately. To be fair, all AirPods suffer from this same issue when connecting them to non-Apple devices.
To top it off, this year, the case and AirPods are IPX4 water resistance, allowing the wireless earbuds to handle splashes of water and light rain. This means they’re great for going out and getting active in all kinds of weather. That said it would have been nice to have some form of transparency mode for when I wanted to listen to music loudly while still being aware of my surroundings.
“Apple users get a lot of bonuses out of the AirPods (2021).”
If you’re not listening to music with Spatial Audio head tracking the earbuds will last for six hours of listening. If you enable the feature, the buds drop to five hours. For me, that trade-off is worth it since Head-Tracking is great and five hours is long enough for me. You can also get a total of around 30 hours with the charging case, which is capable of charging the buds from zero to an hour of listening in just five minutes.
New features are nice, but seamlessly connecting to an Apple device remains key
If you own an iPhone and another Apple device like a Mac or an iPad, the seamless connection AirPods offer is unbeatable. Being able to switch between devices automatically and only being required to initially pair with a single Apple device to connect them to all of your tech, still feels incredibly smart. Going from listening to music on your iPhone to a video call on your Mac or a YouTube video on your iPad feels like magic.
The seamless setup is charming the first time you use the AirPods, but since most people don’t replace their phones often, this doesn’t matter that much. And while not as favourable as the automatic switching, I’ve found lots of buds like the Galaxy Buds 2 and the Beats Studio Buds will auto-connect to my phone once I open the case and put them in my ears. With this in mind, if you only have an iPhone, you’re not losing much in terms of everyday connection conveniences.
I will mention that if you do a lot of video calls (who doesn’t these days?), the 3rd-gen AirPods might be a little better since I found the mic on them clearer than with most wireless earbuds’.