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Apple AirPods 2021 review: Updated classic

Third generation Apple AirPodsIt’s five years since Apple launched AirPods. They weren’t the first wireless earbuds, but by adding an easy-to-carry charging case, Apple turned an obscure niche product into another iconic design, another sales hit.

And as always, a slew of imitators have followed Apple’s lead.

You can buy rival wireless earbuds that cost less, do other things and sound better.

Since 2016 we’ve seen models with active noise cancelling (ANC), including Apple’s own AirPods Pro.

ANC adds a hefty premium to the price. That can be worth it if you find yourself in noisy places.

Third generation AirPods

This year’s AirPods are the third generation. They look different, with shorter stems. Otherwise they aren’t a huge departure from the earlier AirPods models and they don’t have ANC.

Apple isn’t carving out new territory here. There are improvements and new features.

Does it make sense to upgrade?1

The answer depends on what you want from earbuds and what you are upgrading from.

Better sound

The third generation AirPods sound better than earlier models.

Apple says there is a redesigned acoustic driver and the amplifier. It gave the third generation AirPods a sound profile closer to that found on the noise cancelling AirPods Pro.

The bass punches through better than before. You get crisp highs, the midrange is clear.

There’s a limit to how much bass you can pump through tiny in-ear speakers with an open design. If you need a heavy bass thump with your music then buy over ear headphones and doof-doof your way home on the bus.

Applications

Yet the sound is fuller than the original AirPods. You get a nice feeling of space.

They are great for listening to videos. This shows them off to their best. I use mine to watch international sport on my iPad in the wee small hours without waking others.

You can’t beat AirPods for working from home video conferences and phone calls. Voices are clear and crisp. They are great for listening to podcasts or radio and do a good job if you work with voice audio files, say if you produce a podcast.

I don’t recommend them for editing music because they add too much colour to the sound. The adaptive EQ that makes them sound better for other applications can get in the way of editing.

Music

Music is the killer application for earbuds. More people buy them to listen to music than for any other use.

While Apple’s third generation AirPods are up there with the best earbuds for sound quality, they are not the best I’ve heard.

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are better for a wider range of music. There isn’t much in it, but the difference is noticeable even to inexpert ears.

I’d pick WF-1000XM4 for listening to classical music, jazz or anything with a lot of subtlety and a wide dynamic range. You get a better bass from the Sony earbuds. The AirPods are the equal of the WF-1000XM4 for every other style of music.

All things equalised

Adaptive EQ is clever and makes a difference. It works by using microphones to pick up what you hear in each ear. Then it adjusts the sound to give the best output for your ear shape. You don’t know when it is working, but it is part of the reason why the newer AirPods sound better than the old ones.

Apple’s new feature is spatial audio. This is odd at first. It adjusts what you hear so that as you move your head the device you are listening to, phone, tablet or computer, appears to stay fixed in one place. This sounds better in practice than any writing could describe.

The other neat use of spatial audio is when you are on a group FaceTime call. People appear to be speaking from where they are on screen. The person on your right sounds like they are on the right and so on.

There are Apple Music tracks that have been re-engineered for spatial audio. It doesn’t always work well. There are times when it makes a track sound worse. When it works, you get the feeling of being in the room with musicians.

Third generation AirPods verdict

Spatial audio is something of a work in progress and, other things being equal, not a reason to choose AirPods.

You can buy cheaper wireless earbuds and you can buy ones that have better sound. While they do well, none of the alternatives will give you the same seamless integration you’ll get from pairing AirPods with your iPhone or iPad. The experience remains outstanding and that’s what Apple does best.


  1. It may be time to upgrade if you have first generation AirPods with fading batteries that struggle to hold much charge any more. ↩︎

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