Ask anyone what the best accessory for an iPhone, iPad or Mac is and the answer will generally be: “one made by Apple”. Airpods and the Apple Watch have one thing in common—no other accessory works as seamlessly with Apple’s end-point devices as the ones the company makes itself. So, it’s no surprise that the new third-generation Airpods excel in that department too.
However, unlike the Apple Watch, an Airpods Max or Pro, the new Airpods aren’t quite the clear winner one has come to expect. There are significant compromises, though this pair of true wireless (TWS) headphones has its moments.
Spatial audio and audio quality
The big upgrade is that the Airpods have spatial audio, bringing the newest buzzword in audio products to what is effectively Apple’s budget headphones.
Spatial audio is different from stereo audio—in the sense that it tries to produce 360-degree sound instead of simple left and right separation. It’s actually great on paper and Apple’s not the only company pursuing this direction. However, if there is one flaw with spatial audio, it is the fact that not everyone will see (hear, in this case) its benefit.
Take the song Midnight Rider by the Allman Brothers, for example. The drums beat away in your right year, while a conga rumbles in your left. That’s stereo separation. The difference spatial audio makes is that you can mentally discern the distance between the drums and the conga in an imaginary 360-degree space. You will hear this in Taylor Swift's State of Grace, which is mixed for spatial audio on Apple Music. The lead guitar seems to move across a room, while the positioning of the toms and cymbals is better defined.
Spatial audio is one of those things that wows you when you hear it. The problem is that most tracks so far aren’t mixed for this kind of music. Thankfully, Apple has a separate section for spatial audio in the Apple Music app. But even so, don’t be surprised if this feels like nothing more than a really good soundstage for most of the music you listen to, allowing you to represent the actual positioning of a band member (guitarists, vocalists et al) on a stage. Good soundstage is great, and if that’s the least the spatial audio feature does, it still makes the Airpods far better than any headphones that don’t have a good soundstage.
But spatial audio aside, what makes the Airpods really great is versatility. It does justice to almost any genre you can think of— from Jagjit Singh to Iron Maiden. I find it a little heavy on the high frequencies but there’s more than enough punch in the bass for the average listener. Apple has the Airpods Max and Pro for more serious audio buyers, so it’s no surprise that I can pick some holes here.
Is that enough?
Audio quality is where the new Airpods shine. But TWS headsets are about so much more.
The Airpods do not have active noise cancellation (ANC). They don’t use actual tech to cut off ambient noise. Instead, the only thing standing between you and that noise is the music you are listening to. Unfortunately, the Airpods 3 pick up a lot of ambient noise. They are a nightmare to use in an aircraft. A song like Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name is fine at high volumes but switch to a softer track, like George Ezra’s Budapest, and you will hear the aircraft’s engines rumbling in the background.
This is also a problem when you take calls. I spent four hours at an airport recently and every caller pointed out the excessive ambient noise. While the lack of good noise cancellation is little more than a niggle when it comes to listening to music, it is a big annoyance when it comes to watching movies in noisy places.
In a world where companies like Nothing offer ANC at ₹6,000, and Google is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to produce a decent, but not perfect, alternative to ANC, it is disappointing that Apple wants people to compromise. At ₹18,500, the Airpods 3 are significantly more expensive than the Nothing Ear 1 or Google Pixel Buds A. They do much better in terms of audio quality, but many would find the other two better value propositions simply because of the feature set and price.
Fit and comfort
One of the main reasons the new Airpods let in so much noise is because of how they fit in your ears. Though they look more similar to the Airpods Pro than before, they don’t have the silicone ear tips that can nestle comfortably in your ear. Instead, the Airpods 3 sort of “hang” in there.
From a fit point of view, the new design is definitely more reassuring than the predecessors. The Airpods 3 don’t fall off my ears as often as the older Airpods did. However, they fell off my ear multiple times over the past week or two. Apple said this new design came after many ear scans, and it should be a better fit. Which is certainly true, but with TWS earphones, there’s no one-size fits all. What the Airpods 3 are missing is customisability, which is only possible with silicone tips—an option many cheaper headphones offer.
Essentially, if the older Airpods fit fine for you, these will perhaps feel even better. But if they didn’t, I can’t guarantee that the Airpods 3 will be much better. They are fine for a brisk walk, but I would think twice before taking them to the gym for a vigorous workout.
Spatial audio isn’t the only feature the Airpods 3 borrow from the Airpods Pro. They also have force sensors for pausing music, skipping tracks and taking calls. There is a slight indentation on each Airpod, which tells you where to touch. Instead of touch gestures, though, you will actually sort of pinch the stem of the earbuds. It takes a bit of getting used to but it is much more responsive than most gesture-controlled TWS headphones I have used, including Sony’s WF-1000XM3. The problem again is that the Airpods 3 are loose in your ear. So, pinching the stem often just pulls them out of your ear.
Battery life is quite dependable. Apple claims the Airpods 3 will provide about 30 hours of battery life, between the battery on the headphones themselves, and from the carrying case. The Airpods 3 alone will last you about four-five hours on each charge, but the battery juices up each time you put it back in the case. You won’t have to connect a charger for at least a week. Even heavy users should get over 24 hours on these.
The new Airpods can also charge wirelessly, as long as you have chargers that support it. I wish Apple had used its MagSafe technology to magnetically attach these to the back of an iPhone for a quick battery top-up. Instead, the Airpods 3 will charge using MagSafe chargers but not directly with iPhones.
Should you buy them?
It’s hard not to recommend an Apple accessory to an Apple user. But seamless and near instant connectivity don’t quite cut it this time. The Airpods 3 are good but the value proposition just doesn’t match up. Sony’s WF-1000XM3, for instance, will offer better noise cancellation, fit and similar audio quality at around the same price. At ₹18,500, the compromises Apple is asking users to make feel unfair.
If the audio quality remains the same, I am happy to give up the seamless connectivity for ANC and better fit. If you want that seamlessness too, I would recommend spending an extra ₹6,000 on the Airpods Pro, which is a more real, complete TWS headset for Apple users.