New Apple AirPods Review: Great Sound, if They Stay in Your Ears
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New Apple AirPods Review: Great Sound, if They Stay in Your Ears

The third-generation AirPods feature better sound, battery life and water resistance, but have a different shape that might not fit your ears.

By Nicole Nguyen
Tue, Oct 26, 2021Grey Clock 4 min

I was leaning over the sink, washing my face, when one of the new third-generation AirPods had a brush with death. The right earbud popped out and bounced, then bounced again, before landing inches from the wide-open drain.

Unlike their predecessor, these AirPods are water-resistant. I’m just glad the bud didn’t fall where only the bravest would follow. Many an AirPod has tumbled into subway tracks, sewer grates and toilets, and unfortunately the latest generation won’t prevent more from meeting the same fate. But they do sound better.

A new version of Apple’s AirPods wireless earbuds start shipping Tuesday. At $279, they’re more expensive than the previous generation, now down to $129 from $159. And they’re not quite as full-featured as the most expensive option, the $399 AirPods Pro with active noise cancellation.

There are several reasons an early AirPods adopter might want to upgrade to the third generation. The stem-squeezing capacitive touch controls are much easier to trigger than the original’s tap-based gestures. The battery life is an hour longer, with up to six hours of listening and four hours of talk time. The case conveniently snaps to MagSafe wireless chargers (sold separately). They’re now sweat- and water-resistant. And the stems are shorter, like the ones on the AirPods Pro. You’ll still look like a cyborg, but a little less so.

My chief concern is the fit: The new bud might not work for ears that held the original AirPods well.

A Different Fit

Everyone has a slightly different ear shape and so earbuds can be a highly personal choice—yet the non-Pro AirPods continue to be one-size-fits-all. The new AirPods fell out of my ears more often than the older ones, which I wore daily until I upgraded to the AirPods Pro. The new bud is more oval, and the tip has a larger, less-tapered end than the second-generation AirPods.

As is the case with all AirPods, every time I took off a sweater or tucked my hair behind my ear, a bud could go flying. But something about the new design caused the earbuds to drop when I was just eating or washing my face. Body movement seems to be less of an issue than jaw movement: I went on a run and the new ’Pods stayed put. The AirPods Pro, which come with three different sizes of silicone gasket, are the most secure in my ears. Meanwhile, my husband Will tried on the new AirPods and they work fine for him.

An Apple spokesman said the rounder shape is designed to make wearing the AirPods more comfortable. But the new fit and improved sound won’t make a difference if the earbuds can’t stay in your ear.

My advice? Try them on at the Apple Store before buying, or take advantage of Apple’s 14-day return policy. If they don’t fit, consider the AirPods Pro, which can be sized.

Better Audio

Most people aren’t buying AirPods for their sound. The killer feature is the quick-pairing setup for people who use iPhones, iPads and Macs.

For those who are paying attention to sound, the new AirPods have noticeably improved quality. Songs sound more detailed compared with the previous generation, and the bass is punchier in tracks ranging from the Supremes’ classic “You Can’t Hurry Love” to Billie Eilish’s room-shaking “Oxytocin.”

And if you don’t have an ear for music, you’ll still hear the difference when watching supported TV shows or movies with a compatible iOS device or Mac and spatial audio turned on. The feature enables three-dimensional audio from apps such as HBO Max, Disney+, Netflix and Hulu. (YouTube and Amazon Prime Video don’t support it yet.)

As you turn your head, the immersive sound feels like it’s emanating from the screen you’re watching. It’s confusing at first. It’ll sound like audio is playing out loud rather than in your earbuds. Try it with the first episode of “Squid Game” on Netflix. (That climactic scene, where the participants realize what’s up—that will hit you differently.)

Apple Music offers spatial audio on many tracks. The sound is sometimes amazing and three dimensional—check out “Latch” by Disclosure—but often you won’t notice anything at all.

My voice sounded better over the new AirPods’ microphones, too. The buds have the same mic and wind-minimizing material as the more expensive Pros, which came out on top in my testing last year.

Pros Vs. ’Pods—Or Something Else?

Apple has three earbuds in its lineup: second-gen AirPods for $219, new AirPods for $279 and AirPods Pro for $399.

Rubbery ear tips aren’t for everyone, but I still believe the Pros are the best earbuds iPhone users can buy. They’re $120 more, so they pose a confusing decision for upgraders.  This past week, I really missed the Pros’ active noise cancellation. Walking down the street I had to crank up the AirPods’ volume to hear a podcast. And later, while working from home, I couldn’t tune out my neighbour’s leaf blower. The Pros’ noise cancellation isn’t as good as what you get in over-ear headphones, but it’s better than the in-ear competition.

While the new AirPods are a compelling upgrade from the original, $279 is a lot for earbuds without noise cancellation. Amazon’s bulkier Echo Buds 2 have active noise cancellation and come with optional wing tips for an even more secure fit.

AirPods also can’t simultaneously connect to two non-Apple devices at once like Jabra’s Elite 85t, and don’t have on-device volume control like Sony’s WF-1000XM4s.

And unfortunately, AirPods, like most wireless headphones and earbuds, are disposable. Their batteries, which will eventually degrade, can’t be replaced. Apple says it will recycle dead buds for you at any Apple Store, but there’s no trade-in credit.

Still, there’s a reason why AirPods are the bestselling wireless earbuds with 23% market share world-wide, according to the latest unit-sales estimate from Counterpoint Research. Earbuds work best with devices made by the same company, when they’re optimised for connection reliability and quick pairing. And for people who live in Apple’s walled garden, that means choosing AirPods—and trying not to lose them. The third-generation AirPods feature better sound, battery life and water resistance, but have a different shape that might not fit your ears.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication:October 25, 2021.

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