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A Review of the 3rd Generation AirPods

3rd Generation AirPods Box

Today’s modern society provides a ton of different ways to be stimulated. Some of the types of things that can occupy your time can include books, podcasts, music, movies, and games. Each of these can be experienced in a variety of ways. All of them can be done using a television, an iPhone, an iPad, or a gaming console. It is quite possibly that while you are using one of these that you could be using a pair of headphones.

Headphones allow you to enjoy your media without interrupting anyone else. Headphones come a number of different styles. There are over ear, on ear, and in-ear headphones. The type that you use depends on the style that the manufacture has chosen to provide them in. Apple has headphones that are in each of the various styles. The type that you are using depends on your current situation and which ones you own. The most commonly purchased type of headphones are in-ear headphones. The latest in-ear headphones offered by Apple are the 3rd generation AirPods, which we will get to shortly. But first, let us look a brief history of all of Apple’s in-ear headphones.


Brief History of Apple’s In-Ear Headphones

Headphones are not a new market for Apple. In fact Apple has been making headphones for devices for twenty years, when they introduced of the original iPod in October of 2001. Since then Apple has created its own headphones steadily over the intervening years. Some of these are wired, and others have been wireless. The wired models include Apple earbuds, iPod In-Ear Headphones, Apple Earphones with Remote Mic, iPhone stereo headset, and EarPods. The wireless models have included iPhone Stereo Headset, Beats Studio Buds, PowerBeats, and PowerBeats Pro, and AirPods, including AirPods Pro.

Each model of the Apple-branded headphones has provided its own enhancements, from the original rounded earphones that were introduced with the original iPod. The first improvement was with the iPhone Stereo Headset. This was meant to be used with the iPhone and included a microphone and a single button that could be used to control a variety of actions.

The next change was the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic. These were introduced in 2009 alongside the iPhone 3G. This improved on the previous headphones by adding two additional buttons, a volume up and volume down button. These headphones made it a much better experience when it came to using your iPhone, iPod touch, or even traditional iPod. 

In 2012 Apple revamped the headphones again with the EarPods. The EarPods still had the same three buttons as the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, but the shape of the EarPods was a custom shape. In order to create this Apple scanned hundreds of different ears to try and find a commonality between them. This commonality allowed them to create a shape that would fit the largest number of ears. As the introduction video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44xXQI9b9vI) states, “EarPods are intentionally designed to direct sound into the ear canal”, without providing a seal like other in-ear headphones do, and yet, they were designed to fit comfortably. 

The next change of headphones built on the design of the EarPods, but completely removed the wires, which they  called the AirPods. 


AirPods

AirPods are a wireless version of the EarPods. When introduced in December of 2016, they were not universally praised. Upon first seeing them many people criticized others for getting them. These critics stated that AirPods looked like “tiny toothbrushes”, “tampons”, or “ear cigarettes”. Some even stated that it took “courage” to wear them in public. I know I was ridiculed when I was wearing them, but I have been made fun of quite a bit in my life for various things, and this was just another instance of that occurring. 

Without the wires, the controls need to be different. Actions can be performed by tapping on the device while in the ear itself. With two individual AirPods you can set an action for each ear. These actions can include:

  • Play/Pause
  • Siri
  • Next Track
  • Previous Track
  • Off

As mentioned, the AirPods are wireless. This means that they need some sort of way to charge. The AirPods charge via their companion case. The first generation AirPods would have a listening time of 5 hours and up to 24 hours of charging time. The AirPods were introduced at $159 for a pair.


2nd Generation AirPods

2nd Generation AirPods with case open
2nd Generation AirPods with case open

The second generation AirPods were released in March of 2019. The 2nd generation kept the same shape, but added a couple of features. The biggest of these was support for “Hey Siri”, so you can Ask Siri to do something for you or request any information, or action, that Siri can provide.. The second feature is support for announcing messages. With this feature most messages can be read to you and you can even reply to messages all without touching your iPhone.

The 2nd Generation AirPods also added an additional option, wireless charging. This was done through a Qi-compatible wireless charging case. The AirPods could either be purchased with the case or the case could be purchased separately. If you purchased wireless charging case separately, it would cost you $79. The AirPods with lightning charging case cost the same amount as the 1st genertation, $159. The AirPods with wireless charging case cost $199. The price has since been reduced to $129 for the AirPods with lightning charging case.


AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro
AirPods Pro

The 2nd Generation AirPods were not the only AirPods to be introduced. In fact, approximately seven months after the introduction of the 2nd Generation AirPods, October 30th, 2019 to be exact, Apple introduced the AirPods Pro. The AirPods Pro took the features from the 2nd generation AirPods and enhanced them even further.

The AirPods Pro mostly kept the same iconic EarPods/AirPods shape, but expanded it to include silicone tips. These tips allowed the headphones to be inserted into the ear canal. This would create a seal that provided a new feature, noise cancellation. Noise Cancellation actually works by introducing a second sound wave that cancels out the background noise so that it seems like there is no other audio except the audio you actually want to hear.

Along with Noise Cancellation there comes another feature called Transparency Mode. Transparency Mode is the opposite of Noise Cancellation in that it amplifies the background noise so you can hear everything else that is happening around you. This is a good option if you need to be able to hear things, like traffic, but still want to be able to hear your audio.

The AirPods Pro also added support for a new feature called Spatial Audio. Spatial Audio is a technique that, according to Apple, “brings theater-like sound from the movie or video you’re watching, so that sound seems like it’s coming from all around you”. Spatial Audio will be discussed in-depth in a bit.

To account for the different shape of the AirPods Pro devices themselves, the case that comes with the AirPods Pro also had a different shape. This case is much wider but also shorter. Because of the advanced features, the AirPods Pro have a slightly higher price of $249. Beyond the features already discussed you did get a Qi-compatible wireless charging case included automatically.

At their October 2021 “Unleashed” event, Apple introduced the next version of AirPods, the 3rd generation AirPods. Let us look at these next.


3rd Generation AirPods

3rd Generation AirPods with case open
3rd Generation AirPods with case open

The 3rd generation AirPods take some cues from both the AirPods, as well as the AirPods Pro, to create a more distinct  hybrid product from the two. The case for the 3rd generation AirPods has the same general shape as the AirPods Pro. Similarly, the shape of the actual AirPod is similar between the two, with the 3rd generation AirPod being a bit smaller, since they do not have the silicone in-ear tips. Furthermore, since the width is smaller, the weight of each AirPod is less, as is the overall weight of the AirPods with the case.

There is one feature that needs to be highlighted specifically, Spatial Audio with Head Tracking.


Spatial Audio with Head Tracking

Spatial Audio with Head Tracking is a feature that is on the AirPods Pro, as well as the 3rd generation AirPods. Spatial Audio will automatically adjust the audio that you are listening to in a way that simulates the audio being all around you. This is much akin to the way that a surround sound system works when watching a movie, provided the speakers are placed properly around where you are seated.

The idea with Spatial Audio is to simulate the audio as though it is coming directly from the device. Therefore, Spatial Audio with Head Tracking will automatically adjust the sound to the movement of your head, in relation to the device. if you move your head to point left, the audio will move more of the audio to the right AirPod, similarly, if you move your head to the right, the sound will move more toward the left AirPod. 

There are actually three different modes for Spatial Audio, these are:

  • Stereo
  • Fixed
  • Head Tracking

“Stereo” is the same experience that you would get with 2nd generation AirPods, or any other non-Spatial Audio enabled headset. 

The “Fixed” option provides Spatial Audio, but without the head tracking. This means that if you have an audio item with Dolby Atmos you will get the Spatial Audio, but the sound will not move as you move your head. This is good if you want to be able to hear the Spatial Audio but need to do something else at the same time.


Changing Output

When you connect your 3rd generation AirPods to your device, Spatial Audio with Head Tracking will be enabled by default. However, you do not need to always keep Spatial Audio on. You can turn it off when you want through Control Center. This is done by performing the following steps:

  1. Swipe down from the top, or bottom, of the screen to bring up Control Center.
  2. Tap and hold on the volume slider
  3. At the bottom of the screen, tap on the “Spatial Audio” button to bring up the various options.
  4. Tap on the preferred option.

It definitely needs to be mentioned that not every piece of audio will support Spatial Audio with Head Tracking. The audio must be mastered for Dolby Atmos. If it is not mastered for Dolby Atmos, you will only get the stereo sound option.


Dolby Atmos on Beats vs. AirPods

The 3rd generation AirPods are not the only headphones that support Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio. In fact, there are a number of headphones that do. The complete list includes:

  • AirPods Pro
  • AirPods Max
  • BeatsX
  • Beats Solo3 Wireless
  • Beats Studio3
  • Powerbeats3 Wireless
  • Beats Flex
  • Powerbeats Pro
  • Beats Solo Pro
  • Beats Studio Buds

I have actually had access to Dolby Atmos since it was introduced with Apple Music back in June of 2021, through my Beats Solo Pros. Spatial Audio on the Beats Solo Pros does indeed provide spatial audio, however, The Beats Solo Pros do not support the Head Tracking feature. Instead, when using the Beats Solo Pros with Spatial Audio, it is like using the “fixed” setting.

The 3rd Generation AirPods have the best of both. The Head Tracking but you can still turn it off if you do not want to use it, but it is also there when you want to have the full experience.

For me, I’m not sure how useful Spatial Audio with Head Tracking is when it comes to music. Spatial Audio in a fixed context is fine, but having the audio move when you’re listening to music seems like overkill. The only instance when it might make sense is if you are listening to a live concert and you want to simulate actually being there while you go on throughout your day. Then it might make sense because it might seem like you are there. The problem with this is that it is not likely that any live concerts will be mastered for Spatial Audio, so this is not all that likely to occur.

Spatial Audio with Head Tracking makes a bit more sense when it comes to movies or possibly TV shows. Having the audio change when you move your head makes a lot more sense if you really want to immerse yourself in the media you are consuming. Of course the biggest downside is that spatial audio only works with Apple TV content, whether purchased or not. As far as I can tell there are no third-party streaming services that support spatial audio while playing media except for Apple TV+, and even then, not all content.


2nd Generation vs. 3rd Generation

2nd Gen and 3rd Gen AirPod cases side by side
2nd Generation AirPods case compared to 3rd Generation AirPods case

I have owned a number of different pairs of Apple’s in-ear headphones. The most recent type of in-ear headphones were the 2nd generation AirPods. Coming from the 2nd generation AirPods, there are some distinct differences as compared to the 3rd generation AirPods. There are two topics to cover, the fit, and force pressing compared to tapping. Let us start the fit.


Comparing Fit

The overall shape of the 2nd generation and 3rd generation AirPods are similar, but the 3rd generation AirPods are designed to put the sound more directly into the ear canal than even the 2nd generation; provided that your ears can fit the newer shape of the 3rd generation AirPods. 

Even though the 3rd generation AirPods do indeed it in my ears, they do not sit as comfortably as the 2nd generation. The 2nd generation AirPods seem to just have an overall better fit where they rest easily on my ears. Meanwhile, the 3rd generation AirPods tend to stick out a bit more. The 3rd generation still fit in my ears, just not as well. As a tip, be sure to twist them forward after you have put them in your ears, this should help them fitting. 

Your experience may vary though, depending on the shape of your ears. The fit it not the only thing that will take some time to adjust to, the controls might take some time to get accustom to as well.


Adjusting to Force Press from Tapping

The AirPods are small and they do not have a large surface area. Because of this AirPods are only able to support a limited set of controls. As mentioned earlier, with the 2nd generation AirPods you can only have one action that you can set. You can set one action for each AirPod. The available actions include:

  • Play/Pause
  • Next Track
  • Previous Track
  • Siri

The 3rd generation AIrPods allow you to perform the same functions, but in a different manner. Instead of tapping you can perform presses on either of the two stems of the AirPods. The actions that you can perform are the same:

  • Play/Pause – Press Once
  • Next Track – Press Twice
  • Previous Track – Press Three times
  • Siri – Press and hold

Having used AirPod since they were introduced in 2016, I have become quite accustomed to tapping on the AirPod in order to perform an action, so I have to keep reminding myself that I have to press on the smaller stem of the AirPod to perform any action. It is not like I do not have to press on headphones to perform an action. They exact same actions work on my Beats Solo Pros, so it is not like the actions are unfamiliar to me. I think the issue is that the stems are much smaller, so it takes a bit longer to actually perform an action, due to the smaller surface area. I am sure that I will eventually get used to it, but for now, it is still a bit cumbersome to adjust to.


Find My

AirPods are small and it is entirely possible that they could fall out while you are using them and they may become lost. This may not be outside of your house, but it is entirely possible that you might lose one. There is an option to be able to find any lost AirPods via the “Find My” network. This is enabled by default on your 3rd generation AirPods. 

If you do manage to lose your AirPods, you can use the Find My app to try and find your AirPods. The Find My is similar to other Find My where it starts to find the AirPods in a general manner and as you get closer the color will change to indicate that you are getting closer to the AirPod. 

The difference with the 3rd generation AirPods is that you can individually locate each AirPod. This can be very helpful should you only manage to misplace a single AirPod. Beyond attempting to locate your AirPods you can also play a sound so that you can more easily locate them.

The inclusion of Find My should be quite helpful for those instances when you accidentally misplace an AirPod, no matter where it may happen to be located. There is one last item to cover about the 3rd generation AirPods, the charging case.


Case

3rd Generation AirPods Case
3rd Generation AirPods Case

AirPods are wireless, necessitating placing them in the case when they charge. I normally charge my AirPods on a Space Gray iPhone Lightning Dock. With the 1st and 2nd generation AirPods I could easily open the case and use one hand to place each of the AirPods into the case. However, with the 3rd generation in order to place the headphones in the case, for me anyway, requires two hands. For me, I need one hand to hold the case and the other to actually place the AirPods in the case. 

I suspect that the shorter stems are the issue. The longer stems on 1st and 2nd generation AirPods allowed the AirPods to be drawn into case because the magnets on the bottom of the stems, in combination of the magnets in the bottom of the case, helping pull the AirPods into the case.

Whenever I try to use one hand to place the 3rd generation AirPods into the case, the AirPod is drawn to the top of the case where the magnet to hold the case closed instead of the bottom. My guess is that this is happening because the magnets in the front of the AirPods case are stronger and the AirPod is attracted to closest magnet. 

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a big problem, but it is something to be aware of, because it may be problematic for someone who has mobility issues.

On the topic of magnets, we need to cover a feature that involves magnets. That feature is MagSafe.


MagSafe

3rd Generation AirPods on MagSafe charger
3rd Generation AirPods on MagSafe charger

As stated earlier, at the same time the 2nd generation AirPods were introduced, another accessory was also released, a wireless charging case. If you opted for a wireless charging case, it would either cost your $199 for the 2nd Generation AirPods with the wireless charging case, or you could buy the wireless charging case on its own for $80. While this was optional with the 2nd generation AirPods, there is a wireless charging case included with the 3rd generation AirPods.

The 3rd generation comes with a wireless charging case, just like the AirPods Pro do. There is one additional enhancement with the 3rd generation case that was not on the 2nd generation wireless case, and that feature is MagSafe compatibility.

MagSafe is Apple’s Qi-compatible charger that adds some of Apple’s own proprietary features. It is not that the 2nd generation wireless charging case would not work with a MagSafe charger, it definitely will. The MagSafe aspect comes into play when it comes to placing the AirPods case on the MagSafe charger. 

Typically, when you place any Qi-compatible charger it is quite possible that you might misalign the device with the actual charging area. When this happens it might result in the device not actually charging, even though you think it is charging. One of the features of MagSafe is that you do not need to necessarily worry about exact placement of the MagSafe-compatible device. This is because there are a bunch of very tiny magnets in the MagSafe-compatible device. These numerous magnets will automatically align the device with the MagSafe charger so that you will always be sure that the device will charge.

The magnets in the 3rd generation charging case are definitely stronger than any of them in the 2nd generation AirPods. This can be easily noticed by placing the 3rd generation AirPods on a MagSafe charger and picking up the charger with the AirPods case and having the MagSafe charging puck be lifted up as well. 

Having wireless charging in the 3rd generation AirPods automatically will make it much easier for everybody, even if you do not charge your AirPods case wirelessly, there may be an instance when you need to do so and having it available will allow you to not have to worry about it, and be able to charge.


Lightning

3rd Generation AirPods USB-C to Lightning Cable
3rd Generation AirPods USB-C to Lightning Cable

The 3rd generation AirPods case needs to be charged, and if you do not charge it wirelessly you will need to plug in the charging case. All of the AirPods that require charging come equipped with a lighting cable. With past models this would have been a USB-A to Lightning cable. However, with the 3rd generation AirPods this is now a USB-C to lightning cable. 

In most cases this is not a problem, because if you have an existing pair of AirPods and use a lightning cable, you can continue to use it. However, it does need to be noted because if you do not have another lightning cable you will need a USB-C charging brick, because one is not included in the box.


Closing Thoughts

If you have a pair of AirPods Pro, then the 3rd generation AirPods do not make a lot of sense for you. This is because the AirPods Pro actually have two additional features, Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode, to be exact.

A good way to think about the 3rd generation AirPods is that they are like the iPad mini, but for AirPods. They have many of the same features of the more expensive AirPods, but they are not the top of the line, but they are still very capable and a great overall choice.

If you do opt to get a pair of 3rd generation AirPods you will get support for Spatial Audio, up to six hours of battery life on a single charge, and even an IPX4 water and sweat resistance rating. If you do decide to get a pair of AirPods, it is possible that they might not fit as snugly as the 2nd generation AirPods, but they may be a better overall choice for you in the end.

These are a great choice if you are looking to get something for someone for the holidays, or even just for yourself.

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