The world changed in September 2016, when Apple “courageously” announced that it would remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and came up with AirPods. The AirPods were ingenious – connected seamlessly without a wire and magically dangled onto your ears. Hence was born the TWS earphone. TWS stands for True Wireless Stereo. Three years later, in 2019, Apple launched yet another tech salvo. The AirPods Pro. Since then, the personal audio market has never been the same. AirPods Pro have become the best-selling active noise cancellation earphones in the world. As the competition caught up, Apple also launched the 2nd generation AirPods Pro.
Samsung joined in on their rival’s action, Sony flexed its muscles, and Google too also jumped in. New entrants like Nothing have impressed and the BBK Group, with the Oppo and OnePlus brands, have also come out with offerings that are impressive. We now have a new breed of local Indian OEMs like Boat and Noise that have become the go-to devices for customers on a budget.
There is a good noise-cancelling pair for everyone in the Indian market. You may like it in earphone form or headphone form, or you may be an Apple loyalist, or a die-hard Galaxy user, or someone who just care about the sound. There are options aplenty – you may need something for just making voice calls or may want something that drowns away the “noise” we live in as we return to normalcy after the pandemic.
Are the AirPods Pro still the benchmark?
The new Apple AirPods Pro are pricey, and from the outside, look unchanged compared to its previous generation. But they come with legitimate improvements that make them attractive to an Apple user. AirPods work magically with Apple gadgets – switch and connect seamlessly. That switching has become even more precise due to the new H2 chip. The noise cancellation has improved, which helps distil the noise from the environment effectively. Its transparency mode can now give you a sense of the real world while also reducing jarring noises like a siren, a dog’s bark or a jackhammer running in the background.
The sound quality has improved with a meatier and cleaner output that works brilliantly while playing heavy rock music or movies on Netflix. Spatial audio sounds more realistic than ever with better head-tracking and just makes watching movies that support Dolby Atmos a delight. Battery life is excellent too with the AirPods Pro lasting around five hours on a single charge as per my tests and the case allows you to enjoy six-times more music on a single charge with the noise cancelling on.
They are extremely comfortable with an additional small ear tip that’s easy to use. The case too is smart as it can be tracked like an AirTag and has speakers that allow you to locate it more easily. They shine through at everything, be it Zoom calls (with best-in-class microphone quality), or streaming Apple Music or simply noise cancelling. That said, when used with a non-Apple gadget, they lose their spatial audio chops and magic of seamless connectivity.
The alternatives are top draw too
Windows and Android users have plenty of options too. The Galaxy Buds2 Pro, the Sony WF-1000XM4, and the Google Pixel Buds Pro are all excellent for a customer looking for an AirPods Pro rival.
The Galaxy Buds2 Pro provides exceptional fit and comes in a compact case yet offers excellent battery life. They also support lossless audio (CD quality), a feature that works only with Samsung phones. They do sound stupendously clear and serene with great noise cancellation enabled. But there are issues. The microphones aren’t clear, which means that on calls, you will not sound great, and the Samsung app is inconvenient.
Of course, the grand poohbah of Android, Google, has its own offering in the Pixel Buds Pro. The fit is finicky, but I love the case and the battery life is decent. The syncing with Android phones is seamless, thanks to it being a Google product. The Pixel Buds Pro also sounds above average, with a neutral signature with good noise-cancelling chops to boot. It is an all-rounder like the AirPods.
And if the quality of sound and noise cancellation is of paramount importance, one just cannot ignore the WF-1000XM4 by Sony. They have the beefiest sound, the best noise cancellation, and the best battery life. But portability is a problem. The case is huge, and the buds are too big, so they don’t fit everyone comfortably.
But if you want something with just sonic dexterity, then my suggestion would be to get a headphone instead and Sony’s new WH-1000XM5s are ingenious. They are light, extremely comfortable, well-built, and plush. And while doing so, they sound excellent for all kinds of content with a stable Bluetooth connection and best-in-class active noise cancellation. There is lossless audio support via the LDAC codec and can be connected via a cable in the traditional way for even better sound quality. And this package delivers 30 hours of battery life, which makes it useful even for a Delhi-San Francisco up and down run. I’d rate them higher than Apple’s pricey AirPods Max too – even for Apple users.
What If the budget is tight?
My first recommendation will be to avoid products by the likes of Boat and Noise that cost less than Rs 5,000. They are cheap products with low-quality components that neither sound good nor last for even a year. Wireless earphones are already frail devices, and a low-budget never helps as you’ll never get a reliable product.
My suggestions include products from brands like Nothing, Oppo, OnePlus and JBL. For a decent active noise-cancelling earbuds experience, your budget at a minimum should be at least Rs 5,000. At this base price point, you can get the new Nothing Ear (1), which sounds balanced, has decent battery life, and provides surprisingly good active noise cancellation. Since its launch, Nothing has also ironed out the teething software issues.
At around Rs 10,000, products from OnePlus and Oppo make sense. Remember, their parent BBK Group started with making audio products, so their excellence in audio shines through. With the OnePlus Buds Pro, you get a pair of earbuds that are on par with the first-generation AirPods Pro but at half the cost. Oppo’s Enco X2 earbuds are slightly more expensive but they represent a beefier sound and active noise cancellation. They also support Dolby’s binaural recording, which is another unique feature.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is a technology journalist based out of Delhi. He tweets @DigitallyBones. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)