While the Beats Studio Buds design was spoiled pre-release, Apple’s newest pair of true wireless earbuds still snuck some surprises into its reveal. Not only is this a very cheap pair of buds by Apple standards, but it also wields a premium feature in active noise cancellation (ANC).
On top of that, it emerged that the Studio Buds has ditched the usual Apple H1 and W1 chips in favor of silicone favors a more platform-agnostic, Android-friendly approach. The result is one seriously norm-breaking pair of earbuds, and while our initial hands-on impressions are positive, I can’t help but wonder what the Beats Studio Buds means for the AirPods 3.
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Yes, Apple’s other likely headphones launch for 2021 hasn’t been announced, though we have seen various photos purportedly showing the AirPods 3 design. Specs and features can only be speculated upon at this point, but Apple could easily look to its own Studio Buds for inspiration.
More features for less
Beats headphones have never been as pricey as AirPods, especially not the likes of the $549 AirPods Max. Yet considering this the Studio Buds is a major new release, with a drastically overhauled design compared to the Powerbeats Pro or Beats Flex, $149 seems like an uncharacteristically generous asking price. Neither the Powerbeats Pro or the absolute cheapest Apple AirPods are as cheap, and they’re both a couple of years old.
Neither of them provide ANC, either. Although this feature is becoming increasingly available on lower-cost headphones, including some of the best cheap wireless earbuds, it’s still a hardware-reliant bonus that pushes costs up. The cheapest pair of ANC-enabled AirPods, remember, is the AirPods Pro, which you’d be lucky to find at $200 in a sale.
The Studio Buds also packs a Transparency mode and IPX4 water resistance, suggesting Apple might finally have become bored of Apple Tax jokes. Does this mean the AirPods 3 will be, or even should be, a $99 bargain? Not necessarily, but Apple itself has now proven that good features don’t need huge investments. Either a price cut from the 2nd-gen AirPods or a significant feature upgrade could therefore help the AirPods 3 keep an edge in an ever-more-competitive market.
Reading through the Studio Buds’ Android features is an experience bordering on the surreal. One-touch pairing? Find My Device support? Did Apple seriously make this?
Even the charging case refuels over USB-C, not Apple Lightning, so Android owners can more easily repurpose their phone’s charging cable. Apple’s decision to forgo its H1 and W1 chips, which provide numerous benefits to iOS users at the cost of only having the most basic Android support, was clearly made to broaden the Studio Buds’ appeal.
Will the AirPods 3 follow suit? It doesn’t seem as likely as a lower price or ANC support; unlike the Studio Buds, this model has “Apple” right there in the name. But on the Studio Buds, Cupertino has also managed to carry over some of those chips’ iOS advantages even with added Android friendliness — perhaps enough to be worth trying again on the AirPods 3.
The Studio Buds still lets iOS users locate lost buds with the Find My app, and single-tap pairing is included for both mobile platforms. In fact iOS still has the overall advantage, offering OS-based exclusives like spatial audio for Apple Music and “Hey Siri” voice controls. So the Studio Buds, and potentially the AirPods 3, can go much further in satisfying Android owners while still providing incentives to stay within Apple’s walled garden. By offering more than the bare minimum to Android fans, the AirPods 3 could tighten Apple’s grip on wireless earbuds even more.
That said, the Studio Buds don’t entirely replicate the benefits of Apple chips. There’s no audio sharing with other Apple/Beats headphones, no syncing across iCloud devices, and no fast switching across multiple iOS/macOS sources. The Studio Buds might end up as Apple’s best headphones for Android, but they could also be seen as its worst headphones for iOS. If Apple does decide to go forward with this multiplatform strategy, it will need to decide if those dropped features are worth sacrificing.
Of course any influence on the AirPods 3 could depend on how the Studio Buds performs; it bombs in sales, or angers enough iOS fans, we could well see the AirPods 3 as a totally conventional follow-up to the 2019 AirPods. Similar hardware, no big surprises on the feature list and no fallen price.
But the Beats Studio Buds is a major departure from the norm, and if that means taking a few risks, it could be the AirPods 3 where they pay off.