The new AirPods are great for the blind
They’re not without flaws, but they’re perfect for me.
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Apple has a long standing foothold in the accessibility space, dating all the way back to 2004 when VoiceOver was introduced in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. In 2009, it had the first screen reader designed for mobile touch interfaces, and it was all conjured by one totally blind man, Mike Shebanek.
Apple’s accessibility efforts span many devices, including headphones and earphones. In 2021, Apple released the AirPods 3. These earbuds resemble the shape and look of previous AirPods but sport a number of enhancements that make the headphones stand out from other models. Some of these new features benefit blind users such as myself.
AirPods 3 are still easy to pair
Upon unboxing the AirPods 3, it's striking how similar they were to my old first-generation AirPods I kept around. They were the exact size and fit as the originals. Pairing them was the same process. I opened the case with a nearby iPhone. VoiceOver announced that a dialog popped up. I double tapped the pair button, and they were connected. It appears that they just work, with no bells or whistles.
There are a few things that differentiate this model from earlier generations, though. For instance, users get spatial audio featuring Dolby Atmos in Apple Music, movies, and TV shows, along with dynamic head tracking, across Apple devices. The new third-generation AirPods offer an extra hour of battery life over the previous generations, with up to six hours of listening time and up to four hours of talk time. For a reason I can't immediately figure out, the stem is shorter than the earlier generations.
The case works well for the blind
The case makes it easy to keep the AirPods aligned to the correct ear, which is good for the blind and the visually impaired. In other headphones, I’d often get ear tips or even the left and right earphones mixed up because of many factors: lack of tactile markings on the headphones, lack of tactile markings on cases. The Apple AirPods 3 wireless charging case has contours inside of the case for each designated earbud.
The stems on both headphones slide into the case, making it impossible to put the wrong earbud in the wrong part of the case. The stems on both ear buds must slide into their respective holes. The left stem won’t go in the right part of the case, for example, which makes it easy for blind and visually impaired people to know which earbud is which.
Spatial audio helps keeps video chats centered
AirPods 3 have the ability to utilize spatial audio. Spatial audio is a feature that orients sound based on head movements and head tracking. For example, with spatial audio and dynamic head tracking, voices in a group FaceTime call sound like they’re coming from the direction in which the person is positioned on the screen. For example, if I was actively in a FaceTime call with a group of people, the audio would shift, or pan, to one side or the other depending on where I turned my head or the phone. The audio is dynamic, though.
What I liked
The sound quality is better than previous generations
Perhaps the saying is true: If it isn't broke, don't fix it. The AirPods 3 were so familiar, and yet they had better bass when listening to opera or rock. The sound, as always, was crystal clear. It was far better than many of my over the ear headphones because of the increased attention to bass in this generation, which made audiobooks and podcasts all the more enjoyable while listening.
The AirPods 3 start to lose their charm when heavy metal music is cranked up to the maximum volume because the treble starts to wane, but I doubt not many people would have heavy metal music on maximum volume with in-ear headphones.
Spatial Audio brings audio-described movies to life
The dynamic spatial audio is the highlight of this generation. It brings movies with audio description into a new realm of captivating because this feature isn't just a gimmick. Characters will be panned based on where they are standing. I had immense enjoyment having dialog take place in a 3-D space around me as I lay in bed or stood still in my apartment. In FaceTime calls, it was extremely helpful knowing where my colleagues were just by listening to their audio positioning alone.
VoiceOver now has less lag
One noticeable difference in this model versus earlier models is the lack of lag when using a screen reader. VoiceOver had lag cut by almost two seconds with this generation.
What I didn't like
The tap controls are hit or miss
Many times throughout my use, AirPods didn't register my taps on the earpieces when I wanted to skip chapters in an audio book or skip to the next podcast. It would take me more than three tries to get the audio to advance the way I wanted it to, and it kept leaving me wondering what was wrong with having solid buttons on the AirPods instead of tapping my ear like I was in a spy novel.
The charging indicator isn’t blind-friendly
There's a bit of accessibility discrepancy with battery information on the AirPods. If your device is turned on, VoiceOver will be able to read the battery indicator at the top of the iPhone. If there isn't an Apple device powered on, however, there's no way for a totally blind person to tell how much the AirPods have charged.
The case emits a soft light on the backside of the case. The case doesn’t vibrate to tell me how much the AirPods charged if my iPhone was turned off. If the case vibrated, even a little, that would aid blind and visually impaired people in figuring out if the case was charging, or how low the case’s battery is as it wirelessly charges the AirPods.
Spatial audio has its downsides
Dynamic spatial audio has its benefits, but I'm also someone that sets the phone down and listens to movies with audio description as I'm walking around the house because,when you use audio description, you don't have to look at a screen. Spatial audio registers that you’ve set the phone down a certain way, but then is also actively detecting your movements once the phone is set down.
This means that spatial audio was never aligned to my exact position when I’d be doing other things around the house. I wasn't able to figure out how to turn the spatial audio off temporarily, which made it seem as if I had the mono setting turned on because audio would only be shifting to one side, or the other, while my phone was stationary behind me pointed in a different direction.
The microphone isn’t great
The microphone didn't seem to be powerful, either. Hardly anybody could understand me when I’d use the AirPods as a microphone. Common feedback indicated that I kept sounding as if I were in a tunnel. The noise canceling technology thought my voice was background noise. Every call, I’d end up switching to the phones better built-in microphone.
Are AirPods 3 worth it for the blind?
AirPods 3 will be familiar, as they sport the great sound quality AirPods are known for. Aside from a few drawbacks with the spatial audio feature, and the lack of microphones that recognize all voice types, the AirPods 3 work exceptionally well, especially when listening to books, podcasts, movies, and TV shows with audio description. There are better microphones, but these are a solid pair of headphones that simply just work, and they work well.
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