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Excellent, improved sound quality
Better battery life
Robust build with water resistance and MagSafe charging
No silicone eartips
No active noise cancellation
Apple’s ultra-popular AirPods are the best out there for iPhone owners
Apple provided us with a review unit for one of our writers to test. Read on for their full take.
The AirPods 3 are an attempt to mix the best of all previous generations: the sleeker design and spatial audio of AirPods Pro, the (more) affordable price point of the original AirPods, and the wireless charging capabilities of the second-generation AirPods.
In a sense, if you’re on the fence about buying a pair of AirPods, the third generation is here to offer a solid set of features for a mid-tier price point. This is now the fourth time I’ve reviewed an AirPods product for Lifewire, and with that historical knowledge, I was really excited to get this new offering in my hands, and in my ears. I spent a few days with them, and here’s how things panned out.
The hanging-stem design of all in-ear AirPods products has become near-ubiquitous in the true wireless earbuds space. The first-generation felt over-the-top, with a really long stem measuring more than 1.5 inches from top to bottom.
The AirPods Pro evolved the design language by tilting the stem forward and shortening it to about 1.2 inches from bud to tip. The AirPods 3 carry this shorter, angled stem design forward to the non-Pro range. In fact, when you’re wearing the AirPods 3, they look a lot like a pair of AirPods Pro.
It isn’t until you see the AirPods 3 outside of the ear that you see the differences. The best way I can describe the design is that the earbud enclosure itself is similar to the original AirPods, while the stem is similar to the Pro model; there’s no silicone eartips to speak of. Instead, you have an enlarged opening sporting a grill which houses the speaker driver.
The earbud enclosure itself is similar to the original AirPods, while the stem is similar to the Pro model.
There are also some new bass ports all around the enclosure to allow for an interesting new sound profile. Of course, this tip-free design has some implications about comfort, which I’ll get into in the next section. But from an aesthetic perspective, the AirPods 3 really are a nice evolution of all previous models, carrying that all-white, all-Apple design to the modern day.
Having reviewed dozens of earbuds over the years, I’ve gained a keen appreciation for earbuds that fit well in my personal ears. Apple has chosen to adopt the “rest on the edge of your ear” approach to the fit of the AirPods 3, and it’s very similar to the first generation. This has never worked for my particular ears, as I need a secondary point of contact—like a fin or a wing—to keep earbuds in my ears, particularly for active use. But, this design does work for some people, and it allows users to feel a bit of air around the earbud—resulting in breathability, ventilation, and a slightly more open sound.
It’s important to note the AirPods 3 don’t offer exactly the same fit as first-generation AirPods. That’s because the earbud part of the headphones measures ever-so-slightly wider than the earlier version. It's not a lot, and people familiar with the first gen might still be pleased with the fit. But, I had my partner — who is a daily user of an original pair of AirPods — wear the AirPods 3 for some phone calls and she found the fit to be different enough that she doesn’t like it.
The moral of the story here is, because these headphones don’t offer interchangeable tips, you’re kind of stuck with the comfort level they provide right out of the box. If this style works for you, it’ll most likely be fine. But if it doesn’t, this category might just be a deal-breaker for you.
It’s no stretch to say Apple is one of the best brands in the game when it comes to build quality. The fit and finish of the AirPods 3 is truly remarkable. The snap of the charging case, the smooth surface of the earbud plastic, and the metallic accent on the edge of each stem all feel satisfying and premium to the touch. The magnets that snap everything together are substantial, and the earbuds themselves don’t feel irritating when you’re wearing them—at least from a materials perspective.
But there’s actually a noted improvement to this round of AirPods, which makes them an incredible buy. The IPX4 sweat and water resistance available on the AirPods Pro is fully in play here, meaning that, though you can’t wear them in a pool, they’ll withstand most average precipitation and perspiration.
The snap of the charging case, the smooth surface of the earbud plastic, and the metallic accent on the edge of each stem all feel very satisfying and premium to the touch.
What’s new is the wireless charging case is now also IPX4-rated. This is an incredible addition, as many of the most premium earbud offerings in the space don’t carry waterproofing in the case. It’s really nice to have here, because most people carry the case and buds with them everywhere, so having the extra protection on the case when you’re, say, caught in a rain storm is great.
I want to get one thing out of the way first: The AirPods 3 are not a sonic replacement for the AirPods Pro, or any other truly premium earbuds (like Sony’s WF line or Bose’s QC Earbuds). Instead, the AirPods 3 provide a bunch of little extras for fans of the original AirPods.
First, there are the physical hardware changes. There’s purportedly an improved speaker driver, which means the third generation supports marginally better bass response and a generally more powerful sound. Some of that is thanks to the rear-firing bass port—which is essentially just an opening in the shell that allows for a better, bass-forward acoustic response for your ears.
Then there are the few software bells and whistles. Apple has built an in-ear microphone into the AirPods 3 that will register and monitor the quality of the sound spectrum inside your ear in real time. This information is fed to Apple’s Adaptive EQ processing engine baked into your iPhone OS or the Android app, which molds the sound a bit based on the music you’re listening to or the environment in which you’re listening. The effect is subtle, and you can control only whether it’s on or off (not the actual EQ settings like on some non-Apple earbuds), but it’s a premium addition here that will objectively make most people’s music sound better.
Then there’s the Spatial Audio. While the AirPods 3 do not feature any active noise cancellation, Apple has elected to include their impressive Spatial Audio feature. When enabled, this technology will add a bit of a sound stage (think of it like a subtle echo/distance in your sound) and it will “pin” the sound to your phone. When using compatible apps or viewing compatible content, the sound will move from ear to ear as you turn your head to make it seem like it’s physically coming from your source device — like an iPhone or an iPad. This feature may seem gimmicky, but it does provide a nice sense of space to your audio, and works wonders for watching video content.
One final drawback, as mentioned above, is the fit of the AirPods 3 doesn’t rely on a silicone-tipped seal, making for a lot of bleed from outside sounds. This can be good for some people who prefer an airier feel, but will objectively give you a different sonic character than something like the AirPods Pro. If you prefer the isolation only afforded by rubber-tipped earbuds, you won’t find it here.
One of the features that blew me away with the first generation of AirPods is just how impressive the battery life is. The AirPods 3 carry that torch nicely with six hours of advertised battery life in the earbuds themselves, and 30 total hours of listening time when you incorporate the charging case. In my testing, these numbers trended dead on, meaning you can confidently use the AirPods 3 for basically an entire week without having to charge the case.
The third-gen AirPods also bring with them MagSafe charging on the battery case. This means you’ll get the Qi-certified charging you normally get with later AirPod generations, but now if you have a MagSafe charging puck, the case will snap on instantly just like newer iPhones will. This all amounts to an excellent package from a battery perspective.
The AirPods 3 deliver basically the same input/output options as every other AirPods model. That is to say that they charge wirelessly if you want, but also feature a Lightning port on the bottom (no USB-C just yet). The Bluetooth protocol has been updated to 5.0 to be commensurate with the market and deliver a seamless, less-laggy experience.
There are still no third-party codecs here like Qualcomm aptX, but in my testing, the sound lined up well with videos and games, and sounded really nice — thanks in large part to Apple’s software-based audio processing.
Many of the extra features related to AirPods products concern how well they fit into the Apple ecosystem. I already went over the Spatial Audio and Adaptive EQ, but there are some other little tricks up these earbuds’ sleeves. First, the H1 chip is in full effect here, meaning your iPhone, iPad, or Mac will recognize the AirPods 3 immediately, connect without fumbling in a Bluetooth menu, and intelligently transfer from device to device.
I do want to note that, for iPhones specifically, you'll need to update to the latest iOS 15 to get all the software features. These features allow you to adjust some spatial audio profiles (if you use Apple Music), and they’ll let you customize some of the controls. There’s even a nifty little skin sensor on the inside, which helps the auto play/pause and battery shutoff functions to more accurately trigger when the earbuds aren’t in your ears.
At $179 from Apple, the third-gen is not as expensive as AirPods Pro, to be fair, but they are still a good deal more expensive than the older model (which is still available for $129).
Speaking of controls, quite possibly my favorite new feature of the third-gen AirPods is their new Force Touch stems. In previous generations, listeners controlled music by tapping in different patterns on the stem of each earbud. This was decent enough, but I found that because the fit wasn’t great in my ears, I was constantly mis-pressing earbuds when adjusting them.
Now, you have to put your thumb and forefinger on either side of a stem and squeeze slightly to activate this control. It gives you a satisfying click when you interact with it, and I found this control scheme to be intuitive and effective for changing songs, pausing music, and getting Siri’s attention.
To be fair, almost no Apple products are affordable. But, I was surprised at where Apple placed these AirPods in its range. At $179, the third-gen AirPods are not as expensive as AirPods Pro, but they are still a good deal more expensive than the older AirPods model (which is still available for $129).
This $50 difference is actually pretty substantial, even when you factor in the extra features and sound improvements. But if you prefer an open fit and want some of the pro-level features, then the price tag might be stomach-able for you.
I struggled with determining the right comparison to the third-generation AirPods. They have so much in common with both second-generation AirPods and the AirPods Pro. At the end of the day, the third generation is most comparable to AirPods Pro. You’ll still get Spatial Audio, Adaptive EQ, a modern design, and official waterproofing.
However, because the AirPods Pro are a little older, you can often find them for a really good price on Amazon and other third-party sites. So if you like a silicone-tipped fit and want that active noise cancellation, and you can find them for a good deal, it might be worth it to shell out for the AirPods Pro.
A really nice update.
It’s easy to nitpick each feature of the AirPods 3, but when you take the whole offering as a whole, it’s hard not to recommend them. The now-famous stem-style design has been updated and modernized, and Apple has included improved sound quality, better water resistance, MagSafe charging, and better battery life. You’ll pay a premium compared to the older generations, but you really will get what you pay for. The AirPods 3 will undoubtedly be a runaway success for Apple.
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