The redesigned entry-level AirPods provide an improved experience that is ideal for iOS users, but the wireless buds aren’t for everyone.
While there were once memes about how AirPods looked like electric toothbrushes, the wireless earbuds became a household hit, with millions sold in 2020 alone. But, no matter how popular the earbuds were, there was always room for improvement, which is where the third-generation AirPods come in.
The AirPods 3 have a redesigned form factor, improved smarts, better audio, and longer battery life than the AirPods 2. What’s not to like about that? Aside from a price increase…
Are the AirPods still the best wireless earbuds for owners of Apple devices? Continue reading to find out.
The AirPods Pro has a compact design that is similar to that of the AirPods. Extremely light and comfortable to wear – even in bed. There are advantages and disadvantages to open design. While the second-generation AirPods had the same design as the original, Apple decided to change it for the AirPods. They’re still AirPods, with a minimalistic design, protruding stems, and curved edges, but they’re more elegant this time.
There’s a resemblance to the AirPods Pro, with contoured buds and shorter stems than the original design, and it includes a few key features of Apple’s Pro buds as well.
The most noticeable difference is the control system; the original AirPods’ tap system has been replaced with more refined touch-capacitive force sensors that allow you to control music playback, answer calls, and summon Siri with a quick squeeze.
The squeeze controls are much easier to use, as they avoid tapping too hard and loosening the AirPods’ fit, and they feel responsive as well. To access different functions, you can single-click, double-click, or click-and-hold, with a subtle ‘click’ sound playing in the buds to indicate squeeze registration. It’s subtle and doesn’t annoy as much as buds that provide haptic feedback.
The AirPods 3 retain the same open design as its predecessors, which differs from the more premium AirPods Pro in the ear tip department. While the AirPods Pro comes with an interchangeable ear tip to improve the seal and fit, the AirPods 3 does not. Even at higher volumes, AirPods 3 will pick up on most ambient noise, such as cars passing by or the loud rattle of the tube. It also means that sound leakage is a problem, potentially annoying anyone nearby in quieter environments. As a result, Apple has modified the bud housing to more directly funnel sound directly into your ears, with impressive results, but more on that later.
But, for all of the disadvantages of the AirPods’ open design, it means they’re incredibly comfortable to wear for extended periods of time while also keeping you aware of your surroundings. They’re simple to insert and remove without leaving a plugged-up feeling, and at 4.2g each, the buds are lighter than most alternatives.
In fact, they’re so small and light that I can sleep on my side with them in and completely forget about them, which is something I can’t say about most wireless earbuds. The AirPods 3 are ideal for people like me who like to listen to music or white noise while sleeping.
The contoured shape keeps the buds snug in my ears, but this will depend largely on the shape of your ears. While I had no problems with the AirPods fit, finding a more secure fit than the second-generation buds even when going for a run, my colleague David Price over at Macworld UK discovered the AirPods 3 would frequently come loose, especially when exercising.
With that in mind, the AirPods will suffice for an outdoor run, especially now that they are IPX4 water-resistant, but they may come loose during more strenuous exercise. If you enjoy working out, you might want to consider buds with earwings, such as the JBL Reflect Flow Pro.
When not in use, the third-generation AirPods are housed in a charging case that is more rectangular in shape than the original, more closely resembling the AirPods Pro case, with an LED indicator light and a magnetic flip-top lid that is easy to open one-handed. It works much like its predecessor, charging the AirPods when not in use, and it’s now IPX4 water-resistant.
The most convenient and user-friendly earbuds for iOS users
Siri improves the experience.
Find My assistance could be improved.
The third-generation AirPods, like all previous versions, are optimised for use with Apple devices, including a one-touch setup that automatically pairs your AirPods with your iPhone via Bluetooth when you open the case for the first time.
Once paired, it will be linked to your Apple ID, and you will have one-touch connectivity with any other recent Apple device signed in to your Apple ID, including iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and Mac.
What’s more, the AirPods automatically detect which device you’re using at any given time, so if you receive a call on your iPhone while listening to music on your Mac, the AirPods will automatically switch to your iPhone if you answer the call. It’s smooth (most of the time) and emphasises how clever the little earbuds are.
Of course, this isn’t the limit of what the AirPods 3 can do. Audio Sharing lets you stream music to two pairs of AirPods, AirPods Pro, or AirPods Max while using a compatible Apple device – ideal for showing a friend a new song while out and about.
On-demand Siri assistance is also available by saying ‘Hey Siri’ followed by your command. It will also use the virtual assistant to announce incoming calls, read out incoming text messages (and allow you to respond by speaking your response), and do a variety of other things. It’s a nice feature if you don’t want to keep looking at your iPhone while listening to music.
The AirPods, like most earbuds, have auto play/pause technology that pauses your music when you remove a bud, but Apple’s earbuds go a step further. While most competitors use simple proximity sensors to detect when the bud is close to something – usually your ear, but sometimes in your pocket or on a tablet – the new AirPods have a dedicated skin-detect sensor.
This means that the AirPods will only start playing music when they make contact with your skin, avoiding accidental playback when kept somewhere other than your ear or charging case and saving battery life. It’s a small feature, but one that makes all the difference in day to day life.
There’s also enhanced Find My support on the AirPods 3. This allows the buds (although not the case) to connect to Apple’s 100 million+ device-strong Find My network, allowing you to track their location if you lose them. You’ll also get proximity alerts, notifying you if you leave the earbuds behind, and you can make the buds chirp much like an AirTag to help you find them too.
Lacking a dedicated UWB chip, it doesn’t quite offer the same close-range Precision Tracking as the AirTag, but it’ll give you a general idea of where the buds are anyway. At least, they should in theory; on one occasion I misplaced the AirPods 3 in the case and couldn’t connect to them in the Find My app despite being in my house. So, it could certainly use some work.
Audio and microphone performance
- Great bass performance despite open design
- Spatial Audio is superb
- Microphone quality is among the best around
The ultimate question is, of course, how good the AirPods sound. Given the open design of the buds, the custom-designed drivers have to work even harder to provide a well-rounded audio experience without the benefits of a closed seal. It’s a lofty task, but somehow, Apple has managed it with impressive results.
Bass is the real hero of the AirPods 3, and that’s not something I thought I’d say before going ears-on with the buds. Sound isolation (usually in the form of eartips) and bass performance tend to go hand-in-hand, with a decent seal needed for even average bass performance, but Apple has bucked that with the AirPods 3.
The bass hits (or slaps, as the kids would say!) In a satisfying way that doesn’t overpower the mids or highs. The baseline of classic 00s bangers like T2’s Heartbroken feels punchy and energised, while the rumbling bass tones of Dubstep classics like Skrillex’s Bangarang is exhilarating, ideal for workout tunes. That doesn’t impede on the mids or highs most of the time, aside from busier tracks that can sound a little muddy at times.
There’s decent sound separation too, allowing you to appreciate every instrument on a track, with a perfectly fine soundscape – and that’s without the new Spatial Audio mode on.
Previously exclusive to the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, Spatial audio support is new to the entry-level AirPods 3 – and it’s potentially a game-changer for music fans.
When you listen to music without spatial audio enabled, the sound appears to be emanating from the centre of your brain. But, with a quick tap of the toggle in the iPhone Control Centre, the sound shifts and sounds as if it’s all around you – an effect made even more impressive if you opt for the head-tracked mode.
With head tracking on, the various instruments and vocals are ‘fixed in place, so you can move your head around and feel the music shift around you. Looking to the right will shift most audio to the left bud, making it feel like the music is coming from in front of you, rather than from within your earbuds. It’s an odd sensation, and one that lends itself more to movies than music, but the option is there for both if you want to try it.
I will say that it’s best suited to home use though – the constant shifting direction when walking outside can become jarring, but thankfully, it’s easily disabled while still being able to benefit from the increased presence of spatial audio.
Regardless of head tracking, the music sounds more ‘real’, more akin to a live performance than a recording, with each instrument bursting with presence. It works automatically with Dolby Atmos content, provided via Apple Music, but it’ll also upmix standard stereo music with impressive results.
The only disappointment is the lack of active noise cancellation – although, with the open design, it’s easy to see why. However, Apple’s decision to make ANC one of the main differentiators between the AirPods and AirPods Pro means that the buds aren’t quite the best value around, with some ANC-enabled buds now available for as little as £100/$100.
When it comes to microphone performance, Apple’s AirPods are still the ones to beat – even with shorter stems than previous generations of AirPod. Even with other manufacturers offering beamforming mic technology, the tech found on the AirPods 3 is a big step ahead of the competition.
No matter the environment I’m in, I’ve never had a call recipient complain that the environment is too loud, or that my voice is too quiet, when I’m on a call. It’s a freeing experience, and it means you’ll never have to hesitate about whether you should switch to wireless earbuds during long calls.
The impeccable performance means they’re an ideal purchase if you spend a lot of time on the phone, be it for work or pleasure. There’s a reason that many celebs are using AirPods (in one form or another) in remote video interviews on TV, after all!
Battery life and charging
- Lasts an hour longer than previous-gen AirPods
- 30 hours total battery life
- MagSafe charging now available
Another area that has seen an improvement in the third-generation AirPods is battery life; while the 5 hours of performance and additional 19 hours in the case of the second-gen AirPods was fine, let’s be honest, it was never industry-leading.
This time around, Apple claims the AirPods will last 6 hours in use, with an additional 24 hours in the case bringing the total charge up to 30 hours. However, in our testing, we found that the buds lasted a little longer than claimed, lasting an impressive 7.5 hours during testing – although one bud did run out 45 minutes before the other.
Still, it’s not quite the 8 hours of the ANC-enabled Sony WF-1000XM4, but that’s a conscious decision from Apple, deciding to sacrifice battery life to keep the lightweight open design the AirPods are famed for.
Considering the buds are among the most lightweight and comfortable I’ve worn for quite some time, I’m happy to stick to the 6-hour battery life on offer right now – it’s not like most people will listen to music for hours on end most of the time anyway!
If you do listen to music consistently all day, every day, you might be better off with over-ear wireless headphones or, maybe even wired headphones. We rank the best headphones separately if you’re interested in finding out more.
If you, like me, have been using your MagSafe charger as a mini wireless charger for older AirPods, you’ll be happy to know that Apple has made the AirPods 3 officially compatible with the magnetic charging tech. Now, it’ll snap into place onto any MagSafe charger, just like the iPhone does.
While MagSafe is the most convenient way to charge, you’ve still got standard Qi wireless charging and wired charging via Lightning cable at your disposal.
Price and availability
The third-generation AirPods are now available to buy for £169/$179, which is both more expensive and cheaper than the second-gen buds.
That might sound odd, but it’s true: the standard AirPods 2 cost £159/$159, while the variant with a wireless charging case would set you back £199/$199. So, while the third-gen buds are more expensive than the older entry-level buds, they offer wireless charging as standard, making them cheaper than the comparable last-gen model.
They are more expensive than the competition considering the lack of key features like ANC, and there are plenty of cheaper wireless earbuds on the market if budget is important to you, but none quite offer the same experience as the AirPods with an Apple device.
The third-generation AirPods are the biggest change to the entry-level AirPods since their inception, offering a smaller contoured design that’s still distinct and instantly recognisable while also introducing key new features and improved audio performance.
New smart features, including enhanced Find My support, a skin-detect sensor, pressure-sensitive squeeze controls and MagSafe charging support are all welcome additions that Apple owners will appreciate, but it’s spatial audio that’s the real game-changer.
Previously exclusive to the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, the 3D audio technology can take Dolby Atmos content (available via Apple Music) and project it around you for a more natural, expansive listening experience, further enhanced by head tracking. It’ll even up mix standard stereo content with impressive results.
Though it’s not often I recommend upgrading from a previous-gen device, I think there’s more than enough here for AirPods 2 owners to enjoy. Simply, when it comes to wireless earbuds on Apple devices, the AirPods are the ones to beat.