The AirPods 3 are an easy recommendation for iPhone users who want a pair of simple, good sounding buds that work well and last for a long time between charges. They’re still missing any sort of noise cancellation and are useless in loud places though, and with the AirPods Pro often available for not much more they might end up being a better option for some.
- Small, compact design
- Much improved sound
- Unmatched iOS and macOS integration
- No ANC
- Poor in loud environments
- UKRRP: £169
- USARRP: $179
- EuropeRRP: €199
- CanadaRRP: CA$239
- AustraliaRRP: AU$279
- H1 ChipAllows for fast pairing and excellent iOS integration
- Spatial AudioDolby Atmos in supported apps
- Battery Life6 hours for the buds and 30 hours for the case
The AirPods 3 are the first proper redesign for the now-iconic wireless earbuds from Apple.
Initially greeted by countless memes and jokes, Apple’s AirPods are now a common sight and have become arguably the most influential pair of headphones from the past decade.
We’re now onto the third generation of the basic AirPods range, and this revision is the biggest yet, with a stronger, and very welcome focus, on sound quality.
- Redesigned to look more like the AirPods Pro
- Shorter stem and open design
- Small charging case slips easily in a pocket
The AirPods have been given a complete makeover for this third-gen release, going for a look that’s very similar to the AirPods Pro. The stems are shorter, the case squatter and the tap controls have been ditched in favour of force sensors. There’s added protection too, as both the case and buds are IPX4 rated for sweat resistance, so they’re guarded as wet weather and better suited for gym use.
They are still unapologetically a pair of AirPods, though. They only come in white, look very minimalist and still have that now-iconic silhouette that can be Marmite for some.
For many, the main issue with the first AirPods design was the fit. There are no silicone tips here, or any sort of wings like you’ll find on the Beats Fit Pro. The AirPods 3 also don’t bury themselves into your ear canal, instead they rest inside the ear. This causes some issues with sound but it means that if the AirPods don’t naturally fit your particular ear size then you can’t tweak them to fit.
Apple increased the size of the actual bud, so the AirPods 3 should fit more ears. For my ears, the fit is ideal and I can thunderously shake my head without them becoming dislodged. I’ve worn them for a couple of runs and they’ve stayed in place perfectly.
I actually like how the AirPods 3 don’t go deep into the ear, like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM4s. This will certainly appeal to those who find that in-ear style intrusive and it makes them comfier when worn over long periods.
What I have found though is that when the discomfort does arrive, it comes quickly. I’ve worn the AirPods 3 for pretty much a whole single charge without any issues but when they did start to hurt, I had to keep them out for a longer period than I had expected. This comes from the reliance on plastic in the design and the lack of anything to soften it.
On the stem of each AirPods 3 is a capacitive sensor. Press this and you can pause a song; hold it longer and Siri kicks into gear. This is a far better method of interacting with the buds than before where you’d have to tap the bud itself quite hard.
The charging case has been redesigned too, and again it takes cues from the AirPods Pro. It’s overall a little smaller than the Pro buds case and is easily pocketable. There’s a small LED on the front and a Lightning port on the bottom for charging. On the back is a single button for forcing the buds into a pairing mode if you’re connecting to an Android phone or Windows PC. It’s all very simple and will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used AirPods before.
- The case now supports MagSafe magnetic charging
- Ties fantastically well to iOS and macOS
- Improved battery life
The case also adds another new trick: MagSafe. Apple brought back the MagSafe name with the launch of the iPhone 12, turning it into a magnetic wireless charging system. It hasn’t really hit the heights I was expecting though, with relatively few accessories making use of it.
While previous AirPods supported Qi wireless, adding MagSafe allows the buds to stick magnetically to supported chargers. This works nicely with Belkin’s elaborate MagSafe charging stand and Apple’s own MagSafe Battery Pack. It doesn’t increase charging speeds though, something that happened when you combined a MagSafe charger and an iPhone 12 (or iPhone 13).
The boost to battery life is welcome over the previous models and you’ll notice this even more if you’re upgrading from a pair of AirPods you bought at launch. Apple claims six hours of life per charge and this is more of a conservative number to what I have experienced. You’ll then get a number of charges from the case before it needs to be charged up again.
Inside the AirPods 3 is the H1 chip and this helps power all those small, handy features AirPods have become famous for. Your iPhone or iPad, for instance, will instantly look ton connect and pair when you flip open the case, and once they’re connected to a device associated with an Apple ID, they’ll be connected everywhere. You can still use them on other platforms and I have connected these up to Android phones without much faff, but many features are missing and the connection isn’t as strong.
Audio Share, which is very much an iOS-only feature, lets you connect two pairs of the AirPods to one phone for shared listening, which is seriously handy when you’re on a train. Missing out on things like this means you’re probably best off looking elsewhere if you’re not firmly within the iOS ecosystem.
The AirPods 3 seem much better at detecting when they are in an ear than the previous model and do a far better job at siphoning out wind noise. The microphone is excellent for voice calls, too.
- Spatial Audio is a hit or miss addition
- More bass than previous AirPods
- ANC still restricted to the AirPods Pro
When the AirPods 3 were announced, Spatial Audio was the big feature addition. It even seemed at one point that these earbuds would be known as AirPods with Spatial Audio.
Spatial Audio is sort of supported by any pair of headphones, but the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max include the benefits of head tracking skills. That’s now available on this AirPods 3 model and it’s something of a mixed bag – just like Spatial Audio itself.
Spatial Audio, which for audio works in Apple Music, uses Dolby Atmos to add a more immersive feel to tunes by placing them in a 3D space. It’s supposed to make songs feel grander, with a much wider soundstage. The head-tracking element then alters how things sound as you move your head.
I have been listening to Spatial Audio-tuned songs for a few months now, mostly on the AirPods Max, and the results differ wildly. Some songs sound quiet; like you’re listening to them in a cavernous room. Others, like Hanging on the Telephone by Blondie for instance, sound virtually the same as with the tech turned off. Find a well-mastered Dolby Atmos track though and the results are seriously impressive.
Bille Eillish’s Bad Guy uses Dolby Atmos brilliantly, with various vocals popping around at varying volumes. This is a song made for Spatial Audio and that extra dimension is utilised very well. A number of The Weeknd’s songs use it well too, especially the opening of Take My Breath. Mood Ring by Lorde benefits from a greater separation between the breathy vocals and stringy chords, while the opening of Here Comes the Sun feels more immersive and dramatic.
I do find the head tracking a little odd, but maybe that’s just personal preference. It keeps the vocals in the centre, so if you move your head the audio moves too. The effect is just a little off-putting when listening to something and moving around a lot.
The overall sound quality has improved dramatically with the AirPods 3, and while I doubt you’ll find an ‘audiophile’ ditching their headphones for these, it’d be lazy to dismiss the new AirPods as sounding terrible.
Sound is much warmer than before, with a wider soundstage even when Spatial Audio isn’t available. Bass is much deeper and more accurate too, which is very welcome as the previous AirPods barely bothered to even try and reproduce bass-heavy tracks.
There’s Adaptive EQ from AirPods Pro at work that tunes the music to the shape of your ear. You can’t turn this off though, so it’s hard to know what changes it is making.
In a quiet room, the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro sound very much alike. The Pros nick it slightly with crisper vocals (these sometimes get a little muddy on the regular AirPods), but then they are pricier.
Where the AirPods 3 fall down is when there’s outside noise to contend with. The open design lets in lots of background sounds and this gets in the way of the audio. The lack of noise isolation, whether it’s the passive or active kind, also makes them virtually useless in loud areas. On the tube, it’s hard to hear anything when the carriage is rattling along and it’s no better on a bustling street either.
Not having ANC is probably to be expected from this style of headphone. Huawei tried adding it into the open-design Freebuds 3 and the outcome was utterly awful, barely shutting out any noise. But if listening in loud places is key, then look elsewhere. The Beats Studio Buds, for example, are cheaper and have decent ANC.
Should you buy it?
You want a reliable pair of buds for an iPhone These are great for iOS users and sound much better than the old model.
You travel a lot There is no ANC here and they don’t block out any noise. Wearing them in busy areas and on loud public transport isn’t a great experience.
Even with a price drop, the AirPods 3 are a little on the expensive side – especially when you factor in the lack of ANC. But they are a significantly better product than they were previously.
Audio is warmer, with more bass but crisper vocals, while Spatial Audio shines in certain instances. Add in a smarter design, IPX4 resistance and longer battery, and you have a pair of earbuds that should please most iOS users.
There are, of course, better-sounding buds, but the AirPods remain the most simple and effective wireless pair I have used. If you have an iPhone, that is.
How we test
We test every headphones we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
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Tested over several weeks
Tested with real world use
Tested with various music streaming services
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Yes, there is Qi wireless charging on the case
While they do work with any Bluetooth device, you miss out on some features
There is no form of noise-cancelling here