Hands-on: AirPods 3 sound great thanks to lots of trickle-down tech [Review]

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AirPods 3 on messy desk
Everything about AirPods 3 is better.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The new AirPods 3 are marvelous little earbuds. They sound fantastic, are dead easy to set up and use, and the wireless charging case is a godsend.

Compared to their predecessors, Apple greatly improved just about everything — and they are well worth their $179 price tag.

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AirPods 3 review

AirPods 3 next to case
The new AirPods feature a lot of trickle-down tech.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Design

I’m a big fan of the 2021 AirPods’ new design, most of which trickled down from Apple’s more-expensive AirPods Pro earbuds. Overall they are smaller than the originals, with shorter stems like the Pros, which is great. The stems now have force sensor touch controls, like the Pros, which work miraculously well. Gone though, are Pro’s silicone tips, and with it active noise cancellation. The AirPods are an open ear design, which actually has some advantages.

The earbuds have an IPX4 resistance rating for water and sweat, which means you can wear them in the tipping rain or during a sweaty workout. The case gets the same rating.

Fit

The overall fit of the new AirPods is similar to that of the first two models, which means if you hated the previous AirPods you’ll hate these, too. But for me, they fit just fine.

Because I’m accustomed to AirPods Pro, with the silicone tips that go into your ear canal, at first the AirPods didn’t feel right at all, though. It felt like they were sitting at the edge of my ears, and would instantly fall out. Even though they felt flimsy, I went for a two-hour bike ride with them, and they didn’t shift a millimeter. I even biked along the San Francisco beachfront, where there’s always a stiff breeze — and they remained firmly planted in my ears.

The fit is purposely loose, and it lets in quite a bit of ambient sound. That’s a good thing. They are all-day comfortable, and there’s no irritation. I find the AirPod Pros can irritate my ears a little. But with AirPods 3, the touch is so light, there’s no chafing. I wore them all day long and even forgot I had them in at one point. They weigh just 0.15 ounces, a hair lighter than the 0.18-ounce AirPod Pros.

Sound

The AirPods 3 sound great to my ears. They have a bassy, muscular sound. The bass thumps, but the mids and treble are clear. I tried a variety of music and made a couple of calls. All the music sounded great, and I had no problem on calls — even on the noisy street — with people on the other end hearing me, or me hearing them.

To me, the sound is on par with AirPod Pros, although the lack of silicone ear tips makes a difference. The sound isn’t as immersive as the Pros. Even without their noise cancellation activated, the Pros do a great job of sealing out the outside world. And as a result, music sounds like it’s injected right into your ear canal.

With the Pros, the music is much more in your head. Still, that’s not always a good thing. Awareness of your surroundings is much better with the new AirPods. And if the ambient noise isn’t overpowering, they prove better for many public situations, like riding a bike.

The new AirPods get quite loud, too. I had to turn them down a notch or two from where I usually have the Pros.

They feature new drivers, a custom amplifier, and Adaptive EQ, which uses inward-facing microphones to adjust the mix in real time. Adaptive EQ is another trickle-down feature from the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

Another key feature is Spatial Audio, which makes it sound like music is coming from all directions — not just stereo left and right. The Spatial Audio in AirPods 3 also supports head tracking, which changes the source of the audio as you move your head around. I tested it with Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, and the effect is strong but not overwhelming. I got a kick out of hearing Freddie Mercury’s voice sounding like it was a few feet in front of me, and having it move from ear to ear as I turned my head. However, I’m not 100% sold on Spatial Audio for music, although I’ve been impressed with it in movies.

The new third-gen AirPods come with Apple’s H1 chip, which also powers AirPods Pro (and second-gen AirPods). The custom processor enables features like one-touch fast pairing. That first sync with your iPhone is a five-second, one-touch affair: Simply flip open the case, tap the pop-up and done. There’s no Bluetooth pairing rigmarole, and the AirPods will now sync with all your devices in your iCloud account.

The H1 chip also enables always-on Siri, which is handy for starting calls, playing songs, setting timers and other simple commands. I tested out Siri at home, in the office and out on the street. Siri is never perfect, but it worked well enough in most cases, except when I was riding my bike.

Battery and charging

AirPods 3 review: The AirPods 3 get more than six hours of playback from a single charge, or 30 hours with the wireless charging case.
The AirPods 3 get more than six hours of playback from a single charge, or 30 hours with the wireless charging case.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The new case now comes with MagSafe charging, and battery life is better overall. The new AirPods are rated at up to six hours of playback, or 30 hours total if recharged using the case. I got more than six hours and thirty minutes during one test — over two hours more than the second-generation AirPods (which are rated at five hours). Color me impressed: 6.5 hours is almost a full work day, which is impressive for such diminutive earbuds. Plus, the AirPods now feature fast-charging. A five-minute charge delivers about an hour of playback.

The MagSafe case works fine with MagSafe and Qi-compatible charging pads. Wireless charging is just the best, and I hope never to plug a wire into a gadget ever again. Just plop the case onto a charging mat, and a couple hours later it’s ready to go. Of course, you can still charge the AirPods with a Lightning cable. (Apple includes a Lightning-to-USB-C cable in the box.)

The wrap

This upgrade is no mere spec bump. The completely redesigned AirPods benefit massively from a bunch of technology trickle-down, and the result is impressive. Everything from the sound to the battery life has been improved, and lots of people will be delighted with these versatile, handy and great-sounding earbuds.

Pricing

The AirPods 3 retail for $179.

Buy from: Amazon