Confessions of an AirPods virgin

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Apple AirPods 3 Review
What is it like to have AirPods 3 be your first Apple wireless headphones?
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

What I’m about to write is so shocking you might want to sit down: AirPods 3 are the first Apple wireless headphones I’ve ever owned. I never saw a need to pay the Apple Tax when I had cheap wireless earbuds that were good enough.

But I changed my mind for the newest model. Here are all the reasons I’m happy about the purchase. And the one reason I’m not.

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Superb sound quality

There’s no way around it, AirPods 3 blow the cheap wireless earbuds I’ve been using out of the water. I expected the audio to be better, but not so much better.

I notice the upgrade mostly in deeper sounds. Apple’s third-gen earbuds deliver far more bass than I’ve been getting from basic headphones. Being able to better hear the drums and bass guitar in my favorite songs is welcome.

That said, I knew the headphones I was using were tinny, but I didn’t think it mattered because I primarily listen to podcasts. I was wrong. AirPods 3 make voices sound much richer. Podcasts are more enjoyable when people sound more like people and less like chipmunks.

Advantages of the Apple ecosystem

But high-quality audio isn’t actually my favorite feature of AirPods. I really appreciate the way they switch seamlessly between my Apple devices.

The cheap wireless earbuds I’ve been using pair with one device. When I want to switch them between my iPhone and iPad, must unpair then re-pair them. It’s a hassle.

AirPods automatically connect themselves to whichever Apple device I’m using at the moment. And they’re smart enough to not cut off the audio just because I start typing on another device.

In short, I can switch back and forth between iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch and get the audio I want without thinking about it. And that’s so much better than the budget wireless headphones I’ve been using.

Spatial Audio: meh

If you listen to Apple, the biggest advantage of AirPods 3 over the second-generation model is Spatial Audio. This audio wizardry enables the earbuds to offer a surround sound-like experience but without all the speakers. All you need is the two in your ears.

I watched an episode of Tiny World and one of Schmigadoon! with the earbuds in and , amazingly, the audio really seems to be coming from the direction of my iPad Pro, even though it’s actually going straight into my ears from Apple’s truly wireless headphones.

It’s very cool. And that’s about as far as it goes. When watching TV with other earbuds, I’m not bothered that the audio is sourceless. Perhaps if Spatial Audio becomes a feature in a large percentage of headphones, more movies and TV shows will take advantage of it is some real way.

Apple also likes to highlight songs mixed in Dolby Atmos to offer Spatial Audio. (Here’s a Spatial Audio playlist you can listen to.) To me, it feels like a gimmick — I want good music, not audio tricks.

Missing silicone tips

Apple AirPods 3 have shorter stems
Silicone tips should would be nice.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Some people love the line of basic AirPods because they do not come with silicone ear tips. Other people reject them for that very reason. I fall somewhere in the middle.

As far as fit goes, I’m sure people like Apple’s basic AirPods if they stay in their ears without needing squishy tips. For me the fit is … OK.

They’ll stay in my ears for hours. But usually, after just a few minutes they move, so they feel just a bit loose. They aren’t — I can shake my head and they won’t fall out. But the feel is off. I’m used to earbuds with silicone tips and, to me, the feel is better.

The tip-less design also affects the sound. Any earbuds with silicone tips, even cheap ones, do a better job of blocking out the world than AirPods 3. But maybe that’s a bonus for Apple’s entry-level earbuds. With them, you won’t have people sneaking up behind you because you’ve closed your ears off.

And Apple tries hard to maximize the audio quality. The company added inward-facing microphones that listen to what the AirPods audio sounds like in your ears. Then, the Adaptive EQ feature adjusts the audio to make it sound better. The idea is to tune the output for your specific ear shape.

Even so, I miss silicone tips.

Multiple other improvements

AirPods 3 also come with shorter stems than their predecessors. Which is good because I haven’t had any of the problems with face masks I’ve heard about with AirPods 2. And the new version mostly passes what I call the Shirt Test: I can usually take off a pull-over shirt without knocking out the earbuds.

The new models also benefit from the longest battery life of any Apple earbuds. It’s great. Long battery life isn’t something I’m used to with cheap headphones.

When it comes time to recharge, you get another bonus with third-gen AirPods. Apple added MagSafe to the AirPods 3 case, and it’s brilliant. I can drop the case on a MagSafe charger, and magnets in the case and charger assure a proper connection so power flows. I can even stick the case on an iPhone desk stand.

AirPods 3 case offers MagSafe charging
The AirPods 3 case offers MagSafe charging like iPhone 13 and iPhone 12.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

More comparisons with AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro

The reason I’m not calling this a review is because I can’t answer the question so many AirPods 2 users want to know: Is the new version better? Others want to know how the AirPods 3 sound compares to AirPods Pro. For that, you’ll need to turn to Cult of Mac’s full review.

AirPods 2

AirPods 2 remain in Apple’s product lineup at $129. As mentioned, they have the longer stems. And the case they come in does not offer convenient wireless charging. However, they do offer quick connections and that Apple ecosystem magic, powered by the H1 chip inside AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro.

Buy from: Amazon

AirPods Pro

I can’t imagine too many people who bought AirPods Pro instead of AirPods 2 to get active noise cancellation would be happy with AirPods 3. Apple’s newest doesn’t come with ANC (or those silicone ear tips, which also block out exterior noise). It’s something you’ll miss once you’ve gotten used to it.

However, AirPods Pro list for $249, which is $70 more than AirPods 3. That makes the Pro model nearly 40% more expensive (unless you find a hot deal on them). Note: If you decide to buy AirPods Pro, make sure you get the “new” model. They look, sound and fit exactly like the “old” AirPods Pro. But unlike the original pro model, the new ones come with a handy MagSafe charging case at no extra charge.

Buy from: Amazon

AirPods 3 are the headphones I didn’t know I was waiting for

After a week or so, I’ve accepted that the cheap wireless earbuds I’d been using were not good enough. I can’t go back — there’s no way I’d return the AirPods 3 to the Apple Store. They sound great and make switching between my devices incredibly easy. And the battery life is wonderful.

Yes, I miss silicone tips. Just not enough for me to return AirPods 3, given all the other advantages.

Buy from: Amazon