AirPods 3 are the best earbuds in Apple’s lineup [Review]

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AirPods 3 with Funko
With AirPods 3, Apple proves it can create a magical experience, even in a tiny package.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

AirPods are arguably one of Apple’s most popular products. Over the last five years, the wireless earbuds have become so common that it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing someone wearing them.

And now, with the third-generation AirPods, Apple has improved them in almost every way. That makes the latest AirPods one of the best, if not the best, all-around earbuds you can get.

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AirPods 3 review

AirPods 3 review: AirPods 3 are like AirPods Pro, minus the things that made AirPods Pro less than perfect.
AirPods 3 are like AirPods Pro, minus the things that made AirPods Pro less than perfect.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

Pro-inspired design changes

From a design perspective, the new third-gen AirPods borrow stylings from the AirPods Pro, minus the rubber in-ear tips. They feature a slightly larger earpiece than the first- and second-generation AirPods, meaning they will likely fit just a little more snugly in your ears. And with a 33% shorter stem than the second-gen AirPods, they’re even more discreet — and less likely to get bumped.

On top of that, AirPods 3 include the force sensor from the AirPods Pro, allowing you to summon Siri, play or pause your music, and skip tracks without the uncomfortable tapping on your ears.

For me, the redesigned buds are the perfect blend of AirPods and AirPods Pro, offering the comfort and openness of AirPods with the size, convenience and sound quality of AirPods Pro.

Surprisingly huge sound

AirPods 3 review: Third-gen AirPods are comfortable and compact. And they sound incredible.
AirPods 3 are comfortable and compact. And they sound incredible.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

When it comes to what you hear, it’s hard to articulate sound in words. What you’re listening to, and the size and shape of your ear, can make a huge difference. I found the AirPods 3 to be very pleasing. I’m not an audiophile, but when comparing them to older AirPods (both first- and second-generation) and AirPods Pro, I found the AirPods 3’s new sound profile to be very similar to AirPods Pro. The major difference is the lack of sound isolation in AirPods 3.

One major contributor to the improved sound is the built-in Adaptive EQ featured in AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. This uses a microphone inside the earpiece to listen to and adjust the sound based on the acoustics of your ear. Ultimately, that leads to better, fuller low- and mid-range sound. The shape of the earpiece also does an impressive job of ensuring that sound projects directly into your ear canal which — in my opinion — creates a much larger sound than I’d expect from such a lightweight earbud.

The inclusion of Spatial Audio adds to the larger sound as well. If you’ve tried the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, you’ve probably already experienced the 360-degree sound of Spatial Audio. If you haven’t, think of surround sound for music or movies, only for your ears. With AirPods 3, you get that same kind of experience — just slightly more open.

Simplified listening experience

That openness comes both from the lack of silicone tips on the earbuds themselves, meaning more sound can sneak in, as well as the lack of active noise cancellation in the buds themselves. For me, this wasn’t a big loss, as I almost never use noise cancellation. But for some, this may be a deal-breaker. I’d much rather have decent noise isolation, and fairly well-balanced sound, than the uncomfortable inner ear pressure caused by noise cancellation, so AirPods 3 are more than enough.

One side effect of the lack of noise cancellation is the absence of Transparency mode. I know the idea behind Transparency is to allow outside noise in when the headphones provide enough isolation, but I think it could be useful with any pair of headphones or earbuds to help with awareness of the outside world. Ultimately, though, AirPods 3 still auto-pause when you remove one earbud, and they let enough ambient sound through that within a matter of days, I was used to listening beyond the AirPods when I needed to be aware of my surroundings.

Using AirPods 3 in real life

AirPods 3 pairing with iPhone: AirPods 3 are perfect in nearly every way, and build on Apple's brilliant integration of hardware and software.
AirPods 3 are perfect in nearly every way, and build on Apple’s brilliant integration of hardware and software.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

When it comes to actually using AirPods 3 in my daily life, there were a few places I saw huge improvements. First off, there’s overall comfort. With AirPods 3, I was able to wear them for multiple hours straight without ever feeling discomfort, pressure or irritation — something I can’t say about AirPods Pro. On top of that, they feel significantly more secure than the smaller earpiece of the first- and second-gen AirPods.

While working out — and even running or doing more intense movement — the AirPods 3 stayed right where they belong. Thanks to the addition of IPX4 sweat- and water-resistance, AirPods 3 stand up to more intense workouts as well. I’ve never had an AirPod fail from moisture. But knowing these can survive many hours of sweaty Peloton rides as the weather turns cold makes them all the better.

Another very common use case for AirPods is for virtual meetings and calls. On particularly busy days, I may spend four-plus hours in back-to-back-to-back calls. With my previous second-gen AirPods, this would mean juggling left and right pods after the first 90 minutes as I recharged each a little bit. With the third-gen AirPods, I was able to get nearly three hours of talk time in a single go and still have 46% battery remaining — a staggering improvement. Apple says AirPods 3 deliver an extra hour of battery life for both listening (up to six hours) and talk time (up to four hours) over the previous model.

All-new MagSafe charging case

AirPods 3 review: Third-gen AirPods add support for MagSafe, a tiny convenience that can pay huge dividends
AirPods 3 add support for MagSafe, a tiny convenience that can pay huge dividends.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

On top of the improved battery life of the pods themselves, the charging case — which looks very similar to that of the AirPods Pro, just slightly narrower — now packs up to 30 hours of total charge, up from the approximately 24 hours on every model of AirPods to come before.

Beyond the physical appearance, the case also adds MagSafe support. This means that in addition to supporting Lightning or any Qi-compatible charger, the case can align itself on the magnetic MagSafe disk for optimal charging placement. While this may not seem like a huge feature, it is definitely something you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever tossed your AirPods on a wireless charger, only to come back later and find out they were off-center and didn’t charge at all.

AirPods 3 review: Final thoughts

When it comes down to it, none of the updates to the AirPods 3 are groundbreaking by themselves. Many of the new features trickle down from the earbuds’ more-expensive Pro and Max siblings.

However, AirPods 3 improve on nearly every aspect of the second-gen AirPods they replace. Because of that, I think the new AirPods 3 are the best option for the vast majority of users. They also integrate seamlessly into the Apple ecosystem, making it easy to use them across iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac and even Apple TV. That’s something you just don’t get with other wireless earbuds.

Over the past five years, AirPods became the dominant player in the true wireless earbud space. And with AirPods 3, I wouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

AirPods 3 join Apple’s lineup at a list price of $179. The second-generation AirPods drop to $129 and AirPods Pro remaining at $249. AirPods Max retail for $549.

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