A superb pair of open fit headphones, the third-generation AirPods are a huge step forwards from their predecessors
- Superbly comfortable
- Great sound quality
- Spatial Audio support
- Microphone not the greatest
In the past, Apple’s little white headphones were something of a figure of fun among people who cared about sound quality. The perception that Apple didn’t “do” sound quality was widespread, but it has slowly been changing over the years, and the latest AirPods soundly kick that notion into touch.
Indeed, although the third generation of Apple’s ubiquitous true wireless earbuds omit some crucial features, they’re the best standard AirPods yet when it comes to sound quality, functionality and usability.
Apple AirPods 3 review: What you need to know
The AirPods 3 slot in the middle of Apple’s range of true wireless earbuds, just above the AirPods 2, which Apple still sells, and just below the AirPods Pro, which benefit from a couple of key features the AirPods 3 miss out on.
The first of these is ANC (active noise cancelling), and the other is silicone tips. The AirPods 3 are “open fit” headphones: instead of being pushed into your ear canals, they rest in the outer part of your ears and, as a result, have minimal passive noise cancelling. If you like being sealed away in your very own music bubble, these are not the headphones for you, and you’ll be better off with the AirPods Pro or our favourite noise cancelling earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM4.
Compared with the regular AirPods, however, the AirPods 3 represent a massive step forwards. They’ve been completely re-engineered from an audio standpoint, with larger drivers and support for Apple’s adaptive EQ. Just like the company’s premium AirPods Max over-ear headphones, they now support Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking as well.
There’s a whole host of extra features, including better battery life than the original AirPods, sweat resistance, automatic pausing, MagSafe and Qi charging as standard and a new way of controlling music via force sensors built into the stem of each earbud.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Price and competition
For this expanded set of features – you guessed it – you’re going to be paying extra. At £169, however, they’re only £10 more than the AirPods 2 were until recently.
When it comes to open-fit, true-wireless earbuds, many alternatives exist, most at lower prices, while some even come with ANC. I can safely say, however, that none matches the third-generation AirPods’ sound quality and overall comfort.
Indeed, on this front, the only real competition for the AirPods 3, at least for iPhone owners, are the second generation AirPods, which Apple now sells for the princely sum of £119, without the option of a wireless charging case. These don’t come close to the third-generation AirPods for overall quality, however, so if you can stretch to the new model, then that’s definitely what I’d recommend you do.
If it’s headphones for exercising you want, it’s also worth considering the Aftershokz range of bone conduction headphones, in particular, the Aeropex. These are more waterproof than the AirPods, to the extent you can even wear them swimming, and they leave your ears completely open so you don’t feel cut off from the outside while listening to them on a bike or a run. The flipside is that they’re not the greatest things for listening to banging dance tracks and are better suited to podcasts, audiobooks and spoken-word radio.
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Apple AirPods 3 review: Design and key features
The first thing you’ll notice upon extracting the AirPods (3rd generation) from the box is that they’ve been given a physical makeover. The charging case is wider and squatter than before, although they still charge via a Lightning cable connection.
That’s not the only change, though. Open up the case and pull out the earbuds and you’ll see that the body of the earbuds is larger, to accommodate larger drivers inside. There’s also an extra vent on the rear, and the stems have a small, scooped out area on the front, indicating where you need to squeeze to activate the new force sensor controls.
You can’t adjust the volume using these controls, more’s the pity, but you can play, pause and answer/hang up on calls with a single click, while double and triple clicks let you skip forwards and back. A long press hails Siri, but it’s probably easier to simply utter the “Hey Siri” wake word, unless you’re feeling shy.
In addition to the physical redesign, Apple has added an extra microphone on each earbud facing inwards, enabling what it calls “Adaptive EQ”. This monitors the sound you hear in real time and tunes the mids and low frequencies to ensure the best possible sound quality.
Battery life is also improved: the third-generation AirPods last an hour longer than their predecessors at six hours (this falls to five hours if you’re listening to Spatial Audio), with the charging case holding a further 24 hours worth of charge. And, of course, Apple’s H1 wireless chip ensures seamless and easy pairing with iPhones, iPads and MacBooks just like other wireless Apple headphones.
All in all, the new design is a triumph. Despite their bulkier housings, the new AirPods sit in the ear just as comfortably as the old ones, to the extent that you can wear them all day without getting sore ears.
The force sensor controls work well, too, with the bonus that it’s now almost impossible to skip or pause by brushing the outside of the earbud surfaces. And adaptive EQ is amazing, improving the sound quality beyond all recognition over previous AirPods.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Sound quality
If you’ve ever listened to a pair of Apple’s AirPods before, or the wired Lightning EarPods, prepare to be wowed: the AirPods 3 are superior in every way that matters. There’s more bass, richer mids and clearer treble, and everything is more forceful with greater control.
Fire up Rival Consoles’ “Low” and each strike of the electronic snare drum has the sort of bite and clarity you’d expect of much more expensive headphones, and there’s a visceral punch to each beat that’s superbly satisfying.
Vocals are rich with texture and substance and bass – for so long the bane of AirPods and EarPods owners – is deep, controlled and foot-tappingly enjoyable to listen to. I fired up a few of my favourite tracks for testing bass, including Max Cooper’s “Perpetual Motion”, and I couldn’t be happier with the way they sounded.
There’s perhaps not the ultra-deep, low-end thump or the overall warmth you get with over-ear headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 or indeed Apple’s own AirPods Max but those headphones are bigger, bulkier, heavier and far more expensive than the third-generation AirPods.
In fact, these little headphones coped admirably with whatever genre of music I threw at them: they are, hands down, the best-sounding open-fit earphones I have ever listened to at any price. The only criticism I could possibly level at them is that they can sound a touch harsh at maximum volume. Keep the volume down to less than ear-splitting levels, and you’ll have nothing to complain about.
The most enjoyable part of testing the AirPods 3 for me, however, has been working through Apple Music’s increasingly broad catalogue of music recorded in Spatial Audio. Like the AirPods Max and the AirPods Pro, the AirPods 3 are able to track your head movements so that when you move your head to the left and the right, the soundstage appears to remain fixed to the same spot – it’s a bit like listening to your own private speaker system.
It’s a neat effect, fun to play around with, and hugely impressive from a technological standpoint; more importantly, Spatial Audio tracks seem to have better instrument separation and an extra sense of space. The effect also works for a lot of Apple TV+ content but it’s less fun here, since you usually have your eyes locked to the screen anyway and won’t be turning your head this way and that very much.
If there’s any weakness, it’s that the microphone quality on the AirPods still isn’t all that great. It does a good job of keeping background racket at bay while you’re on calls in noisy environments, but voices sound a little reedy and thin when recorded using the AirPods compared with a decent desktop USB microphone.
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Apple AirPods 3 review: Verdict
If you travel a lot and value being able to listen to music in your own bubble, these aren’t the headphones for you. But you probably knew that already. The lack of ANC and any form of passive noise isolation means the AirPods 3 aren’t the greatest choice for travellers and commuters.
However, if you prefer open fit headphones for the comfort or for exercising and you own an iPhone, look no further. These headphones are supremely comfortable, sound fantastic and, for Apple Music subscribers, are elevated to another plane by Spatial Audio. They’re sensationally good earphones and you should go and buy a pair right now.