Apple AirPods 3 review: An improvement in every way
Considering the phenomenal success of Apple’s wireless AirPod earbuds, it’s a surprise they haven’t been updated before now.
Sure, we had the Pro versions come out in 2019, but the regular ol’ AirPods have remained pretty steadfast since 2016.
They did get a refresh in 2019 to add the likes of a wireless charging case, Siri and the H1 chip but – outwardly at least – they looked the same.
Not so with this new set, dubbed the AirPods 3rd generation, which act as a kind of halfway house between the regular AirPods and the Pro version.
The design apes the Pro, with shorter stems featuring touch controls and a rounded, bulbous head. There’s no silicone tips like the Pros but you will spot the black grilles that hide the on-board microphones.
The case also has a more rectangular, AirPods Pro-style look to it.
While the AirPods 3 don’t have active noise cancellation, they do use those microphones for Apple’s Adaptive EQ feature – a nifty trick that tunes sound in real time based on how AirPods fit in your ear. The inward-facing microphone monitors for sound, and then Adaptive EQ, powered by computational audio, tunes the low and mid frequencies to account for what may be lost due to variances in fit.
So, while I found there was still noise leakage (both inwards and outwards) while wearing the AirPods 3, the effect is nowhere as bad as it could be without silicone tips or wings snugging the headphones into my ears.
In fact, I found the fit to be much, much better than the regular AirPods ever were. I never took the old AirPods out on a run or a cycle ride for fear I’d lose them if I turned my head too violently to scan for traffic.
Not so with these new buds and Apple has made them IPX4 splashproof and capable of standing up to rain and sweat. Most wireless headphones these days have that level of protection, so it’s not really something to shout about but I appreciate the knowledge I’m not going to ruin them when I step out for a wet autumnal run.
It’s not just the fit that’s better this time around, sound quality has also improved. Whether or not you’re using the Adaptive EQ, the sound is heavier and more rounded than the AirPods of old.
You feel like you’re getting substantially more out of a smaller product – and if you care to listen for it, you can pick out much more detail in songs and podcast than with Apple’s first effort. Perhaps in a nod to the Beats brand, the AirPods 3 gave a better-defined bass than I was expecting.
Call quality is also very good – even if you’re outside in a noisy environment. There can be some trouble when the wind really picks up but overall I found the AirPods 3 coped just fine with some hands-free calling.
If you like headphones for consuming video content, then there’s the added benefit of Apple’s spatial audio feature on the AirPods 3. When enabled on compatible content (such as anything on Apple TV+) it moves the sound around depending on where your head is positioned, giving a 3D effect. It’s nowhere near as effective as on Apple’s luxurious over-ear AirPods Max headphones, but if you’re watching on an iPhone screen it still adds to the feeling of immersion.
Apple has paid particular attention to the battery life and says these headphones will manage up to six hours of listening time (five with spatial audio enabled) and up to 30 hours of total listening time when you factor in the charging case.
That’s broadly what I got from my time testing them out – albeit I didn’t listen to content continuously for six hours non-stop. I particularly appreciate the decision to add MagSafe to the wireless charging case. If you use a MagSafe charger for one of Apple’s newer iPhones, you can just plonk the AirPods 3 down on the pad and feel the magnet satisfyingly snap into place.
Lastly, Apple has added some of the little touches that set it apart from what other manufacturers can do. There’s the instant-pairing with any iDevice you happen to own and the seamless transition that makes the AirPods very easy to use if you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem.
And the AirPods have also been added to Apple’s Find My network and boast ‘proximity view’ so you can hunt them down if they’re within a couple of feet of your iPhone – even if the buds are separated from the case.
Finally, the skin detection feature can tell the difference between when the bud is pressed into your ear and when it’s against fabric in your pocket. You’ll never have a podcast happily broadcasting itself into your jeans pocket again.
The £169 asking price seems to hit the sweet spot between the £119 of the AirPods 2nd generation and the £239 Pro version. In my mind, they’re the ones to go for.
The AirPods 3 are better than the AirPods 2 in every single way and the only downside to them is that they don’t have active noise cancellation on board. And no, they don’t come in any other colour than white.
Apple no longer holds the monopoly on great in-ear wireless headphones and there are plenty of great models on the market to choose from. Some of which are better than what Apple offers here.
However, if you’re an iPhone and iPad user, there’s still nothing out there that can really compete with the smart pairing and Find My security that Apple boasts with the AirPods. And that, in all likelihood, is why they’ll continue to be extraordinarily successful.
Apple AirPods 3: The details
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