Bottom line: The AirPods 3 offer better battery life, better sound, an IPX4 water-resistance rating, and a better in-ear fit for many people. Add the ability to use Spatial Audio, and these are the best the basic AirPods have ever been, but without ANC or a more customizable fit, some people just won't like them.
Better sound quality
Better battery life
Better fit in ears
IPX4 water resistance
Spatial audio and Adaptive EQ
No sound isolation
A tad too expensive
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When Apple first announced the AirPods years ago, they were an exciting new product -- and aside from Beats, Apple's first foray into wireless headphones. Fast forward to today, and the AirPods lineup has grown to include the ANC capable earbuds, AirPods Pro, and the luxurious over-the-ear headphones AirPods Max. It's clear to see that AirPods 3 is an impressive culmination of what Apple has learned in the headphone market in just a few short years, and it's the best set of basic AirPods the company has ever made.
After using the AirPods 3 all week, I've completely fallen in love with them. They have been a delight to use, from how easily they pair with all my Apple devices to just how improved the sound quality is over the AirPods 2. The same issues the AirPods have always had are still present in the AirPods 3, however, and that's mainly by design. Add in the precarious price point, and you have a product that is simultaneously very compelling to some people and an absolute non-starter to others.
AirPods 3: Price and availability
The third-generation AirPods comes in a wireless charging case compatible with MagSafe and has a new design that looks a lot more like the AirPods Pro than the old AirPods 2, except for the silicone ear tips. While they don't have ANC, they do have decent 6-hour battery life in the buds, work with Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos, and the new skin-detect sensor.
The AirPods (3rd generation) are available now from wherever you usually buy your Apple devices. They cost $169 with a Lightning charging case or $179 to add wireless charging capabilities. Unfortunately for some, they only come in white.
AirPods 3: All the good things
In my best efforts to not bury the lede, I'll start with this — the AirPods 3 sound quite a bit better than the AirPods 2, and honestly, pretty close to the quality of the 1st generation AirPods Pro. Of course, you don't have silicone ear tips to get the excellent sound isolation that the AirPods Pro can give you, but if you put ear tips on the AirPods 3, the sound would likely be very similar without the ANC.
The bass performance on the AirPods 3 is probably where you'll notice the most difference right out of the gate. It's much more present than in the previous models and makes listening to heavy rock, EDM, and other bass-heavy genres much more enjoyable. The mids and the highs always come through clear and crisp, so I have not noticed any clipping, and since Apple threw in its Adaptive EQ technology into the AirPods 3, the sound should always be pretty consistent.
That brings me to the other significant audio enhancement, the AirPods (3rd generation), Spatial Audio. This is a feature you need to experience for yourself to really hear the difference it can make. In most instances, to my ears, it sounds incredible. It's like having surround sound in your ears, and it makes music — and especially movies — sound much more dynamic and full. Of course, it can depend on what you're listening to, a few tracks I have heard with Spatial Audio have sounded a bit odd, seems to happen more with rock than other genres in my experience, but overall I'm happy to have a pair of headphones that can finally take advantage of it.
What's maybe even a more pleasant surprise is just how comfortable the AirPods 3 are in your ears. The design of the AirPods 3 are much more akin to the AirPods Pro, as they sport smaller stems and a more tapered earbud end that sits a little further in your ear than the AirPods 2 did. They are nice and light but fit pretty fit snuggly in your ears. I couldn't find a way to dislodge them from my ears without purposely trying to; even while going for a jog around the neighborhood, they stayed perfectly in place. Of course, they aren't as secure in your ear as silicone tips would be, but if the AirPods 3 fit in your ear nicely, I think you would have a hard time accidentally losing one out of your ear with average use. Plus, silicone tips are nice for sound isolation, but at the end of the day, I've never been able to comfortably wear any earbuds for hours on end that have silicone ear tips — I don't have that problem with the AirPods 3. I have been wearing these almost non-stop since I got them (save for charging them and sleeping), and I forget they are in my ears after a while; that's how comfortable they are.
Speaking of charging, the battery life on the AirPods 3 is awesome. Apple states you get about six hours in the buds alone, and in my testing, that estimate seems to be about accurate. It's way better than the 4.5 hours the AirPods Pro are rated for, which is likely due to the fact that the AirPods 3 don't need extra juice to run ANC or Transparency Mode. You may get a little less if you're taking a lot of calls on them or using them in a lot of video chats, but even on days when I used them in meetings and to talk to my friends, I didn't notice a huge decline in battery performance.
The MagSafe wireless charging case is fantastic. It's nice and compact making it easy to carry around in a pocket if you want, and the additional approximate 24 hours in the charging case (for a total of 30 hours of listening time) means even on the road, you have quite a bit of time before you need to find a plug to juice up your AirPods. Plus, when you do throw the AirPods in your case, five minutes of charging provides an hour of listening time. So, a little break to charge your buds here and there throughout the day can really push the amount of time you can have them in your ears.
Lastly, let's talk about all that Apple-specific magic that's baked into the AirPods 3. Much like all AirPods, pairing and switching between Apple devices is like magic. Open up the AirPods 3 case, press connect, and boom, you're off to the races. It's just as much a joy as it was on the very first pair of AirPods introduced five years ago. Add in the ability to simply say "Hey, Siri" anytime you want to activate Apple's virtual assistant, and the AirPods 3 don't feel like an accessory, but more of an extension of your other Apple devices. It just all works together so beautifully.
What's new on the AirPods 3 is the inclusion of the force sensor located near the bottom of the stem on each earbud, and they work just like they do on the AirPods Pro. Squeeze them once to play/pause playback or answer calls. A double-squeeze will let you skip tracks forward, and a triple-squeeze will let you go back a track. It works wonderfully, and aside from a slight learning curve of how to squeeze them just right to activate them, they work better than most controls on other wireless earbuds that I've tried.
AirPods 3: Some reasons you might not want to buy
Look, I love the AirPods 3 a lot, but they have all the same disadvantages as the AirPods 2 that came before it.
Although they fit better in your ear than previous iterations, they still don't have any real sound isolation that comes from the ultra-secure fit and seal that silicone or foam tips would provide. That means you still deal with a decent amount of sound leakage, so if you're beside a busy street, you're going to need to turn up your tunes a bit.
Of course, none of the Apple-specific features on the AirPods 3 are transferable to other devices. If you use an Android phone, you won't see any of the benefits that make the AirPods such a great companion to the best iPhones on the market. The easy pairing, the Hey, Siri support, the head tracking with Spatial Audio, one of those features, will not work on anything but an iPhone. This is all by design, mind you, so they aren't so much faults with the AirPods 3 as they are reasons you may not want to buy them. At the end of the day, the AirPods 3 are still AirPods, with all the good and bad that come with them.
Speaking of reasons you might not want to buy the AirPods 3, the pricing of the AirPods 3 leaves the product in a very precarious place because the new AirPods Pro 2 exists.
Although the official price of the AirPods Pro 2nd generation are $249, they more than warrant that price tag. If the previous AirPods Pro model is anything to go by, it wont be long before we see AirPods Pro 2 closer to the $200 mark. That means that in reality, the AirPods 3 are only about $40-$50 cheaper than a pair of AirPods Pro depending on where you look, and when you compare the AirPods 3 vs. the AirPods Pro, the water tends to get a little muddy. Both models mainly have the same features, but with the inclusion of ANC on the AirPods Pro, they are the better option if you care purely about sound quality.
AirPods 3: Competition
I touched on this already, but the AirPods Pro are the main competition for the AirPods. They often all have the same benefits that the AirPods 3 do to Apple users, and they have ANC, making them the obvious choice if you want to tune out the world.
The AirPods 3 other competition is the plethora of look-a-likes and knockoffs to the AirPods that have popped up over the years since Apple first introduced the AirPods. Things like the Anker Liberty SoundCore Air 2, EarFun wireless earbuds, or the Tribit Flybuds 3 all can be much cheaper than the AirPods 3 and sometimes offer things like better battery life or a better IP rating. One thing is for sure, none of those 3rd-party products will offer you the same Apple integration that the AirPods 3 do.
AirPods 3: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
- You want Spatial Audio
- You want all the Apple-specific features
- You like earbuds without silicone or foam tips
You shouldn't buy this if...
- You want ANC in your wireless buds
- You like earbuds with silicone or foam tips
- You'd rather spend a bit more money on the AirPods Pro
If you enjoy your original AirPods and are looking for an upgrade, the AirPods 3 are perfect. They are better in every way than the older AirPods and offer some amazing features like Spatial Audio, 6-hour battery life, and even better microphones. You mix all that in with the new design that's so dang comfortable in your ears it's almost invisible, the awesome force sensor on each earbud that lets you control playback and answer calls, and all the Apple-specific goodness that comes on the entire AirPods lineup, the AirPods 3 really are the best version of the basic AirPods we have ever seen.
The AirPods 3 are a great pair of wireless earbuds, and I love them a lot, but because the AirPods Pro 2 exist, you have to ask yourself a few questions when considering the AirPods 3. Do you hate silicone ear tips? Is ANC important to you? Think hard about those answers, because if you catch a good sale on the AirPods Pro 2, they might only cost you an extra $20-30 bucks.
Still, I'm happy I went with the AirPods 3. As someone who is heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, has never really liked silicone ear tips, and doesn't think ANC in a pair of earbuds is an absolute must-have feature, the AirPods 3 are the perfect headphones for me. And they just might be for you too.
Bottom line: With better battery life, a completely new design, new features like Spatial Audio, and an IPX4 rating, the AirPods 3 are better than ever before. Plus, they sound better than the previous models and other than ANC, have pretty much all the same features as the AirPods Pro. These are fantastic AirPods for anyone looking to upgrade or buy their first pair.
Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way.
Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.