Apple AirPods 3 review: Good, but the AirPods Pro are surprisingly better value
- Great battery life
- Improved sound
- Spatial audio
- No noise cancellation or transparency mode
- Sound leaks in very easily
- No ear tip customisation options
- You can get the AirPods Pro for roughly the same price
Apple has finally released an alternative to the AirPods Pro. But while the AirPods 3 has a better battery life, excellent sound and some other neat tricks, it's missing noise-cancellation and ear tip customisation.
This would be fine if there was a significant price difference between the 2, but you can easily find the AirPods Pro for just $20 more at the moment. So are the trade-offs actually worth it?
It comes down to what you're actually after.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Design
Compared to the AirPods Pro, the design of the AirPods 3 feels like a throwback with a sprinkle of modernisation.
These in-ear buds have the classic AirPods stem, IPX4 water-resistance rating and the rounded tips that were synonymous with Apple's headphones for years. But the stems themselves are shorter and the mic grill is larger
But much like the previous gens, it's also a one-size-hopefully-fits-all situation.
For someone like me, with smaller ears, it's not a problem. In fact, I find the AirPods 3 to be incredibly comfortable and secure. They have been excellent for long listening sessions during the workday and while during various types of exercise, including running, weight lifting and core workouts.
Out of all the earbuds I have tried this year, they have been the most pleasing to wear.
However, mine is not a universal experience. While the AirPods 3 have improved the shape to optimise the fit compared to the previous generation, it's just not the same as having tips that go all the way in, like the AirPods Pro.
As such, other reviewers and users have reported less secure and comfy experiences thanks to their individual ear shapes. Without tip options, you simply have to hope they'll be a good fit. Sure, the battery life and sound is better, but that's not going to matter if it's loose or uncomfortable for the wearer.
As for the case, it is a little rounder and smaller than the AirPods Pro. Otherwise, the design is near-identical. It still sports the LED charging light on the front, as well as the pairing button at the rear. You'll also find the lightening charger port at the bottom. We'll get to the charging capabilities a little later.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Performance
A little while back, we lamented the fact that Beats Studio Buds were devoid of an Apple H1 or W1 chip. This meant that you didn't get the blessed instant-pairing that makes Apple headphones so attractive.
Fortunately, we don't have that problem here.
The AirPods 3 connect to your iPhone instantaneously, so you can be listening to your embarrassing 600-tracks-deep playlist within seconds. It also swaps between Apple devices seamlessly, which is good news if you're part of the wider ecosystem like yours truly. I've been swapping between an iPhone 13 Pro Max, MacBook Air and Mac without any issues.
Of course, it's a different story if you're on Android. While the AirPods 3 will work, you'll have to connect via regular Bluetooth and you won't get the silky smooth auto-switching functionality. This is, of course, all by design, because Apple's gonna Apple.
Another win are the controls. They're located in the tips of the buds and use a Force Sensor to activate your commands. A single press will play or pause music – you can also use it to answer a phone call – while 2 presses skips a song and 3 times will skip back.
And if you want to activate Siri, you can either press and hold the stem or use the "Hey, Siri" command.
I got great results from the controls because the Force Sensor required the teeniest bit of extra pressure that prevented accidental grazes from setting off the controls.
More positive results came from the ear-detection sensors baked into the buds. This was already a thing with the AirPods Pro, and they were great. Whenever I removed a bud, my content would pause so I wouldn't lose my spot. Fantastic.
The AirPods 3 has added the creepily-named Skin Detection to improve the experience. This means it can tell whether the AirPods are actually nestled into your ear or some other cavity that seems similar. For example, a pocket.
I genuinely never had this problem, so to me the functionality still works fine, but not different to the AirPods Pro.
What I've had more luck with is the enhanced Find My functionality which helps you find your loose buds with increased precision. As a goblin who is notorious for just throwing her buds down *somewhere* in the house after a workout, this has been excellent.
What I have been less than impressed with is the audio leak. One of the biggest differences between the AirPods 3 and the AirPods Pro is the lack of Active Noise-Cancellation (ANC) and transparency modes.
I wasn't too bothered about this at first, because the Pros really aren't the best for ANC. They do okay, but I've found the Sony WF-1000XM4, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and Jabra Elite 7 Pro to be much better.
But I really wasn't prepared for how badly this would impact the AirPods 3 in noisy environments. A great example is my bodybuilding gym at peak hour. Usually, I can block out the loud chatter of the Chads, thumping music and general overly masculine energy with whatever headphones I'm reviewing at the time.
Not in this case.
Not only did the AirPods 3 fail to block any of the noise, all of it filtered in to make my music, podcasts and audiobooks near-impossible to hear without pumping the volume. And as someone concerned with hearing health (which is something Apple has claimed to care about as well), this is not an option I'm comfortable with.
I was hoping for a better outcome in a less-musically-aggressive environment. Fortunately, I was able to test this on my first day in the office since lockdown lifted. Sadly, the same issue occurred.
The AirPods 3 failed to block out the robust conversations of my colleagues, who were happy to reunite after months apart. It was actually lovely to witness this, but I imagine it being an issue in times I am trying to write, for example.
I think this really comes down to the design. It's been 2-and-a-half years since the AirPods 2 were released, and true wireless earbuds have changed dramatically in that time.
A lot of what's available on the market aren't the same rounded one-size-only designs of the past. Instead, the industry has largely moved towards tips, which provide less sound leaking and more size options.
And this can be seen even at cheaper price points. The Jabra Elite 3 retail for $119 and, like the AirPods 3, don't have ANC. However, they do have noise isolation and a tip form factor. And despite being $160 cheaper than the AirPods 3, they blocked out noise more successfully in the aforementioned gym environment.
Even more impressive are the Sony WF-C500 earbuds which don't advertise noise-cancellation at all. However, the design and subsequent passive noise blocking is actually fantastic. I tested these at the same time as the AirPods 3 at the gym and they eliminated the majority of the noise. Best of all - they're only $128.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Audio performance
Apple has not be subtle about the AirPods 3 having better sound than the AirPods Pro. This seems a bit weird since it is theoretically the cheaper product, but the company is also not wrong.
While the sound on the AirPods Pro has never been bad, it's a far cry from best in class. It did the job and, honestly, that was just fine in my opinion. The battery life, comfort and ease of use far outweighed the need to be next-level spectacular.
So it probably wasn't that hard for Apple to make improvements here. But this is more than an incremental improvement. The sound here is great, especially for the price point. The AirPods 3 offer more depth, brightness and bass. I also noticed more complexities in tracks that were otherwise flattened with the AirPods Pro.
Wet Dream by Wet Leg had a healthy balance where each element was clearly distinct and polished, with a punchy kick drum in the lows, electric guitar riffing in the mids and the vocalist cooing in the highs.
On the bassier side, Bury A Friend by Billie Eilish really pumps on the lows, but without drowning out the synthy vocals sitting well above it in the highs. It's a medium-complex track and none of the components are lost through the AirPods 3.
This is all helped by the adaptive EQ that delivers balanced tracks across a range of genres. It is also boosted further with songs that have Dolby Atmos compatibility. However, you can only experience this through the likes of Apple Music.
Alternatively, you can play around with the iOS sound settings, which have a bunch of different presets to choose from.
While the AirPods 3 don't reach the audio quality of the Sony WF1000XM4 or Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, they're also sitting at a wildly different price point. And, like I said, they are absolutely still a step up from their Pro predecessors.
Where you'll really notice the full impact of spatial audio is when you can make use of the virtual surround sound. This is generally most useful when watching movies, TV shows and concerts. The in-built head tracking basically makes the listening experience feel like you're in a movie theatre or at a concert.
In addition to opening up the sound stage, if you move your head (or iPhone) the sound will change. It also has an added depth and clarity beyond what you can experience in regular music tracks with the AirPods 3.
For example, a performance of Bo Burnham's Welcome to the Internet was surprisingly loud and bright. I had to check that the sound was actually coming through the buds themselves.
When I turned my head in different directions the sound shifted to be more dominant in the ear facing the "stage" in my screen. It really felt like I was there.
It's quite funky and a great feature if you're a music lover who likes to watch concerts online. Interestingly, it's also compatible with FaceTime calls, so it can sound like people to the left and right of your screen are actually speaking to you from that direction.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Battery
The AirPods 3 offers more battery life than its predecessors with 6 hours of audio playback, which drops to around 5 with spatial audio enabled. You can then get up to 24 extra hours of playback from the charging case.
And if you are running low on juice, 5 minutes of charge will get you an hour of playback.
While this is still less time than more expensive buds like the Sony WF-1000XM4s, it's still really good and I found it to be accurate across the week that I've used the AirPods 3.
I also like that the battery management system is designed to reduce wear over time. It does things like learn your charging and usage habits, and can stop charging at certain points to reduce wear on the battery long-term.
The charging case also offers wireless charging options. While this is slower than using a cable, its a decent option for overnight charging.
In addition to supporting Qi wireless charging, the AirPods 3 case is also MagSafe compatible – Apple's proprietary wireless charging tech. So you've got options there. However, you can't use MagSafe's reverse wireless charging functionality to juice up from the back of your iPhone, which is a shame.
Should you buy it?
- Buy it if you're looking for better sound quality in Apple AirPods but don't want to shell out for the AirPods Max.
- Don't buy it if you want any kind of noise cancellation.
Under normal conditions, this would be the time to say that you should consider the AirPods 3 if you wanted something more cost-effective than the AirPods Pro. Sure you have to make some sacrifices, but you also save money, etc.
But there's a problem with that.
While the RRP of the AirPods Pro is $399, you can frequently pick them up for about $300. Meanwhile, the AirPods are brand new and have an RRP of $279.
This makes the price comparison largely superfluous. So when there is just $20 difference between them, should you not just go for the AirPods Pro?
It really depends on what you value.
If you want the truly excellent audio, improved battery life, enjoy the form factor and want MagSafe charging, the AirPods 3 are definitely worth considering. Outside of the sound leakage, I've really enjoyed them.
But if you want something that will block out environmental noise, has tip options for different ear sizes and still has decent sound and battery – you might want to consider the now-cheaper AirPods Pro.
Personally, I'd like both of these options to be melded together to create a single great product that nails every important aspect of wireless earbuds.
Apple AirPods 3 review: Pricing and availability
The AirPods have an RRP of $279. And if you're interested in what other great wireless earbuds are on the market, here's our round up of the best of 2021.
How we tested
The AirPods 3 were tested extensively over a 1-week period. They were used for music, podcasts, TV shows and calls while stationary and during exercise. The review unit was supplied by Apple.
The author has been reviewing headphones for over 5 years.
Images: Tegan Jones
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