AirPods 3 review: A no-brainer, unless you hate noise

Apple’s third-generation AirPods are another hit so long as you don’t need active noise cancellation. They also have longer battery life than AirPods Pro.

AirPods 3 review: The best non-ANC wireless earbuds for iPhone and iPad
Raymond Wong / Input

Even with seemingly infinite options of wireless earbuds with better design and sound quality, longer battery life, and lower pricing, many people remain loyal to AirPods for one of two reasons (or both): They’re AirPods and/or they work with Apple devices the best.

This strong brand loyalty and seamless integration with Apple products make the third-generation AirPods (I’m calling them AirPods 3) irresistible if you’re an Apple user. And even if you’re not an Apple user, you might be looking at them with envy or curiosity.

At $179, AirPods 3 brings some of the best things about the AirPods Pro to a more affordable price. You get a similar design minus the in-ear tips and active noise cancellation, longer battery life (always a plus), and spatial audio. The charging case also supports MagSafe chargers in addition to regular Qi wireless charging.

AirPods 3 are superb.

I can’t find anything to dislike about the AirPods 3 after a week of using them. For Apple device users, AirPods 3 are superb. For Android users — well, the same reasons against any AirPods (wireless buds or headphones) are still applicable.

Pro look, snug fit

AirPods 2, AirPods 3, and AirPods Pro.Raymond Wong / Input

Apparently, AirPods have created a class divide. On one side, those with regular AirPods, easily identifiable by their long white stems, and on the other side, people with AirPods Pro, who also are easy to spot because their earbuds stems are shorter.

How dumb.

I don’t think AirPods 3 are a response to this classism — Apple still sells AirPods 2 with the “old” design — but I guess their AirPods Pro-like design will make non-Pro users feel less insecure.

They’re incredibly comfortable.

All I can say is that AirPods 3 look great in my ears and they’re incredibly comfortable. They’re noticeably lighter than AirPods Pro (4.28 grams versus 5.4 grams per bud) and marginally heavier than AirPods 2 (4 grams per bud).

Even though I like both, I switch between my AirPods Pro and AirPods 2 regularly because of weight. If I’m sitting at my desk for long periods or need the ANC, I reach for my AirPods Pro. But if I’m running outdoors or working out (still going strong with Fitness+), I use AirPods 2 — they’re lighter, and more comfortable when I’m moving around a lot or very quickly. Needless to say, I prefer AirPods 3 over AirPods Pro when I’m running because they’re lighter. They’re also IPX4 sweat and water-resistant, but so are the Pros.

The more contoured and angled shape of the buds make them fit more like AirPods Pro (minus the in-ear tips of course)Evan Rodgers / Input

The buds don’t have in-ear tips like on AirPods Pro, but the open-style design is more angled than on AirPods 2, which means they should fit better (and stay more put) in most ears. I’ve never had any problems with AirPods 2 falling out of my ears, though, so it didn’t surprise me AirPods 3 fit so well. Without in-ear tips, the AirPods 3 don’t block out as much sound compared to AirPods Pro — they just can’t. Maybe they block out just a teensy bit more noise than AirPods 2, but I didn’t perform any scientific tests.

AirPods 3 also have the Pro’s shorter stems and force sensors for controls. A single press on the force sensor for play/pause/answer call, double press to skip to the next song, triple press to return to the previous song, and pressing and holding calls up Siri. And as on AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro, AirPods 3 supports hands-free “Hey Siri.” The physical and voice controls work exactly the same as on AirPods Pro. I’ve experienced no bugs, which is not something that can be said about other wireless earbuds.

There’s also one feature AirPods 3 has that no other AirPods have: a skin-detect sensor. On AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro, there are dual optical sensors to pause your music when you’ve taken a bud out of your year. These sensors can sometimes be fooled by other materials. For example, you might have a bud in your pocket and music keeps playing when it shouldn't. The skin-detect sensor in AirPods 3 uses short-wave infrared (SWIR) LED chips to detect actual skin for fewer accidental pauses, which in turn means less wasted battery life when the buds are not in your ears.

One important thing to note: AirPods 3 requires iOS 15.1 on iPhones and iPadOS 15.1 on iPads for all of the features to work.

Superb sound

AirPods 3 sound terrific. Better than AirPods 2.Raymond Wong / Input

AirPods 3 sound exactly as you’d expect them to: better than AirPods 2, but not as good as AirPods Pro.

While sound quality is subjective, Apple has always tuned AirPods for a wide soundstage for many genres. On AirPods 3, Apple says it’s using a new “dynamic driver” and Adaptive EQ (lifted from AirPods Pro) to deliver clearer sound across all frequencies, with special attention paid to improving bass.

I spent a good few hours every day comparing the AirPods 3 to AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro, streaming music from both Apple Music and Spotify, and I can confirm the AirPods 3 can pump out thicker bass at higher volumes without losing as much of the details in vocals as you get with AirPods 2.

Like AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, Adaptive EQ (aka computational audio) works best with Apple Music; there are all kinds of automatic sound adjustments happening in real time that you do not get with other music services.

Spatial audio is one of those you-need-to-hear-it-yourself-to-understand-it features. It’s amazing.Raymond Wong / Input

Then, there’s spatial audio with dynamic head tracking. Previously only available on Apple’s ANC-equipped AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, the theater-like directional sound is now available in AirPods 3. You get the same experience so long as movies/videos support Dolby Atmos sound. In shows like Squid Game, The Mandalorian, or Ted Lasso, the directional sound is mind-bending — it’s like you’re sitting in a theater surrounded by speakers in front, next to, and above you. It actually feels like sound is coming from different directions as opposed to only from the left and right. And when you move your head, the direction of the virtual speakers follow along. It’s awesome, but the caveat is it only works on select iPhones, iPads, and Apple TV 4K. Spatial audio supports Macs, too, but only ones with Apple silicon: M1 MacBook Air, M1 MacBook Pro, M1 Mac mini, M1 iMac, and the new M1 Pro and M1 Max-powered 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

Spatial audio also works with Group FaceTimes. Voices sound like they’re coming from a certain part of the screen. For example, if a person appears in a window in the top left of your FaceTime call, their voice will come from that direction — so on for center, right, corners, etc.

The directional sound is mind-bending.

For music, any song mixed in Dolby Atmos in Apple Music supports spatial audio. If you’ve ever heard music in Atmos, you’ll know how much more alive and immersive it sounds. Other music services have been slow to adopt spatial audio. For example, Spotify lets you “Spatialize Stereo” — basically convert stereo-mixed songs into a spatial audio-like experience. Spotify lets you choose between “fixed” or “head tracked” spatialized stereo audio. You get a simulated virtual sound experience, which adds more dimension to songs, but it’s not as good as the real thing. I will say one thing as a guy who doesn’t listen to many podcasts: they sound better — more like the host and guests are sitting in front of you — in Spotify with the spatialize stereo feature turned on in my opinion.

Longest-lasting AirPods buds ever

AirPods 3 come support MagSafe and Qi wireless charging. Raymond Wong / Input

When AirPods came out in 2016, its 5 hours of listening time was game-changing. Today, there are tons of wireless earbuds that last longer. Sony’s WF-1000XM4 get up to 12 hours of battery life with ANC off and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 last up to 7.5 hours with ANC off.

AirPods 3 do not beat these other wireless earbuds, but they do last up to 6 hours on a single charge. That’s an hour longer than AirPods 2 (5 hours), and 1.5 hours longer than AirPods Pro with ANC on (4.5 hours) and 1 hour longer with ANC off (5 hours).

Six hours is either going to be enough or not depending on your use case. Unless I’m flying across the country or on a long international flight, 5 hours of battery life on wireless earbuds has always been enough for me. If you’re the kind of person who needs longer battery life, you should look elsewhere. Six hours with AirPods 3 is plenty in my opinion. And if you’re a frequent flyer, you probably want buds with ANC to drown out engine noise, in which case the AirPods Pro would be the better option even though ANC means shorter battery life.

With the charging case, AirPods 3 are good for up to 30 hours of total listening time; AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro are only good for around 24 hours of total listening time with their cases.

Who should buy AirPods 3?

Apple's AirPods a buds are now a family of three: AirPods 2, AirPods 3, and AirPods Pro.Raymond Wong / Input

AirPods 3 are phenomenal. The fit is fantastic, the sound quality is great, and the battery life is longer than any other AirPods earbuds. They are Apple’s best non-ANC wireless earbuds to date, and an easy recommendation if you do not need ANC.

Until now, choosing AirPods earbuds was easy: AirPods 2 if you don’t need ANC and AirPods Pro if you want it. Things are a little trickier with AirPods 3 in the family.

New AirPods users: Any of the three AirPods buds are good. Get the $129 AirPods 2 if you’re on a budget; these buds used to cost $159, but now they’re $30 cheaper. You don’t get the shorter-stem design, spatial audio, or wireless charging case, but they’ll still work great with Apple devices. Get the $179 AirPods 3 if you do not need ANC. And if you do want ANC, then the $249 AirPods Pro are the way to go. (You don’t even need to pay full price for the AirPods Pro anymore. They’re always on sale somewhere.)

AirPods 1 users: Chances are the batteries in your AirPods no longer hold full charges. AirPods 3 are a no-brainer for AirPods 1 users — a massive upgrade on every level. The AirPods 2 are perfectly fine, too, if you don’t care for the new design, spatial audio, or wireless charging case. Nothing wrong with saving $50 for features you don’t need.

AirPods 2 users: Unless you’re satisfied with AirPods 2 and just need a replacement pair, then AirPods 3 are the only Apple wireless earbuds to get if you’re not springing for ANC. You get a new design with Force Sensor controls, MagSafe-ready Qi wireless charging case, spatial audio, and an extra hour of battery life on a single charge (up to 6 more hours with the charging case). You can look at AirPods 3 in two ways: $20 more if you paid $159 for AirPods 2 (with standard charging case) or $20 less if you paid $199 for AirPods 2 (with wireless charging case).

AirPods Pro users: AirPods 3 are an upgrade in only one area: battery life (single charge and with the case). Otherwise, AirPods Pro have everything AirPods 3 have. Unless you’re okay with giving up ANC for longer battery life (and maybe the “open ear” fit and skin-detect sensor), AirPods Pro are Apple’s very best wireless earbuds.

Who shouldn’t buy AirPods 3?

If you’re on Android, you’re gonna miss out on a lot of the AirPods 3’s features.Raymond Wong / Input

Android users: AirPods 3 work like regular Bluetooth earbuds on Android devices, but you don’t get any of the features that you do with an iPhone or iPad. There’s no open-the-case easy Bluetooth pairing; there’s also no seamless switching between multiple devices (phone, tablet, and computer). There’s no Siri support, which means no “Hey Siri” or Announce Notifications (Siri reads you texts and notifications from other apps). There’s no auto-pause when you take one earbud out and no auto-resume when you put it back in. There’s no way to check the battery life of the buds or the charging case. You also can’t update the firmware.

Windows users: You’re in the same boat as Android users. AirPods 3 will connect as regular Bluetooth buds to Windows PCs, but just like on Android, you’re not getting any of the features designed for Apple devices.

You need longer battery: Like I said, 6 hours might not be enough for everyone. If you’re looking for wireless earbuds with longer battery life, consider the Sony WF-1000XM4, Galaxy Buds 2, or Master & Dynamic’s MW08.

You don’t like the look: Even with shorter stems, the design isn’t for everyone. If you’re just not into the look, there’s no shortage of stem-free wireless earbuds options. We reviewed a boatload this year.

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