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AirPods 3 review: Apple upped its sound game

Apple's third-generation AirPods have an improved design and sound. But are they better than the AirPods Pro that cost around the same price?

Take one look at the new design of the third-gen AirPods ($179, £169, AU$279) and the first thing you'll probably think is: "Those look like the AirPods Pro without ear tips." You wouldn't be wrong. While they're more fraternal than identical twins, the AirPods 3 are shaped like the AirPods Pro, with the same shorter stems. Those stems also have the same pinch controls as those of the Pro, which I prefer over the touch controls on the original and second-generation AirPods. New drivers that are supposed to make them sound more detailed and deliver fuller bass are also on board.

So just how good are they, and why would you get them instead of the AirPods Pro, which offer full active noise canceling and cost about the same at most retailers during increasingly frequent sales? Well, that's what this AirPods 3 review is all about.

8.4

Apple AirPods 3

Like

  • Ultracompact, lightweight, sweatproof (IPX4) and very comfortable to wear
  • Significantly improved sound with better bass
  • Performance when making calls is excellent
  • Improved battery life (up to 6 hours)
  • Spatial audio virtual-surround feature works with a variety of Apple devices
  • Always-on Siri

Don't Like

  • May not fit ears as securely as AirPods Pro
  • Open design allows sound to leak in and out
  • AirPods Pro are frequently available at the same price

Let's start with the fit. The original and second-generation AirPods fit some people's ears perfectly. But I was among the subset of users who had trouble keeping their AirPods in their ears. So I was really curious to see whether this third-gen version was going to work better for me. The answer is yes, but I still had to turn the stems up to sort of lock them in place when I was active, which means they're still not quite a perfect match for my ears (and presumably for a certain percentage of other ears).

The stems-up positioning leaves them sitting up a bit on your face at a right angle -- I'm sure you've seen that AirPods style before -- and it can feel a little dopey at first (and by dopey, I don't mean dope). But wearing them like that didn't seem to impact sound quality or performance. In fact, sensors on the inside of the buds detect how you're wearing them, and Apple says its Adaptive EQ adjusts the sound accordingly. 

Read more: Best-true wireless earbuds 

Unlike with the AirPods 2, I was able to run with these when I turned the stems up. A lot of people like to run with AirPods because they're lightweight and have an open design, so you can hear what's going on around you for safety reasons. But the first- and second-generation models weren't sweat- or water-resistant -- or at least Apple never said they were. These are, though. Like the AirPods Pro, they're IPX4 splash-proof. Most earbuds these days are water-resistant and many are fully waterproof. So you could say that Apple's caught up to the pack with a standard feature rather than adding an upgrade. But while the earlier models seemed to survive people using them for physical activities, I'm glad these are now officially water-resistant. 

airpods-2-vs-airpods-3

AirPods 2 (left) versus AirPods 3 (right).

David Carnoy/CNET

I did ask a few avid AirPods users to try the AirPods 3 and they all liked the third-gen's fit better than that of the second-gen offering. They also thought the sound was significantly better. As I said, Apple has equipped these with new custom high-excursion drivers. At 11mm, they're smaller than the 14mm drivers in the second-generation AirPods (the AirPods Pro also have 11mm drivers), but they're completely redesigned to push more air to improve the bass response, with a bigger air vent to help. 

Truth be told, I'm personally not a fan of open earbuds. Not only do they allow sound to leak in and compete with what you're listening to, but you tend to lose some bass with open buds, which then leads to them sounding thin. Also, if you play your music at even slightly higher volume levels (or loudly), people near you are going to hear it, particularly in a quieter room. But for folks who don't like the penetration of an ear tip into their ear canal, I can certainly understand the appeal.

Bringing the bass

The AirPods 3 still leak sound, but Apple has put a great deal of effort into upping the AirPods' sound game. Along with the new drivers these have the aforementioned Adaptive EQ also found in the AirPods Pro that optimizes the sound on the fly. Other companies like Bose also have advanced digital processing features with their headphones -- Bose calls its version Active EQ, while Sony has its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine that's designed to fill in those missing details with compressed music files and make everything you listen to sound better. So it's not groundbreaking, but it's certainly nice to have on board. And I will say that the AirPods 3 now deliver richer, fuller sound with more detail and better bass.

The new AirPods stick to Apple's MagSafe charger and other wireless magnetic charging accessories. However, you can't stick them on the back of your iPhone and wirelessly charge them using your phone's battery.

David Carnoy/CNET

The sound isn't up to the level of the Sony WF-1000XM4 and top noise-isolating earbuds from Sennheiser and others that cost more (check out our list of best-sounding earbuds). Those earphones just offer a bit more depth and texture to their sound with more bass energy. 

You can hear it on Spoon's Knock Knock Knock, a haunting track that has a deep bass line and layered guitar tracks running through it. With the Sony, the sound is bigger overall, with more bite and nuance and more kick to the bass. The same can be said for the Foo Fighters' Everlong. True wireless Bluetooth earbuds tend to have the most trouble with complicated rock tracks that have several instruments playing at the same time (they can sound a little too blended together with lesser buds), so I always run a series of rock tracks through the buds to see how they fare.

All that said, the new AirPods now sound like respectable headphones, which is an achievement. While you'll still run into a bit of trouble in noisier environments, the bass held up better than I thought it would, even when I was walking on the noisy streets of New York. Overall the AirPods 3's new sound put up a good fight against ambient noise, not exactly drowning it out, but making you much less aware of it. And as you might expect from open earbuds, these do sound open with a wide soundstage. It's just not quite as wide as that of the Sony WF-1000XM4.

While they're supposed to offer comparable sound to the AirPods Pro, I think the AirPods 3 sound slightly better overall. They offer a bit cleaner, slightly bigger and more dynamic sound with slightly better-defined bass. And they do a good job not distorting at higher volumes -- that's where the Adaptive EQ comes into play -- which is what can happen when you push cheaper open earbuds. But depending on what track you're listening to, you can tell that the Adaptive EQ is ratcheting back certain frequencies just a touch to avoid distorting when you crank up the volume.

apple-airpods-3-close-up

The AirPods 3 have new drivers and mesh covering their microphones to reduce wind noise.

David Carnoy/CNET

Extras for Apple users

These have Apple's new spatial audio feature with head tracking that's available in the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. It's a nice bonus feature that allows you to get virtual surround sound when you're watching movies and TV shows on various Apple devices. It's a neat effect with video watching but a bit more hit or miss with Apple music tracks with Dolby Atmos. It also now works with group FaceTime calls, which is kind of cool. I did a test call with an iPhone 13 with two people and placed the phone in landscape mode so that one person was on the left and the other was on the right. When the person on the left spoke, there was a sense she was coming from my left and vice versa.

Like the AirPods Pro, the AirPods 3 have ear-detection sensors but they add a new wrinkle -- skin detection so they can tell the difference between when a bud is in your ear and when it's in your pocket. You also get the enhanced Find My feature with proximity view, which helps locate your AirPods in all those places they like to hide with more precision (you can detect where they are within a foot or two, even if a bud or buds get separated from the case, though it can sometimes take a little while to pick up their electronic scent).

airpods-3-spatial-audio

Spatial Audio now works with a variety of Apple devices beyond iPhones and iPads.

David Carnoy/CNET

Additionally, they're equipped with Apple's H1 chip so you get the other features associated with that, including autoswitching between all your Apple devices on your iCloud account and always-on Siri, so you can just say, "Hey, Siri" to ask what the weather is, raise and lower volume, make calls to people in your contacts and perform a host of other voice commands that Apple's voice assistant responds to.

To be clear, the AirPods 3 will pair with most other Bluetooth audio sources, but you lose all the extra features like spatial audio and always-on Siri. But the bottom line is that if you're not an Apple user, there isn't much reason to get these. I have both Apple and Android devices, so I did pair these with an Android phone. The Adaptive EQ is built into the buds themselves, so they sound basically the same with an Android device, and they're also good for making calls with any phone you use.

Top-notch noise-reduction for calls

The AirPods 3 have beamforming microphones covered with wind-dampening acoustic mesh and voice-detecting accelerometers. In my tests, they did an excellent job reducing background noise while keeping my voice sounding clear. Callers said the noise reduction was slightly better than what they heard when I was using the AirPods Pro, and that my voice also sounded a touch clearer.

Another small upgrade worth mentioning: Apple says these have full-HD audio for FaceTime calls thanks to support for the AAC-ELD speech codec. And I also thought the wind noise-reduction feature worked well. They'd probably work pretty well for bike riding, but I'd personally use an accessory sport-fin to make sure they stayed in my ears. 

airpods-3-force-sensors

The AirPods 3 have force sensors on their stems like the AirPods Pro. Pinching them allows you to accept and reject calls.

David Carnoy/CNET

The AirPods 2 are also very good for voice calling and their longer stems are slightly closer to your mouth, so I'm not sure if you'll notice a major upgrade with these for voice calling, but their fuller sound allowed me to hear callers better (one big benefit of the AirPods Pro's noise-isolating design is that they considerably cut down ambient noise so you have no trouble hearing callers).

Battery life has been improved from 5 hours to 6 on a single charge with an extra four charges in the charging case (that rating is for moderate volume levels so your mileage may vary if you really crank your tunes). That case, which is a little smaller than the AirPods Pro's case but bigger than that of the AirPods 2, has wireless charging and now adds MagSafe compatibility. That just means it sticks Apple's magnetic MagSafe chargers as well as other magnetic wireless chargers, including wireless battery chargers (however, you can't stick it on the back of your iPhone and reverse-MagSafe charge it using your phone's battery). You can also charge it with any Qi-enabled charging pad or plug a Lightning cable into it. Using a MagSafe charger doesn't charge the buds any faster but the buds do stick nicely to the charging puck.

Going forward, the AirPods Pro will also have MagSafe, but the AirPods 2, which stay in the line, now come exclusively in a version with Lightning charging for a lower list price of $129. Personally, I don't think wireless charging is a killer feature for earbuds, but again, I'll take it, particularly at this price. (Sale prices are already lower: Walmart is teasing the AirPods 2 for $89 in November.) 

Final thoughts: Tricky pricing

Really it's the AirPods' pricing that may create some dilemmas for potential buyers. The AirPods Pro list for $250 but they typically sell for less than $200 and have dipped to as low as $180, which is the price at which the third-generation AirPods are debuting.

While the AirPods 3 are superior to the AirPods Pro in some ways -- as I said, I do think they sound slightly better in non-noisy environments, and they offer a touch better noise-reduction during calls and have better battery life -- the AirPods Pro's noise-isolating design and active noise cancellation have obvious benefits. For instance, you'd want to use AirPods Pro on a plane, not the AirPods 3. Also, the Pro's excellent transparency mode mitigates some of the occlusion issues people have with noise-isolating buds. 

I find the AirPods Pro comfortable to wear. They fit my ears very securely, especially after I got a pair of foam tips for them. But, again, a lot of people just don't like having ear tips jammed into their ears or are fond of the lightweight standard AirPods and their comfortable nonoccluded fit, despite their shortcomings.

That's where the AirPods 3 come in. They're basically premium open earbuds, a somewhat rare breed. Sure, you can find pretty decent open-style buds for about $60 these days on Amazon (check out our list of AirPods-alternatives). But the AirPods 3 not only sound better and avoid distorting when pushed, but they have those extra features like spatial audio. And they're also great for making calls. Overall, they're an excellent set of open earbuds -- I liked them and I'm not even a fan of that headphone genre. If that's what you're looking for, look no further. 

However, I ultimately think they're going to have to come down in price a bit, probably to around $140 or $150, to separate themselves from the AirPods Pro, which seem to fit more people's ears well and have the feature that everyone seems to want these days -- noise canceling. And, of course, there are a growing number of other excellent earbuds at around $180 that also have that feature. 

I'd personally pay the extra $50 for these over the AirPods 2, but I can see where things might get more complicated if the AirPods 2 were to drop to $80 or $90 during flash sales, which seems likely. At that price, they remain a good option for kids or folks who value them for their voice-calling capabilities, convenient Apple features and lightweight design. But I found it hard to go back to the second-generation AirPods after trying these.