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AirPods 3 unveiled: Apple's new 2021 earbuds look a lot like the AirPods Pro

The third-gen AirPods are here, and the buds have an open design and a $179 price tag.

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Apple

The long-rumored third-gen AirPods -- or AirPods 3 as everyone will likely call them -- are official. Apple just unveiled its latest true wireless headphones as part of its Oct. 18 Unleashed event. They're available for preorder today at $179 (£169, AU$279) and will ship next week. (Fun fact: You can engrave your new AirPods case for free -- here's how.)

The new AirPods look exactly like images that leaked online earlier this year, featuring the same open design (no silicone ear tips, but we think you should buy these) as their predecessors, but shaped like the AirPods Pro. However, the AirPods 3 don't have an active noise-canceling feature like the AirPods Pro, which carry a list price of $249 but typically sell at Amazon for around $200 or even less.

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The AirPods 3 include a wireless charging case with MagSafe that's slightly smaller than the AirPods Pro's case, all-new "custom" drivers, spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, "HD voice quality" for FaceTime and an adaptive EQ system to optimize sound quality. Apple's improved the battery life, so they now last up to six hours on a single charge, instead of five, at moderate volume levels. They also have the same force sensors in their stems as the AirPods Pro for controlling playback with a pinch. And importantly, they're sweat- and water-resistant with IPX4 certification (meaning they're splash-proof). 

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The AirPod 3's new features.

Apple/Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

Apple is keeping the AirPods 2 in its line, pricing them at $129, which means we should see them selling for less than $100. (They've recently been selling for around $115.) The $129 AirPods 2 charge via Lightning only; they do not have a wireless charging case. (Here's what to know about trading in your older AirPods.)

The big question for a lot of people will be whether these new AirPods 3 fit their ears better than the AirPods 2. Some people, including me, had trouble keeping the original and second-gen AirPods in their ears but were able to get a more secure fit with the AirPods Pro. It's possible that Apple's improved the build for that subset of people who couldn't get a secure fit with the earlier AirPods.

Read more: Can you trade in your old AirPods? Here's what to know 

I do expect that the new AirPods will have improved sound with better bass. While open earbuds can be more comfortable, they allow ambient sound to leak in, which can reduce bass performance. Apple says the bass has "hit an all-time high" and that the Adaptive EQ "automatically tunes music to the shape of your ear," with "inward-facing microphones [that] detect what you're hearing, then adjust low- and mid-range frequencies to deliver the rich details in every song, customized for you in real time."

Note that Apple also owns Beats, a headphone-centric brand that recently debuted a new true wireless model, the Beats Studio Buds and is rumored to have a new model, the Beats Fit Pro, coming soon.

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The AirPods 3 feature wireless charging with MagSafe.

Apple

Read moreBest true wireless earbuds for 2021