​AirPods 3rd Gen review: Sonic success

An excellent update – but not for everyone
​AirPods Gen 3
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The AirPods 3 are in many ways the epitome of what Apple does best. Take a fairly well-worn form factor, inject a dose of Apple style, make it work seamlessly with the iPhone – and watch as it becomes iconic.

Some 200 million AirPods have been sold globally, despite plenty of rivals offering better value, and better sound.

Life started with the first generation AirPods, with the awkward long stalks and plastic moulded buds, before the company added the AirPods Pro in 2020, which impressed with active noise cancellation, Dolby Atmos support and a more compact and comfortable design.

The AirPods 3 sit in the middle. They bring the more compact and comfortable design of the AirPods Pro, albeit without the snug adjustable comfort of the soft buds. But crucially, they offer Dolby Atmos, Spatial Audio and other smarts, at a more affordable price point.

It’s a halfway house, enabling a better experience in the AirPods sweet spot. But should you invest? We’ve spent time with them to find out.

AirPod 3rd Gen: Price and alternatives

AirPods Gen 3 Price and alternatives

The AirPod Pro (left) and AirPod 3rd Gen (right)

The AirPods 3 start at $179/£169 – which is a small hike on the price of standard AirPods, which debuted at $159 in 2015.

The AirPods 2 – the old style long stalks – stay at $129/£119, offering a cheaper way for people to get into the AirPods world. And the AirPods Pro now come in at $249/£239.

That leaves two questions. The first is should you pay more for AirPods Pro? And we’d say the soft-fit adjustable tips, better sound and the active noise cancellation are worth the extra money.

And therefore could you get better value elsewhere? Not necessarily. Entry level offerings from leading lights in audio quality, such as Sennheiser or Cambridge Audio can be picked up cheaper, but don’t have the access to Spatial Audio that those inside of Apple’s platform will love.

Likewise, you will need to spend more than $200 for decent ANC, so again, that doesn’t make the AirPods Gen 3 poor value. Yes, you can get cheaper headphones that sound as good, but the Apple ‘extras’ do add a lot of value.

Design and comfort

Design and comfort

The design of the AirPods 3 is the biggest change, and we think this will be universally well received.

The stalks have been shortened and the angle of the bud changed to match the super-comfy AirPods Pro. They sat naturally and comfortably in our lugs, without the need to twist them around for a better fit, like we found with the Gen 1/2.

However, the bud itself is still the moulded plastic of the Gen 1, so it doesn’t plug itself into the canal for a snug and passively noise cancelling fit, which is what we’re used to. We regularly found ourselves pushing them in to create some kind of seal.

That also manifests itself when running, as sweat starts to lubricate the ear. However, unlike Gen 2, these are officially IPX4 water resistant, so they’re suited to working out.

The lack of silicone buds mean you will get more ambient background noise from the world around you.

There’s some tactile control on both stalks, with a touch sensitive 'Force Sensor' panel on the inside. Touch it to pause or resume music, and long press to summon Siri. You can also just say ‘Hey Siri’ when you’re wearing them. A double click will skip tracks forward, and a triple click (a tad fiddly) will go back.

When you first start wearing them it’s easy to accidentally pause music while adjusting the AirPod Gen 3, but you soon get used to avoiding this area.

All-in-all the design of the AirPods 3 are much improved, but we do feel a common complaint will be the fit.

Smart features

Smart features

There’s not a huge amount of smarts going on with the AirPods 3, and there’s no harking back to the early days of hearables quite yet.

Of course, the AirPods Pro are designed for calls and FaceTime, and Apple will perform all kinds of sonic tinkering to make calls clear, even when you’re walking outside.

We’ve not had any issues with clarity, or complaints about our own audio quality, even when running on windy hilltops.

Using Siri is clearly a key smart, and you can give a ‘Hey Siri’ to summon the Apple assistant. Again, that’s something we’ve used when running, usually to skip music that’s sucking our vibe.

That can be a little hit and miss in the outside world – and it’s always necessary to be loud and clear, when sometimes we’d like to be discreet.

The AirPods 3 can also be found in the Find My app, in case they go missing. And you can also set your iPhone to notify you if your AirPods are left behind (see below)

AirPods 3rd Gen Find My app

And finally, you have the option to have notifications read out to you. We’re going to file that one under Personal Preference.

There’s been a few times where getting a message read out has been useful. However, too often it comes during a great song, or breaks concentration. Also the [contact name] [app] [message] format – punctuated with details such as "winking emoji" – or a long explainer on why a long message won’t be read out – meant that we weren’t moved to keep it turned on for long.

Perhaps we’re just lackadaisical about receiving notifications, and other people will take benefit. Or perhaps it's something that would be better if it was easily toggled on and off.

But between wearing an Apple Watch, AirPods, our iPhone, and the Notification Center popping off on our MacBook, do we need to have inane messages piped straight to our ears? No wonder Focus is now a key feature of iOS 15.

Sound

Sound

So how do they sound? Well, we’ve spent plenty of time with AirPods, and they offer incredibly diplomatic, crowd-pleasing balance, with no discernible slant towards booming bass or mid-range sound.

Bass is ample, clean with a good kick and mid-range is crisp and punchy, and the top end is detailed.

The finger clicks that fade in at the end of James Blake – Say What You Will do get a little lost in the mid-range, where they ring out clear on the superior AirPods Pro.

The upshot is that everything sounds decent, although fans of bass-heavy genres may grumble that certain favourites perform better on rival earbuds.

The AirPods Gen 3 certainly are a sonic step-up from the Gen 2, but don’t match the AirPods Pro for sound quality. The sound is paler – the warm, lush, spacious and top-end definition that make the AirPods Pro special isn’t quite there.

And the real world impacts the AirPods Gen 3 more. The moulded plastic doesn’t create the world-blocking seal offered by silicone buds, so you pick up background noise, which impacts on aural enjoyment. And that’s without the blissful silence created by the active noise cancelation.

Apple has added Adaptive EQ, which monitors the fit and surroundings to adjust the music to suit.

Where the AirPods Gen 3 really come into their own is in the world of Spatial Audio.

You have to be invested in Apple Music to appreciate its growing catalogue of Spatial Audio remastered with Dolby Atmos, which requires supported headphones to enjoy. But for the legions of Spotify, Amazon Music or other services, it will have little meaning.

While still only on a smattering of tracks, some tracks in Spatial Audio sound tremendous – and have power to create spine-tingling music experiences through the AirPods 3. It's not universal, and not every Spatial track is mind-blowing. But it's huge reason to jump into Apple Music and the AirPods 3 enable you to do that.

Battery life

Battery life

In terms of battery life, the next generation AirPods offer six hours listening time before needed to recharge from the case – longer than the 4.5 hours of the AirPods Pro.

The case will offer four complete recharges, so there’s 30 hours in total. Finally, fast charging means five minutes in the case can get you an hour of playback.

It's great battery life – and the estimates stood up in our week of testing.


Apple AirPods 3rd Gen
By Apple
We can certainly recommend AirPods 3rd Gen, especially to those using Apple Music. The Spatial Audio experience is too good to miss out on. But we would implore anyone interested to seriously consider the AirPods Pro, if it’s affordable, as the benefits are worth the extra in our eyes.

Hit
  • Good sound
  • Long battery
  • Comfort upgrade on Gen 2
Miss
  • Moulded, open ear buds
  • No ANC