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AirPods 3 review

Just a step below premium

AirPods 3
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

The AirPods 3 offer a new durable redesign, an hour more battery life, great audio and a few new features.

For

  • Slick, but familiar redesign
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Great audio
  • Excellent battery life

Against

  • A bit expensive
  • No active noise cancelling

Laptop Mag Verdict

The AirPods 3 offer a new durable redesign, an hour more battery life, great audio and a few new features.

Pros

  • + Slick, but familiar redesign
  • + Extremely comfortable
  • + Great audio
  • + Excellent battery life

Cons

  • - A bit expensive
  • - No active noise cancelling

New look, new sound, same old magic. The $179 AirPods 3 have gotten a total redesign, bringing them dangerously close to the AirPods Pro, but for $20 cheaper. In addition to a new look, the AirPods 3 are bringing features such as Adaptive EQ, spatial audio and Enhanced Find My. Plus, they’re more durable and offer an hour more battery life with MagSafe charging capability. Oh, and they sound great on calls and music too.  Read on to meet the latest member of our best wireless earbuds page

AirPods 3 pricing and availability

The AirPods 3 will be available starting October 26 for $179. They’re a pricey option considering they lack active noise cancellation technology. That’s the same price as the upcoming Jabra Elite 7 Active which does give you ANC, plus sporty durability. The buds are also more expensive than the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro ($149, ANC), Galaxy Buds 2 ($129, ANC) and Google Pixel Buds A-Series ($99, no ANC). Still the new AirPods are scads cheaper than some of the top wireless earbuds on the market such as the Sony WF-1000XM4 ($278), Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279) and the AirPods Pro ($197). 

Since the charging case is MagSafe compatible, you can opt to purchase a MagSafe charger from Apple’s site, the cheapest of which costs $39. 

AirPods 3 design

I’ve been reviewing headphones and earbuds for so long, I can usually tell what brand and model you’re listening to with a quick look. In fact, it’s one of my hobbies when I’m on the subway. My covert earbud watching is going to get a lot harder once the AirPods 3 hit the streets. The buds look annoyingly similar to the AirPods Pro. And yes, I’m always glad for a redesign, but I was hoping for something a little less homogenous. Le sigh. 

Anyway, with its old, but new looks, the AirPods 3’s stems have been shortened by 33% and now have a force sensor control notch. The housing is made of the same gleaming white plastic we’ve become accustomed to from previous AirPods iterations down to the stems being lined with a sliver of silver chrome. (My kingdom for a new color!) A massive vent along the side of the buds and a smaller one along the top are covered in special acoustic mesh. It protects the microphones while dampening wind noise on a call so your voice comes through nice and clear. 

The biggest difference between the AirPods and the Pro are the latter has a large vent at the top for pressure equalization. The Pros also have silicone eartips whereas the AirPods 3 has the naked look of the OG AirPods and AirPods 2.

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

Turn the buds over and you’ll see the new optical sensor that works in tandem with the accelerometer for the in-ear detect feature. This allows the buds to better detect whether they’re sitting in your ears or perhaps a pocket with a focus on battery preservation.

The AirPods 3’s charging case also looks pretty sim ilar to the Pro with its ovular shape and glossy white plastic casing. A small status light sits directly below the slightly indented lip which makes it easier to flip open the case. A matte, pearlized metal hinge in the back holds the case together. The pairing button sits below in case you’re pairing to something other than an Apple device. Apple continues to push the Lightning agenda with a charging port located at the bottom. However, wanting to have a bit of fun with magnets, the AirPods 3 charging case is MagSafe compatible. 

In case you want to take the AirPods on a run or to the gym, the buds have an IPX4 rating making them sweat and water resistant similar to most of the top wireless earbuds on the market. 

The AirPods 3 weigh 0.15 ounces and measure 1.2 x 0.7 x 0.8 inches, making them lighter and smaller than the Pro (0.19 ounces, 1.2 x 0.9 x 0.9 inches). The buds also weigh less than the Series-A (0.18 ounces, 0.8 x 1.2 x 0.7 inches) and Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 (0.17 ounces, 0.7 x 0.8 x 0.8 inches). The charging case is also a bit lighter at 1.3 ounces, 1.8 x 2.1 x 0.8 inches. The Pro’s case weighs in at 1.6 ounces and measures 1.8 x 2.4 x 0.9 inches and the A-Series comes in at 1.5 ounces, 2.5 x 1.9 x 1 inches. 

The AirPods 3 ship with a USB-C to Lightning cable.

AirPods 3 comfort

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

I’ve worn the AirPods 3 over five hours now and my tiny ears are none the wiser. Even after such a long time, there was no uncomfortable pressure on any part of my ear. After a quick recharge, I wore the buds during my workout on my Bowflex MaxTrainer M9 Elliptical. Even though I worked up a serious sweat, the earbuds stayed in place and were none the worse for wear. I got the same experience when I switched over to weights and jump rope. And when I had to go racing downstairs to catch the A train, I didn’t feel like the AirPods were one frantic step from dislodging. 

AirPods 3 setup

It’s as easy as opening up the case. If you’re an Apple user running the most current operating system, pairing the AirPods 3 to your device happens as soon as you open the case. Whether I was using the 14-inch MacBook Pro or the iPhone 13 Pro Max, once I opened the charging case, the earbuds were connected. 

It takes a little more effort for non-Apple devices. For my Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Dell XPS 15, I had to press the pairing button on the back to initiate pairing mode and then follow the Bluetooth pairing steps on the device. It never took more than a minute, but it’s nowhere near the instantaneous pairing in the Apple ecosystem. 

Speaking of instantaneous, the AirPods 3 have automatic switching. That meant that when I finished a video meeting with the Laptop Mag staff on the MacBook Pro 14 and wanted to listen to music on the iPhone 13 Pro Max, it switched without me having to do anything other than hit play. 

Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

And if you’re really feeling a new song or want to watch a movie with a friend, you can spread the love with the Audio Sharing feature. I tried it out with my friend, sharing “California Dreaming” from the latest Tiombe Lockhart album. I just brought the AirPods 3 close to their iPhone and bam!, I was temporarily sharing audio. It’s a nifty trick for Apple TV when you want to watch a loud action movie while someone else is on a video call. 

AirPods 3 controls

This is one notch I can actually appreciate. Instead of inelegantly swiping at the slim stems of its predecessor, the AirPods 3 have the easy-to-use, easy-to-find force sensor notches of the Pro. The elongated divots are easy to find on the earbuds so you can quickly interact with your music or calls and keep things moving. 

Press either force sensor once to play or pause a track or answer a phone call. A double press skips a track forward while a triple squeeze goes backwards. A long press calls Siri. And of course, simply uttering the phrase, "Hey Siri" will queue up the digital assistant. 

AirPods 3 app

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

Like the other AirPods, the AirPods 3 don’t have an app per se. Instead, you can make a few tweaks in the Settings menu if you select the buds in the Bluetooth menu. From there, you can toggle Automatic Ear Detection and Optimized Battery Charging which learns your charging habits over time in order to keep the battery from aging. You also can assign when the AirPods connect to your iPhone or microphone switching capabilities –– you can even rename your AirPods and check out when the warranty expires. You can also enable/disable Find My, which has a few new tricks up its sleeve. 

AirPods 3 features

The AirPods 3 share a number of features with its ancestors such as Always-on Siri, which means the digital assistant is always listening for that magic phrase to leap into action. There’s also Announce Notifications with Siri, where  it reads out messages, calls, reminders and notifications from any compatible third-party apps. There’s also the previously mentioned Audio Sharing and Automatic Switching. 

For audio quality, you have Adaptive EQ. Since the AirPods 3 lack the Pro’s fit test, Apple has included Adaptive EQ. Using the same H1 chip powering the Pro and the AirPods Max, the AirPods 3 utilize an interior mic that listens to your audio. From there the H1 chip employs computational audio to automatically deliver audio tuned to your ear shape for better highs, mids and lows. 

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

The new kid on the block is Enhanced Find My. The feature has the capability to track your lost buds as long as they’re in the vicinity of a MacBook, iPhone or iPad. This is true even if the earbuds are out of range, something that wasn’t possible with the previous iteration. The upgraded feature also provides a proximity view that will signal near, far or here in relation to your location to the buds. As always, you can trigger the AirPods 3 to play a sound to help narrow down the search. Plus, you’ll get a notice when you leave the buds behind so hopefully you won’t need to exercise the other features. 

AirPods 3 noise cancelling 

The AirPods 3 don’t have active noise cancelling technology. Instead, the earbuds rely on the new contoured shape to create a tight enough seal to get some passive noise cancelling going. It’s nowhere as good as ANC, but it’ll do in a pinch. And, if you’re using the buds outdoors, you might appreciate not having to switch between ANC and transparency modes in order to hear the outside world. 

During a walk to the post office, I found that I could shut out most of the world with the volume at about 70%. Louder sounds, like Con-Ed workers using jackhammers on the street definitely intruded on my listening experience. Back at home, without any music playing, the AirPods 3 muted my LG TV with the volume set to 6, which is way lower than any ANC-powered pair of buds. 

AirPods 3 audio performance

In order to catch any potential audio slip ups, I launched my Tidal app and listened to either HiFi or Master tracks from different genres. No matter what I threw at the earbuds, the AirPods 3’s custom driver and high dynamic range amplifier kept things balanced, albeit a bit reserved.

I started with Cashma’s “In My Glory.” I bobbed my head to the keyboard with its slight echo that delivered a richness that didn’t take away from the punchy bass and crisp cymbals. The singer’s airy soprano floated to the top of the track thanks to a generous soundstage that also allowed for breathy ad-libs to shine. 

On the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2, the bass was more pronounced, to the point I could feel the air vibrating through the earbuds. The keyboard was just as warm as on the AirPods 3 with crisp percussion. However, the vocalist’s performance sounded a bit closer than on the Apple buds. 

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

In order to test out the lows, I switched to Conway the Machine’s “Scatter Brain” and was a bit disappointed in the bass on the AirPods 3. It’s not that it wasn’t there, it just wasn’t giving that knock that I was expecting for such a fire track. Still, the kid’s choir singing in the background was nice and bright, accompanied by a hypnotic piano, clear drum machine and throaty, acerbic rhymes.

When I switched over to the Galaxy Buds 2, I got that dankness I was looking for in the AirPods 3. The piano was a bit congested, but the choir still provided that delicate contrast to those deep lows. And whether it was Conway, JID or Ludacris, the vocals were precise.

For my last track, I went with Baby Got Back Talk’s “Historically White College” and had no problem hearing the strums of both the bass and electric guitars. The latter was definitely the star of the instrumentals as it cut a swath through the rest of the arrangement. The drums were a bit submerged, but the frustrated vocal was full and dynamic. 

I noticed that the guitars were slightly more prominent on the Galaxy Buds 2. I even noticed a violin in the background. The drums were surprisingly quieter here than on the AirPods 3, but the vocals were evenly matched. 

AirPods 3 spatial audio

Listening to music on a pair of earbuds is fine, but Apple is aiming to elevate the experience with its spatial audio technology. Taking advantage of spatial audio algorithms, and using  directional audio filters , the AirPods 3 adjust the frequencies that each ear receives, just enough to create the illusion of 360-degree audio for a much more immersive listening experience whether you’re listening to music, watching television or taking a FaceTime call. 

And while that’s a cool trick on its own, Apple took things a step further allowing listeners to switch between Fixed and Head Tracked when the feature is enabled. And while Fixed is cool for getting your first taste of the technology, Head Tracked is  where it’s at as the music adjusts according to your head’s position. So when I listened to Lil Nas X’s “THAT’S WHAT I WANT,” the singer’s demand for a deeper love became more prominent in either ear depending on how far to the left or right my head was turned. 

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

I compared Apple’s spatial audio against Sony’s 360 Reality Audio technology with the WF-1000XM4. Where the former just works like magic, the latter is a bit more involved, requiring you to download the Sony Headphones app and set up 360 mode by allowing the app to take pictures of your ears that the app then analyzes. From there, you can choose from one of the four compatible music streaming apps (Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Music Unlimited and Nugs.net) to optimize and you’re ready to go. 

Although it’s more work to get the technology up and running, Sony offers the superior spatial audio experience as I really got the sense that I was in a really intimate concert hall. The audio was louder than the AirPods and the soundscape seemed more realistic. 

AirPods 3 battery life and Bluetooth

Finally, battery life that’s longer than 4.5 hours! Apple gives the AirPods 3 an estimated six hours of listening time and 4 hours of talk time. Throw in the charging case and you get approximately 30 hours of battery life. The AirPods Pro were stymied at 4.5 hours of battery life that turned into 24 with the case while the A-Series has an estimated 5 hours of listening time and 2.5 hours of talk time (24 hours with case). 

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Future)

During my time with the AirPods 3, instituting mixed usage, including video and phone calls and listening to music, I managed to squeeze out 5 hours and 49 minutes before I got the heads up that it was time for a recharge. Like most wireless earbuds on the market, the AirPods 3 have fast charging capabilities giving you an hour of battery life after a 5-minute stay in the charging case. When it’s time to recharge the case, you can do it with the included Lightning cable, a Qi-certified charger or MagSafe charger. 

The AirPods 3 use Bluetooth 5.0 which has a 130-foot range. That allowed me to leave my phone in my living room, buried in a couch while I listened to music on both levels of my apartment without any drop out or stuttering. I even managed to make it to the street in front of my home without any problems. 

AirPods 3 call quality

I made several calls and sat in a few video meetings while wearing the AirPods 3 and got nary a complaint. Thanks to the beamforming microphones and the speech-sensing accelerometer, people listening to me talk reported loud, balanced audio. My mom did report a little wind noise while I was walking down a busy Brooklyn Street, however, it wasn’t enough to be distracting. Now the train passing overhead? That was another story, but there are few ANC-powered earbuds or headphones that could block that out. 

On my end, all of my calls delivered loud, clear audio that beautifully reproduced the depth and warmness of whoever I was speaking with. The AirPods 3 were at their best on video and FaceTime calls, juggling the myriad of voices with ease. 

Bottom line

The AirPods 3 are a definite step up from the AirPods 2. The design is definitely a step up from the older AirPods models, giving listeners a more premium look in line with the AirPods Pro. However, it stops just short of aping the top-tier product, falling more into a barely mid-tier range. Thanks to Apple’s chip wizardry, the earbuds manage to deliver clear, warm audio whether you’re listening to music, watching TV or on a video call. And I highly recommend taking the spatial audio feature for a spin. 

Speaking of features, you get many of the AirPods Pro’s premium features on the AirPods 3 at about $20 cheaper and nearly an hour more battery life with MagSafe charging capabilities. However, $179 is a lot to ask for a pair of non-ANC earbuds, especially when you have worthy competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 floating around for $129, which offers ANC. And if you’re really into the 360-audio thing, I’d recommend shelling out the wallet-draining $278 for the Sony WF-1000XM4.

But if you’re looking for a powerful update to the popular AirPods 2 without totally breaking the bank on the Pro, the AirPods 3 are the way to go hands down. 

Sherri L. Smith
Sherri L. Smith has been cranking out product reviews for Laptopmag.com since 2011. In that time, she's reviewed more than her share of laptops, tablets, smartphones and everything in between. The resident gamer and audio junkie, Sherri was previously a managing editor for Black Web 2.0 and contributed to BET.Com and Popgadget.