Open, wide, and more comfortable than ever, the AirPods 3 are a whole lot better than they’ve ever been, and a serious update worth considering.
Apple didn’t invent the wireless earphone, but it definitely popularised a design that has its fans, not to mention one plenty of other brands imitate. You know it even without thinking about it: a white stem that comes out from a tip left to balance delicately in your ears.
It’s a design that is unmistakably Apple, and one we’ve seen other brands borrow from in the roughly five years since they were introduced. That’s how long it has been: five years. Apple first introduced the AirPods at the end of 2016 (we didn’t review the first gen until shortly after the holiday season).
Now, five years on, Apple is making a change, adopting some of the learnings from its excellent noise-cancelling variation in the AirPods Pro, migrating some of the design and technology to a fit that some may prefer over the isolation and stability of the Pro model.
With a similar approach and profile of the old model, the AirPods 3 have learned a new trick or two, and may stand out in some of the best ways possible. Are these the upgrade you’ve been looking for?
Design and features
Looking a little like the AirPods Pro only without the tips, the third-gen AirPods aren’t the same white earphones you might be expecting from Apple. The stem is shorter and doesn’t hang out as nearly as long as they once did, borrowing the design from the AirPods Pro.
It’s a look that is less obtrusive and awkward, no longer just hanging there from your ears like the things they once were. Finally, the AirPods look as modern as the AirPods Pro, just without the tips. We wish there was a middle ground between them, but that’s why there are different gadgets: the earbuds of the AirPods and the earphones of the AirPods Pro, not to mention the over-ear headphones of the AirPods Max.
Three styles of AirPods, many types of ears, not to mention the 2nd-gen AirPods that are sticking around for a slightly lower price.
Inside, Apple has a custom driver and amplifier, two beamforming microphones for audio, inward microphones for monitoring the sound of the outside world and changing it over Adaptive EQ, accelerometers for head tracking, a skin-detect sensor for playback control, a force-sensor for the buttons on the stem, and Apple’s H1 headphone chip.
The AirPods also come packing a little water resistance, set to IPX4, making it ideal for sweat and running in light rain, but not for swimming or a heavy downpour.
And there’s a charge case in the AirPods 3, with up to six hours of listening time on the earphones per charge, up to 30 hours of battery life in the charging case, and the ability to charge the case from either the Lightning port at the bottom or wireless charging, working over the Qi standard or Apple’s MagSafe technology.
Even though the design is a shift from the original, how you control these AirPods isn’t a total departure. You’ll use the stem and Siri for different things, thanks in part on the latter to the Siri always listening.
For instance, you can tell Siri to change tracks and raise or lower the volume, and you can control the music playback by squeezing the stem once to pause and play audio, or pressing twice (squeezing twice quickly) to go forward a track, and three times to go backwards. You can also trigger Siri directly by squeezing it for a second or two to trigger Siri by itself so you don’t have to call out “Hey Siri”.
It’s not difficult, though Android users will miss out on volume control because there is no Siri on Android.
Over to performance, however, because that’s shared on either platform and is one of the most important aspects of an earphone. Some would argue it’s the most important reason, given it’s also the reason you use them: to hear them.
Fortunately in this generation, Apple has been improving not just that fit, but also the sound, alongside rolling out its Adaptive EQ feature to control the volume so you don’t have to, a problem with previous AirPods that would see you push the volume higher to accommodate with the outside world leaking in.
And it appears to have worked, because while testing the AirPods with the Pickr Sound Test — which you can try for yourself — we found we were actually able to hear the audio without the volume being turned all the way up, a great result to be sure.
That starts with the electronic from Tycho, which delivers a balance Apple is known for, but a touch more bass, ranging from deep but not overly aggressive to lows to a subtle sound we could pick up in Daft Punk, driving the sound comfortably and equally, it seemed.
The sound in the AirPods 3 is really solid, with a great punch on the mids and bass in Ariana Grande’s “Into You”, while the soundstage shows how wide it can all feel in Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain”, appearing larger than life even without the isolation.
It’s much the same on every track in our playlist, with some deep but not quite guttural bass on FKA Twigs’ “Two Weeks”, and a beautiful sense of balance, structure, and detail in classic tracks from David Bowie, The Beatles, The Who, and others.
Repeatedly in our notes, the AirPods 3 came out as “detailed”, “balanced”, and “solid” because that’s what they were.
There are other little touches that help make the 2021 AirPods stand out.
The inclusion of a skin detection sensor means the earbuds are pretty good at being able to identify when you wear them or take them off, pausing the audio in the process.
There’s also the inclusion of dynamic head-tracking in spatial audio, allowing you to move to your head around while listening to Dolby Atmos tracks in Apple Music, expanding how audio sounds and making it more interactive. Even producers with a copy of Logic can use the head-tracking in the AirPods 3rd-gen to test tracks as they engineer them for Atmos.
Apple’s addition of Adaptive EQ is a surprising addition that helps solve the problem of volume issues as you walk around, an issue regularly associated with open audio earphones. While they can fit in the ear comfortable, the Apple AirPods are earbuds which means they don’t seal your ears whatsoever, letting noise in and out. That means as you walk or sit amongst noise, you’re hearing it all: your music and the world around you.
Hearing everything has its downsides, most notably being a problem that when the outside noise becomes too loud, you need to turn up the volume of your earphones to compensate. This can lead to sound that’s too loud overall for a sustained period of time, as well as to a volume that might be too much for you to deal with.
Apple’s Adaptive EQ aims to deal with this, using microphones on the inside of the AirPods to pick up on what you’re hearing and adapt the sound accordingly, tweaking the lows and mids so you can actually hear them even when the outside noise is found in abundance.
All of these additions help to flesh out the 2021 AirPods to be a step up from the 2019 AirPods before them, or the original AirPods that set this whole wireless earbuds thing off for Apple in the first place back in 2016.
This reviewer isn’t normally someone into earbuds, preferring the tips for security. I’d still prefer tips for security, actually, as the loose fit bothers me at times. However, the sound in Apple’s third-gen AirPods is so strong and so playful, the new model is hard to deny. This is the first pair of earbuds I’d want to wear.
Even the battery feels like a slight improvement, with up to 6 hours per charge and an extra 24 hours in the wireless charging case, totally 30 hours entirely.
Apple has also added its MagSafe charging to the AirPods 3rd-gen, but the catch is that it’s just to hold the case in place, not to provide a faster wireless charge.
You’ll also still get the Apple Lightning plug port at the bottom, but six in the earphones isn’t bad, and neither is 30 hours in the case. It’s not industry-leading, but it’ll mean you can survive a week of infrequent use on the way to work with no real dramas.
Priced at $279 in Australia, the 2021 AirPods are a little on the expensive side, fetching a high price tag without some of the extras its price would normally demand. More specifically, we’re talking about noise cancellation.
Once you go above the $250 mark, you’re clearly in noise cancelling territory, and yet not if you’re Apple. That’s a technology that starts at a recommended retail price of $399, even though you can find great noise cancelling earphones for below what Apple charges. The personalised $299 NuraTrue, the excellent $249 Oppo Enco W51, and the surprisingly warm $149 Nothing Ear 1 are all good examples of earphones that sit near the $279 price of the third-gen AirPods and deliver noise cancellation for around the same price.
That lack of noise cancellation in the AirPods 3 makes the $279 price tag just so hard to justify. Sure, you get wireless charging and a hint of water resistance, but you’re missing out on a feature Apple is charging a serious premium on, and we’re not sure value is really here.
Not helping it is that the street price of the $399 AirPods Pro is often under the $350 mark, so while you can spend around $400 on Apple’s noise cancelling version, you typically don’t need to spend much more to get noise cancellation bundled in. That’s a problem for the third-gen AirPods, which sound great, but are clearly too expensive.
What needs work?
The fit, however, still leaves us a little annoyed. It’s one of the problems with an open audio pair you wear, and a problem with earbuds in general, because all they’re going to do is just hang in your ear.
There’s no tip to keep them in and no way to stop them from falling out if you turn your head suddenly or accidentally nudge them, only to have them fall out, tumbling onto the floor below, as had happened during our third-gen AirPods review at least twice.
Apple has improved the fit of these, and now even someone who doesn’t normally like earbuds like this reviewer can find AirPods comfortable. But the lack of a hold does mean they can also fly out of his ear when the most basic thing happens, like sticking on his mask when he’s about to go somewhere in today’s world.
For some, this won’t be a problem, and may be partly what they’re used to already. But for others, just know that while the 2021 AirPods solve some of the issues with previous generations, the lack of a tight fit is not one of them, and these earbuds can still fall out rather unexpectedly.
When our AirPods fell out, we cleaned them off and they were good to go again, giving you an idea of just how durable they could be, surviving a fall from ear-height on a combination of the cement of a path before rolling in the grass. Apple makes its third-gen AirPods durable, working alongside with the other notable improvements in the update.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Now with great sound that doesn’t have to overload your head with volume, the 2021 AirPods are an improvement worth talking about, and genuinely a great choice. Version 3 is the best yet, and not just a small update, but something truly worthy of a new product.
By dabbling in an earphone style, Apple has really learned what works and how to make its earbuds even better. Comfier and better overall, the AirPods 3 are an actual update more will enjoy.
We wish Apple had found a way to make the AirPods fit more firmly, but the design is definitely better, and even people who don’t normally like AirPods will probably be happier here. That married with a smaller and more modern design are welcome additions, as are the improvements to the sound, too.
The improvements to sound are not small things, either, and help make it an update worth talking about. These sound fantastic, bolstered by the head-tracking in Atmos. They’re almost magical in how you can hear both the world and Apple Music in surround simultaneously.
The new AirPods do come at a cost, and for many, that won’t be worth the price of admission. We’d argue that if you can find the AirPods Pro at nearly the same price of the 2021 AirPods, you’ll have hit the value argument much, much better.
Overall, 2021’s AirPods are an update worth considering if you love the AirPods and want to see them better.