Apple AirPods 3 full review
It's good to build hype ahead of a product launch, but there's a danger of overdoing it.
The AirPods 2 came out in March 2019, and were immediately and widely popular. After a year or so customers started demanding that Apple release the AirPods 3, but the company didn't play ball, refusing to refresh its earbuds for so long that sales started to fall off a cliff.
Well, the AirPods 3 are finally here, after an extraordinary gap of two and a half years (for one of its most commercially successful products ever!), and the weight of expectation is enormous. Are they worth the wait?
For our in-depth AirPods 3 review, we tested out their battery life, audio quality, comfort and security of fit and much more. We'll help you decide if they're the wireless earbuds for you.
Once you've made a decision, remember to check for the lowest prices in our roundup of the best AirPods deals.
Apple has revamped the AirPods design to bring it closer to that of the AirPods Pro. The stems are shorter than on the 2019 AirPods, the heads angled downwards more sharply, and the charging case switched to the horizontal orientation (with the hinge along the longer edge, which I always thought would make it more vulnerable to damage, but hasn't caused any problems in two years of relentless AirPods Pro usage).
The earbuds look nice: minimal, clean and elegant, in classic Apple fashion. But the real significance of the redesign lies in the way it affects fit and audio quality. (Apple, slightly oddly, says the contoured design "delivers sound directly to your ears". You'd hope so, right?) I'll address those things in later sections.
As before there's a control on the stem of the bud (there's one on each, in fact), but this has been upgraded to what Apple calls a Force Sensor. This means you can activate multiple actions by doing single (play/pause), double (skip forwards) or triple (skip backwards) presses. Pressing and holding will trigger Siri, but you also have the option of saying "Hey Siri".
Water good idea
While we're on the subject of physical design, I'll briefly discuss water resistance.
The AirPods (2019) were not certified with an IP rating, whereas these are IPX4: the X means they weren't tested for dust intrusion, but the 4 means they can cope with "water splashing against the enclosure from any direction". That means rain and sweat are fine, but Apple warns against wearing them in the shower. The IPX4 rating applies to the case as well as to the earbuds.
I got the AirPods properly sweaty while running and didn't observe any malfunctioning or other problems - other than extra slipperiness, which I'll address in the next section. I also (against advice) wore them briefly in the shower, and they didn't have any issue with ricocheting drops of water. But I chickened out of putting them under direct water flow, since that's clearly an IPX5 or even IPX6 situation and I didn't want to spoil them.
The AirPods Pro are also IPX4, by the way.
Comfort and fit
The AirPods slip smoothly into the ear and feel pleasantly discreet and comfortable. I was struck by the difference between these and the more intrusive AirPods Pro, whose bulbous silicone tips are so noticeable in use. As good as they are in terms of insulation and sound quality, there's something almost stressful about wearing the AirPods; you're constantly aware of them.
That isn't the case here. It's easy to forget the 2021 AirPods are in, and they are so discreet that you can go to sleep, side of head on pillow, while wearing them.
But there are downsides to minimising friction and ear-fill. One is that you're better able to hear external noise - quite aside from the active noise cancellation feature that is offered on the Pros and isn't offered here, the Pros simply block out far more noise passively - and another is the danger of a spontaneous ejection.
Let's not fall out
When the AirPods arrived I asked Twitter if there were any questions people wanted answering. One of the most common themes was a worry that the AirPods would fall out.
I was sceptical at first, but this is not a baseless concern. The left bud jumped out once while I was just walking slowly around the house, and when I took them running things got worse: that same bud fell out three times over the course of a 30-minute jog, and managed one more successful escape while I was sitting on the doorstep getting my breath back afterwards. Sweat is clearly a factor in these accidents, but it's still worrying.
I'd like to highlight one aspect of these incidents, and I don't know if it mitigates the problem or makes it worse. The AirPods never jump out suddenly; they slowly inch their way out, hanging on by what feels like a single cell of ear skin for minutes before finally dropping off like engorged leeches.
This means, of course, you've usually got plenty of time to plug them in more securely or at least catch them; but let me tell you, it's torture constantly having to reach up and readjust. I felt like they were getting ready to fall out (as opposed to actually falling out) more than half the time I was wearing them.
The AirPods Pros' advantages when it comes to security of fit are twofold: silicone is a yielding material, which makes it more suited to hugging and worming its way into every crevice of your ear cavity than the rigid heads of the 2021 AirPods; and the Pros' silicone tips come in multiple sizes, which means you've got a better chance of finding one to suit your ears. The fact that the left bud was consistently the one causing problems for me suggests a degree of luck: if your ears are the right shape (as my right ear is, apparently), then you should be okay; if it's the wrong shape (like my left ear) then you're stuffed.
The all-important question, surpassing even comfort of fit, is how good the AirPods sound. The answer, in a nutshell, is that they sound better than the AirPods 2 but not as good as the AirPods Pro - although it's hard to accurately assess how much of the latter's aural superiority is simply down to better isolation.
As you'd expect for a set of in-ear buds, the principal limitation is bass. I always describe this in terms of bodily location: does the bass hit you in the head, or in the belly? Good in-ears - and these are good in-ears - will provide a kinetic punch on dance tracks or other bass-heavy audio, but you'll experience it high up. For that visceral attack that shakes the whole body, you need over-ears.
Playing One Minute To Midnight by Justice, for example (with the volume on 60%), the bass drum lands with a hugely satisfying impact, but it's punching the brainstem, not the stomach. It's exhilarating, but it's a long way from the experience you'd get at a gig or even in the living room with a good speaker like the full-size HomePod.
Setting the volume to 60%, by the way, is more than sufficient for a big, enveloping sound: it's loud, but with no audible distortion. I ventured as high as 65% but it was starting to get uncomfortable by that point. Again, there was no distortion I could make out, which gives an idea of the headphones' power and quality.
Bass-heavy audio is where the AirPods are least comfortable: solid, but with palpable limitations. On other genres, however, they really come into their own, with strong detail and a warm tone.
What I most enjoyed was their richness, which isn't a given for in-ears: playing The Show (by no means my favourite Girls Aloud track) I was surprised and frankly delighted by the denseness of the sound, the sense of space, the feeling that I was right there in the studio. And that was before I activated Spatial Audio, which takes things to the next level.
A very Spatial announcement
Spatial Audio - which can be activated by doing a long-press on the volume slider in your iPhone's Control Centre - is a feature (also offered by the AirPods Pro) that makes audio feel more three-dimensional. If you choose the Head Tracked option, this will further adjust the audio as you move your head.
With the feature on, the already impressive sense of immersion I got from the AirPods was enhanced still further. Suddenly, the music was all around me, and turning the feature off again made the experience I had previously praised feel oddly flat. Music felt like it was playing in the centre of my brain, rather than occupying nearby space as it did with Spatial Audio. The feature may have ruined me for audio that doesn't have this option.
One quirk of the head-tracking feature, when listening on iPhone at least, is that it accounts for the position of your head, but not that of the audio source. For example, I'm typing out this review on my MacBook while listening to (the excellent) Still Grey by Pendulum on my iPhone, which is on the table some way off to the left. But it feels like the music is coming from the MacBook, because it's in front of me.
I look off to the right, and the audio shifts towards the left bud, reinforcing the idea that the music is coming from the MacBook; I look to the left - towards the iPhone - and the audio shifts to the right bud, directing me back to the MacBook and away from the true source.
This is more of a quirk than a problem, since the audio source is usually going to be in front of you anyway. And the head-tracking is generally an excellent illusion that adds to the sense of being present with the musicians.
The AirPods 3 - but not their case, to some consternation - are compatible with Apple's Find My network and app, which means you can track their location if you lose them. If they get separated from each other, the left and right buds can be tracked individually.
There are particularly neat aspects to this, such as being alerted if you leave them behind (although you can turn this off for certain locations), which should eliminate a large proportion of losses before they even happen. And you can make the AirPods chirrup, like a lost AirTag albeit rather quieter, to help you work out where in the room they've been left.
In fact there's another method you can use for close-range tracking. When you're close, the section of the Find My app that normally offers directions switches to 'Find/Nearby', which allows you to access a rough facsimile of the Precision Finding feature on the AirTags. Because the AirPods haven't got UWB, it's much more rudimentary: instead of distances and arrows, you just get Far, Near or Here. But even this can be a small help.
One of the headline upgrades for this generation is battery life, which on paper should surpass even a brand-new set of AirPods Pro. (That's leaving aside the additional battery deterioration likely to have been experienced by a set of Pros bought back in 2019.)
Apple says the earbuds are good for an estimated 6 hours of listening on a single charge, compared to 5 hours for the AirPods (2019) and 4.5 hours for the AirPods Pro. In testing mine did even better, lasting 6 hours 46 minutes of continuous audio (mostly music, with a small amount of podcasts).
And even at that point, it's worth stressing that only one bud died; the left bud still had 10% power, and soldiered on for a further 45 minutes. We can't count that for the official numbers, but in a battery emergency one bud is better than none.
You can then charge the buds multiple times in the case - you don't actually need to make it back to mains power - and Apple reckons the total battery life of case and buds combined is 30 hours. That compares to 24 hours for the two 2019 models... although, curiously, it describes the former figure as "up to" 30 hours and the latter as "more than" 24. Which suggests they might be closer than you'd think.
The AirPods are capable of what Apple describes as fast-charging: the idea is that just five minutes in the case will top them up enough for an hour of listening.
The comparison with previous models here is confusing. For the AirPods 2, for example, Apple references a longer, 15-minute 'fast charge' in the case, but this will gain you proportionately more power: three hours of listening rather than one (although talk time is only twice as long: two hours rather than one). That feels like pretty much the same deal, but it isn't clear what five minutes with the old model would get you.
I duly tested the AirPods 3 with a five-minute charge, and was thoroughly impressed. In that time they jumped from completely drained to 40% power, which was then good for 90 minutes of listening. Underpromise and overdeliver: it's the Apple way.
(Once again, incidentally, only the right bud gave up the ghost at this point; the left bud still had 4%. It's odd that the right bud consistently drained faster than the left, and perhaps suboptimal in terms of power distribution, but the AirPods still outperformed Apple's battery-life claims, even when I was strict about both of them having to be operational.)
The joy of MagSafe
Finally, a big thumbs up to Apple for adding MagSafe support for the AirPods charging case. Any charging pad or other accessory that is certified for the MagSafe standard will work with the AirPods' case - even if some, such as the iPhone MagSafe wallet, may be the wrong shape.
I love MagSafe anyway - it means you don't need to worry about finding the sweet spot when placing an item on a wireless charging pad - but this is especially convenient in this case, since it means you can use the same charging setup for your earbuds and (recent-vintage) iPhone. And the case snaps on to the pad with a satisfying click and a secure hold.
Price & availability
The AirPods (2021), which launched on 26 October, cost £169 / $179 / AU$279 if you buy from Apple. But third-party retailers will soon start to chip away at Apple's RRP, and you'll be able to pick up better deals. You can quickly scan the best prices across a range of vendors in our automated table, embedded below.
Other than the set that came with a wired charging case (gone!), Apple didn't discontinue any AirPods this year. Which means the new models fit in with a range that now has four entries:
- 2nd-gen AirPods: £119 / $129 / AU$219
- 3rd-gen AirPods: £169 / $179/ AU$279
- AirPods Pro: £239 / $249 / AU$399
- AirPods Max: £549 / $549 / AU$899
Considering that the models either side of the 2021 AirPods are at least two years old, it's tempting to say that it's a better buy. But I'll deal with that question in the final section.
Verdict: Should you buy the AirPods 3?
The chief appeal of AirPods, for Apple users at least, has always been convenience. They pair with your iPhone with a single tap; they stop music when you take them out of your ears and start again when reinserted; they switch between devices almost too eagerly; they hook into notifications and Siri; and they slip easily into a slimline case that simplifies storage and prolongs battery life.
All of that is still true, but the long-awaited enhancements for the third generation of AirPods mean they are legitimately excellent earbuds in their own right. Audio quality is strong on anything that isn't reliant on big bass, and even there they acquit themselves respectably. Spatial Audio is a revelation that puts you right there in the studio: it's wonderfully immersive.
The improvements to battery life are pleasing, and the fact the AirPods 3 now surpass the (more expensive) AirPods Pro in at least one area creates an intriguing dilemma: which is the best choice right now? That's a tough one, but the likelihood that new AirPods Pro are likely to appear early next year could be the decisive factor.
Of course, the Pros are still better in some key areas. I prefer their audio, particularly because of the far better isolation provided by their snugger fit and active noise cancellation feature. And that snugger fit also means they stay in - something that is a legitimate worry with the AirPods 3, which tumbled out my ears with alarming frequency, particularly when sweat was involved. For that reason I would not recommend these for running; they aren't especially good at excluding wind noise in any case.
But overall, and after chucking improved water resistance and support for Find My into the equation, the third-gen AirPods are a strong choice. Convenient, comfortable, great-sounding and long-lasting, these are an excellent set of earbuds at a comparatively affordable price.
Apple AirPods 3: Specs
- H1 headphone chip
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Spatial audio
- Adaptive EQ
- Force sensor
- IPX4 sweat- and water-resistant
- claimed battery life 6 hours listening time/4 hours talk time on a single charge, or 30/20 hours total including recharges from the case. Each earbud: 30.79 x 18.26 x 19.21mm
- 4.28g. Charging case: 46.40 x 54.40 x 21.38mm