Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review

Apple’s third-gen AirPods offer significant improvements. Longer-lasting battery, upgraded and improved audio drivers, and Spatial Audio are the headlines here. All this is great, but the AirPods are let down by one major factor: design. 

They don’t offer different size silicon tips to get the perfect fit. Instead, Apple has maintained its “one-size-fits-all” approach, which is an issue.

Outside noise leaking in is a significant problem with the third-gen AirPods which creates the potential to make the aforementioned audio improvements a bit redundant – unless you’re in a library or a quiet room. 

The real benefit the third-gen AirPods bring is: seamless compatibility with the Apple ecosystem (at a more affordable price than the AirPods Pro). Take that away, and you can find earbuds that provide the same, or much better audio, for much less money. 

Pros

  • Good audio quality
  • Spatial Audio great for movies/TV
  • Seamless compatibility with Apple devices
  • Great microphone

Cons

  • One-size-fits-all design is dated
  • Expensive
  • Lets a lot of outside noise in

Price

The AirPods (Gen 3) cost $329. When compared to other earbuds on the market, that’s expensive.

The NuraTrue earbuds sound better than the AirPods and offer active noise cancellation, and only cost $300.

Design

Apple’s third-gen AirPods have undergone some design changes, now looking more like the AirPods Pro, than their predecessors.

Much like previous iterations, they only come in white, and Apple has stuck with the familiar stem shape, but it’s 33 per shorter. 

The buds use a Force Sensor indent (also found on the AirPods Pro) for touch controls, and they’re IPX4 rated, meaning they’re suitable for the gym and will survive being dropped in the sink.

Apple has maintained the “one size fits all” design, and when compared to other earbuds, it feels like a couple of steps backwards. 

Most earbuds are now released with multiple different size silicone tips so you can customise the bud to fit your ear nicely. Apple claimed it conducted a significant amount of research with heat mapping and ear scans when designing the third-gen AirPods to accommodate any ear, but there’s no customisation here. You need to hope the AirPods fit your ears nicely. If they don’t, you’re out of luck.

If the AirPods don’t fit your ear securely, then expect to hear a significant amount of outside noise. I have relatively normal ears (I think), yet I could hear the world around me annoyingly clearly, even with my music at high volumes. It’s terrible for public transport and loud areas (more on this below).

They’re also uncomfortable. The soft silicone tips of other earbuds are gentle on the ear. But the hard shell of the AirPods, don’t provide the same softness. I found myself taking them out often to give my ears a break.

The touch controls work well. However, they’re not remappable. Again, a step backwards from other earbuds on the market.

Sound

The sound the AirPods produce is very good. Apple has developed a new sound driver that makes audio wider and fuller compared to the 2nd Gen AirPods.

The Spatial Audio works well, at its best when watching movies and videos. The directional audio and head tracking create an illusion of surround sound, and it’s effective. 

It’s not quite as good with music, though. It’s all dependent on how the track you’re listening to is produced. Some tracks sound noticeably better, while others don’t offer much difference. If a track hasn’t been produced well (with Dolby Atmos), then you’ll barely notice a difference between spatial and stereo settings. 

Obviously, the way these tracks are produced can’t be controlled by Apple, but if you’re buying these AirPods for listening to music, don’t get hung up on the Spatial Audio capabilities. 

On Apple Music, you can see what tracks and albums support Spatial Audio, and with iOS 15, you can “spatialise” audio from other apps like Spotify. Still, even then, with some of these albums, I barely noticed a difference. With that said, the ones that were produced well with Dolby Atmos sounded good. But it’s potluck dependent on the track.

For me, the biggest problem with the AirPods audio capabilities has nothing to do with the drivers or speakers. It’s to do with how the AirPods fit. The AirPods don’t create a secure seal, and it means a lot of outside noise leaks in. Using the AirPods on a bus resulted in a muddied sound of my music and the noises around me. All these audio advancements and upgrades were a bit useless when I couldn’t get the most out of them unless I were in a quiet room.

The AirPods feature Adaptive EQ which automatically equalises the audio you’re listening to for your ear. Apple claims Adaptive EQ tunes the low and mid frequencies to the shape of your ear. It’s hard to tell this is happening though, you kind of just need to take Apple’s word for it. There isn’t an app that shows you what’s happening.

The audio sounds good. The personalised EQ isn’t nearly as effective as the cheaper NuraTrue earbuds, and I would have liked to have been able to EQ my music myself as well. But the AirPods do generate a very good sound…so long as you’re in a quiet room.

Features

The best thing about the AirPods is how compatible they are with other Apple devices. If you surround yourself with Apple tech, like an iPhone or iPad the AirPods can seamlessly transition from one device to the other, and it’s fantastic.

You can have a video playing on your phone, switch to your laptop, and the AirPods come with you. It’s brilliant.

They also have very good microphones. The AirPods remain the market standard for microphones in earbuds. They picked up my voice easily and clearly. My partner could hear me easily even when I was outside in windy conditions.

Battery

The AirPods boast 6 hours of continuous usage and 30 hours if you include charges inside the case. 

It’s a one-hour improvement on the 2nd Gen AirPods, but it’s still a way off the 12 hours you can get with the Sony WF-1000XM4’s with ANC turned off.

Charging the AirPods is done through the lightning port on the case and they support wireless Qi charging as well. However they’re not compatible with the back-of-the-iPhone charging.

Verdict

Apple’s third-generation AirPods have seen improvements in their audio capabilities. They sound good, Spatial Audio is included, and the new audio drivers deliver quality sounds.

The problem is, this is all let down by their design. Apple has stuck with its “one-size-fits-all,” design and compared to other earbuds on the market, it’s a step backwards. With most earbuds now being personally customisable to get a perfect fit, Apple has strayed away from that trend. And this leads to more significant issues. 

If the AirPods don’t fit securely, they don’t provide a tight seal and that results in an annoyingly massive amount of outside noise leaking in. Listening to music in busy areas isn’t an enjoyable experience. 

They have brilliant microphones, the seamless transition between Apple products is still fantastic, and the battery is pretty good. But are these worth $329? Not really. There are far better earbuds on the market for less.

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