Apple’s AirPods need no introduction due to their ubiquity on the street, but is the third generation of the most popular wireless earbud actually an improvement?
The new earbuds have been redesigned to resemble the Pro models with shorter stalks and a better fit. They don’t block your ear canal, like the Pros though, just rest in place with all the benefits and disadvantages of an open fit, including an airy feel and complete lack of isolation from the outside world.
Costing £169 ($179/A$279), they are being sold alongside the older 2nd-gen versions, now reduced to £119, and the £239 AirPods Pro.
They stay in place even when jumping around or violently shaking my head, and are fairly comfortable for upwards of 90 minutes at a time. But as anyone who has tried the previous versions only to have them immediately fall out will tell you, your mileage may vary as each ear is unique.
The shorter stalks have the same pressure-sensitive strip on them as the AirPods Pro. Squeeze it once, twice or trice to pause the music or skip track, or hold to access Siri on an iPhone. Take one out and the music pauses and resumes when you put it back in your ear.
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0, SBC, AAC, H1 chip
Battery life: six hours playback (30 hours with case)
Water resistance: IPX4 (splash resistant)
Earbud dimensions: 30.8 x 18.3 x 19.2mm
Earbud weight: 4.28g each
Charging case dimensions: 46.4 x 54.4 x 21.4mm
Charging case weight: 37.9g
Case charging: Lightning, Qi wireless (MagSafe)
Features and battery life
The charging case is slightly larger than that of the previous generation, but smaller than the AirPods Pro and is one of the smallest and most-pocketable of all true wireless earbuds.
The battery lasted over seven hours in testing for music. And four for calls. A fully charged case can recharge the earbuds up to four times. A five-minute quick charge of the earbuds gives up to one hour of playback.
The new AirPods have the same H1 chip and advanced features as other Apple headphones. They instantly pair with an iPhone or iPad, share the audio of one device to two sets of AirPods and automatically switch connection between Apple devices. The latter feature is magic when it works, but can easily get confused requiring manual switching.
They are standard Bluetooth 5.0 earbuds, though, so can be used with most non-Apple devices such as Android phones and Windows PCs, but without the long squeeze, pause-on-remove and advanced features.
The AirPods sound surprisingly good for non-isolating earbuds – a step up over their predecessors – and are able to produce more bass for a more rounded sound despite their open fit.
They have an easy-listening sound with slightly accentuated treble. They handle complex tracks well but lack some of the detail and nuance really good earphones can produce. They can’t manage deep, thumping bass, making some tracks sound a bit thin, too.
Their biggest issue is background noise. They can’t block anything so you can forget trying to listen to tracks on the London Tube or block out your co-workers in an office. That does mean you’re more aware of your surroundings, however.
New for the AirPods is the support for virtual surround sound with Apple devices called “spatial audio”, which works for movies and music with Dolby sound tracks. It tracks the movement of your head and adjusts the sound so that it is always centred on the screen in front of you. Turn your head to the left and it will still sound as if the voices are coming from the screen, now predominantly into your right ear. It’s all very clever.
Apple does not provide an expected lifespan for the batteries. Those in similar devices typically last at least 500 full charge cycles while maintaining at least 80% of their original capacity. A battery service costs from £45.
The earbuds are not repairable, scoring a zero out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale, but Apple offers replacements costing £65 per earbud. The AirPods and case are made from recycled rare earth elements, tin and aluminium, but Apple does not publish environmental impact reports for accessories such as headphones. The company offers trade-in and free recycling schemes, including for non-Apple products.
The AirPods 3 are a solid revamp of one of the most popular sets of true wireless earbuds, adopting a better design, improved sound, longer battery life and more advanced features such as spatial audio.
Their open-air fit is unrivalled in the industry and certainly has some advantages. But the complete lack of noise isolation makes them hard to use in loud environments and stops them sounding as good as rivals with silicone earbud tips.
They work really well with an iPhone and other Apple gear, but are more limited with Android and Windows devices, so I would only recommend them if you use at least one compatible Apple gadget.
For the money you can certainly buy better-sounding earbuds, but none that have the open fit of the AirPods 3. If you don’t like silicone tips in your ear, these are for you.
They are essentially unrepairable, however, making battery replacement improbable and ultimately making them disposable, losing a star.
Pros: open fit, solid sound, decent battery, great case, good squeeze playback controls, great connectivity, special features with Apple devices including spatial audio, decent call quality.
Cons: no sound isolation at all, no noise cancelling, lack features when connected to Android or Windows, no on-board volume control, cannot be repaired, expensive.