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Apple AirPods 3 review: Not quite Pro but still great

The Apple AirPods 3 is essentially the AirPods Pro minus the noise cancellation and eartips

The Apple AirPods 3 wireless earbuds and charging case
(Image: © Regan Coule/Future)

Our Verdict

With solid upgrades to design, functionality, and sound, the AirPods 3 comes up slightly short of perfection.

For

  • Adaptive EQ with well-balanced sound
  • Spatial audio support
  • Enhanced ergonomics
  • Best-in-class controls
  • Numerous high-end features
  • Stellar iOS integration

Against

  • No ANC or Transparency mode
  • Open design lets in too much noise
  • Unstable fit

Tom's Guide Verdict

With solid upgrades to design, functionality, and sound, the AirPods 3 comes up slightly short of perfection.

Pros

  • + Adaptive EQ with well-balanced sound
  • + Spatial audio support
  • + Enhanced ergonomics
  • + Best-in-class controls
  • + Numerous high-end features
  • + Stellar iOS integration

Cons

  • - No ANC or Transparency mode
  • - Open design lets in too much noise
  • - Unstable fit
Apple AirPods 3 specs

Price: $179

Colors: White

Battery life (rated): 6 hours, 30 hours (with charging case)

Connectivity: Bluetooth 5

Processor: H1

Size: 1.21 x 0.72 x 0.76 inches (earbud), 1.83 x 0.84 x 2.14 inches (charging case)

Weight: 0.15 ounces (earbud), 1.34 ounces (charging case)

After endless leaks, tons of speculation, and reported production setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AirPods 3 has finally hit the market. And it turns out a considerable number of predicted upgrades have made their way onto this threequel.

An all-new contoured design? Check. Adaptive EQ? That's here. Force touch sensor? Yes. Spatial audio? That too. All the latest iOS 15-suppored features? Absolutely. Active noise cancellation? Almost had you there. Remember, I said a considerable number, acknowledging that not every prediction or rumor came to fruition.

These buds also receive a few enhancements not found on the AirPods 2 or AirPods Pro, such as skin-detect sensors and (finally) longer battery life for both the earbuds and charging case.

Let’s jump right into our full length Apple AirPods 3 review and see why Apple’s latest creation is one of the best headphones you can buy.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Price and availability

The AirPods 3 is sold for $179 at major online retailers, including Amazon and Best Buy, or directly from Apple. Color options are limited to one: White. Inside the box are a MagSafe charging case, Lightning-to-USB-C cable, quick start guide, and other standard documentation.

These buds are less expensive than the AirPods Pro ($249), but cost more than the AirPods 2, which recently dropped to $129. Regarding other competitors, the AirPods 3 remains pricier than popular mid-tier options like the Beats Studio Buds ($149) and Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 ($149), two models that come with ANC for a lower MSRP. 

Before you take the plunge, check out our AirPods 3 vs Jabra Elite Active 75t showdown to see if the AirPods 3 can beat a beloved pair of wireless earbuds. 

Make sure to check out our AirPods sales page, as well as our Black Friday headphones deals page for all of the latest sales and discounts on Apple products.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Design and comfort

Remove the AirPods Pro’s eartips and you practically have the AirPods 3. Small details such as the extra mic grille on the top and slightly shorter stems (shrunk down 33 percent from the AirPods 2) make this version more identifiable, though it is still longer than the AirPods Pro. Something else the AirPods 3 shares with its ANC counterpart: IPX4 water resistance. The AirPods 3 is also built from recycled materials.

The Apple AirPods 3 wireless earbuds resting atop the wireless charging case

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The AirPods 3’s charging case is smaller than the AirPods Pro’s case, but that’s about the only aesthetic difference between the two. They each boast an all-white exterior with LED on the front, charging port on the bottom, and pairing button on the back. You can engrave the charging case for free when purchased through Apple. 

The magnets in this case are strong, keeping the lid shut and each bud locked in when stored and charging. And much like its predecessors, this case is a scratch-and-scuff magnet, so consider purchasing some form of protective covering.

The Apple AirPods 3's charging case held in hand

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple is trying hard to convince its fanbase that these buds will stay put on your ears, no matter what. Just reference the video demonstration shown during the AirPods 3 announcement at the Unleashed Event, the one where break-dancers are seen wearing the buds and performing wild dance moves. I’m here to tell you not to believe the hype.

Our reviewer wearing the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Yes, the AirPods 3 do provide better on-ear stability than the AirPods 2, because though Apple chose to stick with the open design it also implemented a few tweaks for optimal fit. 

But while the contoured sound port allows the buds to sit comfortably on the ear and nestle into the canal, they don't go all the way in like the AirPods Pro. And since there's no tight seal formed due to the lack of ear tips, they have a high probability of falling out. 

I wouldn’t suggest running down the street to catch the bus or exercising with these dangling from your ears — although my colleague Kate Kozuch had a different experience when she went running with the AirPods 3.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Controls and digital assistant

Out go the touch controls and in comes the Force Sensor, which is located on the bottom as a tiny indentation and operates flawlessly. Playback, call management, and the digital assistant can all be activated through single/multi-press and press-and-hold gestures. I’m happy to report the sensor produces solid tactility and responds properly to intended commands. The volume slider is also easily accessible by pulling down the Control Center from the top-right of your iDevice.

The skin-detect sensor accurately discerns whether the buds are in your ears to automatically play music or enable auto-pause when removed.

Testing the force sensor on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Siri can be enabled manually, though if you’re like me, firing her up using “Hey Siri” voice activation is more gratifying. Apple’s AI bot is on point, acting on voice commands quickly and executing them even faster. It’s fun to use the Announce Notifications feature and have Siri read incoming messages as well. The mics demonstrate excellent speech recognition, picking up every syllable and understanding long-winded requests. 

Unfortunately, the feature isn’t available for Android, though it’s possible you can manually turn on the digital assistant through third-party software (try your luck with Trigger Assistant).

Apple AirPods 3 review: Sound quality

When it comes to audio, the AirPods 3 received the Pro treatment, engineered with the proprietary Adaptive EQ that adjusts frequencies in real time for listeners to hear music more precisely. Apple also stuffed a new low-distortion driver into the buds for “powerful bass and crisp, clean high frequencies.” 

What you get are fantastic results that give the AirPods Pro a run for its money, but I wouldn’t place them in the same league as sonic beasts such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the incredibly underrated Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with what the AirPods 3 sounds like out of the box.

The Apple AirPods 3 playing The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" on Apple Music

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Whether it was random songs on my Spotify playlists or Dolby Atmos-powered tracks on Apple Music, the AirPods 3 kept audio well balanced. The synth action on the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is as vibrant as it gets, while the basic kick-and-snare pattern had oomph to it that would never be felt on the AirPods 2. Jazz records were a pleasure to hear as well. Cannonball Adderley’s “Autumn Leaves” set the tone for a peaceful night in, with the Adaptive EQ delivering great frequency range, highlighted by crisp, tinny hi-hats and prominent double bass.

You can personalize sound through the iOS Sound settings, picking from over 20 reliable presets for a bit more performance based on the content selection. Audio sharing can also be used to hear music from an iPhone or iPad on two pairs of AirPods or Beats wireless headphones.

The iOS EQ settings for the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

While impressive, audio on the AirPods isn’t perfect. Bass doesn’t knock as hard as it does on other wireless earbuds, so if you pull up a hip-hop banger like Snoop Dogg’s “Pump Pump,” you’ll find the boom-bap drums tame compared to the thumping reproduction from the Galaxy Buds 2 and WH-1000XM4.

I strongly urge you to listen to music in the quietest environments possible, because the AirPods 3 do not isolate noise at all. Everything around me crept into the soundscape, from my infant child crying to basic conversations taking place several feet away. This is where ANC and ear tips would have helped most.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Spatial audio

Apple’s immersive, 360-degree sound technology is featured on the AirPods 3. For all the newbies who haven’t tried it yet, spatial audio employs special algorithms and directional audio filters to adjust the frequencies that each ear hears, creating 360-degree sound in the process. This can be enjoyed when listening to select songs in Apple Music, watching content from supported streaming services (e.g., Apple TV+, Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max) or taking a FaceTime call.

Spatial Audio enabled on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Freddie Hubbard’s “Weaver of Dreams” placed me right in the middle of the action. The channel separation was superb, as my left ear was fed serene trumpet play, while steady drum strokes carried well into the right ear. Switching to movies, I watched Dune and was surprised by how engaging action scenes sounded. The dynamic head tracking made the viewing experience more enticing; sound effects and vocals adjusted accordingly to my head’s positioning. That said, I do believe the AirPods Pro uses the technology better, especially with movies, which sound more immersive still.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Special features

It’s best to address the elephant in the room ASAP. As previously mentioned, the AirPods 3 doesn’t come with ANC, or even ambient listening. You know what else it doesn’t have? Dual optical sensors or Ear Tip Fit Test support. All four features are reserved for the AirPods Pro.

Despite these omissions, this model takes advantage of the H1 chip’s fast performance and wide variety of software perks. Many of these you’re already familiar with, including the aforementioned Adaptive EQ, Announce Notifications, audio sharing, “Hey Siri” voice activation, and spatial audio. Allow me to touch on the rest.

Noise isolation being tested on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

AirPods owners who lose their buds often will appreciate Enhanced Find My, a feature that tracks lost AirPods while they are within close distance of iDevices or a MacBook. Users can see how close they are in the Find My app or Lost Mode, plus receive alerts if they’re out of Bluetooth range. You can even play a sound to signal where they are, if they’re close.

Automatic switching returns to seamlessly change your audio source from one Apple device to another, when they are connected to the same iCloud account. The Microphone setting lets you assign the AirPods mic to automatically change from left to right or be fixed to one side. AppleCare+ coverage availability and the Limited Warranty come up in the settings, too.

Auto-connect on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

One feature that hasn’t received much attention is Live Listen. What it does is allow your iDevice to act as a mic that sends sounds to your AirPods, filling the role of Transparency Mode to hear what’s happening around you. Turning on the feature in the Control Center widget also provides access to a Background Sounds mode (aka soundscape mode) that has five different profiles, each one producing a different nature sound to mask ambient noises.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Battery life and charging case

Apple heard our pleas and increased the AirPods’ playtime. A full charge equals 6 hours of listening time, an hour more than both the AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro, but still shorter than rivals like the Sony WF-1000XM4 (8-12 hours) and Master & Dynamic MW08 (10-12 hours). Either way, any criticisms about the AirPods’ battery life should be water under the bridge, because you’re getting more than what was offered previously.

What's more, Apple’s battery management is exceptional, with features like Optimized Battery Charging learning your charging routine and stopping charges at 80% to reduce wear.

The Apple AirPods 3 being wirelessly charged on an Anker charging pad

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The MagSafe charging case increases battery life from 24 to 30 hours, another much-appreciated improvement. It’s part of the MagSafe ecosystem and works with the MagSafe charger, though it apparently doesn’t support MagSafe reverse wireless charging from iPhones. You can also charge it on any Qi-enabled wireless pad. Quick charging remains the same, generating 1 hour of use on a 5-minute charge, one of the fastest results in the category.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Call quality and connectivity

The AirPods 3 is one of the best headphones with a mic for voice and video calls. Apple covered the mic with acoustic mesh to reduce wind interference, which shows when answering calls in gusty conditions. My wife could hear me loud and clear when walking with the baby, and she barely heard any wind or whooshing from cars that sped by. Using the buds inside was even more rewarding; clarity was increased, and callers heard me better when moving around the house.

However, the mics can only fight off so much ambient noise before it breaks through, as was the case when talking with my mother-in-law as I passed through a construction site. Just feel confident knowing that it takes a lot of incidental sounds to interfere with your voice or video calls. Speaking of which, the AirPods 3 comes with AAC-ELD, a speech codec designed for full HD voice quality when jumping on FaceTime calls. I’m happy to report that my FT experience was clear sounding in several environments.

A video call being taken on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Pairing these buds to the iOS/macOS platform is seamless. The pop-up confirmation screen will appear instantly on any iPhone/iPad running a current version of iOS, while Mac and MacBook users will see the buds automatically appear on the available devices list. On top of that, the AirPods 3 plays nicely with Android, something that couldn’t be said of previous versions. It was easy pairing to both of my Android smartphones (Google Pixel 3XL, Samsung Galaxy Note S20 Ultra). 

Bluetooth 5.0 holds up strong, maintaining a steady range (up to 40 feet) and offering robust connectivity to minimize dropout during calls or streaming.

Apple AirPods 3 review: Verdict

Apple played it smart with the AirPods 3, offering just enough upgrades to make it a significant step up from the AirPods 2, while also keeping it a few steps below the AirPods Pro.

Essentially, these buds are the AirPods Pro minus the eartips and a handful of features (ANC, Transparency Mode, Ear Tip Fit Test). Several series hallmarks show up on the spec sheet, including Adaptive EQ, spatial audio, and force sensor controls. Apple even added some new tricks to make them more distinctive, including skin detection for auto-pause/play, MagSafe charging, and recently launched iOS 15 features such as Enhanced Find My. Let’s not forget the boost in battery life, either; granted it’s only an hour more, but a win, nonetheless.

You might question whether a pair of $179 wireless earbuds without ANC is worth the investment, especially since the AirPods Pro has been seen on sale for the same price. Well, that’s an argument we’ll be settling over the next few days when breaking down both models. In the meantime, there’s no denying the triumph that is the AirPods 3.

Alex Bracetti

A lifestyle journalist with an affinity for consumer products, Alex has over a decade of experience and has worked with popular publications such as Complex, Thrillist, Men’s Health, Gear Patrol, AskMen, and Hoop Magazine. He currently focuses on audio, reviewing the most coveted headphones in the market for both Tom’s Guide and Laptop Magazine.

  • nishanloshan
    It's pretty good compared to AirPods 2 and they have added IPX4 water-resistant which makes it an all-rounder.
    Reply