Review: Apple AirPods 3 almost a Pro product for little more than a lite price

Apple promises better performance with its third generation, so do they deliver?
Apple promises better performance with its third generation, so do they deliver? Photo credit: Newshub

As I've gotten older I've come to be a little more discerning in my choice of headphones as I seek the best for the smallest possible outlay.

I'm Scottish, so my thriftiness is practically a genetic disorder, but what I'm not willing to compromise on is performance and quality. I'd happily wear two giant phalluses on my head if they allowed me to feel every slap of the bass and hear parts of songs I've never been able to isolate before. 

Thankfully that's not necessary with the prevalence of small, top-end earbuds over the last few years and Apple's long-awaited AirPods 3 can now be added to the list.

The next generation of the tech giant's most basic earphones were announced during its 'Unleashed' event earlier this month. Most of the hype afterwards surrounded the release of the new MacBook Pro laptops, designed for professionals that are willing to pay big money for super-quick performance.

But the new AirPods, while not the most exciting, may well end up having a bigger impact on many more people.

So have they ended up stealing the show or should those wanting a new set of good-quality earbuds look elsewhere?

I've been using the AirPods 3 for about a week and here are my thoughts.

The good

The moment you open the box housing Apple's new AirPods it's clear they're more akin to the previous Pro version than the standard AirPods 2.

The case is a similar shape and size, the form of the earbuds themselves is similar; it's clear the company is setting expectations that the overall performance will be a big step-up too.

Now all they have to do is match that anticipation. Which, largely, they do.

The stems are significantly shorter than the AirPods 2 and not only does that allow a more natural fit in the ear, it makes them feel much more balanced.

Apple's AirPod line-up
Photo credit: Newshub

I had problems running with the older pods, particularly with my right ear for some reason. It was always falling out, meaning I had to stop exercising to make sure I didn't lose it.

Over an extended run on hard ground I had zero issues with the new earbuds, despite the lack of soft tips that would allow an even greater fit.

Auckland's four seasons in one day also afforded me the chance to test out the new IPX4 water resistance, which protects them from sweat and splashing water, no matter what direction it comes from.

Within minutes of my run starting the rain was lashing and I just carried on, comfortable in the knowledge they would stand up to whatever type of moisture hit them.

The sound is equally as impressive.

I was able to do a head-to-head with three different AirPods: The previous generation, the new ones and the Pros. Hearing them alongside each other, the audio quality of the third generation standard model is much closer to that of the Pro.

It's hard to get a perfect comparison because of the Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) in the Pros but the new dynamic driver really suits my preference for big bass and a very clean sound.

Apple has also added an adaptive equaliser which automatically tunes music to your ears. The inward-facing microphones detect what you're hearing, then adjust low- and mid-range frequencies in real time.

That's hard to test in the fairly static environment of a lockdown house, but I had zero complaints about the endless stream of hard rock pumping into my ears, background noise excepted.

That impressive sound is helped by the addition of Spatial Audio to the AirPods 3. I've quickly fallen in love with the effect, a few songs notwithstanding, and the dynamic head tracking is something to look forward to if you haven't experienced it yet.

I love spinning on my chair and hearing Eddie Vedder's growl move from one ear to the other as he belts out 'Even Flow'.

Apple's AirPod 3s
Photo credit: Newshub

It sounds even better with the right choice of classical music. Max Richter's rich, orchestral sound really gets a new dimension as the strings flow around you.

I was also pleased with the increased battery life. My daughter has a pair of AirPods 2 and the battery life has reduced to the point where she can barely make it through a walk without needing a recharge.

That should take much longer to happen this time around. At full capacity, the AirPods 3 will deliver around 6 hours of listening, an hour more than previously.

The case has enough juice to recharge them another four times, so that's a total of around 30 hours of listening time before you'd need to plug it in. Also, a five-minute charge should be enough for an hour of listening.

Even charging has become simpler this time around - Apple is catching up with rivals by offering Qi-certified wireless charger support along with MagSafe charging. I wouldn't fork out extra for one of those just for these earbuds, but if you're already got one it's an added bonus.

One of the things I liked least about the AirPods 2 was the tapping motion required to play and pause the music. Not having any kind of haptic feedback often meant I repeated taps or them simply not being recognised.

The new forced sensor means you feel the actual click, so you know your action is going to take place - again much like that in the AirPods Pro.

It's another big and positive step forward.

The bad

I don't know if it's entirely fair to label either of my major complaints about the AirPods 3 as 'bad', but they aren't perfect.

When it comes to overall performance, the missing ANC and no flexible tips unquestionably make a difference, meaning the AirPods Pro are still a better product.

There's a lot of trucks that drive through Helensville and the surrounding roads and it's not uncommon for me to run past dozens during my morning exercise.

With my AirPods Pro on, the disruption is minimised; I don't miss a beat of a song or a spoken word of a podcast as they thunder past.

The same is not true of the AirPods 3. In fact, I'd say I was so acutely aware of the background noise leaking in that it actually impaired my running slightly. My mind just wasn't allowed to wander.

If you're used to ANC then you're going to have to weigh that up against the better form and performance of the newer pods.

The tips are more of a nice to have, because I found the AirPods 3 fitted me much better than the last generation.

But that doesn't mean the same is true for everyone and the hard plastic may not be quite the right shape for your ears. In that case, I'm afraid, you're going to have to fork out a little more if you're set on Apple, or look at the offerings of a different company.

Apple's AirPod 3s
Photo credit: Newshub

One major thing all of Apple's earbuds are still missing, however, is volume control on the stem. 

You can press the sensor once to play, pause or answer calls, twice to skip forward, three times to skip back, or hold it to talk to Siri.

But why can't I define what I want the buttons to do? I carefully curate my playlists so I honestly can't recall the last time I skipped forward or backwards - and there's no way I'm trying to get enough breath to ask Siri to turn the song up.

Competitor products from the likes of Oppo and Huawei rightfully offer volume control on their stems as default, and many allow you to programme what you want the touch controls to do. Apple could learn from this.

Having to reach for my phone or watch to adjust the volume in the midst of exercise is a pain, and if it's not addressed in the next generation of AirPods then I shall complain loudly in the most techy way I can think of.

That will involve tweeting in capital letters to the ether, offering some sad noises of disappointment and then buying them anyway. Probably.

The verdict

By pricing the new AirPods 3 midway between the older generation AirPods 2 selling for $239 and the AirPods Pro selling for $449, Apple is giving consumers a wider choice and catering to more budgets.

It's also likely an attempt to get people people to spend more, I think, as there's some real added value with the newest iteration that is unquestionably worth the extra $90 above the AirPods 2.

Whether it's the more ergonomic design, the addition of Spatial Audio or even wireless charging, there's something for everyone.

Apple's AirPod 3s
Photo credit: Newshub

However, when I talk about value, it has to be seen through the lens of Apple being a premium brand.

While $329 isn't overly expensive for high quality earbuds, there are other decent brands out there that will offer ANC for the same or even slightly cheaper, if that's your biggest consideration.

What you get with Apple, though, is the complete package, particularly if you're already using its products.

The ease of use and switching between devices is industry-leading and, were I slightly less of an audio snob, then I would happily wear these every day of the week - I missed the noise cancellation more than I thought I would. 

But for great quality audio in earbuds at a competitive price, you'll be happy with the AirPods 3.


Newshub was supplied with a set of AirPods 3 for this review.