Apple AirPods (3rd generation) review
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Apple AirPods (3rd generation) review

30/04/2022  |   83 Views

When you think of true wireless earbuds, the image that comes to mind for most is the Apple AirPods. While this is far and away the best-selling pair of earphones of the last 20 years, its popularity can be a double-edged sword for new consumers. Many assume popularity implies quality or status, but that’s not necessarily true. Should you pay the premium for the latest model, or should you explore other options? Well, it’s complicated.

Editor’s note: this review was updated on February 18, 2022, to address an FAQ, to add a section that compares the AirPods (3rd generation) to the Sony LinkBuds WF-L900, and to update the mic demos to our standardized samples.

Who is the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) for?

What is the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) like?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a more rounded speaker element opening meaning a better fit in your outer ear—and a worse fit at the ear canal opening.

If you attempted to blend the AirPods (2019) and AirPods Pro together, the end product would probably look something like the AirPods (3rd generation). The earbuds look almost identical to the AirPods Pro, with shorter stems that are less likely to catch on masks, though the latest buds retain the tip-less design. By now we’re all very familiar with the iconic glossy white design (and no, to our and Bruce Wayne’s discontent, the earbuds are still not available in black), and nothing here really shakes that up.

See also: Apple AirPods (2nd generation) vs AirPods (3rd generation)

The charging case also feels like a step between the AirPods Pro and the smaller the AirPods (2019) case, with a wider, but still small design. The earbuds magnetically fit into place, and the case snaps shut with a resounding click. Just like its predecessors, the AirPods (3rd generation) is one of the most portable and pocketable true wireless earbuds around.

The new case diverges from previous generations’ cases, more closely mirroring that of the AirPods Pro.

An under-the-radar, but appreciated addition to the new AirPods is a skin-detect sensor, which replaces the optical sensor of older AirPods models. It handles auto-pause/play pretty much the same, but now you can take the earbuds out of your ears and put them in your pocket without resuming playback.

Unfortunately, the AirPods (3rd generation) still takes a one-size-fits-all approach to design. The lack of ear tips will leave many users unable to attain a secure fit, leading to comfort issues and a complete lack of isolation (more on that later).

Sweat and water resistance means finally using AirPods at the gym without worrying about damage. The IPX4 rating allows the AirPods (3rd generation) to handle light splashes of water, but there’s still no water submersion or dust protection, so these aren’t the earbuds for adventure enthusiasts.

How do you control the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

To take advantage of automatic ear detection, you need an iPhone or iPad.

To take control of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation), you have to interact with the force sensor on either earbud’s stem. An oblong divot demarcates the sensor from the non-touch-sensitive part of the stem, so you won’t find yourself randomly tapping to no avail. You can see the touch controls listed below:

Action (stems)Either earbud
One tapPlay/pause
Two tapsSkip forward
Three tapsPrevious track
Press and holdSiri
"Hey Siri"Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more

Unlike the Apple AirPods Pro, the third-generation AirPods lacks Transparency mode to amplify external noise through the headset. This omission makes sense, seeing how you can’t get a seal with the AirPods (3rd generation). You can use the Settings app to choose which AirPods stem you’d like to use for Siri.

Is there an app for the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a slightly angled design that supposedly makes for a more comfortable fit.

The iOS and iPadOS Settings app is the only app that’s officially compatible with any AirPods variant. In other words, only those who own Apple hardware can access things like firmware updates and more premium features like hands-free Siri access and Spatial Audio.

Through the Apple Settings app, you can name your AirPods, choose what happens when you press the force sensor on either earbud stem, and toggle automatic ear detection on or off (on by default). With automatic ear detection on, media pauses and resumes when you remove and insert an earbud. When you remove both buds, playback stops altogether and doesn’t resume when reinserted.

You can also use the app to choose which microphone the AirPods uses during phone calls and to address Siri (left, right, or automatic). Find My AirPods is another Apple-exclusive feature that can even help identify a single lost AirPods earbud.

How does Spatial Audio work on the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

On iOS 15.1, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) takes Spatial Audio to new levels. Beyond surround sound for tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos in Apple Music, the earbuds can now convert any audio source to surround sound via Spatialize Stereo. In most cases, the regular stereo mix will sound better than with the Spatialize Stereo effects on top.

However, there is one case where the Spatialize Stereo effect is particularly useful: music that has only ever been mixed in mono. Turning on the Spatialize Stereo effect allows you to hear these tracks for the first time in stereo (sort of). The science still isn’t perfect, and we prefer a professional audio engineer’s work over Apple’s algorithm, but it is fun to hear your favorite classics in a new way.

Read more: Spatial Audio and surround sound explained

Alongside Spatialize Stereo is the option to use another surround effect that Apple calls Head Tracked, which uses onboard accelerometers to track your head motion. Turn your head to the left, and the AirPods pan the audio to your right earbud, giving the effect of the music staying in one place. It essentially creates a virtual stage in front of you, making the listening experience much closer to being present at an actual live performance.

How do you connect the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) to your phone?

When you flip open the lid for the first time, the AirPods will automatically begin the pairing process with an iPhone or iPad.

Pairing the AirPods to an Apple device is as simple as ever. Just pop open the lid and tap “Connect” on the pop-up widget and you’re connected via Bluetooth 5.0. The H1 chip syncs the earbuds to your iCloud account for seamless switching from your iPhone to your Macbook or iPad.

Read more: Spatial Audio and surround sound explained

If you decide to use the AirPods with an Android phone, you’ll have to manually pair the earbuds to your device. Open the case, press the pairing button on the back, and hold the case near your phone until the AirPods appear in your list of available Bluetooth devices.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) review

As with previous AirPods models, the AirPods (3rd generation) only has Bluetooth codec support for AAC and SBC. While AAC performs well enough on iPhones, it just doesn’t cut it for some Android devices (depending on their hardware). AAC connection quality on Android will vary depending on your device, so you may have to force standard SBC streaming instead. That’s an annoying pill to swallow when there are many cheaper earbuds with high-quality Bluetooth codecs such as aptX.

How long does the battery last?

Battery life has received a noticeable increase with each new version of the AirPods. In our objective testing of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation), the earbuds lasted 6 hours and 21 minutes on a single charge. That’s a noticeable improvement over the 4 hours and 7 minutes the previous-gen AirPods lasted in our testing, as well as the AirPods Pro which barely lasted over 5 hours (albeit with noise cancelling turned on).

The compact case easily fits in a small pocket or pouch.

An optimized battery charging mode learns your daily charging routine, so the AirPods don’t charge past 80% until you need to use it. This will help preserve the lifespan of the AirPods, but keep in mind that true wireless earbuds aren’t built to last. With every charge cycle, the total battery capacity declines, so you likely won’t get more than a couple of years of daily use from these earbuds.

MagSafe and wireless charging provide new ways to power up the charging case, but it’s yet another thing to buy—the MagSafe charging mat doesn’t come with the third-generation AirPods. Apple still hasn’t fully committed to USB-C, so you’re stuck with a Lightning cable for wired charging. The case provides an additional four charges to the earbuds, for over 30 hours of total listening time. Fast charging also provides a full 60 minutes of battery life from only five minutes of charging in the case.

How well does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) block out noise?

Save for some high-end attenuation, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) doesn’t really block outside noise well at all.

The AirPods (3rd generation) does virtually nothing to block out background noise. While Apple redrew the silhouette of its third-generation AirPods, the company retained the unsealed fit. Sure, an unsealed ear has its place when you’re running outside or careening through busy city streets and want to hear everything going on around you. However, this open-fit design will negatively impact how your music sounds, if you’re lucky enough to get the earbuds to stay in place.

Typically, earbuds include rubberized ear tips that seal to the ear and yield some degree of passive isolation. With sealed earbuds, you might see some attenuation of sounds below 1kHz, but the AirPods (3rd generation) does no such thing. Since external noise can still make its way to your ear canals, you’ll run into auditory masking—when a loud sound (external noise) makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet sound (your music). Not only is this bad for sound quality, but you may feel compelled to increase the volume to drown out your surroundings, which could cause noise-induced hearing loss.

How does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) sound?

The earbuds have bass reflex ports on the top edge. If you force the main nozzle output into the ear canal you don’t get the low-end contribution from the rear port.

Yes, this chart looks bad—and it is in some respects—but in practice, the reality isn’t so grim. For those of you not familiar with frequency response plots, this shows that the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) (cyan) sticks to our target (pink) fairly well outside of the highest highs and the lowest parts of the bass range.

Bass always sucks with unsealed earphones, and Apple’s AirPods (3rd generation) are not immune to this.

Normally this would be where we tell you that these earphones suffer from a bad fit. That’s partially true, but Apple leaned into the “poor fit” angle and designed less for “earphones” than they did for “small speakers that rest in your ear.” In this way, the frequency response is impressive, even if it’s damned near impossible to get a measurement that looks good. Truth be told, you likely won’t notice a huge change in your music with that dropoff below 50Hz—and to continue with the speaker example, you’d often need a dedicated sub to reach down below 50Hz.

To demonstrate what we mean, play this comparison on the best headphones or speakers you own. We’ve edited some music to demonstrate how a rolloff this severe sounds at 50Hz.

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