When it comes to wireless in-ear headphones, nothing made a debut as spectacular as Apple’s AirPods. The small, white earbuds were announced in September 2016 and from the moment they went on sale a few months later, they proved a huge success. Demand outstripped supply for years, they were so popular.
The second generation followed in 2019 – identical in design but with improved call time and the option for charging the case wirelessly. Oh, and the facility to invoke the voice assistant Siri hands-free.
But it’s only now that the third-generation AirPods have been launched, with new features, improved audio, longer battery life and a distinctive new look. Oh, and a small price drop into the bargain.
The AirPods 3 – as Apple is resolutely not calling them, though many regular people are – look more like the premium AirPods pro (£239, Apple.com), but they lack some of the features of the pricier headphones such as noise-cancelling.
We’ve been testing the new AirPods, listening to the sound quality, how well the new features work, making sure the battery life is as advertised and checking out how well they fit. We also wanted to see how good the call quality is, as well as looking at build quality and value for money.
The first thing to say about the new AirPods is you can have any colour you like, so long as it’s white.
Like the first and second-generation models as well as AirPods pro, Apple only makes its true-wireless earbuds in one colour. The familiar gloss-white plastic finish from the original is as gleaming and recognisable as ever, both for the earbuds and the case – which only comes in a wireless-chargeable option for the third-generation model. What’s more, it has MagSafe compatibility. This means there are magnets in the case so that if you charge the case on a MagSafe charging pad, it’ll snap into place and stay attached. This is a neat addition.
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The shape of the case is wider than before, more like the rectangular shape of the AirPods pro case. That’s partly because of the new design of the buds themselves, which now have a noticeably shorter stem than previous AirPods. The earpiece itself has also been redesigned so it’s rounder.
Both these changes also mean that the new AirPods look more like AirPods pro. So much so that when you’re wearing them, many people won’t know which you have.
The rounder earpiece may mean that it will be too big for a comfortable fit in smaller ears. If you found the original AirPods a bit loose in your ears, though, these may fit better. Although the earpiece is more like the pro’s, these headphones don’t have silicone ear tips, so sound isolation is less perfect.
The design has also changed how you use the AirPods. Earlier versions allowed you to change track, for instance, by tapping, while the pro version had a flat-edged stem that responded better to a squeeze. These headphones, and you’ll be spotting a trend by now, work much like the latter.
There’s also water-resistance (and IPX4 rating) which means you can be comfortable knowing they’ll be fine to work out in. The skin detection sensor, which means AirPods know if they’re in your ear or not and pause the music automatically when they’re not, has also been improved.
Apple has said that this generation of AirPods have a new driver and custom high-dynamic range amplifier. Which wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t sound great. But they do.
While they don’t beat the pricier AirPods pro, because of their lack both of noise-cancelling capabilities and noise isolation from ear tips, there is real quality here. Easily as good as comparatively priced earbuds.
Vocals are crisp and well-defined, bass is definitely there but doesn’t dominate, and mid-tones are strongly present and defined. Regular tracks sound good, better than the second-generation AirPods, but the music really comes alive with spatial audio.
The earbuds are capable of features like spatial audio with dynamic head tracking. Spatial audio means that with the right music or soundtrack, a more immersive effect is created, a feature previously restricted to AirPods pro and the over-ear AirPods Max (£549, Apple.com). It works brilliantly here, adding a great true-to-life sound.
Dynamic head tracking is especially good if you’re watching a video on an iPad, say. As you turn your head, the AirPods adjust the audio so it still sounds like it’s locked to the iPad. This may sound like nothing but it makes for a much more natural feeling. And it’s very effective: the first time we tried it, we had to take our AirPods out to make sure we really had connected them and weren’t listening through the iPad speaker, it was that directional.
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Adaptive EQ is another feature new to regular AirPods, though found on AirPods pro. It is designed to tune the audio output to suit your ears, using inward-facing microphones to adjust the output according to your ear shape.
AirPods have always been easy to set up and use. Where Bluetooth headphones that came before had always been a pain to set up. With AirPods it’s always been simple: open the case next to an iPhone or iPad, for instance, and the new AirPods appear onscreen and… that’s it, they’re paired. Additionally, if you switch from your iPhone to listening on a Mac, say, the AirPods know and switch seamlessly.
Read more: Are the AirPods pro earbuds really worth buying over the original Airpods?
They also work with the “find my” app on the iPhone, so if you can’t find them, you can locate them through the app (even making the earbuds sound a noise to help). AirPods do work with Android phones, but there’s nowhere near the same level of simple connectivity.
Not only do the latest AirPods have better battery life than their predecessors, but better than the premium AirPods pro as well. You can listen for six hours or talk for four hours. Sound quality for phone calls, by the way, is also very good.
The last AirPods cost £159 in a regular charging case, or £199 in a case that was chargeable wirelessly. Since the case for the new AirPods has wireless charging, you might expect a similar price. But in fact, at £169, it’s significantly less.
The basic second-generation AirPods are still on sale but at a much reduced price of £119 (Apple.com), while AirPods pro have also dropped slightly, to £239 (Apple.com). Overall, Apple’s pricing is very strong for all its models, but especially this new third-generation pair.
The new AirPods 3rd generation are a very big step up from the second-generation model. The improved audio is noticeable, especially with spatial audio and the new shape. Though these won’t be perfect for everyone, it has a tight and effective fit. Add in the extra features and ease of use which Apple’s earbuds offer and these are very appealing.
AirPods pro sound that bit better, thanks to noise-cancelling, and the second-generation AirPods are amazing value. But the new third-generation AirPods offer the perfect balance of audio quality, features and great pricing.
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Unsure whether these are for you? Read our review of the best wireless earbuds for more advice