AirPods 3 Review — New Best Buds?

The AirPods 3 look like the AirPods Pro. Same oblong buds and shorter, more angled stems, with a virtual force sensor button for media control. But there are some critical differences: No silicon tips, for people who find that annoying or downright painful. Also, spatial audio for a truly immersive experience, but no active noise canceling. Adaptive EQ, which constantly corrects the audio based on how exactly the bud is sitting or moving in your ear, but no Transparency mode. Much better Find My, if you lose a pod, longer battery life, MagSafe and sweat and water resistance in the case, and so much more functionality thanks to years of AudioOS updates, that they’re not just a whole entire 3D sound stage in our ears — they’re basically external cybernetics. If only they weren’t so annoying sometimes. Let me explain!

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So, yeah, AirPods 3 look like the lovechild of AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro. Which I think is great. Same iconic style but edgier design. And most importantly, it leaves an option for people who don’t like anything literally in their ear, because it’s uncomfortable or hurts. I mean, I’m the opposite, my ears have been mangled by a decade of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so I needs those silicon tips for them to have even a chance of staying in, but that’s literally why options are so important.

Except for the double tap. Switching the the force sensor for media control is way, way better, simply because it no longer feels like I’m combo smacking myself in the brain anymore every time I want to skip a track.

I’m still missing colors though. Consumer end of iPod, iPhone, iPad, even Mac and HomePod mini now have colors. AirPods, only the high-end Max. I get it, white’s iconic, it’s the gloss that launched a million iTunes ads, but I’d still love to see the full range of Apple-chromatics here.

Setup is as easy as ever, which is great. Add it to your iPhone and iCloud propagates it to all your other devices. Only issue is, ever since Apple added auto-switching, a lot of us have experienced something way more like rando switching.

I’m on a live stream on my Mac, listening, talking, a message comes in, and all of a sudden I’m being torn between worlds. Guessing user intent is tough, no question, but active audio streams should just never, not ever be interrupted. It even puts a huge, persistent block up on the Apple TV now. It just… needs a lot of refinement still.

I’m with Apple on Spatial Audio though. It’s the future. But where the AirPods Pro make the 3D Sound stage feel like it’s in your head, because in your ears, and AirPods Max make it feel like it’s all around you, like a theater, because over your ears, AirPods 3 are somewhere in between, because open backed. It’s not as claustrophobic or as lonely. And I really dig it.

The dynamic head tracking part is cool too! It lets you treat your iPhone or iPod or Apple TV as a static speaker, and walk around without that audio following your headphones, but rather staying locked to that speaker. Like it would in real life. And it’s especially cool with the new FaceTime group call feature, because people sound like where they are. It’s almost freaky. But normal. But freaky!

No active noise canceling, transparency mode, or conversation boost, which all require the more multiple and more expensive components of the Pro or Max. And I really like them for travel, work, and working out. But again, the openess of the AirPods 3 is still compelling, especially if you don’t need those features.

The new, inset Mic is pretty good, especially paired with new AAC-ELD codec for better HD voice. I’m not going to VO any videos with them, except in a pinch, but for calls, they work more than well enough.

And the whole system sounds great. Again, I’m that monster that listens to podcasts on phone speakers, not the audiophile who won’t get out their music app for any headphones under 10K, but they’ve got a good mix of fairly booming base and crisp highs, chocolate overtones with just a hint of nut and fruit. Oh, sorry, that’s the coffee. I’ll link up some hard core audio reviews from El Jeffe, TLD, and the like as soon as they hit. But these sound better than AirPods 2, if not as good as AirPods Pro to me, which totally tracks.

You get up to 6 hours of battery life per bud now, up by 1 hour. 30 hours with the case. And you can charge to 1 hour of listening time in 5 min if you get stuck. I typically rock one bud at a time, because mono podcasts and audio books, so I can go for days.

And both the pods and the case are IPX4, which means no dust, but water and sweat resistant. Yeah, including the case. So don’t swim or dive with them, but if they get rained on or splashed and you wipe them off after, they should still be good to go.

What continues to blow my mind though, is the beyond music stuff. The ambient computing. The stuff we’ve all wanted since Star Trek or just Tony Stark.

It’s getting directions, workout metrics, notification announcements, and being able to ask for pretty much everything and anything now, that really make AirPods feel like external cybernetics.

I mean, clocks went from the town square to the living room to the pocket to the wrist and then stopped. Computers have now gone from mainframes to desktops to our hands, wrists, and now they’re taking over our heads.

While we’re all waiting for AR glasses, we have AR headers here, now, today, already. And it’s increasingly amazing.

Plus, I all caps love how Apple keeps introducing new features to the top of the line, paying them down, and then pushing them down to the entry level. Now, the base model AirPods have the Pro design, a magnetic inductive charging case, spatial audio, and dynamic IQ, all for $179, which sounds like a lot, but packs in more technology than ever. And if that’s just too much for you, Apple’s keeping around the OG AirPods 2 for $129. They don’t have all the features but they don’t cost all the money. And they work. So, if you’ve been waiting, you’ll get the same for less money or even more for the same money.

Now, if you already have AirPods, should you upgrade? If what you have still works well for you, has the features and battery life you need, then no. But if you want the new look, or the Pro look without the Pro tips, or the new features, even a new, longer battery, then yeah.

Bottom line, these are the new baseline iPhone buds to beat. And they make for one hell of a force multiplier for all your other Apple gear.