Should You Buy AirPods 3?
The third-generation AirPods are Apple's main wireless earbuds, featuring a streamlined design, force sensor controls, Adaptive EQ, spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, a MagSafe charging case, and more. Released in October 2021, the third-generation AirPods have been in Apple's product lineup for over a year, but the AirPods are not updated very often.
Prior updates have happened in December 2016, March 2019, and October 2021, which means we get a new version approximately every two and a half years. We are getting closer to when the next update might come, and rumors indicate Apple could release a new case with a USB-C charging port in 2023. Aside from the new case, additional features have not been rumored, which means now is still a good time to buy AirPods unless you really want a USB-C charging port. If that's the case, it may be best to wait for an update.
With a $179 price tag, AirPods can be more expensive than some of its direct competitors, but it's important to note that the H1 chips inside the AirPods offer a seamless and fully integrated pairing and device-switching experience for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV users, which competitors are unable to match. The H1 chip also enables features like Adaptive EQ and spatial audio with dynamic head tracking. This means that when used with Apple devices, AirPods seem to be the best option for earbuds when it comes to features.
If you are looking for AirPods with more to offer like in-ear silicone tips and Active Noise Cancellation, there are the AirPods Pro which start at $249. For an even higher fidelity AirPods experience and an over-ear design, there are the AirPods Max which start at $549. On the other hand, if you feel that the third-generation AirPods are too expensive, but you would still like Apple's seamless pairing and device-switching experience, the second-generation AirPods or Beats headphones are also viable options, with prices starting from as little as $69 for Beats Flex.
To get MacRumors readers the best prices on the AirPods Pro, we have a dedicated AirPods Pro deals guide that highlights the best sales each month.
Apple's Third-Generation AirPods
Apple in October 2021 unveiled the third-generation AirPods, which feature the first design change to the AirPods since their 2016 introduction.
The third-generation AirPods adopt an AirPods-Pro style look with shorter stems and a more contoured design that's designed to better fit most ears. Apple says the AirPods have been created to sit at "just the right angle for comfort."
To provide improved sound, Apple is using the H1 chip to provide an Adaptive EQ feature powered by computational audio. With Adaptive EQ, a microphone monitors for sound and then tunes low and mid frequencies so each user will get the best audio for their ear size and shape.
A custom driver and high dynamic range amplifier work together to bring powerful bass along with clean high frequencies, and the microphones are protected with an acoustic mesh to cut down on wind sounds.
The AirPods support AAC-ELD, a speech codec that brings full HD voice quality for FaceTime calls. Beamforming microphones also block out ambient noise and focus on the user's voice during calls and for Siri commands.
There's a force sensor built into the stem of the AirPods for physical control over media playback and Siri activation. The AirPods are resistant to sweat and water with an IPX4 rating, and the AirPods charging case is water resistant too.
Along with Adaptive EQ, the AirPods support spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, just like Apple's more expensive AirPods Pro and AirPods Max headphones. There's a new skin-detect sensor that can tell if the AirPods are in the ear or in a pocket, and playback is paused when they're removed.
AirPods have all of the same "magic" setup and use features with one-touch pairing, quick device switching, and audio sharing support.
Battery life has been significantly improved and the third-generation AirPods offer six hours of listening time or four hours of talk time on a single charge. A fast charge feature provides an hour of battery life with five minutes of charging.
The AirPods case has been redesigned too, and it's wider and less tall than before. It includes MagSafe support for automatic alignment with MagSafe accessories, and the case offers four additional AirPods charges for up to 30 hours of total listening time.
Though the AirPods have a Pro-like design, there is no support for Active Noise Cancellation in order to keep costs low.
AirPods are priced at $179, a price tag that includes the two earbuds and the magnetic charging case. Apple is selling the AirPods alongside the $129 second-generation AirPods and the $249 AirPods Pro.
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How to Buy
Reviews of the AirPods 3 have been largely positive, with users praising the improved fit that cuts down on outside noise and helps the AirPods to better stay in the ears. Weight distribution is better in the ear because of the updated angle, and many people have found them to be much more comfortable.
Gizmodo reviewer Andrew Liszweski said that the AirPods 3 "look and feel almost identical" to the AirPods Pro, just minus the silicone tips. They're also a little bit smaller.
Reviewers also highlighted the Force Touch stems that were already present on the first-generation AirPods Pro, noting that the Force Touch feature is a nice improvement for control input, but that there's still no physical volume control option, a feature that has since been added in the second-generation AirPods Pro.
The Verge's Chris Welch said that the new AirPods shape works better, and that while ambient sound is still audible, the closer fit cuts out some of the outside noise.
They're staying put so well that I no longer feel the same anxiety about them tumbling onto the ground and down a sewer grate. That worry was always present with the older AirPods. The healthy dose of ambient sound remains, and I'm just someone who prefers earbuds that offer some quiet from the outside world.
Gizmodo's Andrew Liszweski also said that the AirPods 3 had a better fit in the ear. The AirPods 3 are "ever so slightly heavier" than the original, but the shorter stem and the more streamlined design orients the main speaker "at a better angle feels like it offers better weight distribution."
TechCrunch's Brian Heater said that the AirPods 3 are "unquestionably" more comfortable than older AirPods, but the AirPods Pro are still better.
The more contoured third-generation buds are unquestionably more comfortable than their predecessors, but the gulf between them and the Pros feels like night and day. That's likely to be even more the case for people with smaller ears -- having different-sized, removable tips is a lifesaver for some. The seal those tips provide also create passive noise canceling through a physical seal that effectively keeps in more audio frequencies and blocks out ambient noise.
Pocket-lint's Britta O'Boyle found the AirPods 3 to be too big for her ears, and said that they do fall out of her ears occasionally.
Apple told The Verge that it aimed to give the AirPods 3 the same sound profile as the AirPods Pro. The Verge reviewer Chris Welch said that the AirPods Pro do indeed sound similar to the AirPods 3, and compared to the AirPods 2, they're "fuller." There's no "striking difference" between the AirPods 2 and AirPods 3, but among other earbuds with a similar design, Welch says the AirPods are "up there with the best."
Other reviewers expressed similar sentiments about the sound. Gizmodo's Andrew Liszweski said that the AirPods 3 don't sound better than the original AirPods Pro, but they're a definite improvement over the prior-generation AirPods. "I'm legitimately surprised at how good they do sound," he wrote.
The separation between high and low frequencies isn't as pronounced and distinct as it is with the AirPods Pro and other wireless earbuds that use silicone tips--sometimes the highs get a little lost if bass notes are really thumping in a track--but the new AirPods' sound quality is a huge improvement, and because they're so comfortable to wear, I keep choosing them over my AirPods Pro for most of my daily listening.
Engadget's Billy Steele said that the AirPods sound "so much better" than prior models.
I don't want to mince words here: the new AirPods sound so much better than the previous two versions. Like almost night and day better. Apple didn't make any significant changes to sound quality from the first model to the 2019 version. But for gen three, Apple paired a custom driver with a high-dynamic-range amplifier to improve the audio chops. The company says that the duo work together to produce "rich consistent bass" and "crisp, clean" highs. From the moment I fired up the first song, this was all immediately evident. I don't think I've ever audibly said "woah" with the first note from a guitar on any review unit, but given how average older AirPods sound, it was involuntary this time.
Steele highlighted the Adaptive EQ feature of the AirPods, which customize the sound to the individual ear. The feature and other sound quality updates make the AirPods something he "actually wanted to listen to music with" rather than a listening device to choose just because they're more convenient than other earbud options.
He also tested call quality, and he said that FaceTime calls are "crisp and clear." Phone calls are better, but not to the same degree as FaceTime calls.
Apple added a MagSafe Charging Case to the AirPods 3, and according to reviewers, the case works identically to MagSafe iPhones, attaching with the same alignment to magnetic chargers. There's no reverse wireless charging, though, and Apple told The Verge that the MagSafe Case was intentionally designed so that it can't magnetically latch to iPhones to avoid confusing people.
Pocket-lint's Britta O'Doyle said that in her testing, the battery life of the AirPods listed by Apple was "conservative." Apple says that the AirPods will last for up to six hours, but she got "more listening than promised." The first-generation AirPods Pro lasted for 4.5 hours of talk time (Apple says 4), and 5.5 hours with Spatial Audio enabled (Apple says 5).
Overall, reviews of the AirPods 3 were highly positive. Reviewers like the new design, which is more comfortable and offers a tighter and more secure fit in the ears, and the improved fit also makes the sound quality better than before.
All of the great AirPods features like quick pairing and easy device switching are present, plus Apple has added Spatial Audio and Adaptive EQ to boost them even further. Reviews lauded the new IPX4 water and sweat resistance rating, and were satisfied with the battery life.
On the downside, some reviewers still missed the silicone tips and the Active Noise Cancellation feature available in the AirPods Pro, but it's clear that these new AirPods are worth checking out, especially at the $179 price point.
With the AirPods 3, Apple introduced the first new design for the wire-free earbuds since their 2016 debut. The AirPods have shorter stems like the AirPods Pro, and a new, contoured earpiece.
Apple says that the AirPods have been designed to be lightweight and to sit at just the right angle in the ear for comfort and the best audio experience. Unlike the AirPods Pro, the AirPods do not have silicone tips and are instead tipless like the original AirPods.
The shorter stem of the AirPods gives them a more subtle look in the ears, similar to the AirPods Pro. There is a mesh material covering the earpiece, and a mesh-covered cutout for breathability.
As with prior AirPods, the new model is made from a white plastic material with a small bit of silver at the base, along with L and R labeling.
The new AirPods measure in at 1.21 inches tall, 0.72 inches wide, and 0.76 inches deep, compared to 1.59 inches tall, 0.65 inches wide, and 0.71 inches deep for the prior-generation model. They're just about the same length as the AirPods Pro, but aren't quite as wide.
The AirPods 3 have an IPX4 water resistance rating and are able to hold up to sweat and light rain, but they should not be submerged or subjected to heavy amounts of liquid. The MagSafe Charging Case has the same IPX4 water resistance rating.
Apple's warranty does not cover liquid damage, so it's always best to use caution around water and other substances.
There is a force sensor built into the stem of the AirPods, which is also an AirPods Pro feature. With the force sensor, a single press, double press, or triple press can be used for media playback.
A single press will play or pause audio, a double press will skip forward, and a triple press will skip backward. Pressing on the AirPods stem can answer an incoming call, and hanging up can be done with a double press. A press and hold activates Siri.
The AirPods are equipped with a custom high-excursion driver and a high dynamic range amplifier that work together to deliver powerful bass with clean high frequencies. Apple also uses these technologies in the AirPods Pro.
Dual beamforming mesh-covered microphones cut down on the sound of the wind and ambient noise to ensure your voice sounds clear to the person on the other end of the call, and support for AAC-ELD offers full HD voice quality for FaceTime calls.
The AirPods 3 are equipped with the same H1 chip that's been used in prior-generation versions of the AirPods. The H1 chip powers one-touch pairing with Apple devices and quick device switching, plus it supports features like Audio Sharing so two pairs of AirPods can be connected to an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Apple TV.
Quick device switching works on all devices that are signed into the same iCloud account, and with automatic device switching enabled, the AirPods will automatically switch between iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch as you use them with no need to access Bluetooth controls to swap devices.
Apple's H1 chip also boosts the Bluetooth 5.0 connection with increased range. Many of the AirPods features are limited to Apple devices, but AirPods can be connected to any device over Bluetooth.
Apple added a new skin-detect sensor to the AirPods that's designed to determine whether the AirPods are in the ear versus in a pocket or on a table, with playback pausing when the AirPods are removed from the ear.
To improve sound quality by taking into account the shape of each person's ear, the AirPods are equipped with an Adaptive EQ feature. Adaptive EQ uses computational audio and an internal microphone pointed toward the ear to ensure a good sound profile for every wearer.
Sound is tuned in real time based on the fit of the AirPod in the user's ear, with the AirPods constantly adjusting and tuning the low and mid frequencies to account for what might be lost due to fit differences.
The AirPods 3 join the AirPods Pro and AirPods Pro Max in offering spatial audio featuring Dolby Atmos. Apple Music songs, TV shows, and movies can take advantage of spatial audio and it will sound like the audio is coming from all around you when the feature is enabled for an immersive, theater-like experience.
Dynamic head tracking is also available, which makes music, TV, and even Group FaceTime calls more engaging. Spatial audio algorithms and directional audio filters adjust the frequencies that each ear receives, allowing AirPods to produce sound all around the user.
Spatial audio works with Apple Music and the Apple TV app, but it is also compatible with many third-party apps.
Volume, song changes, calls, and more can be done with Siri using a "Hey Siri" command, which is enabled through the H1 chip. Siri can also announce incoming notifications in iOS 15, and let you know what text messages say when you receive them.
Siri works like it does on any other device, and the voice assistant can answer all manner of questions and perform tasks like adjusting device volume.
Sample Siri Commands
- Play some new music
- Play my "Favorites" playlist
- Skip to the next song
- Turn down the volume
- Turn up the volume
- Call mom
- Pause my music
- What's the battery life of my AirPods?
- What's the temperature outside?
- What's the battery of my AirPods?
MagSafe Charging Case
Apple designed a MagSafe Charging Case to go along with the AirPods 3, and it is able to magnetically align with MagSafe chargers. The Prior AirPods 2 with Wireless charging case already worked with MagSafe Chargers because they use the same Qi protocol as other chargers, but now there is the benefit of magnetic alignment.
In addition to charging with any MagSafe or Qi charger, the MagSafe Charging Case can also be charged up using a Lightning cable.
The MagSafe Charging Case is wider and shorter than the prior AirPods 2 case, though it is not quite as wide as the AirPods Pro case. It measures in at 1.83 inches tall, 2.14 inches wide, and 0.84 inches deep, and it weighs 1.34 ounces. It is rated IPX4 water-resistant.
Both AirPods fit snugly in the case, and an LED on the front lets you know when they're charging. If the light is orange, charging is ongoing, but if it is green, they're fully charged.
When the AirPods are inside the case, the magnetic lid shuts, keeping them in place when the case is in a pocket or a bag. Opening the lid causes the AirPods to connect to an Apple device or initiate pairing.
Battery life has been boosted in the AirPods 3 and the battery is able to last for up to six hours. Battery life drops to five hours with spatial audio enabled, and for talk time, the AirPods last for up to five hours.
The charging case adds another 24 hours of battery life, for a total of 30 hours of listening time. There's also a fast charge feature that provides an hour of listening time with a five minute charge.
Find My Support
The AirPods 3 are part of the Find My network, which leverages hundreds of millions of iPhone, iPad, and Mac devices around the world to find lost items. If your AirPods become lost, you may be able to find them through the Find My network even if they're not close by.
You can also set up Separation Alerts that let you know right away if your AirPods are found.
AirPods can connect to all iOS devices that are capable of running iOS 13 or later, which includes the iPhone 6s, iPhone SE, iPad mini 4, iPad Air 2, 5th-generation iPad, and later.
As for Macs, AirPods are compatible with Macs dating back to 2012, with a list available on Apple's website.
Apple regularly updates the software that runs on the AirPods. The current firmware is version 5E135, released in May 2023.
iOS 17 Features
- Mute and Unmute - Press on the stem of the AirPods Pro (any model) or third-generation AirPods to mute and unmute yourself on a call. On AirPods Max, press on the Digital Crown.
- Dark Mode - When connecting the AirPods to the iPhone, if your iPhone is in Dark Mode, the connection popup will also be in Dark Mode.
AirPods How Tos
- How to Set Up Your New AirPods
- How to Use the Find My AirPods Feature
- Tips and Tricks for Getting the Most Out of Your AirPods
- How to Check AirPods Battery Life on iPhone and Apple Watch
- How to Use AirPods With Your Mac and Customize Controls
- Do AirPods Work Well on Android Devices?
- AirPods Live Listen: Hearing Aid or Spy Tool?
- How to Get Siri to Announce Incoming Messages Over AirPods
- How to Use Audio Sharing on iPhone and iPad
$129 AirPods 2
Apple sells the AirPods 3 alongside the second-generation AirPods, which have become the low-cost AirPods option at $129. The second-generation AirPods feature the older AirPods design.
AirPods 2 do not support spatial audio or Adaptive EQ, and do not have a sweat and water resistance rating. Battery life is lower, and the charging case does not support MagSafe or wireless charging. AirPods 2 are cheaper than the AirPods 3, priced at $129 instead of $179.
As an alternative to the third-generation AirPods, Apple offers the AirPods Pro 2, which are higher-end earbuds with Active Noise Cancellation and silicone ear tips. The AirPods Pro are now on their second generation and are priced at $249, with more information available in our roundup.
What's Next for the AirPods
A future version of the AirPods could include a USB-C connector instead of a Lightning connector, as Apple is rumored to be planning to introduce iPhone 15 models with a USB-C port instead of a Lightning port in 2023. Apple is not, however, planning a USB-C version of the AirPods 3 and will instead wait for the AirPods 4 to transition to USB-C charging technology. No new AirPods are expected in 2023.
Future AirPods could include multiple health sensors that would complement the Apple Watch. AirPods could include body temperature sensing and posture monitoring, according to The Wall Street Journal. Apple is said to be testing AirPods prototypes that are able to monitor a wearer's core body temperature from within the ear. AirPods could also eventually be used to monitor posture and alert the wearer of slouching using motion sensors.
Future versions of the AirPods could also include more prominent hearing health features, turning the AirPods into a health tool. The AirPods could collect hearing data and could perhaps serve as an alternative to hearing aids.
Apple's vice president of technology Kevin Lynch in June 2021 said that Apple may one day build health sensors into the AirPods to provide users with additional health data.
According to analyst Jeff Pu, Apple is working on a lower-priced set of AirPods that would be priced more affordably to compete with wireless headphones from other companies. Apple's most affordable AirPods are the AirPods 2, sold for $129. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says the lower-cost AirPods could be priced at $99, with Apple targeting a late 2024 or early 2025 release date for the earbuds.
Based on Apple's patent filings, a future version of the AirPods or AirPods Pro could include a built-in interactive touchscreen display that would let users control audio sources and interact with apps associated with the connected device.
AirPods Roundup Changelog
- June 19 - Added new features coming in iOS 17.
- May 23 - Updated Buyer's Guide information.
- May 2 - New firmware released.