The new Apple AirPods 3 sound decent and offer close integration with iPhone, iPad and Macs thanks to updated hardware.
Since the release of the previous model (our review) about 2.5 years ago, a lot has happened in the true-wireless headphone market. That Apple will once again lead the sales figures in this segment with the AirPods 3 will be demonstrated, among other things, with our test.
Apple’s market share in the fast-growing wireless earbud market has been falling recently. At the same time, sales increased, giving the manufacturer more than a third of the market share at 35%. More affordable alternatives such as those from Soundcore or Samsung are putting pressure on Apple with amazing price-performance ratios.
But we don’t need to look into a crystal ball to see that with version 3, a contender that should once again ensure fantastic sales is entering the market. And this is certainly not because Apple has introduced particularly inexpensive headphones with the AirPods 3. Not only does the strong brand appeal play a very special role here, but also the claim that “It Just Works”: Apple products are known for simply working – without configuration stress, without even having to take a look at the manual.
In the usual chic, fully recyclable cardboard box, we encounter the expected: the headphones, the charging case, a 105 cm long USB-C to Lightning cable and the usual documents. What we don’t really miss: the sticker with the manufacturer’s succinct logo that we have loved for decades.
At first glance, the Apple AirPods 3 look like the Apple AirPods Pro. The long touch-sensitive stems of the previous model have been eliminated and replaced with the pressure-responsive short stems of the AirPods Pro. The small “beans” that contain the drivers are slightly smaller than those of the Pro. They are therefore also one gram lighter. Compared to the Apple AirPods 2, which are still available, the new ones bring a weight saving of half a gram.
The charging case has also been updated compared to its predecessor. It is now constructed like that of the Pros and weighs just under 38 grams. What Apple calls the MagSafe case can therefore not only be charged via cable, but also on Qi-certified mats or with the manufacturer’s MagSafe charger. The charger fits perfectly into the AirPods charging case thanks to the magnet in the charging case.
Apple remains true to the basic design of the previous model and, for the new AirPods 3, does without the ear moulds that are familiar from the AirPods Pro. Instead, they “hook” into the ears in the same way as before, which corresponds to the classic EarBuds design. As a result, there are likely to be some users who do not like the fit of this model.
When the AirPods fit well, however, they do so without a feeling of pressure and with a pleasant airiness. This means that isolation from the outside world is not particularly high and their passive noise-cancelling is therefore low.
Thanks to the low weight of 4.28 grams each, you quickly forget that the Apple AirPods 3 are in your ears.
The Apple AirPods 3 are controlled by pressure sensors on the stems. Compared to their predecessors, this is a change to the operating options, which are now virtually identical to those of the AirPods Pro. A single press plays or pauses music, answers or ends a call. A double press advances a track, a triple press moves back a track, and a long press activates Siri.
With the AirPods 3 operation is just as responsive and quickly internalised. There is no provision for remapping or even extending the commands. That is reserved for the AirPods Pro. However, the microphone can be fixed to one of the earphones for pure mono operation.
The third generation of AirPods is again based on the manufacturer’s H1 chip, comes with Bluetooth 5.0 and uses AAC as the only high-quality codec. In addition, the Adaptive EQ known from the larger AirPods is now also used here. This automatically adjusts the sound in real-time thanks to the built-in microphones.
Although AAC is high-resolution, it is still compressed, so that all lossless tracks from the Apple Music catalogue (ALAC – Apple Lossless Audio Codec) cannot be heard without loss. However, this is what one would expect from a manufacturer who provides the corresponding hardware and software. But as long as the company’s own headphones only work with AAC, they will remain incompatible with anything that you want to listen to as uncompressed. But let’s leave it at that: the AirPods were never sophisticated in the audiophile sense. If you really value the purest sound, you’d be better off reaching for a pair of wired headphones.
The new Apple AirPods 3 do everything right in terms of sound: the frequency response was well-balanced, with the new low-distortion driver providing a nice balance. Basses were powerful, precise and not too dominant. At the same time, they were always reproduced without distortion – even at high volumes.
The midrange builds neatly on this and bring out vocals with presence. Thankfully, high-energy lead instruments didn’t cut into the ear – we couldn’t detect any unwanted sharpness. Together with the smooth top end, this made for hours of fatigue-free listening.
Sound events could also be precisely located, the soundstage was quite narrow due to the design, but Apple still manages a good balance of width and depth.
Compared to the Apple AirPods 2, the new ones sound more precise, tidier and generally just more present.
So everything is great? Not quite, because for our taste, the treble range should be a little finer or have more radiance. Also, the AirPods 3 no longer sound as balanced at high volume, tending to be slightly bumpy and to squawk on some tracks.
3D audio with Apple AirPods 3
In the meantime, spatial audio, also called “3D audio”, has arrived at many major streaming providers. Apple jumped on this bandwagon very early, and in autumn 2020 3D audio was released along with iOS 14 for movies and series. In the meantime, the manufacturer has also expanded its own music portfolio to include corresponding Dolby Atmos titles through a collaboration with Dolby.
In contrast to normal headphones, which all also support 3D audio, the Apple AirPods 3 (like the Apple AirPods Pro and Apple AirPods Max) extend this function with dynamic head tracking. The built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes follow the movement of the head so that the sounds move with it. So if we turn our head to the left while watching a film, the sound moves to the right, but always remains relative to the screen.
Which of these is better is up to each person to decide. 3D audio with head tracking may sound impressive, but it doesn’t make sense for all music. We often simply liked pure stereo mixes better, as spatial audio can sometimes sound more washed out and imprecise.
Taking calls with Apple AirPods 3
The voice quality was already very good in the past, but thanks to the new AAC-ELD voice codec from the Fraunhofer-Institut für Integrierte Schaltungen IIS, it sounds even better. Since the codec supports the full audio bandwidth (20 Hz to 20 kHz), one can justifiably call this “full HD voice transmission”. One’s own voice sounded natural and present; the caller never had any problems, even under loud conditions. Thanks to a special acoustic fabric that Apple has “stretched” over the built-in microphones, wind noise was also properly suppressed.
What else the AirPods 3 can do
This new version also supports audio sharing, of course. Compatible Apple and Beats headphones can be supplied with audio content from an external player. Of course, the popular auto-pause function is included, and it works excellently here, as expected. Apple has given the AirPods 3 IPX4 certification – including the MagSafe charging case. And finally, the battery life has also increased. Instead of the 24 hours of the AirPods 2, it is now 30 hours. On one charge, the AirPods 3 now play for about six hours and thus last one hour longer than their predecessors. Thanks to the quick-charge option, five minutes spent in the case is enough for an additional hour of listening fun.
The new Apple AirPods 3 don’t make any mistakes. Some may criticise the fact that these headphones, which cost just under 200 euros, come without noise cancelling. But if you have not missed this feature so far (even with your old AirPods) you won’t have any reason to do so now. Otherwise, this third-generation offers new and useful functions, such as the new voice codec for making phone calls, the head tracking function and the increased battery life. The AirPods 3 are also impressive in terms of sound: their sound is harmonious and balanced, not in the audiophile sense, but the general public should have nothing to complain about here. Even though they have become more expensive compared to their predecessors: We are sure that Apple will land another hit with the AirPods 3rd generation.
- Ear couplingEarBuds
- Transducer principledynamic
- Weight without cable4.28 g each, Case approx. 38 g
- Cable length105 cm
What's in the box
- USB-C to Lightning cable
- Charging case