Apple AirPods (3rd generation) Review: Superb spatial audio performance

After months of rumours and speculations, the 3rd-generation Apple AirPods (AirPods 3) true wireless in-ear headphones (TWH) was finally unveiled last week.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or AirPods 3. (Photo: Apple)

The AirPods 3 (S$269) is not a successor to the current AirPods in the market. But rather, it sits between the S$199 entry-level AirPods (2nd generation) and the flagship S$379 AirPods Pro in Apple’s TWH offerings.

PRICE: $269, available in Apple Store, Lazada and Shopee
CONNECTIVITY: Bluetooth 5.0
WEIGHT: 4.3g (each earbud); 37.9g (charging case)

It is important to note that in order to fully utilise its features, the AirPods 3 will need to be used with Apple devices running the latest versions, such as iOS 15.1, iPadOS 15.1, watchOS 8.1, tvOS 15.1 and macOS Monterey. These updates will be available this week.

In terms of both design and features, the AirPods 3 is the combination of AirPods (2nd generation) and AirPods Pro. The AirPods 3 features a 33 per cent shorter stem than the AirPods and sees the addition of a force sensor for more control of your music and phone calls.

What you get out of the box of AirPods 3. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

Basically, AirPods 3 looks and feels like the AirPods Pro without the ear tips. Even its charging case looks like that of the Pro but slightly smaller. However, it retains the iconic all-white colour of the AirPods series and is not available in any other colours.

(L-to-R): Apple AirPods 2, AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

And the AirPods 3 features new Apple-designed drivers and technologies found in the Pro such as custom high dynamic range amplifiers for Adaptive EQ, or equaliser, and spatial audio with dynamic head tracking.

In addition, the AirPods 3 and its case have an IPX4 rating for sweat and water resistance. In other words, you can wear it for runs in a drizzle but not during a torrential downpour. Comparatively, the earbuds of AirPods Pro have the IPX4 rating but not for its charging case.

There are also new acoustic mesh covers for the microphones that are supposed to reduce wind noise for clear calls.

Similar to previous AirPods, pairing the AirPods 3 with supported Apple devices is a cinch. Bring the case – with the earbuds in it – close to your Apple device, flick open the cover and a window showing the AirPods will pop up on the device. Tap Connect to finish the pairing process.

Pairing the AirPods 3 with an iPhone is a breeze. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

Some users are allergic or dislike TWH’s ear tips going into their ear canals. They just find them irritating. If you are one of these users, then the AirPods 3 is for you. It has a semi-open design that fits into your ears without intruding deep into your ear canals.

As such, it is very comfortable to wear and does not create a “pressure chamber” like the AirPods Pro might for some users. Furthermore, the AirPods 3 is so lightweight that you can barely feel you are wearing them.

The AirPods 3 is very comfortable to wear. But one of the earbuds tend to slip out during my runs. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

A new feature found in AirPods 3 not available in other AirPods is its skin-detection optical sensors. They better detect whether the earbuds are in your ears, so music playback is immediately stopped when you take one earbud out when you need to talk to your colleague.

As mentioned earlier, the AirPods 3 uses Adaptive EQ. This computational audio feature automatically tunes the low and mid frequencies of the music to the shape of your ears for “a rich and consistent listening experience”. But this also means there is no equaliser settings to let you customise the sound profile.

That said, the AirPods 3’s audio performance is almost on par with its Pro cousin. Bass is punchy with detailed mids and clear highs. I can hear each instrument playing distinctly regardless of the genre of music. The only difference is in the little details. For example, I can hear artistes quickly catching their breath on AirPods Pro while I cannot pick up that on AirPods 3.

+ Superb audio performance
+ Mind-blowing spatial audio
+ Seamless connectivity with iOS devices
+ Lightweight and very comfortable
+ Better battery life than its predecessors

– No active noise cancellation
– No customisable options or equalisers
– Might not fit snugly for some users

However, its spatial audio performance is equal to the AirPods Pro. Listening to songs that support Dolby Atmos in Apple Music with spatial audio turned on is truly mind blowing. You will feel like you are sitting in a concert with the music in the middle. When you turn your head to your left, the music will concentrate on the left earbud. It is like the singer is singing in front of you.

And when you are watching a movie, say Greyhound on Apple TV+, you can feel the gun sounds coming at all directions around you. It is like having a cinematic experience without being in a cinema.

You can access the Spatial Audio options by tapping on the volume control of Command Centre. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

Not to mention, the AirPods 3 is able to pick up my voice clearly as reported by other parties, whether I am outside on a grocery run or during video calls in my home.

But on the downside, the AirPods 3 lacks active noise cancellation (ANC) found only in AirPods Pro. Given its semi-open design, this is to be expected as ear tips are needed for ANC to work well. So, Apple is allowing you to choose between comfort or ANC.

Another downer is, when I was jogging, I find the left earbud kept sliding down while the right earbud remained snugly in place. I constantly have to push the left earbud back into my ears when I was running. But my wife did not have such issues when I let her try the AirPods 3. So, it really differs from ear to ear.

Not too sure how the model manages to keep the AirPods 3 from falling when running… (Photo: Apple)

The AirPods 3 is rated at up to 6 hours of listening time (without spatial audio) on a full charge with its charging case adding another 24 hours.

With spatial audio turned on, the AirPods 3 is rated to last 5 hours. In my tests with spatial audio turned on and the volume set at 75 per cent, the AirPods 3 lasted 4 hours 40 minutes before going flat. Without spatial audio and 75 per cent loudness, the AirPods 3 lasted 5 hours 45 minutes. So, the battery life is pretty much as advertised. And it is slightly better than its AirPods cousins and much better than the industrial average of between 3 to 4 hours.

Another thing to note is that the charging case of AirPods 3 now supports both wireless charging and MagSafe charging, while the 2nd-generation AirPods no longer come with a wireless charging case.

With its S$269 price tag, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) is a tad expensive for a pair of TWH without ANC. However, if you are an iPhone user that hates the discomfort of ear tips in your ear canals but still wants to fully enjoy the spatial audio performance of AirPods, this is the AirPods for you.

DESIGN: 9/10
OVERALL: 8.5/10

Trevor Tan

Started out with dreams to become a street photographer, Trevor Tan somehow became a tech journalist with over 16 years of consumer tech experience. Maybe he plays too much video games and buys too many new gadgets.
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