US $179 / AU$279 at Apple
We've been waiting for Apple to release an update to its basic
AirPods for quite some time. First released five years ago, AirPods
have become a huge hit and nearly ubiquitous everywhere you see
in-ear wireless earbuds, but the second-generation update two years
ago left much to be desired—it improved battery life and added
hands-free Hey, Siri support and not much else.
AirPods Pro are a wonderful step up from basic
AirPods, but the US$250 price is out of reach for many.
Now we have the third-generation AirPods. Finally, basic and
more affordable AirPods bring some of what we love about the
AirPods Pro down to a more affordable level. Longer battery life, a
more comfortable design with shorter stems, and greatly improved
sound quality combine to make this an upgrade worth paying a little
improvements to sound quality
The AirPods' new look will be the first thing you notice, but
the improved sound quality will make the most lasting
Apple uses a new driver in its new design, which makes a big
difference to clarity and the punch of bass-heavy tracks. You also
get software features like Adaptive EQ and spatial audio with head
tracking while watching videos in supported apps.
Listening to my playlist of audio test tracks—a diverse set from
classical to rock, modern pop to remastered classics—is a totally
different experience than it is on second-gen AirPods. I would go
so far as to say the new AirPods sound nearly as good as AirPods
Pro when you listen in a quiet environment.
In particular, bass response is greatly improved, and overall
clarity is enhanced. Busy, heavy tracks such as Foo Fighters' These
Days or Mötley Crüe's Kickstart My Heart manage to avoid turning
into a muddy mess, which is more than I can say for listening with
second-generation AirPods. C Lo Green's Bright Lights Bigger City
keeps its clean stereo separation and holds on to those subtle
background crowd noises, both of which are easily lost on lesser
Spatial audio is a treat when it's well-supported. On stereo
tracks, enabling the feature in Control Panel (long-press the
volume slider) definitely provides a more open sound space, but can
sometimes lose subtle cues. Tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos, of which
Apple Music now has quite a few, sound fantastic.
Spatial Audio adds a whole new sense of space and position to
surround-sound movies and TV shows. If you use AirPods to watch
streaming video, third-generation AirPods are a massive improvement
over the second generation for this reason alone.
A new design, a
It's no stretch to say that the third-gen AirPods look like the
AirPods Pro. The short stems and large black pressure-equalization
grilles on both the pod and the top of the stem make them look
The in-ear pod itself is reshaped, less round and more bulbous,
similar to the AirPods Pro but without the rubberized tip.
(center) are more compact than second-gen (left), and resemble
AirPods Pro (right) without the rubberized tips. Image:Jason Cross / IDG
Regular AirPods have a fit that is best described as
personal. Some people find them comfortable, and they stay
put easily. Others, like me, find that while the size and weight is
quickly forgotten, the rigid plastic and shape don't like to stay
put in my rather small ear canal. I'm constantly adjusting
second-gen AirPods as they worm their way loose bit by bit, whether
I'm just walking, working out, or even sitting in a chair if I make
a lot of jaw movement.
The third-gen model fits differently but I wouldn't say
it's necessarily better. I still have problems with
earbuds slowly working their way free, just as before, though your
mileage will vary depending on your ear shape. I suggest trying
them on before you buy, if at all possible.
The shorter stems are nice, and help reduce incidents where they
get caught on a hat or strap or bumped free. Apple has replaced tap
controls with the squeeze the stem force sensor as found on the
AirPods Pro. It gives you a little more control but, as ever, I
find it hard to use without messing up the AirPods fit in my ear. I
generally control them either through voice or the controls on my
iPhone or Mac.
The shorter stems are
nice, but whether the new AirPods (center) fit in your ears better
than the old AirPods (left) comes down to your ear shape. AirPods
Pro rubberize tips (right) provide the best fit. Image: Jason Cross / IDG
There's certainly no way in which I feel that the third-gen
AirPods are a worse design than the second-gen, and the shorter
stems and water/sweat resistance are both improvements I can
appreciate. But as with the second-gen model, the shape of your
ears will determine just how secure and comfortable the fit is.
and charging case
Apple promises that the battery will last up to six hours, and
that seems a pretty accurate claim. I managed to get just a bit
more than that on a full charge, but volume plays a factor, and you
can expect less when using spatial audio, too. These are the
longest-lasting AirPods you can buy, though you can buy wireless
earbuds with longer battery life (they are usually larger,
The charging case, which looks very much like that for the
AirPods Pro but is just slightly less wide, holds another 4 full
charges, so you can juice up the earbuds several times before you
have to find a plug.
The third-gen AirPods
case (center) is just a touch less wide than the AirPods Pro case
Jason Cross / IDG
Speaking of finding a plug, the charging case supports charging
via Lightning or Qi wireless charging and has magnets to attach to
Apple claims that about five minutes in the case will give you
enough charge to last for an hour, just as with the AirPods Pro. In
my testing, the buds went from zero to over 30 percent in that
short time and lasted almost 90 minutes before dying.
You may not ever have
a real need for MagSafe on your AirPods case, but it's there! Image: Jason Cross / IDG
should you buy?
Apple sells three AirPods now. The second-generation are still
on sale for $129 with a wired case. The new third-generation will
set you back US$179. This is more technically more expensive than the
second-gen's starting price (US$159), but the wireless charging case
used to set you back US$199, so they're also technically cheaper.
The seal you get from the rubberized tips on the Pro improves
bass response and helps reduce outside noise, while active
noise-cancellation makes listening in all but the quietest
environments a lot more pleasant. For those reasons, those looking
for the best sound quality should still choose AirPods Pro.
I feel the longer battery life and vastly improved sound of the
third-generation, along with Spatial Audio support, make them worth
the upgrade price. If you have a choice, get these over the
second-gen model, even if you pay more.
But the AirPods Pro, at US$249, are still my personal choice.
Active noise cancellation simply makes a huge difference in
providing a comfortable listening environment, and the rubberized
tips go a long way to making them stay put in my ears better.
AirPods are often found on sale if you shop around. My
recommendation would be price-conscious buyers get the third-generation
AirPods and skip the second-gen model, and those who can afford
to go for the Pro model do so without hesitation. No matter what
you buy, look for a sale. After they have been on the market for a
few months, AirPods are often available for US$20-40 off.