Apple third-gen AirPods review: The new go-to earbuds for iPhone fans

·Technology Editor
·5-min read
Apple's third-generation AirPods pack fantastic audio and many of the features found on the more expensive Pros, but they don't offer active-noise cancelling. (Image: Howley)
Apple's third-generation AirPods pack fantastic audio and many of the features found on the more expensive Pros, but they don't offer active-noise cancelling. (Image: Howley)

Apple (AAPL) has finally released its long-awaited upgrade for its incredibly popular AirPods. Available Tuesday for $179, the third-generation AirPods sport a new design, better battery life, water resistance, and improved audio quality.

The third-gen Airpods slot in between Apple’s entry-level second-gen model, which cost $129 but lack many of those new features, and the $229 AirPods Pro, which get everything found on the latest AirPods, as well as interchangeable ear tips and active-noise cancellation.

The Pros are still undoubtedly the best option for people who want the top of the line Airpods. But for the majority of consumers, the less expensive third-gen AirPods should be their new go-tos thanks to their audio capabilities and battery life.

A new, but familiar, look

The third-gen AirPods get an all-new look that’s more in line with the AirPods Pro. They have shorter stems than the second-gen AirPods, and the mesh around the audio driver is more open to allow for better audio passthrough.

Unlike the second-gen AirPods, the third-gen model gets pressure-sensitive controls that let you squeeze their stem to pause and play music, skip songs, and call up Siri. You can also “Hey, Siri” to call up the assistant. Just don’t do this in public. It’s weird.

A nice addition to the AirPods is their new skin-detect sensor, which can determine if the earbuds are in your ear or your pocket and pause and play audio based on where they are.

Another feature I’m glad Apple added to the third-gen AirPods is sweat and water resistance. I’m what you could call “an incredibly sweaty man.” So the fact that the third-gen AirPods have both sweat and water resistance is a much-appreciated addition. That said, I’ve used the second-gen AirPods while working out, and never had a problem with them shorting out due to my copious amount of sweat. Still, it’s comforting to know they’re protected should I get caught in a rainstorm while out for a run.

Finally, Apple has added its location tracking Find My feature to both individual third-gen AirPods. That means in addition to being able to locate their case, you can find your AirPod similar to how you would track an AirTag. You can even have the AirPods play a sound to make finding them easier.

On occasion, in the middle of the night, my cat decides that my AirPods don’t need to be on my kitchen table anymore. So when I wake up in the morning, and see the case on the floor with no AirPods in sight, I usually panic and search frantically for them. Thankfully, the Find My feature now cuts out what would normally be about 20 minutes of me having to angrily push around my couch and TV stand looking around for my missing AirPods.

The latest AirPods get about an our more battery life, and are sweat and water resistant. (Image: Howley)
The latest AirPods get about an our more battery life, and are sweat and water resistant. (Image: Howley)

How do they sound?

Despite lacking active-noise cancelling, which significantly cuts down on ambient noise,, the third-gen AirPods have excellent audio quality. Like the Pros, which do have active-noise cancelling, the third-gen AirPods get Apple’s Adaptive EQ and computational audio capabilities.

The Pros certainly offer exceptional audio quality, but the third-gen AirPods produce far more bass than the Pros. I was actually surprised by how much I appreciated the range of the third-gen AirPods compared to the Pros. Needless to say, the third-gen AirPods sound much better than the second-gen models.

Here’s the thing, though. Because the third-gen AirPods don’t have active-noise cancelling, ambient sound will bleed in. So if you’re looking for something that will drown out the sound of traffic outside your window, or help block the sound of people talking on the train during your commute, you’ll need to crank the volume of the third-gen AirPods up pretty high.

The Pros, meanwhile, can drown out that noise without much issue, and can even do so without having to rip the knob off. Plus, they have a transparency mode that lets you amplify ambient noise. If that’s your thing.

The AirPods’ spatial audio feature, like that found on the Pros, makes compatible music sound like it’s coming from all around you rather than just your left and right side. The AirPods also also get movement detection. That way, if you’re listening to a show, and turn your head to the left, it will sound like the audio is changing direction to keep it centered.

As for the fit, I’ve never had a problem with AirPods, and the third-gen versions are no different. But since everyone’s ears are different, you can usually go to the Apple Store and try them on in person.

Should you get them?

Apple’s AirPods Pro are still the best choice if you’re looking for iPhone-friendly earbuds with active-noise cancelling. And for users who need the feature to better enjoy their tunes, and travelers who need to drown out ambient noise, that’s enough reason to buy the Pros.

That said, for users who are just looking for a great pair of earbuds and don’t necessarily need active-noise cancelling, the third-gen AirPods are my new go-tos. They offer excellent sound quality, pack a host of premium features, and cost $70 less than the Pros.

The second-gen AirPods are still a solid option, but the sound quality and water and sweat resistance make the third-gen models a far more compelling option.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sweat all over my third-gen AirPods.

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