AirPods have remained as the most popular headphones out there even as other models started knocking them down our list of the best wireless earbuds, because they're small, the sound quality is solid, and they work seamlessly with iPhones.
And the new third-gen model features more discrete buds, massively improved audio quality, and even more iPhone-friendly features, along with improved battery life and a better mic.
If you've had AirPods for years, love them, and are wondering whether the new model is worth it, the answer's an easy yes – it's what you like about the current ones, but made better in every way.
If you're looking at the new AirPods compared to the rest of the world of wireless earbuds, it's not such a slam dunk. The AirPods (3rd Gen) offer really impressive audio quality that's far beyond even the best cheap wireless earbuds, but they're lacking both active noise cancellation and an isolating in-ear fit, and that may put some off.
I still recommend them strongly, but read on and I'll explain exactly where their fit is ideal for, and where it isn't, so you can decide if these AirPods are right for you, whether you should switch to the AirPods Pro, or whether something else will work better.
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review: Price & release date
The new AirPods (3rd Gen) are released on October 26th 2021, at a price of £169/$179/AU$279.
I think the price is fair for the overall quality of the new AirPods, but it feels like it's falling into something of a gap in the market right now. So many new buds are launching at £130/$150 or under, and that's often with active noise cancellation, such as the Beats Studio Buds.
You can get truly impressive-sounding earbuds for £100/$100 – such as the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ – but without as many smart features. This kind of price seems to be where people are settling for true wireless buds, but Apple has come in notably higher.
And on the other end, at the time of writing you can buy AirPods Pro for just £189/$199 – that gets you active noise cancellation, and you might prefer the in-ear fit. I'd happily pay the extra for that. I worry that for a lot of people, these new AirPods may be squeezed too tightly on either side by the competition – even the competition from Apple itself.
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review: Features & what's new
In terms of features, the new AirPods take all the smart stuff from the previous AirPods, add a couple of the best features from AirPods Pro, and then some extra new bonuses.
You've got fast pairing with iPhones and iPads as soon as you pop the lid, and they're then auto-paired with other devices signed into your Apple ID, including your Apple Watch, even.
This enables an auto-switching feature too, so that you can stop playing something on your iPhone and start on your iPad without tweaking the buds in any way, and they'll switch over to the other device.
They can also share audio with other AirPods (or certain Beats headphones), so two people can use their own buds for watching the same video, on a train or plane, say.
And there's support for Apple Find My app and network, which means that if you're not sure where you left them, you can see when your phone last connected to them, and can even make them play a sound to help you find which cushion they're under.
But these were all supported by the previous models too. The new stuff is where things get improved.
One element is the audio quality, which is massively upgraded, thanks to a new driver – and we'll get into that shortly. And with the new driver, Apple has added its 'Adaptive EQ' tech from the AirPods Pro, which use a microphone inside the earbuds to listen to the sound as it's pumped towards your ears, and checks how the shape of your ears affects the audio, then adjusts the sound to compensate.
And another feature nicked from AirPods Pro is that Apple has added support for head-tracking Spatial Audio 3D sound. This creates a surround sound effect for movies and music that's been recorded in a compatible format, and you have the option to 'convert' stereo music to a 3D effect, so that your music all sounds consistent whether it's available in 'true' Dolby Atmos or not.
The battery life has been improved over the previous AirPods, with the buds now offering 6 hours per charge, with the case bringing the total battery life up to 30 hours between charging. That total battery life is pretty great compared to other models, though the charge in the buds is more average – some cheaper options get 8 or more hours between charges. 6 is probably not going to be an issue for most people, though.
You now get Qi wireless charging as standard in these AirPods, and they actually support Apple's MagSafe charging system now, so they can be magnetically attached to the MagSafe Charging Cable or another MagSafe option. Unlike the iPhone, they don't charge faster over MagSafe than with any other Qi charger, but it's useful to have them solidly locked into place. You still have the Lightning port for charging, of course, and this is what comes in the box.
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review: Performance
Let's get into the good stuff then: the sound quality. The most important thing about the new AirPods is that they sound excellent, and are a major and instant step up over the AirPods 2nd gen.
The improvement seems to come from a a more dynamic driver, because what you'll notice immediately is how much clearer and brighter everything from the mid-range up is. Vocals feel unchained compared to the older model, and every feels more natural and livelier.
It makes the earlier model immediately feel like the bass is actually weighing down the soundscape, and like the treble is only just keeping its head above the surface. In comparison, the new model feels like the high-end has burst out of the water, unfurled wings and taken flight.
At the same time, the bass still stays nice and deep, and gives a nice level of thump when needed, without ever becoming heavy handed.
When compared to Beats Studio Buds, the new AirPods make a strong case for their higher price. The two have fairly similar balance to the sound overall (certainly moreso than compared to the older AirPods), but the new AirPods are more open and expressive across the whole range. Sound is sharper and has more bounce and attack – and features a larger range, reaching deeper into the well of bass and higher for treble.
In terms of overall sound quality, they're incredible close to AirPods Pro, actually. AirPods Pro do still have an edge – their mid-range comes through with more power and definition, and treble has just a bit more pop – but it's not the night-and-day difference that it was between the old AirPods and the Pro. And Pro does it with active noise cancellation on too, of course.
The new Spatial Audio feature is implemented extremely well here, too. Not everyone will even bother to make use of it, and some don't like it for music, but I'm a total convert to it, and these new AirPods really make the most of it.
In movies, Spatial Audio with head tracking acts like you're in a movie theatre, with the sound presented like surround sound – different parts of the audio coming from different directions. But it keeps the surround sound oriented to the screen (ie, your phone), and if you turn your head, the sound doesn't follow your ears. If sound is coming from the front and you turn your head 90 degrees, it'll now seem to come from the side. In movies that really make the most of a Dolby Atmos mix, this is just fantastic. And it's still great the rest of the time.
In music, Spatial Audio is a little less of a clear-cut success. For a start, I recommend turning of head-tracking, because without the focal point of a screen, I just found it annoying. But that still leaves you with sound that appears to come from a 'bubble' around you rather than pumped straight into your ears, and I've come to prefer that after testing for a while. It also increases the overall range that the AirPods reach in your music, which I like
The real wild-card here is the music that's been remastered in Dolby Atmos, because it might not be what you're expecting. Some just add a cool 3D effect that makes it feel like you're in the recording studio with people playing instruments around you; some have gone wild with adding flourishes and playing with how different elements interact in the mix, changing the sound of songs quite drastically in some cases.
None of this is directly controlled by the AirPods, of course, but if you're going to dabble in their fanciest feature, it's what you need to know. As I said, I'm a convert to Spatial Audio on balance, and really enjoy seeing what artists do with Dolby Atmos, because some people hate it.
Finally, the mic quality is improved nicely over the original model – in my tests, it was at the same level as the AirPods Pro when compared in a quiet environment. It's solid for voice quality overall.
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review: Design & fit
The new AirPods follow the path laid down by AirPods Pro, with 'sticks' that are a third shorter than the previous regular AirPods, and are slightly larger in the actual bud section.
One of the advantages of this new design is that they're controlled using a system of squeezing the sticks, which works way better than you're expecting it to. On AirPods Pro, it's actually my favourite control method of any true wireless buds, because it doesn't cause any discomfort, it can't be triggered accidentally, and it can be done with gloves in winter.
On the new AirPods, it's 90% as good as on AirPods Pro – the sticks on the new AirPods sit closer to the skin than they do on AirPods Pro, so you don't have quite as much margin for pinching. It's a minor thing – they still have all the advantages mentioned above.
The big thing about the fit is that don't feature in-ear tips, for better and worse. Lots of people find this way of fitting preferable, and don't like the feel or isolation of in-ear tips.
Conversely, some don't like that this way of fitting leaks in sound, and means that it's hard plastic where the buds sit in your ear, instead of a softer tip.
There's not really anything in these AirPods to make you change your mind about your preference, if you have one. The new AirPods let in lots of outside sound – and this can be preferable if you use them somewhere like an office or at home, because it makes it easy for people to get your attention over your music. But if you're walking along the road or taking the Tube/Metro, expect for all that rattling to overwhelm the music or podcast you're listening to.
In every other way, the design is as premium as you'd expect to get from Apple. The buds have a pristine, almost seamless finish. The case does too, and Apple has the best balance of hinge quality and magnet strength on the lid out of everyone – it's so satisfying to flick open and closed if like to fidget.
When in the case, the buds sit out more prominently than the older AirPods, making them easier to grab, which is a nice improvement. The magnet holding them in is nice and strong without being annoying – again, the right balance.
The new case looks bigger than the previous AirPods case, but actually the difference is small. It's pretty much the same on width and height, but it's slightly thicker. It still slips into pockets easily.
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review: Verdict
Accepting AirPods for what they are, they're very, very good. The sound quality is truly impressive, the smart features are really useful (for iOS users), and the new design is great.
My issue is that I'm frustrated by headphones for this price that are overwhelmed by sounds when travelling or vacuuming or similar – I'd want them to be just as useful anywhere, since they're pretty premium.
But I know that the design that lets the sound in is exactly the fit that lots of people like about AirPods, and when I'm using them in the office, I couldn't be happier with them.
So I think this will very much be a matter of priorities if you're considering buying: if you want to pay around this much and get smart feature plus noise cancelling, maybe go for Beats Studio Buds; if you want the better sound of AirPods with noise cancelling, step up to AirPods Pro; if you're not worried about noise cancellation and want excellent sound, these are a great buy for iPhone users.
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) review: Also consider
The big other option for iPhone users is AirPods Pro, as I've talked about at length. The same design, but with in-ear tips; similar sound quality, but with active noise cancellation. They're really great, and at the time of writing, are an excellent price. Here's our full Apple AirPods Pro review.
Android users shouldn't really bother with AirPods, even though will work like any Bluetooth headphones. For this kind of price, I'd steer you towards the Sony WF-1000XM3 – they're much larger and heavier, but they have top-tier ANC and superb sound quality.