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(Pocket-lint) - Apple revealed the third generation of its standard AirPods some two-and-a-half years after the second-generation wireless headphones were announced. It's been a bit of a wait, but there's been plenty of other output in the meantime - such as the active noise-cancelling (ANC) capable AirPods Pro arriving in 2020.

While there's no ANC goodness in the AirPods 3, plenty of things have changed. While the second generation's design remained the same as the original AirPods, this third-generation shortens the stem, redesigns the tips, bringing them closer in line with the AirPods Pro's design.

So should you opt for the middle-of-the-range AirPods 3 over their predecessors, or step things up for the top-of-the-range AirPods Pro? Here's our take.

Pro-like design

  • Earphones dimensions: 30.79 x 18.26 x 19.21mm / Weight: 4.28g 
  • Chagring case: 46.40 x 54.40 x 21.38mm / Weight: 37.91g
  • 33% shorter stem than 2nd Gen AirPods
  • Redesigned tip, tapered towards ear
  • IPX4 water-resistance
  • White finish only

The 2021 AirPods are essentially what you would get if the AirPods Pro and the 2nd Gen AirPods had a wireless headphones child together, not only in terms of design, but many features too. 

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Taking cues from the AirPods Pro, the AirPods 3 have a shorter stem - by 33 per cent - than the second generation model. There's also a force sensor like the AirPods Pro, allowing for more advanced controls from the AirPods themselves.

The ear tips have been redesigned too. The tips taper towards the ear more and the angle has been adjusted to direct audio into the ear better. They are slightly larger too - a little too big for our ears, really - and a couple of elements have been repositioned slightly. 

Overall, the design is familiar - the 'electric toothbrush head' similarities remain, though less so thanks to the shorter stem - but the five years that AirPods have been around means the design is certainly not as polarising as it was in 2016, with their popularity making them more of a statement than anything else now.

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You don't get the silicone tips that are included with the AirPods Pro, meaning the AirPods 3 won't be as secure a fit overall. They are comfortable to wear, but do occasionally fall out of our ears due to being a little big. Of course everyone's ears are different - so for some this newer model may fit better than the older generation model. 

There's also IPX4 sweat and water resistance. That means that while going for a run while wearing the AirPods 3 may not feel as natural and secure as the AirPods Pro thanks to the silicone tips, they can still be worn for exercise without the concern of sweat damaging them.

Great features

  • H1 chip, one-tap setup, auto-switching, audio sharing
  • Announce Notifications, Announce Calls, Hey Siri
  • Spatial Audio
  • Adaptive EQ

The AirPods 3 come with all the features that the second generation offered, along with a couple of extras from the AirPods Pro. As mentioned, there is no Active Noise Cancellation like the AirPods Pro have, but you do get Adaptive EQ on the AirPods 3.

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Adaptive EQ tunes the sound based on how the AirPods fit in your ear. The inward-facing microphones monitor sound and computational audio is used to tune low and mid-frequencies in order to account for what might be lost due to variances in fit. To further help with surrounding noise, an acoustic mesh covers the microphone to reduce wind noise - something that's not on the second-gen model.

There's also Spatial Audio on board, which is designed to create a three-dimensional theatre-like experience, placing sound virtually anywhere in your headspace. It's something the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max offer, but not the standard AirPods - until now. The AirPods 3 use built-in accelerometers to track your head movements too, enabling the sound to follow you no matter which way you turn.

In terms of other features, the H1 chip allows for super-quick pairing to iOS devices, with a one-tap connection, and the AirPods will automatically switch between your devices too, as well as allow you to share audio. They are also compatible with the Find My Network, with separation alerts if they are out of Bluetooth range and a proximity view to see how close they are if you lose them.

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Additionally, Hey Siri is on board, and the 2021 AirPods have the Announce Notifications and Announce Calls feature as well, all of which are useful if you wear the AirPods all the time - not just when listening to music or calls. We found we did this as they are comfortable enough and the double-tap to answer calls - or say "yes" to answer when Announce Calls is on - make them very convenient to just keep in all the time.

The controls via the force sensor in the stem are the same as the AirPods Pro with one press to play or pause, two presses to skip a track, and three presses to go back. Pressing-and-holding launches Siri. You can also just say "Hey Siri" too, then use the voice assistant to make a call or send a message.

Audio performance and Spatial Audio

The AirPods 3 feature a new custom driver and high dynamic range amplifier - and the audio quality is great. They probably aren't the very best sounding wireless headphones in the market though - the AirPods Pro are better and there are other alternatives with a more closed design that deliver better performance thanks to their noise-cancelling capabilities.

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That's not to say the third-generation AirPods aren't brilliant for what most will want though. They are excellent for calls - we got compliments on how clear we sounded - on the go music and podcasts. Their convenience is also second to none for iOS users, with skin sensors detecting when they have been removed from the ear, pausing audio or transferring calls back to your phone.

The AirPods can deal with a variety of music, from Eagles Hotel California to Massive Attack's Teardrop and while they aren't super bassy, there's enough low-end, with good definition in vocals and a good range overall. 

The lack of ANC does mean that you'll need to turn the volume up when in busy environments, but on the whole, it's a solid listening experience.

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Spatial Audio with Dynamic Head Tracking is also excellent. We tested it with the final 20-minute scene of Bohemian Rhapsody - where Queen plays at the Live Aid concert - and the three-dimensional sensation really brings the scene to life and makes you feel like you're there.

Spatial Audio works great on Group FaceTime calls too, spreading out voices to make it sound like they are coming from the direction they are on the call. The Dynamic Head Tracking also works brilliantly - and although it takes a bit of time to get used to hearing music around you, based on how you move, it's an excellent addition.

Battery life

  • 4 hours talk time, 6 hours listening time
  • 30 hours in total from charging case
  • Charging case wireless and MagSafe compatible

The AirPods (3rd generation) not only offer battery improvements over their predecessors, with four hours of talk time promised, or six hours of listening time, but they have a redesigned charging case too.

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This new charging case - which is wireless charging compatible, as well as MagSafe compatible - is more like the AirPods Pro charging case. It takes a horizontal and wider approach, rather than the vertical and taller design seen on the original AirPods and their successors. It is still charged via Lightning cable though.

We found the battery claims to be conservative for the new AirPods - we actually got more listening than promised during testing. With multiple calls coming through, we got a total of around four-and-a-half hours of talk time, while listening time was around five-and-a-half hours with Spatial Audio on and compatible tracks or shows playing.

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The beauty of AirPods is that while having both in your ears delivers a much better sound experience, you can opt to have just one in, leaving the other in the charging case and switching them over when you get the five minute warning.

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The charging case offers four additional charges, meaning a total of 30 hours listening time, but using just one means you can stretch that further if you need to. Just five minutes in the charging case should offer around an hour extra of listening time, which is handy.

Verdict

Sitting in the middle of the company's wireless headphones portfolio, the 3rd Gen AirPods offer a great balance between features and price, whilst also delivering a refreshed and water-resistant design and great sound quality.

They aren't the cheapest wireless headphones on the market, and they miss out on the AirPods Pro's silicone tip secure fit and active noise cancellation (ANC), but you get solid battery life, great convenience features, and the extra features like Spatial Audio are well worth it.

The sweat- and water-resistance is a great bonus, too, especially for those who want to workout while using their AirPods, although Beats's PowerBeats Pro or the AirPods Pro may be the better option if this is your main intended use case.

Also consider

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Apple AirPods (2nd Gen)

Apple still sells the second-generation AirPods, which are cheaper, so you could save yourself a bit of cash. They offer the same one-tap setup and convenience features, but they lack sweat- and water-resistance, Spatial Audio, Adaptive EQ, and the refreshed design.

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Pocket-lintAirPods (3rd generation) alternatives photo 3

Apple AirPods Pro

More expensive, but these 'buds have a more secure fit thanks to their silicone tips, plus they come with active noise cancellation (ANC), offering a slightly better listening experience overall.

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Writing by Britta O'Boyle. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 25 October 2021.