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Apple AirPods (third-gen) review: new design, same appeal

The new regular AirPods get a lot right even before the gimmicky spatial audio part

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For the first time since their introduction in 2016, Apple’s AirPods have a completely new design. The third-generation AirPods, priced at $179, bear a much closer resemblance to the AirPods Pro than the long-stemmed original and second-gen pairs. Apple has upgraded their sound, added new features like spatial audio head tracking, made them more durable with IPX4 water resistance, and lengthened their battery life.

What remains unchanged about the AirPods is their ease of use and deep integration with Apple’s ecosystem of devices including the iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV, and Apple Watch. If you’re living in Apple’s world, you still get exclusive features like the intuitive, just-hold-them-near-your-iPhone setup, audio sharing, automatic device switching, and other software tricks that have helped the AirPods stay atop the true wireless earbuds market by a wide margin. The third-generation AirPods also gain more extensive Find My support to help you locate them if they go missing.

The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max didn’t even exist the last time Apple refreshed its standard AirPods. So the third-gen earbuds also establish more feature parity across the entire lineup. There are definitely still reasons to pick those products instead — active noise cancellation, namely — but anyone who’s ready to upgrade their original AirPods will find a lot to like with the new ones.

These AirPods basically look like the AirPods Pro with their ear tips chopped off. They share similar contours, especially now that Apple has shortened the stems by 33 percent. There are also grilled black speakers, mics, and vents around each earbud. These hardware elements have become so prominent that I’m surprised Apple isn’t offering the new AirPods in black to help camouflage them. But nope: they still only come in white. Since their design is now so similar, Apple carried over the “force sensor” controls from the AirPods Pro, with an indent on each stem that designates where to press. The tap gestures from the old AirPods are gone. Apple’s non-remappable controls handle media playback, and you can summon Siri with a long press. But you’ve also got hands-free “Hey Siri” voice commands at your disposal for adjusting volume or changing up the playlist.

Unlike the Pros, there are no silicone ear tips for a customizable fit: as with its previous standard AirPods, Apple sticks with a one-size-fits-most hard plastic design. They’re open-style earbuds that rest in your ears instead of extending deep into the ear canal. A lot of people love the barely there comfort of the AirPods. The main side effect of their open design is that they let in a ton of outside noise. For me, that’s always been a significant turnoff. But again, others value having the added awareness — be it for personal safety reasons or otherwise — and view this as an upside.

The third-gen AirPods (below) are clearly cut from the same cloth as the AirPods Pro (above).

Unfortunately, fit is where the old AirPods have always let me down. They just weren’t a good match for my large-ish ears and would come loose and fall out way too easily. All ears are different, and I know a ton of people who had no such issues. But I was expecting another round of disappointment when I put the third-gen AirPods into my ears for the first time.

Fortunately, the new shape fits my ears much better.

Apple says it conducted a ton of user research when designing the third-generation AirPods, involving thousands of ear scans, heat maps, and so on. And at least in my case, something about the new shape definitely works better. They’re staying put so well that I no longer feel the same anxiety about them tumbling onto the ground and down a sewer grate. That worry was always present with the older AirPods. The healthy dose of ambient sound remains, and I’m just someone who prefers earbuds that offer some quiet from the outside world. But I can finally say that Apple’s regular AirPods fit me, and that was never true previously. If you had issues with the original design, it’s worth giving these a try.

The new AirPods have much shorter stems than before.

The charging case now opens in landscape — just like the case for the AirPods Pro — but it’s noticeably smaller than that one. It’s closer in overall size to the original AirPods case, though a smidge thicker. The case still has a Lightning port for wired charging, and it also supports Qi-compatible wireless chargers. Apple says the new AirPods case is designed to work with the company’s MagSafe chargers. And sure enough, it grabs onto the circular MagSafe charging pad with the same perfect alignment as an iPhone 12 or 13.

But don’t expect to charge your earbuds by placing them on the back of Apple’s MagSafe-ready iPhones: there’s no reverse wireless charging. And to drive that point home, Apple told me it intentionally designed the AirPods case so that it doesn’t magnetically latch onto the back of those phones. You’ll feel some pull when sliding the case around the back of the phone, but it’s nowhere near enough force to keep the two attached. As for the actual battery life, Apple says the third-gen AirPods can hit six hours of continuous playback and a total of 30 hours counting case recharges. That’s a modest improvement over the five hours and “over 24 hours” estimates from the previous model.

Both the AirPods and their case are now rated IPX4 for water and sweat resistance. Plenty of people used the older generations for workouts, but the official certification gives added peace of mind if you’ll frequently be using these AirPods as a gym companion. There’s also a new “skin detection sensor” on each earbud that replaces the old IR sensor. It still tells the AirPods to pause when removed from your ears (or resume when placed back in), but Apple says this sensor can tell the difference between your ears or tight spaces like a pants pocket that might’ve fooled the previous AirPods into resuming playback if you put them in there without the case. It’s not difficult to envision future evolutions of this sensor tying into Apple’s health and fitness efforts. But for now it’s just there to make auto-pause more reliable.

Apple has completely redesigned the acoustic driver and amplifier in the third-gen AirPods. The company told me it aimed to give them a sound profile similar to the AirPods Pro. There’s only so much you can do with open-style earbuds to improve bass performance; these will never pack the same low-end punch as many upscale in-ear buds. But the new AirPods do sound noticeably fuller and more dynamic than their predecessors — and yes, very similar to the Pros. In the right ways, they still sound like AirPods, and they’re tuned to work equally well for music, watching videos, podcasts, games, and so on. But Apple says music is still far and away the leading thing people use their AirPods for, so it’s trying to deliver the best audio quality possible in this form factor. I’ve found that the open design often leads to a more spacious soundstage. The AirPods are still handily outperformed by top-tier earbuds like Sony’s WF-1000XM4 or the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, but among other buds with an open design, they’re up there with the best.

The third-gen AirPods have redesigned drivers and support spatial audio with head tracking.

To further enhance their sound, the new AirPods use the same adaptive EQ feature as the Pros and Max. There’s an inward-facing mic on each earbud that analyzes what you’re hearing and, so Apple claims, adjusts the output in real time to what’s best for your unique ear shape. But the thing about adaptive EQ is that it’s impossible to ever really know when it’s doing something — or what that something is. It’s invisible to the listener at all times, so there’s not much to say about it. There’s no telling whether the improved sound is due to the redesigned drivers, the inclusion of adaptive EQ, or a combination of both. The third-gen AirPods do a better job of steering audio into your ears, which also helps achieve that full-bodied sound.

But that brings us to the big trick Apple is advertising with the new AirPods: spatial audio with head tracking. Like the AirPods Pro and Max, the third-gen pair can dynamically adjust the sound in each earbud as you turn your head from side to side, keeping the sound source anchored to the iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV you’re watching. When you’re watching movies in Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video, or other popular apps, this head tracking can be an immersive, fun experience and mimics surround sound better than a regular stereo mix would. It really does add to the satisfaction of watching movies on my iPad Pro. And for those times when someone’s asleep at home and you can’t take advantage of your soundbar or surround system on the Apple TV, you can listen in private with AirPods and spatial audio head tracking. Apple has also thought of other use cases: on group FaceTime calls, spatial audio creates a sound field that places the voices where they’re positioned on your device’s screen.

But when it comes to music, it all feels far more gimmicky. I’ve written about Apple Music’s Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio before, and everything there applies here. The feature works with all headphones, but only the third-gen AirPods, Pros, and Max add head tracking to the equation. That doesn’t really change where I stand on it. Spatial audio mixes can often sound objectively worse than their stereo counterparts. It takes a lot of work from engineers and producers to get the most from Atmos, and it remains obvious that a lot of albums available in spatial audio on Apple Music haven’t gotten that level of attention. Instruments and effects can sound out of place, vocals can get drowned out in the mix, and so on.

The situation is improving as newer records are mixed for Atmos from the get-go. (And Atmos mixes do generally sound a lot better on actual Atmos home theater systems.) The recent Giles Martin remix of Let It Be by The Beatles takes advantage of spatial audio well without trying to do too much. It has that feeling of being in the room with the band. But other examples, like Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed, don’t do anything for me that I don’t already get from the stereo version.

In short, spatial audio can wow when it comes to video, but we’re still in the very early stages of the music side — and it’s not a reason to buy these earbuds yet. Apple makes it easy to switch back and forth between spatial audio and regular sound in Control Center. And iOS 15 actually lets you “spatialize” sound from apps like Spotify that don’t otherwise offer the feature. I guess that’s nice to have if you really find yourself loving this new way of listening.

Like all AirPods before them, the third-gen earbuds are positioned as the perfect iPhone accessory.

The AirPods have long been the champion of voice calls, and with the third-gen set, Apple is trying to improve the fidelity of FaceTime calls by using a new AAC-ELD codec for clearer voice reproduction. There’s also acoustic mesh on the outward-facing side of each AirPod that’s meant to reduce wind noise. Despite the shorter stems, overall microphone performance remains excellent and the new AirPods remain easy to recommend if you want earbuds that guarantee you’ll come through clearly on calls. Stay tuned for our video review for the full mic test — with Becca, of course.

Apple has also given the new AirPods a deeper level of integration with its Find My app. You could always play a sound to find a missing (nearby) earbud or see the location where they were last connected to your phone. But now the third-gen AirPods get the same “find nearby” feature as the AirPods Pro and Max. This is an AirTags-like interface for pinpointing where the AirPods are if you’re in close proximity to them. It’s not as accurate as an AirTag, but the UI will tell you when the AirPods are “nearby” and then show “here” when you’re right near them. If they’re really nowhere to be found, you can also now enable lost mode and be alerted if your missing AirPods come within range of millions of other iOS devices. My favorite of the new Find My features are the separation alerts that automatically pop up if you leave your AirPods behind somewhere. That alone should prevent a lot of heartbreak and lost earbuds.

The new AirPods are the first big redesign of Apple’s massively popular true wireless earbuds. From a fit and comfort standpoint, I think Apple succeeded: these are still wonderfully lightweight earbuds, and they actually stay in my ears now. The sound quality has seen some refinement, and the third-gen AirPods are a better gym buddy than their predecessors. Plus you’ve got longer battery life and nice-to-have features like spatial audio head tracking — even if Apple is overselling it a bit. I’ll personally be sticking with the AirPods Pro and other earbuds that offer noise cancellation or at least some isolation. But if you prefer the open-style AirPods and have an older pair that can’t hold a charge anymore, these are a worthwhile upgrade.

But before you go getting locked deeper into Apple’s ecosystem, it’s worth exploring your options. The game has changed a lot since the second-gen AirPods were released, and it’s possible to find better sound quality among competitors like Samsung, OnePlus, Anker, Amazon, and others. If you can do without the frills, you can spend much less and still be happy. Still, if you’ve got an iPhone, none of those can deliver the same seamless experience as the AirPods. They’re still designed to perfectly complement Apple’s smartphone, and in that regard they don’t disappoint. Perhaps more than any other Apple product today, AirPods still just work.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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