When you think of true wireless earbuds, the image that comes to mind for most is the Apple AirPods. While this is far and away the best-selling pair of earphones of the last 20 years, its popularity can be a double-edged sword for new consumers. Many assume popularity implies quality or status, but that’s not necessarily true. Should you pay the premium for the latest model, or should you explore other options? Well, it’s complicated.

Editor’s note: this review was updated on November 26, 2021 to update the microphone score, and to address some issues around equalizing these AirPods.

Who is the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) for?

  • Apple iPhone and iPad owners will reap the most benefits from the third-generation AirPods. The Apple H1 chip’s advanced features only work when paired with Apple hardware, so if you want to take advantage of all the features you need an iPhone, or iPad.

What is the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) like?

A hand holds a Apple AirPods (3rd generation) earbud by the stem to reveal the open-type fit and embedded sensors with the open case in the background.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a more rounded speaker element opening meaning a better fit in your outer ear—and a worse fit at the ear canal opening.

If you attempted to blend the AirPods (2019) and AirPods Pro together, the end product would probably look something like the AirPods (3rd generation). The earbuds look almost identical to the AirPods Pro, with shorter stems that are less likely to catch on masks, though the latest buds retain the tip-less design. By now we’re all very familiar with the iconic glossy white design (and no, to our and Bruce Wayne’s discontent, the earbuds are still not available in black), and nothing here really shakes that up.

See also: Apple AirPods (2nd generation) vs AirPods (3rd generation)

The charging case also feels like a step between the AirPods Pro and the smaller the AirPods (2019) case, with a wider, but still small design. The earbuds magnetically fit into place, and the case snaps shut with a resounding click. Just like its predecessors, the AirPods (3rd generation) is one of the most portable and pocketable true wireless earbuds around.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) open case holds the earbuds and sits on a wood surface.

The new case diverges from previous generations’ cases, more closely mirroring that of the AirPods Pro.

An under-the-radar, but appreciated addition to the new AirPods is a skin-detect sensor, which replaces the optical sensor of older AirPods models. It handles auto-pause/play pretty much the same, but now you can take the earbuds out of your ears and put them in your pocket without resuming playback.

Unfortunately, the AirPods (3rd generation) still takes a one-size-fits-all approach to design. The lack of ear tips will leave many users unable to attain a secure fit, leading to comfort issues and a complete lack of isolation (more on that later).

Can you use the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) to work out?

Sweat and water resistance means finally using AirPods at the gym without worrying about damage. The IPX4 rating allows the AirPods (3rd generation) to handle light splashes of water, but there’s still no water submersion or dust protection, so these aren’t the earbuds for adventure enthusiasts.

How do you connect the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) to your phone?

A hand holds the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) case at an angle to display shape of the earbuds.

When you flip open the lid for the first time, the AirPods will automatically begin the pairing process with an iPhone or iPad.

Pairing the AirPods to an Apple device is as simple as ever. Just pop open the lid and tap “Connect” on the pop-up widget and you’re connected via Bluetooth 5.0. The H1 chip syncs the earbuds to your iCloud account for seamless switching from your iPhone to your Macbook or iPad.

Read more: Spatial Audio and surround sound explained

If you decide to use the AirPods with an Android phone, you’ll have to manually pair the earbuds to your device. Open the case, press the pairing button on the back, and hold the case near your phone until the AirPods appear in your list of available Bluetooth devices.

What Bluetooth codecs does the AirPods (3rd generation) support?

As with previous AirPods models, the AirPods (3rd generation) only has Bluetooth codec support for AAC and SBC. While AAC performs well enough on iPhones, it just doesn’t cut it for some Android devices (depending on their hardware). AAC connection quality on Android will vary depending on your device, so you may have to force standard SBC streaming instead. That’s an annoying pill to swallow when there are many cheaper earbuds with high-quality Bluetooth codecs such as aptX.

Is there an app for the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

A hand holds a Apple AirPods (3rd generation) earbud by the stem to reveal the open-type fit and embedded sensors.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a slightly angled design that supposedly makes for a more comfortable fit.

The iOS and iPadOS Settings app is the only app that’s officially compatible with any AirPods variant. In other words, only those who own Apple hardware can access things like firmware updates and more premium features like hands-free Siri access and Spatial Audio.

Through the Apple Settings app, you can name your AirPods, choose what happens when you press the force sensor on either earbud stem, and toggle automatic ear detection on or off (on by default). With automatic ear detection on, media pauses and resumes when you remove and insert an earbud. When you remove both buds, playback stops altogether and doesn’t resume when reinserted.

You can also use the app to choose which microphone the AirPods uses during phone calls and to address Siri (left, right, or automatic). Find My AirPods is another Apple-exclusive feature that can even help identify a single lost AirPods earbud.

How does Spatial Audio work on the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

On iOS 15.1, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) takes Spatial Audio to new levels. Beyond surround sound for tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos in Apple Music, the earbuds can now convert any audio source to surround sound via Spatialize Stereo. In most cases, the regular stereo mix will sound better than with the Spatialize Stereo effects on top.

However, there is one case where the Spatialize Stereo effect is particularly useful: music that has only ever been mixed in mono. Turning on the Spatialize Stereo effect allows you to hear these tracks for the first time in stereo (sort of). The science still isn’t perfect, and we prefer a professional audio engineer’s work over Apple’s algorithm, but it is fun to hear your favorite classics in a new way.

Read more: Spatial Audio and surround sound explained

Alongside Spatialize Stereo is the option to use another surround effect that Apple calls Head Tracked, which uses onboard accelerometers to track your head motion. Turn your head to the left, and the AirPods pan the audio to your right earbud, giving the effect of the music staying in one place. It essentially creates a virtual stage in front of you, making the listening experience much closer to being present at an actual live performance.

How do you control the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

A hand holds the AirPods (3rd generation) in the right ear while touching the force sensor stem.

To take advantage of automatic ear detection, you need an iPhone or iPad.

To take control of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation), you have to interact with the force sensor on either earbud’s stem. An oblong divot demarcates the sensor from the non-touch-sensitive part of the stem, so you won’t find yourself randomly tapping to no avail. You can see the touch controls listed below:

Action (stems)Either earbud
One tapPlay/pause
Two tapsSkip forward
Three tapsPrevious track
Press and holdSiri
"Hey Siri"Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more

Unlike the Apple AirPods Pro, the third-generation AirPods lacks Transparency mode to amplify external noise through the headset. This omission makes sense, seeing how you can’t get a seal with the AirPods (3rd generation). You can use the Settings app to choose which AirPods stem you’d like to use for Siri.

How long does the battery last?

Battery life has received a noticeable increase with each new version of the AirPods. In our objective testing of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation), the earbuds lasted 6 hours and 21 minutes on a single charge. That’s a noticeable improvement over the 4 hours and 7 minutes the previous-gen AirPods lasted in our testing, as well as the AirPods Pro which barely lasted over 5 hours (albeit with noise cancelling turned on).

A hand pinches the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) charging case to display its plain white exterior and minimalist indentation.

The compact case easily fits in a small pocket or pouch.

An optimized battery charging mode learns your daily charging routine, so the AirPods don’t charge past 80% until you need to use it. This will help preserve the lifespan of the AirPods, but keep in mind that true wireless earbuds aren’t built to last. With every charge cycle, the total battery capacity declines, so you likely won’t get more than a couple of years of daily use from these earbuds.

Is the MagSafe charging case any good?

MagSafe and wireless charging provide new ways to power up the charging case, but it’s yet another thing to buy—the MagSafe charging mat doesn’t come with the third-generation AirPods. Apple still hasn’t fully committed to USB-C, so you’re stuck with a Lightning cable for wired charging. The case provides an additional four charges to the earbuds, for over 30 hours of total listening time. Fast charging also provides a full 60 minutes of battery life from only five minutes of charging in the case.

How well does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) block out noise?

A chart to show that the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) don't attenuate much outside noise at all.

Save for some high-end attenuation, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) doesn’t really block outside noise well at all.

The AirPods (3rd generation) does virtually nothing to block out background noise. While Apple redrew the silhouette of its third-generation AirPods, the company retained the unsealed fit. Sure, an unsealed ear has its place when you’re running outside or careening through busy city streets and want to hear everything going on around you. However, this open-fit design will negatively impact how your music sounds, if you’re lucky enough to get the earbuds to stay in place.

Typically, earbuds include rubberized ear tips that seal to the ear and yield some degree of passive isolation. With sealed earbuds, you might see some attenuation of sounds below 1kHz, but the AirPods (3rd generation) does no such thing. Since external noise can still make its way to your ear canals, you’ll run into auditory masking—when a loud sound (external noise) makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet sound (your music). Not only is this bad for sound quality, but you may feel compelled to increase the volume to drown out your surroundings, which could cause noise-induced hearing loss.

How does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) sound?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) open case holds the earbuds and sits on a wood surface.

The earbuds have bass reflex ports on the top edge. If you force the main nozzle output into the ear canal you don’t get the low-end contribution from the rear port.

Yes, this chart looks bad—and it is in some respects—but in practice, the reality isn’t so grim. For those of you not familiar with frequency response plots, this shows that the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) (cyan) sticks to our target (pink) fairly well outside of the highest highs and the lowest parts of the bass range.

A chart showing the frequency response of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and its stark bass rolloff.

Bass always sucks with unsealed earphones, and Apple’s AirPods (3rd generation) are not immune to this.

Normally this would be where we tell you that these earphones suffer from a bad fit. That’s partially true, but Apple leaned into the “poor fit” angle and designed less for “earphones” than they did for “small speakers that rest in your ear.” In this way, the frequency response is impressive, even if it’s damned near impossible to get a measurement that looks good. Truth be told, you likely won’t notice a huge change in your music with that dropoff below 50Hz—and to continue with the speaker example, you’d often need a dedicated sub to reach down below 50Hz.

To demonstrate what we mean, play this comparison on the best headphones or speakers you own. We’ve edited some music to demonstrate how a rolloff this severe sounds at 50Hz.

Unedited track:

Track with extreme rolloff at 50Hz:

Of course, this only works if your equipment can handle it. If you tried really hard and couldn’t hear the difference between the two samples, guess what? Your current setup has this same (or worse) dropoff! Alternatively, you can’t actually hear the difference because it’s not as bad as it looks on the chart and/or you have some mild hearing loss.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) closed case rests against a potted plant on top of a wooden table.

The pocketable case provides an extra four charge cycles.

If you’re a bass-lover, be sure not to press the AirPods (3rd generation) into your ear canal. The unsealed design of the earphones may tempt you to do this, but you’ll find the sound quality actually gets worse, as you’ll lose the bass contribution from the rear port on the top edge. The highs and mids have a relatively higher emphasis than our target—meaning that you’ll hear more high-frequency sounds, ambience, and effects when they’re present in a mix. The upside here is that you’ll probably perceive more “detail” in your music, as the higher speech formants and harmonics will be much easier to hear, at least if your environment permits.

The news isn’t all bad, however, as you can equalize these earphones a bit if you use the Apple Music EQ settings to alter your sound. On iOS, it alters the sound of the media on your device, and that’s the case here—though Android users are left in the cold unless they have a phone with a system-level EQ or one in their music player.

What is Apple Adaptive EQ?

The Apple AirPods Max and its smart case on a white desk.

The AirPods Max also has Adaptive EQ.

Apple’s Adaptive EQ feature is built into the AirPods (3rd generation) and works on iOS, Android, and Windows devices. According to Apple, Adaptive EQ measures how the sound signal is delivered to your ear, and makes real-time adjustments to the low and midrange frequencies to compensate for fit. Simply put, Adaptive EQ is meant to get the best performance possible out of the AirPods, no matter where that bar is. Adaptive EQ processing is also found on the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

Lows, mids, and highs across the AirPods line

So far, the latest AirPods product can’t entirely overcome its physical limitations, and the rounded earphone shape fits worse than its predecessors. It’s not a huge deal when you consider that to get the best performance out of AirPods you need a loose fit, but that still means a higher chance of the earphones simply falling out.

Because sound quality relies so heavily on the AirPods’ ability to reach your ear canals, both the AirPods (2nd generation) and Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have remarkably-similar performance shortcomings.

A plot comparing the frequency responses of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation), the Apple AirPods (2nd generation) and the Apple AirPods Pro.

The latest AirPods model (cyan) has more high-end emphasis than the older AirPods (yellow dashes) and Pro (white dots) models, and a steep rolloff in the sub-bass.

See the 50Hz mark on the chart above? The drop preceding 50Hz tells you that the AirPods (2nd gen) and AirPods (3rd generation) share a lack of bass extension into the sub-bass region, and that the AirPods Pro has the best bass response of the pack.

Songs like NDA by Billie Eilish, THAT’S WHAT I WANT by Lil Nas X, and Circles by Post Malone might sound like their kick drums, and other low frequency elements are either too quiet or sound a bit different than they should through the AirPods. There may not be as much impact to the beat, but again, it looks way worse on a chart than it sounds in real life.

Of the three earphone-style AirPods models, the AirPods Pro is the best option when it comes to sound quality. With the sealed design, ANC, and Adaptive EQ, the AirPods Pro has a lot less work to do to make your music sound good. It’s not a fair comparison to make, but it’s one that has to be repeated: the tradeoffs in sound quality are substantial when you eschew a seal, not merely because of the seal itself, but because you’re rarely going to be in an ideal listening environment.

How good is the microphone of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

As it is with true wireless earphones of any stripe, the microphone isn’t going to be anything to write home about—so a little perspective is needed here. The microphone quality of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) is about what you’d expect from the product, with adept noise suppression and decent enough quality for phone calls and the like.

The overall quality is very good for true wireless earphones—you’re not going to be doing any professional voiceover work with these anytime soon, but that’s okay: that’s not what AirPods are for.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo:

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How is the AirPods (3rd generation) different from the AirPods Pro and previous AirPods?

The old and new Apple AirPods (2019) next to each other.

The first and second-generation AirPods share the same unsealed design as the AirPods (3rd generation).

To recap, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) weds some of the most advanced features of the AirPods line—Spatial Audio with head tracking, an IPX4 build, and automatic device switching—with its most loathed feature: an open-type fit.

Gone are the straight beanpole stems of the first two AirPods generations; Apple drew clear inspiration from its AirPods Pro for the latest AirPods. The AirPods Pro sounds better than the AirPods (3rd generation), and due to how the AirPods (2nd generation) fits, you’re likely to hear more bass from it compared to the AirPods (3rd generation). Battery life is better with the AirPods (3rd generation) than any others, and you can get a full rundown of how it compares to all the AirPods earbuds below.

 Apple AirPods (1st generation)Apple AirPods (2nd generation)Apple AirPods (3rd generation)Apple AirPods Pro
Size (earbud)40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm30.8 x 18.3 x 19.2 mm30.9 x 21.8 x 24 mm
Size (case)44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm46.4 x 21.4 x 54.4 mm45.2 x 60.6 x 21.7 mm
Weight (earbud)4g4g4.3g5.4g
IP certificationN/AN/AIPX4IPX4
Fit typeOpenOpenOpenSealed (three ear tip sizes)
BluetoothSBC, AACSBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0
Active noise cancellationNoNoNoHybrid ANC
Wireless charging available?NoYes, with wireless charging caseYes and MagSafe compatibleYes and MagSafe compatible (2021)
ChipsetW1H1H1H1
Touch controlsYesYesYes, with force sensorYes, with force sensor
ConnectorLightningLightningLightningLightning
Battery life (75dB SPL)3.45 hours4.175 hours6.35 hours5.1125 hours
Original price (USD)(Discontinued)$159, $199 with wireless charging case$179$249

Should you buy the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

A masculine person wears the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) against a blue background.

The AirPods (3rd generation) will no doubt prove popular among iPhone owners, but there are far better, more comfortable options out there for less money.

If you’ve read this far, you likely already know whether or not you’re going to buy the Apple AirPods (3rd generation). However, if you’re still on the fence: we don’t recommend buying these earphones over the Apple AirPods Pro unless you cannot stand things inside your ears.

Not only does the AirPods Pro perform better in almost every category (while carrying most of the same features and adding noise cancellation), but you can also upgrade your charging case for the AirPods Pro to the MagSafe version later. Unsealed earphones have enormous disadvantages, not limited to sound quality.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

It’s definitely a big draw to get the latest and greatest thing out there, but the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) may not be it for everyone. These earphones are fine enough, but the main reason to buy them is if you love the old ones and want more of the same with slight improvements. The fact is that plenty of other (cheaper) true wireless earphones don’t suffer the same drawbacks as the AirPods.

AirPods have a habit of winding up on discount during holidays, so if you can get the third-gen AirPods for less than the going rate for the AirPods Pro, it may be worth the coin.

What are some alternatives?

If you must stay within the AirPods family, the only pair of earbuds we can recommend in good faith is the AirPods Pro. This has all the same comforts as the AirPods (3rd generation), and is even more comfortable because of the secure fit.

If you want to be AirPods adjacent, consider the noise cancelling Beats Studio Buds instead. Apple owns Beats, and even without the H1 chip, you still get to say “Hey Siri” when paired with an iPhone. The Beats Studio Buds reproduces more bass than the AirPods (3rd generation), shares the same IPX4 rating, and works just as well on Android as it does on iOS. Sportier listeners may want to spring for the Beats Powerbeats Pro instead, for its ear hooks and 10-plus-hour battery life.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 noise cancelling true wireless earbuds with one 'bud out of the open, angled charging case.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds 2’s software works on Android, but iPhone users are stuck with the default settings.

Those who aren’t sold on the AirPods and want to save a bit of money should go for the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2, which has slightly better ANC than the more premium Galaxy Buds Pro—another fine AirPods (3rd generation) competitor. The Galaxy Buds 2 has a consumer-friendly sound with appropriately boosted bass and treble notes, but it has a less reassuring IPX2 rating. The Galaxy Buds 2 also lacks Samsung 360 Audio, the company’s version of 3D sound, and its software is only available on Android with certain features limited to Samsung handsets.

Say you own an Android and iOS device and want an OS-agnostic experience. In that case, the Bose Sport Earbuds may be the best option for you. It works with the Bose Music app, which is available on any platform, and fits securely thanks to the cushy ear stays. Unfortunately, you can’t customize the sound through the app, but the default sound is quite good and few listeners will feel compelled to alter it.

Next: The best AirPods Pro alternatives

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