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  • Cheryl Tan

Apple AirPods 3rd Gen Review: BEST Open-Fit Earbuds!

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

I’ll be completely honest here, I’ve never really enjoyed open-fit earbuds before. That’s not to say they’re bad though; they definitely fit the needs of plenty of people who need to keep an ear out for their surroundings while still being able to enjoy music. I just haven’t really been wow-ed by recent open-fit earbuds I’ve tried, but the Apple AirPods 3rd Gen are actually pretty good.

If you think about which earbuds are the most recognised around the world, well, there’s no denying that AirPods are probably the most iconic earbuds. After two generations though, Apple has changed up the third generation AirPods and added a bunch of new features.

Let’s look at the design first. The case itself is more reminiscent of the AirPods Pro case, longer rather than taller, than the AirPods 2nd Gen case. That being said, it’s smaller on most aspects than the AirPods Pro case, just being ever so slightly taller at 4.64cm versus 4.52cm on the AirPods Pro case. It’s also lighter, at slightly under 38 grams for the case. The earbuds are also pretty light at 4.28g.

Left to right: AirPods Pro, AirPods 3rd Gen

The case itself is now MagSafe compatible, which means you can snap it onto a MagSafe charger and it’ll stay in place. What I would have really liked to see, though, is the ability to reverse charge from an iPhone with MagSafe. This could very well be in the works for future AirPods, I don’t know, but I’m a big fan of reverse wireless charging and if the Apple Watch and AirPods could be charged through the back of the iPhone, that would be incredibly convenient to give these products a quick charge when I’m out and about. That being said, these can be charged off the MagSafe battery pack if you have one.

As for the earbuds, they look a lot like the AirPods Pro. They have a noticeable microphone grill at the top of the stem, and there’s supposed to be an acoustic mesh there that reduces wind noise, which does seem to avoid the earbuds picking up the wind noise from my fan blowing straight at my face at home, which is good.

There’s also a new skin-detect sensor added to the earbuds which means you won’t have to worry about the earbuds inaccurately detecting that it’s being worn and playing music even if they’re out of your ears. Most earbuds use optical sensors and if the sensor’s blocked by fabric or the likes, that’s enough to keep the earbuds on, which you don’t want if you keep earbuds in your pocket without putting them back in the case and such.

That being said, if you’re like me and you occasionally pop one side out to take part in conversations but still want music to keep playing, just hold the earbud in a fist and it’ll be enough to trick the earbuds into continuing music playback.

Left to right: AirPods Pro, AirPods 3rd Gen

There are two acoustic vents on the top and back as well as an 11mm custom driver, both built specifically for the AirPods 3rd Gen. More than just that though, an inward-facing microphone has been added to each earbud because Adaptive EQ is coming to the base AirPods. Adaptive EQ is a feature that we’ve seen previously on the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max and it’s essentially Apple tuning the music that comes out of the earbuds for a consistent listening experience.

The earbuds are powered by the same H1 chip that’s in the AirPods Pro, and for my next point, I have to say a big thank you to Apple here, because they’ve brought the force sensor from the AirPods Pro to the AirPods 3rd Gen and it’s honestly, one of my favourite things. Imitation is the highest form of flattery right? And I’m pretty much begging earbuds manufacturers who are still coming out with stem design earbuds to figure out their own take on this control system because it is miles better than any swipe and tap system available for stemmed earbuds on the market.

As for touch controls, press once for play/pause, twice to skip forward, thrice to skip backwards and a long press and hold brings up Siri. Super simple. Unfortunately, there’s no volume control here, and that’s something that I’d like to see in the future. I mean, you can ask Siri to adjust the volume I guess, but sometimes it’s just not convenient to be speaking to your voice assistant.

Left to right: AirPods Pro, AirPods 3rd Gen

Moving on to features, there’s not a lot per se. There’s no ANC here, because, well, it’s open-fit and ANC wouldn’t work too well in this situation. Besides, there’s the AirPods Pro if you want ANC anyway. Likewise, since there’s no ANC, there’s no Transparency mode because, well, open-fit design means it’s pretty much letting in most of the exterior noise already.

But there is spatial audio with dynamic head tracking here, and it’s really quite fun. For music listening, I tend to use fixed spatial audio, but watching movies and the likes with dynamic head tracking is really quite an experience. It’s something that I didn’t expect to come to the more affordable base AirPods, but it’s really nice that Apple has included it here.

These are running on Bluetooth 5.0, which isn’t the newest, but stability is rock solid and there’s no latency that I noticed. As usual, codec support is limited to SBC and AAC, which is pretty much par for the course with Apple’s audio products. Now, a point to note here is that Apple actually suggests using these with products that have been updated to the latest software versions, so iOS 15.1, iPad OS 15.1 and so on. It’s not so much that you’ll be unable to use the AirPods 3rd Gen if you don’t have 15.1, but more like certain functionality won’t work at its best. So like, iCloud Pairing or maybe your device won’t register it as AirPods 3rd Gen, stuff like that. I did try pairing them to an iPhone running iOS 15.0.2 and at the start, there was a popup with a warning so yes, Apple does bring it to your attention. Anyway, there’s really no reason to not update your devices.

Battery life has been improved, with six hours now compared to the AirPods 2nd Gen’s five hours. Apple's specs page states that this drops down to five hours with spatial audio enabled, and it’s relatively accurate; I found myself getting around four hours and 40 minutes at around 50-60% volume. I do listen to these at a slightly higher volume than my usual 30-40%, simply because they’re open-fit.

Something that you’ll want to take note of though, is that Dolby Atmos does lower the volume of music tracks for some reason. If you’re not big on spatial audio, turn it off and your music will play louder. Another tip is that if you do want to keep spatial audio turned on, you’ll notice a big difference between tracks with Dolby Atmos and tracks without. You’ll want to go to Settings, Music and then turn on Sound Check so that the gain levels will be adjusted so you don’t get a shock when a non-Dolby Atmos track comes on.

Microphone quality is very decent and while on FaceTime calls, my voice came across clearly and despite having a fan right next to me, the person on call with me said she couldn’t hear any wind noise or my fan. On Google Meet calls with my colleagues though, I did get feedback that my voice occasionally sounded a bit distant with certain words, but all in all, it was pretty okay as well.

But we come to sound quality, and it’s actually surprisingly good. Now, I never tried the AirPods 2nd Gen, my only experience was with the 1st generation AirPods, the AirPods Pro and Max, but yeah. These sound much better than I remembered and much better than I expected. Sure, I had to raise the volume slightly, but the bass, which is normally one of the first things to go in an open-fit design, was still present and very impactful. Mids and vocals were very decent as well; you get plenty of separation, air and clarity, although I did think the treble could be a bit more emphasised.

Vocal layering though, wow. I was listening to star-crossed by Kacey Musgraves and at the 1:43 mark, the supporting male vocalisation comes in and it’s just kinda mindblowing how you can get this quality from open-fit earbuds. I know, part of it has to do with Apple’s spatial audio tech, of course, but it’s still very impressive. The soundstage is wide, plenty of air there and you get that musicality, snap and crispness. All in all, if I had to listen to one pair of open-fit earbuds for like, the next year, I’d probably go with these.

Truth is, these are Apple’s entry-level earbuds, and while yes, you do pay the Apple Tax, they work very well. Seamless pairing with your other Apple products is a massive plus and I’m a big fan of Apple Music’s spatial audio option, which you’ll be able to really enjoy since these now have support for spatial audio. Open-fit earbuds still aren’t for me, honestly. I’ll definitely pick the AirPods Pro over the AirPods 3rd Gen, but if you’re looking for the ability to hear your environment, these are probably the best open-fit design earbuds you can get, especially if you’re using an iPhone.


Content by Cheryl Tan

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