Jacob Krol/CNN
CNN —  

Apple’s new AirPods 3 take a “Goldilocks” approach, combining much of what worked with previous iterations of the brand’s basic earbuds with some higher-end Pro-model features.

After nearly a week with these earbuds, the AirPods 3 meet the bar of previous models when it comes to convenience, ease of use and simplicity. No silicone ear tips results in an open design that rests in your ear, combined with better audio quality, thanks to software tricks and a new driver inside.

Let’s unpack our full thoughts on AirPods 3.

Pro-level features for a less premium price

AirPods 3 keep expected features like fast pairing and quick switching while packaging excellent sound in a smaller design with longer battery life.

The who, what and how

Who these are for: AirPods 3 are for someone who prefers a smaller and more ergonomic open design than the AirPods Pro. These buds also have better sound, better sweat resistance and longer battery life than the previous AirPods. They’re also $70 cheaper than AirPods Pro, with longer battery and nearly on-par sound quality.

What you need to know: Like previous models, AirPods 3 feature an open-ear design that doesn’t fully seal off your ear. And while these have classic AirPods features — fast pairing, quick switching and “Hey Siri” — you won’t find noise cancellation or transparency modes like on the more expensive AirPods Pro.

How these compare: For $50 more than second-gen AirPods, the third-generation earbuds start with a more compact build that nestles more tightly in the ear. For those who found the originals to weigh down or fall out, AirPods 3 might just fit better. They also offer strong sound that adjusts the EQ on the fly and have noticeably stronger bass performance. As a whole, though, the sound mix is closer to that of AirPods Pro minus a true sealing off of the ear. AirPods 3 offer the best battery life out of any pair of in-ear AirPods as well. These should be considered if you value audio quality, long battery life and an ergonomic build.

A shorter stem and shaped open-ear tips

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Like previous standard AirPods, the AirPods 3 have plastic ear tips with no silicone coverings for an open-ear design. And like AirPods Pro, these feature shorter stems.

The shorter stem means these won’t stick out as much, and after close to a week of use, they feel pretty comfortable. With no tip, these rely on a slightly more contoured design for the top of the ear tip. Fit will vary from ear to ear, of course, but in our tests, these nestle right into the ear canal quite swiftly.

It’s a slightly more comfortable fit with less wiggle but still doesn’t seal the ear like an earbud with a silicone, foam or rubber ear tip. AirPods 3 don’t include removable ear tips, and there is no software feature to make sure they fit well in your ear like on AirPods Pro. And like standard AirPods, AirPods 3 represent an option for those who prefer a looser seal. While sitting or standing at a desk, these stayed comfortably in our ears and remained secure while moving around an apartment or city streets and during workouts.

You don’t need to stress about working out in these AirPods since they carry ​​an IPX4 resistance for water and sweat, which means that you can wear them in the rain (a heavier downpour or a drizzle) and through a workout. We ran through yoga, strength and cycling classes on Peloton and Fitness+ with no issue. The rating also carries over to the carrying case, which is handy if you keep it in your pocket or are exposed to the elements.

And in true AirPods fashion, you’ll likely forget you’re even wearing these after a bit. Each AirPod 3 weighs in at 0.15 ounces, which is lighter than a 0.18-ounce AirPod Pro. It’s splitting ounces on paper, and you’d be hard-pressed to feel a difference in your ear.

AirPods 3 finally get updated controls in the form of a squeezable and click cable sensor on the shorter stem. It’s identical to that of AirPods Pro in that you can click in to play or pause, long-press to engage Siri and have commands for track playback and declining controls. It’s functional, and since it’s a force sensor, you won’t accidentally be tapping like other earbuds.

Good sound for any genre with Spatial Audio support

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AirPods 3 deliver clear and rich audio that’s nearly on par with AirPods Pro, thanks to a mix of hardware and software smarts.

These true wireless earbuds feature a new custom driver from Apple and an amplifier that produces audio. They aren’t as large or bulky as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds or the WF-1000XM4 from Sony. Still, though, AirPods 3 create rich audio with notably stronger bass over second-gen AirPods. These do leak sound at higher volumes, especially in comparison to AirPods Pro — the seal from the silicone ear tip there keeps more sound localized just to your ear.

Apple’s Adaptive EQ uses inward-facing microphones to adjust the mix in your ears in real time. This first premiered on AirPods Pro and is also featured on AirPods Max. It works pretty well here and can adequately mix in an open-ear format. The primary tones of a song are more pronounced, but it also doesn’t shy away from raising elements that might generally be lowered.

The other key feature is Spatial Audio, which uses some software tricks and physics knowledge to make it seem like the music is coming from all around you (and not just left and right). AirPods 3 also toss in support for head tracking, which will change audio placement as your head moves away from the device you’re streaming on. This can result in vocals moving to the right or left and gives you the effect of being at a live show.

Spatial Audio is something you need to listen to in order to get it, and it shines on AirPods 3. We’d highly recommend giving it a spin with “Mr. Perfectly Fine” by Taylor Swift, “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. Specifically, the latter has elements of a track zooming around you, with consistently strong bass.

Long battery life

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While these don’t stretch as far as Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds — those hit 12 hours and 30 minutes in our testing — AirPods 3 are the longest-lasting earbuds in Apple’s lineup. The tech giant promised six hours of playback on average from a full charge, and with volume in between 60% and 75%, we hit six hours and 10 minutes of listening. That’s pretty impressive for a relatively small pair of earbuds.

It also stretches beyond AirPods Pro, which fall between four hours and 30 minutes to five hours, along with passing the second-gen AirPods that max out at about five hours. Listening at louder volumes on AirPods 3 results in the battery falling closer to six hours and at times a little under. But we could easily make it through a majority of the workday with the need for a quick charge in the case to keep going.

The AirPods 3 case is like a smaller AirPods Pro case — it’s still a rounded rectangle in design but is more pocketable. If you’re carrying them in the front pocket of jeans, it’s less of a bulge, and they’ll take up less space in a bag. A quick five-minute charge delivers about an hour of listening, and the case itself provides four total charges (aka 30 hours of listening).

You can charge it on a Qi-enabled wireless charging pad or wired with a Lightning cable. Apple still includes a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box. The other change is that AirPods 3 support MagSafe charging, in that these will magnetically attach to a MagSafe charger. This route doesn’t equate to much, though. Yes, it’ll stick there, but it doesn’t charge faster and doesn’t seem necessary. It would have been neat if these could magnetically attach to an iPhone and charge from that device. And it’s been done by other devices — both the Galaxy S21 and plenty of Pixels let you charge another device on the back. Suffice to say it’s not here, but Apple should really consider it.

Features perfect for Apple users

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Like any other pair of AirPods — standard, Pro or Max — it’s all about how these integrate with other Apple devices (Mac, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV and iPhones). AirPods 3 meet the bar set by the others and really cement themselves with convenient features.

AirPods 3 paired with an iPhone 13 Pro Max in a matter of seconds — we counted and it was six — after we opened the case next to the phone. You’ll need to be running iOS 15.1, which is rolling out to devices. After you pair, you’ll get a quick tour of the features, and in the background, the earbuds will sync with your Apple account. And that’s the real key here.

After that, you can easily switch between devices, so if you’re listening to music on your Mac with AirPods 3 and a call comes in, you can switch to your iPhone. Similarly, it was getting pretty late and we were catching up on “Vanderpump Rules” on the Apple TV 4K, and quickly connected AirPods 3 to the TV to be considerate to our neighbors. These quick switches happen seamlessly and within a matter of seconds. Notably, faster than AirPods Pro and standard AirPods.

These are all powered by the Apple-made H1 chip, which the company has steadily improved via over-the-air automatic firmware updates. The most recent release delivered improvements with quick switching; it will also roll out to other AirPods. AirPods 3 feature Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity inside as well.

You can also say, “Hey Siri” if you’re running, cycling or don’t want to be bothered to long-press the force stem. And the virtual assistant is pretty helpful in that you can make calls, ask queries, control smart home devices and send messages with accurate dictation. You can’t automatically translate like with Pixel Buds A and a Pixel phone, though. The other Siri feature is that the assistant can announce notifications — whether it’s an incoming message with the option to reply or letting you know what your most recent notification says.

Bottom line

For $179.99, AirPods 3 impress as an excellent pair of earbuds with Apple-exclusive features. Like AirPods, Pro or Max, we wouldn’t recommend these if you have an Android phone, but if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, they certainly deserve a look.

If you’re someone who wants better audio with long battery life but doesn’t need noise cancellation or transparency, AirPods 3 are likely the best fit for you. Similarly, if you don’t like snug ear tips and want a more open design, we’d look at these or standard AirPods. It comes down to a $50 price difference between the two, and the core changes are a more ergonomic build, better sound and extended battery life.

For $70 more, you can get silicone ear tips for a better seal, noise cancellation and a transparency mode on the AirPods Pro.