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It’s safe to say that Apple practically invented the true wireless earbud category when it released the original AirPods in 2017.
But the world has changed a lot since then, especially in the two and a half years since Apple’s last AirPods update. True wireless earbuds are everywhere, and Apple is aiming to stay competitive with the AirPods (3rd Generation), which will be available on October 26 for $179.
It started by giving the “regular” AirPods a redesign for the first time. Their smaller stems and downward-sloping buds are reminiscent of the AirPods Pro, and these changes helped the third-generation AirPods stay in my ears while moving around. If you’re used to the way first or second-generation AirPods feel, you’ll notice the difference. One of our favorite improvements is that these new AirPods have pressure-sensitive stems, which allows you to invoke Siri or skip tracks without double-tapping earbuds.
One aspect of the AirPods’ design that Apple didn’t change is their hard-plastic eartips, which don’t create a tight seal around your eardrum like the gummy-tipped AirPods Pro. Making this choice had two results: It prevented Apple from adding active noise cancellation to the third-generation AirPods Pro, and sacrificing audio quality for bass frequencies.
These aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but mean that you should opt for AirPods Pro if you consume media in a noisy environment, want earbuds for travel, or like bass-heavy music. The price difference between third-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro is $80 on Apple’s site, but less than $25 if you shop on Walmart.
The new AirPods’ appearance is the first difference you’ll notice, but Apple re-engineered the earbuds with hardware that improves their audio quality and adds support for spatial audio. In our tests, the third-generation AirPods do sound better than their predecessors. Their midrange and treble response remains solid, with better definition on the low-end.
We listened to everything from Jazz albums of the 1950s to pop records from 2021, and found the third-generation AirPods could handle everything we threw at them without any trouble. It was easy to distinguish different instruments in busy sections of songs, or hear vocal effects like reverb and echo clearly.
Our only problems came when listening to music in the same room as another person. We turned up the volume to help drown out the sounds of typing keys and an air purifier only to be told that our music was bleeding through enough to cause a distraction. The third-generation AirPods are best suited for solo music listening, just like open-back over-ear headphones.
The improvements Apple made to the third-generation AirPods’ sound were nice, but the earbuds’ biggest feature is support for spatial audio, which allows them to play movies, TV shows, and music with a Dolby Atmos mix. This new audio format allows music producers and production sound mixers to place individual elements — specific instruments, multiple people talking, a moving vehicle — in a virtual 3D space.
By turning your head, the mix of whatever you’re listening to will change in real time, recreating the experience of watching shows or listening to music from a pair of speakers. In some cases, audio will pan around you automatically, getting louder or softer to create a sense of depth, like something is moving closer or further away.
When a Dolby Atmos audio track is mixed correctly, the experience of watching or listening to media on a pair of third-generation AirPods is uncannily similar to a traditional home theater experience without requiring a lot of equipment. Apple has even integrated this technology into FaceTime, which will now automatically detect the side of the screen the active speaker is on, and mix the audio accordingly. As different people speak, their voice will become more dominant.
The technology behind spatial audio is very impressive, but it relies on musicians, recording engineers, filmmakers, and production sound mixers to buy into the idea that Dolby Atmos is worth adopting. For its part, Apple has introduced Dolby Atmos support in Apple Music, and recent albums like Lorde’s Solar Power and re-issues of classic records like Tattoo You are available in this format. Alternative services like Amazon Music Unlimited and TIDAL also support Dolby Atmos streaming.
It’s entirely possible that Apple’s bullishness on spatial audio, which is now available on many of its headphones, speakers, phones, tablets, and computers will encourage its success, but that remains to be seen. Regardless, spatial audio is the third-generation AirPods’ standout technical achievement.
Two additional features of the third-generation AirPods you’ll appreciate regardless of the media you consume is their increased battery life and updated battery case. Apple says the third-generation AirPods offer up to six hours of music playback per charge, a one hour improvement over the previous model or AirPods Pro. This change didn’t make a huge difference in our experience, but it’s nice to see Apple making strides in this area.
The earbuds’ battery case still provides 24 hours of additional music playback, but it’s now compatible with MagSafe, Apple’s new magnetic charging technology. Sticking the third-generation AirPods’ battery case on a MagSafe accessory won’t charge it more quickly than a standard Qi charger, but you can take advantage of this feature in different ways.
One is to mount a MagSafe charger onto your wall, so you can quickly charge and grab your AirPods (or iPhone) without taking up space on your desk. MagSafe-compatible car mounts offer a better place to store the earbuds than your pocket while you drive. Apple has also refreshed the AirPods Pro to include a MagSafe-compatible battery case without raising the price.
The third-generation AirPods may not seem like a substantial update at first glance, but the improvements Apple made, especially regarding spatial audio, make them a worthwhile upgrade for anyone using a first-generation pair. We’re still inclined to recommend the AirPods Pro to most because of their active noise cancellation, but that comes down to personal preference.
If you’ve had trouble fitting gummy-tipped earbuds in your ears, or have been curious about spatial audio, you should have no reservations about picking up the third-generation AirPods.