Testing the AirPods 3 – go straight for the AirPods Pro
ReviewAudio

Testing the AirPods 3 – go straight for the AirPods Pro

Martin Jungfer
Zurich, on 04.02.2022
Translation: Veronica Bielawski

The AirPods 3, launched in October 2021, are Apple’s latest in-ear headphones. Personally, I wouldn’t buy them. I prefer the two-year-old Apple AirPods Pro.

Every day, I have a choice to make: do I reach for my Airpods Pro, which I’ve had for over a year? Or do I go for the third-generation non-Pro AirPods? By now, I’ve made the selection about one hundred times. At the beginning of the testing period, I deliberately alternated daily between the two models. I tried them while working from home and while out and about (commuting and taking walks). I used the earphones to listen to music and podcasts and to make phone calls.

At the end of January, I declared the three-month test period over. Since then, I’ve gone back exclusively to my tried-and-true AirPods Pro for one simple reason: Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). I missed being able to block out the noise of my surroundings with the AirPods 3. Of course, the Pros don’t manage to block out all noise – and block significantly less than over-ear headphones – but it’s enough for me.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Apple’s new third-generation AirPods. Integration with the Apple ecosystem is perfect, as you’d expect; when I’m on the go, all I have to do is take them out of their case, and they connect to my iPhone or MacBook. Back home at my desk, they connect to my Mac Mini. There’s no difference to the AirPods Pro, which makes sense, as both use the same chipset (H1) and very similar software.

Inconsequential difference in runtime

In terms of runtime, the AirPods 3 are slightly superior: they offer four hours of talk time compared to three and a half hours on the Pro. In terms of listening time, the third-generation AirPods’ lead is an hour and a half. If you recharge the buds in their charging case, this advantage grows. In total, you can get up to 30 hours of listening time on the AirPods 3, and «only» 24 hours on the AirPods Pro. In my day-to-day life, the difference is negligible. Most of the time, I’m able to recharge the buds before the batteries run out; they typically last until lunch time, unless I have lots of meetings that require me to talk a lot. This uses noticeably more battery. Either way, the fact that I can charge both models wirelessly makes charging easier. Whenever I’m not using the headphones, I keep them in the charging case, on a charging station.

Good music and spatial audio

The AirPods 3 make for a very pleasant listening experience. Their adaptive equaliser does a great job. According to Apple, the inward-facing microphones in the AirPods make it possible to measure the sound I have in my ear and then improve it. I’m happy with the result: the bass is surprisingly powerful, and the treble clear. When enjoying a recording of the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert, I hear the flute just as well as the powerful, earthy tuba.

The AirPods 3 can do almost everything the AirPods Pro can do – except noise cancellation.
The AirPods 3 can do almost everything the AirPods Pro can do – except noise cancellation.

What I find most impressive is what the little buds deliver in terms of spatial audio. I really wasn’t sure what to expect based on Apple’s marketing text.

«Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking brings cinema-like sound from the moviefilm or video you’re watching, so that sound feels like it’s coming from all around you.»
Apple on spatial audio

It’s something you need to experience first-hand. I started off with the Made for Spatial Audio playlist on Apple Music. I was so fascinated by the fact that the headphones «understand» in which direction I turn my head – and adapt the sound accordingly – that I also tested them with Apple TV. The experience is similar to that in the cinema, minus the bone-shaking bass, of course. But hearing the sea mines explode for minutes on end in «Greyhound» was definitely an immersive experience. I expect home cinema connoisseurs are tutting now, at the latest. Rest assured, I realise this is like comparing a 1967 VW Beetle and an Audi R8 Spyder RWS.

Noise cancellation makes all the difference

The AirPods Pro also do spatial sound, by the way. Hence my preference for the Pros. Sure, they’ll set you back a bit more – about as much as you’d pay for a fully topped, family-size pizza.

Here’s the thing: if you pay more and get the AirPods Pro, you get a deciding feature: ANC. The nice sound that both models deliver is all the more impressive when you can block out annoying ambient noise. The same applies when making phone calls. To hear your surroundings, you can switch to Transparency mode by pressing the stem of the earphone. The AirPods Pro stay put in your ears thanks to the silicone attachments. With the AirPods, I was initially worried that their open design would cause them to fall out of my ear every now and then. An undue worry – they don’t fall out, at least not for me. But you’ll have to see for yourself how well the AirPods sit in your ears. What I can say is that the AirPods Pro feel more snug overall. But they do create a slight feeling of pressure, despite Apple’s vent system, which is supposed to prevent just that. For this reason, I make sure to take regular breaks when using the AirPods Pro – every two hours, at the very least.

The AirPods in use, shown in my wife’s prettier ears.
The AirPods in use, shown in my wife’s prettier ears.

Verdict: not worth the savings

If you’re a critic of ANC and suffer from an earwax phobia, then the AirPods 3 are a good fit for you. You may as well save on the premium at which the AirBuds Pro come. And you’ll have an easier time cleaning your buds; the silicone ear tips on the AirPods Pro require more care than the fully plastic AirPods.

All the other advantages that come with the new AirPods don’t convince me enough to trade in my AirPods Pro. Yes, the new AirPods are 2.2 grammes lighter; and yes, the charging box is just under six millimetres smaller. But I’ve never actually noticed these differences when carrying the earphones in my pocket. Annoying chatter that I couldn’t tune out, on the other hand...

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Journalist since 1997. Stopovers in Franconia (or the Franken region), Lake Constance, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Zurich. Father since 2014. Expert in editorial organisation and motivation. Focus on sustainability, home office tools, beautiful things for the home, creative toys and sports equipment. 


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