Apple's AirPods have had a huge role to play in the personal audio segment, both technologically and culturally. While true wireless earphones did exist before the launch of the first-generation AirPods in late 2016, Apple's product undeniably popularised the form factor the world over. The success of Airpods inspired many brands to dive into the fledgling product segment and even draw ideas from its iconic design. Today, while there are plenty of true wireless options from many brands, the AirPods continue to stand out for their recognisable design and styling.
Apple recently launched the AirPods (3rd Gen), priced at Rs. 18,500 in India. Although this headset is the successor to the AirPods (2nd Gen), it features a completely reworked design that is very similar to that of the Rs. 24,900 AirPods Pro. However, it lacks some of the features that set the company's flagship headset apart. Is the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) the best true wireless headset you can buy under Rs. 20,000, and just how well does it work? Find out in this review.
With the third generation, Apple has adopted a new design for the AirPods, taking inspiration from the AirPods Pro. The stems of the earpieces are shorter, and there is now a force-touch button on each earpiece for controls, similar to that of the Pro headset. However, unlike the Pro which has silicone ear tips for a more secure and noise isolating fit, the AirPods (3rd Gen) have the same outer-ear fit as the original AirPods.
The AirPods (3rd Gen)'s earpieces are also bigger than those of the non-Pro AirPods, and have wider grilles. As a result, the fit is more secure than that of the AirPods (2nd Gen), but not as secure and noise isolating as that of the AirPods Pro.
I could hear plenty of ambient sound when wearing the new AirPods, and this is by design, to make them suitable for outdoor use. As has become the norm for true wireless earphones from Apple, the AirPods (3rd Gen) is available only in white. The earpieces and charging case are IPX4 rated for water resistance, and will be able to handle light sprinkles of water and sweat.
A big change is the addition of force-touch controls on the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen). Unlike the less precise touch controls on the first- and second-gen AirPods, force-touch requires a very deliberate gesture similar to pressing a button, and feedback from the headset also makes you feel as though these are mechanical buttons, even though they aren't.
The controls allow you to play and pause music, skip to the next or previous track, and answer calls, as well as invoke Siri without using your smartphone. Although you can't control volume directly from the headset, you can use Siri voice commands to adjust it.
The charging case of the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) is shorter and wider than that of the 2nd Gen variant, to accommodate the shape of the new earpieces. The Lightning port for charging is at the bottom, the pairing button is at the back, and the indicator light is on the front. The case supports Qi wireless charging with MagSafe compatibility for supported accessories.
Apple continues to use Bluetooth 5 and the AAC Bluetooth codec as the default option when paired with Apple source devices, although there is also SBC codec support. The AirPods (3rd Gen) uses Apple's in-house H1 chip, which allows for fast pairing and makes connectivity work well with other Apple devices. There is also a skin detection sensor, which lets the headset know when it's in your ears to control the automatic playback and pause functions. There's no active noise cancellation on the AirPods (3rd Gen), and the sales package includes only a USB Type-C to Lightning charging cable.
Battery life on the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) is better than on the 2nd Gen or Pro models; I was able to get a little over 5 hours of usage time on the earpieces with both music and calls. The charging case holds enough power to charge the earpieces four times over, giving me a total battery life of around 25-26 hours per charge cycle. This is pretty good given the feature set of the AirPods (3rd Gen).
Apple introduced Spatial Audio with Apple TV, and rolled it out for Apple Music in mid-2021. The AirPods (3rd Gen), like the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, supports Spatial Audio, along with head-tracking for supported services.
The Siri voice assistant is also supported on the AirPods (3rd Gen), with the option to enable the hands-free ‘Hey Siri' wake phrase. This works just as it would on an iPhone or HomePod, although the headset does need the paired with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to be connected to the Internet. Siri can read out incoming notifications, adjust volume and control playback, fetch specific content, call contacts, and more, directly from the headset without so much as touching the source device, and all of this worked as expected for me.
Other key features include Apple's quick pairing and setup, which detects the AirPods (3rd Gen) and links it to your Apple ID, so you can automatically pair and quickly switch between your other Apple devices. This also allows for enhanced functionality with the Find My app on iOS. The Find My functionality includes local tracking and notifications when the headset is left behind – similar to what you get with an Apple AirTag.
You can, of course, pair the AirPods (3rd Gen) with other devices such as Android phones using standard Bluetooth. However, the enhanced features that you get when using the headset with Apple devices won't be available.
This generational change for the AirPods goes far beyond just design; the AirPods (3rd Gen) have some key features from the AirPods Pro that set it apart from the 2nd Gen model. These include Adaptive EQ, the company's custom high-excursion drivers and high dynamic range amplifier, and Spatial Audio support. All of these give the new AirPods a sound that is closer to that of the more expensive AirPods Pro, albeit without active noise cancellation.
The lack of ANC is both a benefit and a drawback on the AirPods (3rd Gen); the actual audio signal is ‘unadulterated', so to speak, but at the same time, you're hearing plenty of ambient sound along with music which could hamper the listening experience. That said, the earphones are loud and clean enough to make for a decent listening experience even in somewhat noisy environments.
Apple's Adaptive EQ feature – also seen on the more expensive AirPods Pro and AirPods Max – is present on the AirPods (3rd Gen), aided by microphones on the insides of the earpieces that allow for automatic equaliser adjustment according to the shape of the user's ears. Indeed, I found the sound to be more similar to that of the AirPods Pro than the second-generation AirPods; the sonic signature seemed to be able to adjust itself to various genres and tracks on the fly.
Starting with Snitch by Netsky and Aloe Blacc, the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) made for a sound that was immediately engaging and well calibrated for the track, giving every part of the frequency range its due attention. The start of the track was detailed, with Aloe Blacc's vocals sounding sharp and clear. This punchy, synthesised electronic track sounded impressive, with the AirPods (3rd Gen) flowing through it almost intuitively.
More aggressive and faster tracks such as Holdin' On (Skrillex and Nero Remix) by Monsta sounded cohesive and attacking, with the AirPods (3rd Gen) managing to keep up with the constant change in pace in the track, switching between the gentler vocals and aggressive bass. With the slower and more refined Truth by Kamasi Washington, the earphones managed to bring out the detail in the jazz instruments, while slowly and calculatingly adjusting to the subtle changes in pace and tone.
Performance was also pretty good with the speech-only audio of audiobooks, although I did need to turn the volume up to almost the maximum level when outdoors to overpower ambient sounds. On the whole, the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) makes for an engaging listening experience, and is able to tailor itself to the genre and track in play. The sound is just about as good as on the AirPods Pro, but obviously slightly different because of the lack of active noise cancellation and the ability to hear a fair amount of what's going on in the background.
Although Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos and head tracking isn't new to even the AirPods range, it's become much more relevant since it came to Apple Music in mid-2021. The AirPods (3rd Gen) supports all of these features of Apple TV and Apple Music when used with a compatible source device.
Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio performance is as good as on the AirPods Pro, with the earphones able to simulate a surround sound experience despite the obvious limitations of two-channel audio. Head tracking is impressive as well; turning my head when listening to certain tracks resulted in the music “staying in place” as it were; the vocals in Dolby Atmos-enabled tracks usually sounded like they were originating from the direction of the source device, even if my head was facing a different direction.
Apple has its own way of reducing wind and other ambient sounds when on calls, using an acoustic mesh around the microphones. Although it's hard to tell just how much of a difference this is making to the overall experience, I did have good experiences with calls on the AirPods (3rd Gen) both indoors and outdoors. Still, the lack of active noise cancellation and noise isolation did significantly affect my ability to concentrate on calls if I wasn't in a quiet space.
There is also support for a new AAC-ELD codec, which is said to improve voice performance on FaceTime calls. I didn't particularly notice any difference from before, though.
Priced at Rs. 18,500 in India, the Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) is an expensive pair of true wireless earphones, given that there's no active noise cancellation. However, in all other ways, this is a good pair of earphones. It works very well with Apple devices and accessories, sounds good, and offers an all-round usage experience that is tailored around iOS, Siri, and Apple Music. Although naturally not quite as good as the AirPods Pro, this is the next best option, particularly if you have a budget of less than Rs. 20,000.
Several competing options at around this price and even lower offer better passive noise isolation (unless you prefer an outer-ear fit) and active noise cancellation, but the AirPods (3rd Gen) is designed to work well within the Apple ecosystem. If you have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, you'll want to consider the AirPods (3rd Gen) over options from competing brands, purely for how well they work together. That said, with the AirPods Pro discounted heavily when on sale, you might be able to buy that at just a slightly higher price than that of the AirPods (3rd Gen).