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Apple’s AirPods 3 Buds Aren’t Worth the Money

Rating: 6/10 | Price: from £169 from Amazon | John Lewis | Apple


Spatial audio support; superior design and build; fine microphones; surprisingly good bass; IPX4 


Overpriced, even compared to other Apple-made models; lack of noise cancelling; sound leakage

Value for money. It's an important factor in reviewing any product. Yes, it's not as alluring as evaluating sleek design or new abilities, but it's key nonetheless. In a world where reviewers on the whole don't pay for the products they are evaluating, the bearing of this vital aspect can occasionally be, not forgotten, but diluted. 

I'm often taken to task by readers asking how a high-end phone can now cost more than half the average £2,647 monthly income. The answer I give is usually along the lines of our phones these days are not just phones, they are our camera, music player, games console, television and mobile computer. In today's money, the hulking Motorola 3200, the brick phone from the early 1980s, would cost a remarkably familiar sum of £1,651 adjusted for inflation — but it was just a phone. It couldn't even play Snake

Headphones are still just headphones, however. Yes, the wires have gone. Yes, mics have been added. And, yes, they have tech advances such as noise cancelling and wireless charging. But primarily they still serve the same purpose. And the cost of those tech advances has plummeted. Noise cancelling is now commonplace, even present in some budget buds. The same is true for wireless charging. 

All this has made Apple’s runaway successes AirPods look increasingly dated compared to a growing pool of excellent competition. Five long years have passed with the original AirPods being largely untouched. Well, AirPods 3 have finally landed to bring these ubiquitous buds up to date. But the snag is they cost considerably more than their rivals. Can the company justify what is possibly the most obvious “Apple tax” yet? Not really. Here's why.

Who's it for

Apple stans, most obviously. And there are plenty of them. There is no doubt that the company will sell millions of these earbuds. Whether they deserve to is another matter. 

AirPods 3 are also for those who like to immerse themselves in the Apple ecosystem, using Siri as much as possible, sporting an Apple Watch, rejoicing every time docs and logins seamlessly sync from iMac to MacBook to iPhone. They're all in already, and paying over the odds for some earphones won't concern them (though, by rights these punters should already own AirPods Pros). 

The crucial and obvious difference here is that when AirPods first came out in 2016 they were for everyone. Five hours of battery life coupled with the fact that they were solid and reliable and staunchly delivered on what they promised put them ahead of everyone else. This is no longer the case.


One of the big benefits of the new AirPods is the design. Borrowing heavily from the still excellent AirPods Pro, the updated look has a new contoured earbud, shorter stems with the AirPods Pro force sensor and a wireless charging case. They look more premium as a result. An IPX4 rating means they’re sweat and water resistant. Battery life is up by just an hour per charge to 6 hours, plus four full charges in the case.

Inside has got an overhaul, too. A new custom-built driver and high dynamic range amplifier that genuinely delivers more powerful bass — in fact, a surprising amount of it — as well as crisp high frequencies. An inset mic in each earbud designed to minimize wind noise when you’re on a call indeed works. Connection is still Lightning cable. 

Living with it

The new design is a double-edged sword. The clear improvement makes you feel like you're about to get an audio experience akin to the Pros, but of course you don't. The absence of silicone tips means there’s no noise cancelling here, and if you are used to ANC then it's a shock to experience the bleed of noise coming in and going out of the new AirPods. Traffic noise spoils the listening experience if you are a podcast fan, while music obsessives will on occasion be wanting more volume to overcome background commotion or Tube clatter. 

The new design also aims to address fit issues. But hard plastic can never compete with flexible silicone, so the quality of ear fit you get with these new AirPods depends on your own lugholes. For me, they fit fine, and aren't prone to falling out, even when running. But this won't be the case for everyone. One size, in the case, will not fit all. 

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To try and mitigate this very fact, the new AirPods feature Adaptive EQ. Apple says the tech tunes the low and mid frequencies in real time “to account for what may be lost due to variances in fit”, and to give credit where it is due this works to some extent, but not completely. Low frequencies are certainly impressively rendered in AirPods 3, but midrange not so much. The audio experience is undoubtedly an improvement on the old basic AirPods, but only so much audio wizardry can be achieved through computational fiddling. 

Apple wants to make a big deal about spatial audio and dynamic head tracking appearing in their new buds, too. Spatial audio means wearers can experience 3D sound powered by Dolby Atmos on compatible music and video, as well as group FaceTime calls. Your interest in this will depend on how much you enjoy the positional trickery. It can be immersive in watching movies but on watching TV programs I find it distracting. And then there is the issue that hardly any music has been recorded with this tech in mind, so what you experience is not, in fact, what was intended by the artist. 

Killer feature

By far the crowning glory of the new AirPods is their ability to pair with your Apple devices, allowing things like auto switching between your iPhone, iPad, and Mac. If you get a call, for example, the audio automatically routes to your iPhone so you can pick up. The integration with Siri is there, including always-on commands. You can temporarily audio share with other iPhones or iPads. There's tracking through Find My so you can locate lost pairs.

Apple has also fixed a bugbear with AirPods where the automatic pause on playback when you take them out is completely undone if you shove the buds in your pocket. Now, thanks to a new skin detect sensor combined with the accelerometer, new AirPods can better determine whether they are in your ears or in your jacket. I tried to fool this new sensor, but couldn't — so this is indeed a battery-saving plus. 

Why oh why…

But here we get to the inescapable problem of price, or value for money. The AirPods 3 will set you back £169. Not only do they seem wildly overpriced when you consider the competition is offering a lot more for less, including noise cancelling, like the Nothing Ear 1 (£99), but, amazingly, these don't even stack up against other earphones even Apple is producing. 

The Beats Studio Buds (£129) have the same sweat-resistance rating, two hours more battery life, and active noise canceling — and they retail for £40 less at £129. The just-announced Beats Fit Pro ($200) have the same spatial audio tech and H1 chip, and can basically be seen as upgraded AirPods Pro, and only cost $200 (and WIRED's early listens bode well). If you must have AirPods Pros you can pick those up new for £200

So, should I buy it?

When you would be better off with any of the above options over the AirPods 3 at the price they retail, it doesn't matter how reassuringly expensive you find Apple gear, you can only conclude that these earphones are not worth your cash. They look great, and sound good (mostly), but unless money is of no consideration whatsoever, look elsewhere… even within Apple itself.

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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