For me, one minor but recurring frustration of the pandemic has been unwittingly slingshotting an AirPod from my ear while removing my mask. It happened to me most recently on a gloomy fall evening, forcing me to retrace my steps in the pouring rain and scan the sidewalk of a busy Brooklyn street for a small white earbud that looks a hell of a lot like a soggy cigarette butt in the dark. I found it, but this was just one of the many times over the last 18 months where my trusty AirPods have been foiled by their mortal enemy: the face mask.
Frankly, it's a near-fatal flaw in current times. But how could Apple know in 2016, when AirPods first launched, that four years later a mandatory pandemic accessory would be shooting them out of our ears like little Nerf Gun bullets?
Apple, as it always does, has packed a bunch of new advancements into its entry-level earbuds, but the most important is the simplest: They're less apt to get pulled out when you put on or take off your face mask.
After testing the new AirPods 3 for a week, I can confidently say that the mask factor, more than the sound or battery life, is the most exciting improvement for me.
The buds do fit a little differently. They’re fatter and wider than the original AirPods. But I found that they fit and stayed in my ears just fine. Your ears may vary. (If fit is an issue for you and you have a few extra dollars to spend, you might consider the AirPods Pro version, which comes with interchangeable rubber ear tips of varying sizes.)
Apple’s newest entry-level AirPods now support spatial audio, a feature already included in their Pro and big chonky boi over-the-ear AirPods Max siblings. It’s supposed to give them a more “immersive” sound.
I tested this out watching the scene from Arrival where Amy Adams meets the squid aliens — a sound-rich moment with lots of weird low alien grunts and noises. And, indeed, the alien jabbering did sound… deeper and more complex with spatial audio. But truth be told, when it came to alien-free, just-humans-talking scenes, I didn’t notice a huge difference.
Using spatial audio as a music enhancement was confusing. Listening to Lil Nas X’s “Montero” in Apple Music with spatial audio seemed to make the song quieter; I thought it sounded better in regular stereo.
I had similar feelings about Dolby Atmos, a surround sound technology initially created for movie theaters that Apple now offers on some recordings. I didn’t notice a significant difference.
That said, I use my headphones mostly for podcasts and audiobooks, so my ears may not be as attuned to such things. In other words, AirPods 3 do sound better than the AirPods 2, but if you’re not an audiophile, the difference may not be significant. If you’re watching Dune on your phone with headphones, you may have a better time with the AirPods 3. But also, I beg you, please do not watch Dune on your phone.
Another thing to know: The AirPod 3s have the longest battery life of all AirPods — 6 hours of listening with 24 hours in a fully charged case, a total of 30 hours. They also come with a wireless charging case, which previously you had to pay extra for in the gen 2 AirPods. Also, if you’re a very sweaty exerciser, these are sweat- and water-resistant.
L–R: AirPods 2, AirPods 3, AirPods Pro
So which AirPods should you buy if you’re in the market for them? It’s a question of wants and needs, really. If you care about noise cancellation, which essentially wipes out the world noise around you, Pros are the way to go (personally I don’t like noise cancellation for safety reasons). Pros also have the shorter stems for defense against your mask loops.
But if you’re just looking for a solid pair of great-sounding earbuds and you’re willing to spend $179, the AirPods 3 are a good way to go. Certainly, the extra $50 is an easy price to pay for not chasing them around the floor of a Dunkin Donuts every time you stop to grab a cup of iced caramel macchiato. Trust me, nothing good has ever come from the floor of a Dunkin.