Review: Apple AirPods 3 vs the best cheaper alternatives

TWS true wireless earphones - Above $150

FIVE STARS - The AirPods were always the laughing stock for audiophiles and critical listeners - but not anymore. The AirPods 3 combines excellent features with a massive step up in sound quality. How do the best cheap alternatives compare to Apple's new win?

Apple AirPods 3 specs and features:

  • Bluetooth with AAC codec

  • IPX4 waterproof (splashproof)

  • 6 hours listening on a full charge

  • Charging case can charge earpieces fully 4 times

  • Comes with USB-C to Lightning cable, English manual

  • $179 to $199 - Check price on Amazon US, Amazon Germany or other Amazon countries

Below this audiophile Apple AirPods 3 review, you will find comparisons of the AirPods 3 vs Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro, 1more ComfoBuds Pro, SoundPEATS Air3 and Fiil CC2.

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Design, comfort and battery life

So yeah - the AirPods has a new mound. They are still half-in-ears, meaning they don't go all the way into your ear canals like earphones that use rubber ear tips, but the design changed. There's a bigger speaker opening, and the mound looks a bit rounder, but you can still just 'hang' them in your ears.

The AirPods' 3 fit and comfort are outstanding. The mound doesn't feel too big (in medium-sized ears), and there's enough space between the mound and the stem, so it can rest on your lower ears without the threat of falling out. The fit is tight enough to survive rapid headshakes and running. The IPX4 splashproof rating should make them survive light rain; although the rain-proof and sweatproof IPX5 would have been welcome.

As other half-in-ears, the AirPods 3 makes you hear your surroundings when you're listening to music on them. It's safe in traffic and convenient for everyday use, but it does pick up some wind noise when you cycle or walk with them. Not in a harsh or infiltrating way, but your music does mix up with it.

Battery life has finally been improved on the AirPods 3. It now reaches up to a very usable 6 hours on a single charge - instead of the 4,5 hours on the previous models. That's the same score as the best half-in-ears that only cost around 40 dollars, but the AirPods 3 throws in much more technology, as you will read later.

The case can recharge the buds four times before needing new power itself. You can recharge the case via Apple's lightning jack - there's a USB-C to lightning-cable in the box - or wirelessly. Within the iPhone or iPad settings, you can also activate smart charging. Apple looks at your battery behavior to optimize the charging and make the battery more capable for long-term use. If you never use the AirPods longer than two hours in a session, the case may not fully recharge the batteries for its six hours max, but saves charging cycles for later. It's hard to say how this works out, but the intention is great, as older AirPods and competitors have heavily weakened batteries after around two years.

The case is nothing spectacular, again. It's still shiny white, not premium nor cheap-looking, with only a single charging indicator light on the front. However, as the lid closes with a magnetic click, and it's lovely slim, the case is sturdy and compact enough to take the AirPods 3 with you in any pocket.

Controls and connectivity

Controls on the AirPods have always been limited, and sadly, that doesn't change on the third generation.

You control the earbuds by pinching the stems, which prevents a lot of accidental touches, but feels a bit clumsy as the controls and your fingers are so close to your cheeks. As the AirPods 3 doesn't support active noise cancelling or a transparency mode, these are the functions at hand:

  • Pinch L or R once to play/ pause music

  • Pinch L or R twice to skip a song

  • Pinch L or R three times to return a song

  • Hold L or R to activate voice-assistant Siri

It's a miss there are no volume controls on the earbuds, but the AirPods 3 does automatically pause music when you take an earbud out and resumes playing when you put it back again.

Apart from it, the AirPods 3 have sublime integration of Siri, Apple's voice assistant. This gives you the option to change volume by voice commands. Not only that, Siri can read your incoming messages to you from the messaging and social apps you use - and let you dictate responses back as well. This is what separates Apple's buds from lots of cheaper competitors - even though you can often activate Siri via a button on other earphones. It's fantastic here.

Now, AirPods users have often defended their expensive purchase by talking about the multipoint connectivity the earbuds have with other Apple products: the possibility to make the AirPods connect to multiple Apple devices at the same time.

Indeed, the AirPods connect to your Mac and iPad straight away once you connect it to your iPhone the first time. And the sound on your earbuds will jump from your Mac to the iPhone when you receive an incoming call... but it doesn't always switch the other way. Sometimes, your Mac may show a pop-up it found the AirPods 3, so you can switch easily - but not always. You may still have to switch manually to listen to music or a video on another Apple device to music. The multipoint connection is a nice addition - but not flawless.

Happily, basic connectivity on the AirPods 3 is fantastic. The Bluetooth connection holds strong while connected to different Apple devices, and keeps stable up to ten meters from the device you're currently using.

Calling and watching movies

To no surprise, videos have perfect synchronization between audio and video on the AirPods 3. Gaming is easy with these buds as well. The sound effects follow the action you see on screen in rapid succession - there's hardly any audio delay for sound effects in games.

Phone calls have always been a strength of the AirPods, and this model is no exception. Your voice can be a little metallic, but it's clear and loud enough, even when there's quite a bit going on around you. Noises like traffic are reduced well, and even nearby chatter seems distant for the one you're talking to. The clarity does take a hit when you're facing the wind. When it comes to calling on a bicycle or in the wind otherwise, the Huawei FreeBuds 4i still has a lead. In other scenarios, the AirPods 3 has fantastic call quality.

That's not all. Video calls are a delight with the third installment as well, whether it's Zoom meetings, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or WhatsApp group calls. Your voice sounds crisp and clear, and has a nice full ring to it. Brighter background sounds do come through in the calls, but your voice remains louder most often.

AirPods 3 sound quality review: A big Leap forward

Especially for their steep prices, earlier generations of AirPods haven't had much praise for their sound quality. On, too, the Tronsmart Onyx Ace that sounded a suspicious lot like the first generation AirPods, got the lowest score on sound in the whole of last year.

This time, Apple raises the bar of what you may expect from half-in-ears; earbuds without rubber tips so they don't go into your ears entirely.

First off, the bass is surprisingly punchy. Electronic slams and drums in the mid-bass have a steady thump and have more impact than on previous AirPods or cheaper alternatives. The sub-bass [the darkest tones you can feel as much as hear] doesn't rumble heavily but can dive impressively deep. Bass guitars and other acoustic basslines have outstanding texture as well. There's a nice fullness to the bass, yet tones are cut off before they start to bloat. In comparison to the AirPods 3, the previous AirPods were only imitating bass.

Mid-tones on the AirPods 3 are surprisingly agile. The lower mid-tones are boosted and provide dance and electronic songs with an entertaining, warm sound. At the same time, more traditional genres like singer-songwriter ballads, jazz, and rock are reproduced clearly and naturally - mids sound wonderfully neutral. Acoustic guitars can sound lovely shambly, violins and cymbals are lifelike, and in higher quality recordings, it's dead easy to hear details like the hitting of piano keys. Snare drums could use a little more crispness, but this is nitpicking as mid-instruments are wonderfully accentuated, divided, and separated even in crowded songs.

Tonality in vocals is equally impressive. It's one thing that lower male vocals can sound thrillingly bassy and full without being drowned in other lower mid-tones; it's a second that regular male vocals can appear so... regular. Vocals can sit entirely in the mid-frequencies without being drawn towards the lows or highs. At the same time, higher-pitched singers have all the room to shine. They sound a little colder than average, but never restricted. Take Björk's outbursts in It's Oh So Quiet - so knife-stabbing ferocious, and yet so controlled. The AirPods 3 can have high volume peaks, but the upper-mids and highs don't become piercingly bright by themselves.

A unique feature of the AirPods 3 hasn't been described yet. Straight from the volume slider of iPhones with iOS15, you can switch from the regular sound to Spatial Audio surround mode. This function isn't some gimmicky, random shuffle of instruments to give a fake 3D-ish sound - no, some proper intelligence went into this. Vocals are always in front of you, while instruments come more pronounced from your left and right. The sound is airier, more spacious, and it's easier to place instruments around you. Some details are a bit elevated, making them more prominent than in the original song. But: during the test time, for hundreds of regular tracks, instruments or details never felt out of place or out of tune.

And there's even another option to switch to: Spatial Audio with head-tracking. This variant pinpoints the instruments to a position around you, and shifts the sound as you move your head. iPhone in front of you? Singer in front of you. Move your head to the left? Singer in your right ear. It doesn't always work excellent with music, and sometimes it's hard to keep track of positioning if you move your phone, but the head-tracking is quite sensational in YouTube videos and more 3D-oriented recordings. If you're listening to a YouTuber on moderate volume, he or she can become a part of your surroundings, like the people talking around you. It's insane.

Back to the music: as these are half-in-ears without rubber ear tips, they still have some distance from your ear canals. This results in the AirPods 3 missing some articulation of the best full-in-ears. The bass and lower mid-tones still are a bit cluttered sometimes, and when there are a lot of lows in a song, the bass also lacks some tightness. Finally, electronic basses could be more textured - but all these points are nitpicking compared to the previous AirPods.

The AirPods 3 is a giant leap forward in the sound quality of Apple's earbuds and shifts expectations for all wireless half-in-ear earbuds on the market.

comparisons: AirPods 3 vs cheaper alternatives

AirPods 3 vs SoundPEATS Air3 - The cheapest great alternative

The SoundPEATS Air3 may become the most popular AirPods-like earbud under $50, and for a good reason. It combines a brilliant compact charging case with earbuds just as compact and comfortable as the AirPods 3, offers a low-latency gaming mode, and has all the controls right on the earbuds. Including volume controls. It handles phone calls well and does a fair job for video calls and Zoom meetings, although your voice does sound noticeably clearer on the AirPods 3.

Apple's earbuds also offer a more dynamic sound. The Air3 may have a full, engaging bass with a steady slam, but Apple's mid-bass is punchier, and its sub-bass dives deeper. The SoundPEATS sounds warmer, even though it throws higher vocals and instruments more in your face. The AirPods is better in preventing sharp, high peaks - and it also sounds more natural in the mid-tones. The Air3 is one of the best sounding half-in-ears on the market and offers stellar value for money for its 40 dollars price. It blew the previous AirPods out of the water but can't quite keep up with the AirPods level of detail - and that just shows how big of a leap Apple has made in sound quality.

AirPods 3 vs Fiil CC2 - The cheapest audiophile alternative

It may be less popular than the SoundPEATS, but for one-fourth of the AirPods 3 price, you can also get the incredibly slick Fiil CC2. It (only) has 3,5 hours of battery life on a single charge, catches more wind when you run or cycle with them and doesn't have Apple's multipoint connectivity, but it handles both phone and video calls clearly and is packed with features. It offers free app support with the option to add volume controls on the earbuds, activate a low-latency gaming mode, and has a handful of sound equalizers, including a terrific Bass EQ.

The AirPods 3 bass is punchier, it rumbles heavier and dives deeper, but the Fiil bass is tighter and more accurate. The Fiil emphasizes the treble more than the AirPods: it makes brighter vocals sound clearer and more prominent, and mid-tones like guitars and snare drums are slightly crispier; clearer. The AirPods 3 sounds warmer and boosts lower mid-tones more, causing it to sound a bit more cluttered in the lower frequencies than the Fiil. From the center-mids on up, Apple offers more space in the sound, with increased separation between instruments and layers - especially in the surround modes. The Fiil CC2 sounds amazing both for its price and half-in-ears in general - but the AirPods 3 has better dynamics.

AirPods 3 vs 1more ComfoBuds Pro - The best cheap AirPods Pro alternative

If you don't care so much about the half-in-ear form factor, this one should be on your radar. Priced around $80, the 1more ComfoBuds Pro is a terrific alternative to both the AirPods 3 and the pricier AirPods Pro. The 1more doesn't have multipoint connectivity and the same Siri integration, but strikes back with strong ANC active noise cancelling and a usable Transparency mode, making you hear traffic around you when you need it. The ComfoBuds Pro also lets you tweak controls via an app, has a low-latency gaming mode, and makes you sound very clear in both phone and video calls.

Musically, the ComfoBuds Pro and AirPods 3 have around the same colder-than-warm tonality, and both do a great job of representing mid-instruments (like guitars) naturally. The 1more has a thicker, punchier mid-bass and elevates upper-mids further, presenting higher vocals more prominent and a little brighter. There's more air on top of the sound, but the AirPods 3's music is more around you thanks to its surrounding modes. If you don't care much about the form factor and could use noise cancelling, the ComfoBuds Pro is a splendid cheaper AirPods alternative.

AirPods 3 vs Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro - The new kid on the block

For 150 dollars - 30 to 50 dollars less than the new AirPods, the Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro is an absolute beast. It comes with multipoint connectivity for automatic sound switching between your phone and laptop, has excellent clarity in phone and video calls, and it's loaded with features thanks to the iPhone and Android app. The Soundcore has strong ANC noise-cancelling, it's easy to tweak all the controls, and there's a hearing test to optimize the sound for your ears. It also has an immersive sounding 3D mode - although it's not as natural as on the AirPods. Finally, it comes with twenty other EQ's you can select from the app.

Whichever equalizer you choose: the Liberty 3 Pro always sounds more aggressive and warmer than the AirPods 3. It has a deeper, more textured sub-bass and a heavier hitting and faster-striking mid-bass. Brighter vocals and upper-mid tones are much more prominent on the Soundcore, resulting in a very engaging bassy-vocal sound. The AirPods 3 puts more weight into the center mid-tones. Especially in the surround modes, which better separate instruments, Apple represents acoustic instruments like guitars more naturally. However, if you mostly listen to hip-hop, dance, or electronic genres, it's hard to pass on Liberty 3 Pro's insanely uplifting bass.

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The AirPods 3 is a giant leap forward in sound quality over the previous AirPods, with more definition, more detail and surround modes that really add up to the listening experience. Combined with Apple's multipoint connectivity, Siri integration, and excellent call quality, the AirPods 3 is an outstanding pair of wireless earbuds - whether you're looking for half-in-ears or not.

Five stars - Excellent

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