Just like the first two generations of AirPods, the AirPods 3 don’t look like sports headphones. The lack of ear tips, wings or hooks for a secure fit give them the feel of general-use buds rather than something designed for workouts.
Despite the outward appearance, I’ve found that – just like their predecessors – the AirPods 3 are great to use when exercising. The fit was surprisingly secure, with the lightweight buds sitting neatly in my ear during runs, strength workouts and even yoga sessions with inversions.
The sound is also better than I expected for buds with an open design, and even though you don’t get active noise cancellation or a true awareness mode, the open fit does allow you to hear ambient noise, which can be handy when exercising outside.
The spatial audio setting manages to create an impressive atmospheric feel, especially when you turn on head tracking – where the sound adjusts to the position of your head to create a cinema-style feel – and watch a film. The buds will also adjust the EQ automatically to produce what it determines the best results for you, though you can’t customise the EQ yourself, which is a shame. In general the sound quality is good, but not great, partly because of the more open design compared with in-ear buds.
As someone who uses a range of Apple products, the AirPods 3 are also convenient, switching seamlessly between my laptop, tablet, phone and watch depending on what I’m listening to. They can be fussy about switching to the laptop at times though.
The new, smaller design mimics the AirPods Pro but without the silicone ear tips. These also offer a small improvement on the original AirPods when it comes to fit. The AirPods 3 get the squeeze controls on the stem, which are the same as on the AirPods Pro, and the battery life is also longer at six hours, with the case adding another 24. In addition, five minutes of charging nets you one hour of playback.
They aren’t fully waterproof, with an IPX4 rating, but the AirPods 3 will withstand sweat and rain, and I never had problems with past versions suffering on this front after extended use.
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There is a huge caveat to any praise for the AirPods 3, though, and that’s the price. At £169 the AirPods 3 cost around the same as some of the best all-round sports headphones available, like the Jabra Elite 7 Active, JBL Reflect Flow Pro and Jaybird Vista 2.
All those headphones offer better waterproofing, a more secure fit, ANC and awareness modes, longer battery lives and more impressive sound quality that includes adjustable EQs. On features and real-world performance the AirPods 3 simply can’t compete.
Even if you prefer an open-fit design – all of the buds mentioned above have in-ear tips – the AirPods 3 struggle to match the competition. The £130 Huawei Freebuds 4, which can generally be found for £110, offer a similar design to the AirPods. The AirPods 2 are also now £119 and although they’re a bit larger and don’t have spatial audio, the convenience of connectivity and open-fit design they offer are similar to the new buds.
Another new option is the Adidas Z.N.E. 01 buds, which cost £85 and have an open-fit design with a silicone cover on the buds to make the fit a little more secure. While the AirPods 3 sound a little better and have a longer battery life at six hours vs five in the buds, the Adidas Z.N.E. 01 headphones are much cheaper and do a similar job all round.
The AirPods 3 probably exceeded my expectations on every front, even as a fan of the original AirPods. The fit is good, they are light and enjoyable to use, and the sound is impressive for open-fit buds. However, it is still very hard to recommend them at the high price of £169, especially if you are looking for sporty buds because you can pick up superior options for the same price – or even significantly less.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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