OnePlus Buds 3 review

Prasad, 05 February 2024

The OnePlus Buds 3 are the company's latest truly wireless earbuds. The company launched its first TWS earbuds back in mid-2020 with the original OnePlus Buds. We never saw a OnePlus Buds 2 but there were the Buds Z and the Buds Z2 in late 2020 and 2022, respectively. The Buds 3 seem to combine the original Buds and the newer Buds Z range as the company may have realized it has one too many earbuds series on the market right now.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

The new Buds 3 sit between the Buds Pro series at the top and the Nord Buds series below. You get some of the more premium features from the flagship model, such as ANC, dual drivers, and LHDC 5.0 while maintaining a more pocket-friendly price tag of around $100.

Design

The design of the earbuds and case of the Buds 3 is very similar to that of the Buds Pro 2. The case looks nearly identical at a glance but in reality, the dimensions are all different, giving the Buds 3 case a narrower but taller appearance. The newer model's case is also a bit lighter and lacks the glossy flair on the hinge.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

Despite being cheaper, however, the Buds 3 case has a very nice finish and build quality. The hinge feels sturdy and has little to no sideways movement. The exterior has a matte finish with a chrome OnePlus logo that tends to gather lint.

Pop open the case and the insides have a very diffused matte finish, with the only glossy bits being the receptacles for the earbuds. OnePlus keeps finding new and innovative ways of hiding the regulatory markings, and this time they are barely visible being printed on the inner sides of the receptacles at an angle where you won't normally look at the case. A single button is placed inside to initiate pairing.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

The earbuds have the same two-tone finish as the Buds Pro 2 or indeed the original Buds Pro. This time, however, the glossy part encompasses more of the back of the earbuds and nearly covers the entire exterior. You'll only really see the matte finish on the inner side and the bottom.

Unlike the Pro models, the Buds 3 earbuds don't have pressure-sensitive stalks. Instead, you simply tap on the outside for play/pause and track skipping. You can also tap and hold to switch between ANC modes. New for this model is a volume adjustment, controlled by swiping your finger up or down on the stalk. Very convenient.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

The earbuds feature soft silicone ear tips and three sizes are provided in the box. The earbuds were very comfortable in my ears using the default medium size, and I was able to wear them for hours without feeling any discomfort.

The Buds 3 earbuds have an IP55 rating for dust and water resistance, protecting them against sweat and splashes of water.

Software and features

The Buds 3 support Bluetooth 5.3 connectivity with SBC, AAC, and LHDC 5.0 codecs. They feature a dual-driver design with a 10.4mm dynamic driver for low and mid frequencies and a 6mm tweeter for high frequencies. The drivers are stacked vertically in a coaxial pattern.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

The software support is provided via the HeyMelody app for Android and iOS. On OnePlus devices, the functionality is built into the system settings but is a bit harder to find as it's buried fairly deep. Regardless of which app you use, the functionality is common.

Through the app, you can switch between the ANC modes and adjust the intensity of the noise cancellation. You can choose between three levels of noise cancellation or set it to Smart so it can adjust according to background noise.

HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app HeyMelody app
HeyMelody app

The Sound Master EQ features four presets and a six-band custom EQ that lets you create multiple custom presets. BassWave is a bass boost dial that lets you increase and, counterintuitively, decrease the bass on top of whatever preset you are using.

The Hi-Res mode, disabled by default, enables higher sampling rates and bitrates on LHDC when enabled. The earbuds need to restart when you toggle this setting.

Golden Sound feature plays a set of tones to determine your hearing and creates a custom EQ profile that's tailor-made for your ears. This runs alongside the presets enabled in Sound Master EQ mode. I'm personally not fond of these options as they require a fair amount of trial and error and a perfectly quiet room to calibrate, and the results can often differ even if you take the test back to back. It's not a particularly consistent or reliable way to calibrate for your hearing and the results are often too bright sounding.

The OnePlus 3D Audio menu lets you enable 3D audio processing for all audio. There is no head-tracking hardware on the Buds 3 so the audio is locked to your head. OnePlus' 3D Audio simply doesn't sound as good as the Dolby Atmos processing found on most phones these days, including OnePlus' own. It also cannot hold a candle to music actually mastered in spatial audio. It's like a fake surround sound feature from 90s cassette players and not particularly good or convincing. At least OnePlus isn't falsely claiming Dolby Atmos support this time around like it's part of its earbuds rather than the phones.

You can control the tap gestures for the earbuds. Single, double, and triple taps are available to customize, with single taps disabled by default. You can also customize the slide gesture as well as the touch and hold gesture for ANC modes. One cool feature of the Buds 3 is that if you were to remove them during a call, the audio automatically routes to the earpiece or loudspeaker on the phone, which is handy as on most other earbuds it continues playing on the earbuds unless you manually switch.

Gesture controls Gesture controls Gesture controls Gesture controls Gesture controls Gesture controls
Gesture controls

The Buds 3 also support dual connections and can stay connected to two sources at the same time. One or both can support LHDC but the sampling rate and bit rates available drop considerably with dual connection enabled. If you want the full range of bit rate options then you must connect to one device at a time.

And finally, you get the option to update firmware. Our review unit was running v121.121.101 at the time of testing. OnePlus usually issues updates to its audio products for months after their launch, with some models getting updates even after a year.

Performance

Audio quality

The OnePlus Buds 3 have pleasant, mostly inoffensive audio quality. I feel the need to specify that as previous OnePlus models tended to have an overly bass-heavy audio signature, which isn't the case with this model.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

Make no mistake, the default 'Balanced' preset is still fairly v-shaped, with a healthy emphasis on bass and treble frequencies. However, at no point does the bass or treble feel overwhelming, which was a frequent complaint with previous models. This time around, there is some truth to the name 'Balance' that OnePlus likes to give its default profiles, regardless of how they sound.

However, while neither the bass nor the treble frequencies are offensive, the sound does drop the ball a bit when it comes to upper mid-frequencies. There isn't enough detail and energy in this region, which makes the sound a bit stuffy and congested.

Thankfully, there is an easy way to improve on this, and that's with the Serenade preset. It helpfully brings down some of the low and high frequencies while adding a healthy dose of upper mid-range emphasis. In reality, this is what they should have called Balanced because this is about as balanced and close to reference as you can get on these earbuds without delving into the custom equalizer.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

The Bass preset does what it says on the tin. It sounds like the default preset on many of OnePlus' other earbuds with a thumpier mid and low bass. The Bold preset is similar to the Balanced preset but with an even more suppressed mid-range for an aggressive v-shaped tuning.

The BassWave feature is an interesting thing. Not only does it let you turn the bass up several notches but you can also dial it back quite a bit. It does make the sound a bit muffled though even if it's set to the default zero value.

For that reason, I would recommend using the custom EQ instead. The default for custom EQ is the Balanced preset, so any adjustments you make are to that specific profile. It would have been nice to be able to edit the other presets as having to edit the Serenade preset, for example, would be great as it's already close to ideal and you'd only need to make minor adjustments.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

Wrapping up the frequency response discussion, the Buds 3 are one of the best-tuned pair of earbuds that OnePlus has released so far and definitely better than the more expensive Buds Pro 2, which sound boomy and muddy in comparison. It seems the company has taken previous feedback regarding its tuning to heart and has taken great strides in the right direction.

As for the overall audio quality, the Buds 3 does well. The sound isn't especially detailed despite using the highest quality LHDC bit and sampling rates but that's about what we have come to expect from Bluetooth audio as well as the quality of drivers at this price point. Regardless, over the past week of using these earbuds, I found them easy to listen to for hours without too many complaints, and with a bit of tuning making them as good as it can get in this segment.

Microphone

The OnePlus Buds 3 have adequately good microphone performance. It's not the most natural or full-sounding voice but it's usually very clear and artifact-free. It also does an exceptional job of masking background noise even in very noisy environments. Just like with the audio quality, I found the overall microphone performance to be better compared to the Buds Pro 2.

Noise cancellation

The Buds 3 feature active noise cancellation and it works remarkably well. On the max setting, you get a very impressive suppression of low-frequency noise patterns with good mid and high-frequency suppression. The more expensive Buds Pro 2 do better with the mid and high frequencies but overall the Buds 3 get quite close.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

You can manually adjust the level of ANC, with Max, Moderate, and Mild being the available options. Switching from Max to Moderate lets in a fair bit of mid-frequencies and Mild isn't much better than having no ANC enabled. Having the option to reduce the ANC effectiveness can come in handy when you don't want to be completely isolated from your surroundings and may want to hear, say, airport announcements. It's not clear if the lower settings offer any power savings.

Latency and connectivity

The Buds 3 have good latency performance even without the aid of latency-improving modes. When paired with a PC, for example, you can notice some lag in the audio but it's not enough to distract you. When paired with a phone or a tablet, the device will automatically sync the audio for video content to avoid a delay.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

You can manually enable a Game mode in the HeyMelody app to reduce latency. On OnePlus phones, there is no manual setting for this but is enabled automatically when the phone detects a game being launched. In this mode, latency is reduced even further to a point where at least I couldn't notice any lag between the contents on the screen and the sound. OnePlus claims 94ms minimum latency, which is good enough for mobile gaming.

The Buds 3 had very stable connectivity performance using out-of-the-box settings. However, pushing them to their limits using manual bit rate controls do bring up some issues.

The company claims 24-bit, 96kHz max bit depth, and sampling rate with up to 1Mbps bitrate when using LHDC. You can control the bitrates in 400kbps, 500kbps, 900kbps, and 1000kbps steps. 400 and 500kbps modes are quite usable should you choose to enable them manually. 900kbps is also usable for the most part if you are sitting close to the phone, although occasionally you will get a hiccup, which can take a few seconds to resolve.

However, the claimed 1000kbps or 1Mbps bitrate is unusable. You cannot go even a few seconds without the sound completely breaking apart. At one point, the sound just slowed down as that was seemingly the only way it could push all those bits in time.

Unfortunately, the Bluetooth radios on the earbuds are simply not equipped to handle this much data every second, and this is with the device within an arm's reach. In everyday use, with the phone inside a pocket or a bag, 1Mbps and even 900kbps are simply not usable.

OnePlus Buds 3 review

Of course, this is only accessible through the developer settings on Android, which most people won't bother with. By default, the phone will automatically choose a bitrate with the most stability, which usually is the lowest value. This means more often than not you are getting 400kbps when using LHDC, and this is common for almost all Bluetooth headphones. The point is, don't be swayed by fancy codecs and their large bitrate numbers. Most of the time it's irrelevant.

Battery Life

OnePlus has a comprehensive list of battery life figures on its website, with ANC on and off as well as ANC and LHDC results, which is extremely rare to see and commendable.

For this test, only two figures are relevant, and those are testing with ANC off using AAC and LHDC. There won't be any ANC-enabled testing here as ANC shuts off once the earbuds are removed so it can't be enabled during our test run.

Codec ANC Claimed Tested
AAC Off 10 hours 11.5 hours
On 6.5 hours -
LHDC Off 7 hours 8.5 hours
On 5.5 hours -

With ANC disabled, the Buds 3 lasted for 11.5 hours while using AAC, which is a fair bit higher than the 10 hours claimed by OnePlus. While using LHDC locked to 24-bit/48kHz and 500kbps, the earbuds went for 8.5 hours, which is again higher than the 7 hours claimed by OnePlus.

OnePlus also separately claims 2 hour run time after a quick 10-minute charge, a claim oddly buried in the footnote. In my testing, this was also correct while using AAC, as the earbuds played for 2.2 hours. While using LHDC, I got 1.6 hours of playback time.

Considering real-world testing often exceeded the company's claims, I feel comfortable putting stock in the ANC-enabled figures, which aren't too bad. Do note that using bitrates higher than 500kbps with LHDC has a major toll on battery life.

Conclusion

The OnePlus Buds 3 are quite simply the best audio product the company has released to date. The improvements to audio quality and tuning are appreciated and while the company isn't quite there yet it's heading down the right path. The ANC works really well, the microphone quality is good, the earbuds are very comfortable, and the battery life is commendable. Complaints about LHDC aside, there really isn't much else to criticize. At the current asking price of $100/€99/INR 5499, the OnePlus Buds 3 are highly recommended.


Related

Reader comments

  • Anonymous
  • 07 Feb 2024
  • m62

It's not a hidden gem though, let alone a gem. They are perfectly fine but nothing outstanding in terms of audio quality. I wouldn't even be surprised if Moondrop Space Travel for a fourth of the price sounds just as good if not better

Do these people have to always "follow" Samsung's buds case design, generation after generation? The Buds Z, then the Buds Pro now these?

  • samrat
  • 06 Feb 2024
  • CbI

Very good

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