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OnePlus' $99 earbuds look and sound extraordinary, but there's one big catch

In addition to new smartphones, OnePlus' just-released Buds 3 can compete with the best on the market without the hefty price tag.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
OnePlus Buds 3 laying in the sunshine
Jada Jones/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The OnePlus Buds 3 are the latest flagship earbuds from the company, and they're available to purchase for $100 in the US.
  • Access to a high-quality Bluetooth audio codec sets these buds apart from others within the same price range.
  • You'll miss out on high-resolution audio if you don't have a compatible OnePlus or Oppo smartphone.

In addition to your favorite pair of over-ear headphones, you should have reliable earbuds for on-the-go calling and listening. But if you've invested a few hundred bucks into your headphones, you may be less inclined to pay just as much for earbuds.

Luckily, you don't need to shell out $300+ for great-sounding, functional earbuds. And if you're not a fan of AirPods, shopping on a budget, or happen to be eyeing one of the latest smartphones from OnePlus, you'll want to check out the new OnePlus Buds 3.

View at OnePlus

The OnePlus Buds 3 come just one year after the OnePlus Buds Pro 2 were released, and they deliver better features while being cheaper than their predecessor. Have you noticed the difference in naming yet? The latest earbuds omit one desirable "Pro" feature, wireless charging, but offer upgrades to noise canceling, battery life, and Bluetooth multipoint connection stability.

They also feature LHDC audio codec, which supports high-resolution audio playback over a Bluetooth connection. With this codec, you can listen at up to 900 kilobits per second, a bit depth of up to 24 bits, and a sample rate of up to 96 kHz.

Also: 3 reasons why I'm sold on the OnePlus 12 (and 1 reason for buyer's remorse)

If all those numbers and letters mean nothing to you, that's fine, but stay with me. All that audio nerd mumbo jumbo means the OnePlus Buds 3 sound absolutely fantastic, and their full potential is unlocked when paired with a OnePlus smartphone. The latest OnePlus phones support this codec, but Samsung, Apple, or Google devices can't access it.

Instead, those phones each have a proprietary Bluetooth codec that delivers higher-quality audio, but not up to the same standard as LHDC. 

Fortunately, this isn't the biggest deal breaker because the OnePlus Buds 3 still sound great when paired with a different branded phone. That's right, I committed the cardinal sin when I tested them; I used them with an iPhone. The OnePlus Buds 3's 10.4mm woofer turned up the bass, while the 6mm tweeters kept high-frequency sounds clear and vibrant.

When I listened to Pressure by The 1975, I could clearly hear the frontman's layered vocal harmonies, and the OnePlus Buds 3 beautifully replicated the smooth bassline and groovy guitar riffs.

The OnePlus Buds 3 can cancel noise up to 49dB, which means with ANC on, you won't hear noises like typing on a keyboard, a distant TV, or low household chatter. These earbuds can dull close conversational noises or cars honking outside your window, but you'll still hear some of it. Not bad for a pair of $100 earbuds.

Also: Don't sleep on these $40 wireless earbuds. They sound way better than I expected

With ANC off, you'll get 10 hours of audio playback and an additional 34 hours when the case is fully charged, which is highly impressive. Those battery stats are more than what Sony, Apple, and Bose earbuds can give you from one charge. However, these buds' transparency mode is on the lower-quality side, as a noticeable hum is present, which means the external mics are working overtime to help you better hear your surroundings. 

OnePlus Buds 3 in a woman's hand
Jada Jones/ZDNET

On the other hand, these buds will work well for hands-free calling, as I didn't get any complaints about my voice clarity. Plenty of software features add to the OnePlus Buds 3's value. For example, you can participate in a hearing test to help the buds decipher your ear canal structure and determine which EQ settings sound best.

After my hearing test, the app told me that a bump to the middle frequencies would make the earbuds sound more enjoyable to me, and I agreed. However, you can still tweak the EQ settings on a six-band equalizer in the HeyMelody app. 

Also: The $399 OnePlus 12R may be the best cheap phone you can buy in 2024

If you want earbuds that can accompany you from the office to the gym, the OnePlus Buds 3 can do just that. The silicone ear tips provide a snug seal for noise isolation and limited in-ear slipping and sliding, and their IP55 rating makes them sturdy enough for sweaty workouts.

Design-wise, the OnePlus Buds 3 feature chrome finishes on the bud stems, with matte accents on the ear tips and charging case. The earbuds are stylish and lightweight, making them a great addition to anyone's everyday carry.

ZDNET's buying advice

The OnePlus Buds 3 offer you just about every feature you could want in a pair of earbuds. For their affordable price, you'll receive adequate noise canceling, excellent audio quality, and all-day comfort.

But to get the most out of these earbuds, you'll need a compatible smartphone. If you're in the US, many of those smartphone brands are absent, so you'll have to settle with a OnePlus. However, there aren't any other limitations to the earbuds, so the price is well worth it.

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