Over the last two years, Apple has gone from selling one AirPods
model to four. You can currently buy three earbuds—the 2nd-gen AirPods, 3rd-gen AirPods, and AirPods Pro—or the AirPods Max over-the-ear headphones.
Let's set that last aside for a moment. If you're willing to
spend $500 or more on a pair of cans, you're making a whole
different buying decision than if you want true wireless
But that still leaves three relatively similar-seeming earbuds
to choose from. So which is right for you?
Features at a glance
Maybe the best way to make a buying decision is to see how the
three current AirPods stack up side-by-side.
||AirPods (2nd gen)
||AirPods (3rd gen)
||0.14 oz (4 grams)
||0.15 oz (4.3 grams)
||0.19 oz (5.4 grams)
||1.35 oz (38 grams)
||1.34 oz (38 grams)
||1.61 oz (46 grams)
||5 hrs + 24 from case
||6 hrs + 30 from case
||4.5 hrs + 24 from case
||Apple Music only
||Music and Video
||Music and Video
||Tap on earbuds
||Force sensor on stem
||Force sensor on stem
The most obvious difference between the three models is their
design. The 2nd-gen AirPods has the design you've known since 2016,
with long white stems and earbuds that resemble the earpods that
used to come with iPhones but without a wire.
The new 3rd-generation AirPods have shorter stems and a more
bulbous, rounded earpiece. Despite the shorter stems, they've very
similar in weight to the older AirPods (just slightly heavier). The
charging case looks identical to that of the AirPods Pro–shorter
and wider. The AirPods Pro take the short-stem design and add
rubberized eartips to the earbuds, to create more of a seal that
blocks out noise and increases bass response.
No matter which AirPods you choose, you can only get them in
This is where the AirPods Pro distinguish themselves, and is the
single feature most likely to get you to choose them over the
3rd-gen AirPods. Not only do the rubberized tips help block out
more outside noise, the active noise cancelling gives you a real
sense of a more private listening space.
While we're at it, we should mention that only the AirPods Pro
support the Conversation Boost accessibility feature.
and sound quality
All AirPods support Dolby Atmos spatial audio in Apple Music. In
fact, you can force it on for any pair of headphones. But
spatial audio for video in the TV and other supported apps, with
head tracking, is not supported on the 2nd-generation AirPods. You
need the 3rd-generation or the Pro to do that.
The 3rd-gen AirPods should have better sound than the 2nd-gen in
other ways, too. Apple has a new redesigned low-distortion driver
that it says delivers better sound quality, and they support
Adaptive EQ like the AirPods Pro. We'll have a more detailed
comparison when we review the 3rd-gen AirPods, but we think the
overall sound quality will take a significant step up from the
2nd-gen, but won't sound quite a nice as the AirPods Pro
(especially in a noisy environment).
Features and controls
You control the 2nd-gen AirPods by tapping on them, while the
3rd-gen AirPods and AirPods Pro have a little cutout area on the
stem that is sensitive to pressure. Squeeze the stem (there's a
faux click sensation) to play/pause, skip forward, back, or summon
Siri. All AirPods models support hands-free Hey Siri control.
Both AirPods Pro and 3rd-gen AirPods are water- and
sweat-resistant, and probably better suited to working out, though
you wouldn't want to dunk any of them in the pool. The 2nd-gen
AirPods don't have any water resistance.
The 3rd-gen AirPods and AirPods Pro also support expanded Find
My support for tracking down lost earbuds and setting separation
alerts. The 3rd-gen AirPods and AirPods Pro also support Announce
Notifications, which lets Siri dictate important messages and
alerts as they arrive.
The 2nd-gen AirPods last five hours, and you can charge them up
about four times with the charging case for a total of 24 hours of
listening time. The AirPods Pro have similar battery life, but
you'll lose about half an hour if you have noise-cancellation
The 3rd-gen AirPods extend that listening time by an hour for
six hours of listening time, and with four more charges in the
case, you get a total of 30 hours.
With the launch of the 3rd-gen AirPods, Apple only sells the
2nd-generation AirPods with a wired case, but you can buy a
wireless charging case for $79. The 3rd-gen and AirPods Pro both
come with a wireless charge case that lets you charge via
Lightning, any Qi wireless charger, or MagSafe.
The three AirPods models Apple offers are very different. If you
don't care about wireless charging, the 2nd-gen AirPods for $129 is
a good option. They won't sound quite as good or last quite as long
as the 3rd-gen AirPods, but they're a good affordable option. If
wireless charging matters, definitely get the 3rd-gen AirPods,
since buying the charging case with the 2nd-gen AirPods will
actually cost $20 more than the 3rd-gen AirPods. And finally, the
main reason to get the AirPods Pro is noise cancellation.
We think the 3rd-gen AirPods are the best buy. They're
technically cheaper than the 2nd-gen AirPods with a wireless
charging case and come with a slew of new features. They have
better battery life and should sound incredible. Plus you get
spatial audio, Adaptive EQ, and a nicer design. The AirPods Pro are
a great choice if you want noise-cancellation, but we caution that
a new model is rumored to release in the first half of 2022.