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 earbuds.
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 white.
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.
Spatial Audio 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 enabled.
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.
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I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life – over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.