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AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro vs AirPods 2: which Apple earbuds should you buy?

Apple's wireless earbuds go head-to-head.

AirPods range
Published: Tuesday, 26th October 2021 at 7:30 am

If you own an iPhone, iPad or Mac, you have likely considered buying Apple AirPods at some point when looking for new earbuds. Since the original Apple AirPods were released back in 2016, the wireless earbuds quickly became one of the brand’s most popular accessories and now - with the release of AirPods 3 - there are more options than ever for fans of Apple audio.

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The release of Apple’s AirPods 3 brings a newer, more-cutting edge option to the table while the second-generation AirPods remain available as part of the current line, along with the more premium Apple AirPods Pro. The Pro earbuds offer a more secure fit and active noise cancellation.

But what makes them so special? And how do you decide which Apple AirPods model to buy? In this guide, we answer these questions as we compare the Apple AirPods 2 and 3 to the premium AirPods Pro. Covering everything from price to sound quality and battery life, we help you decide whether it’s worth splashing that extra cash or if the classic Apple AirPods offer everything you need.

To find out how we got on with the earbuds, read our dedicated Apple AirPods review and Apple AirPods Pro review. Or, head to the AirPods 3 release date page for more details on when to expect the new earbuds.

With a new generation of AirPods on the market, we’re answering the big question - AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: which should you buy? 

Jump to: 

Apple AirPods 2 vs AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: key differences at a glance

AirPods 3

Apple currently sells three AirPod models; the Apple AirPods (2nd Gen), the Apple Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) and the Apple AirPods Pro. The AirPods Pro are the more expensive pair, with Apple’s current price sitting at £239. They feature a closer fit and active noise cancellation. In comparison, the AirPods 2 (£119) are the brand’s entry-level earbuds offering an ‘always-on’ voice assistant in Siri and intuitive touch controls. The all-new AirPods 3 are in the middle of the pricing range, costing £169.

When deciding which pair of Apple earbuds is right for you, you need to consider your budget and what you primarily want to use them for. All of them are designed to work seamlessly with Apple devices, so it will be the additional features, sound quality and price point that are the deciding factor.

If you’re on a limited budget and simply want a pair of earbuds that work perfectly with an iPhone, the Apple AirPods (with wired charging case) will serve you well. If you want the bonus of charging the case wirelessly, you can pay a little extra for the Apple AirPods (with wireless charging case). They are exactly the same earbud model as the classic AirPods 2, just supplied with a wireless charging case instead.

Finally, we would suggest investing in the Apple AirPods Pro if you intend to use the earbuds for the gym. The premium earbuds have a design with a snug fit that won’t budge during workouts, and the active noise cancellation will ensure there are no distractions. ANC is not available with the classic AirPods, so you will have to fork out the extra for the AirPods Pro if this is a feature you think you’ll benefit from.

Apple AirPods vs AirPods Pro in detail 

As we compare the two AirPod models, we’ve broken down the guide into five main categories; price, battery life, design, sound quality and features. Here’s how the earbuds fare in each.

Price

The standard Apple AirPods 2 (with wired charging case) are the most affordable option. At £119, you can’t exactly call them cheap, but they offer most of the key wireless earbud features, including an ‘always-on’ voice assistant via Siri, touch controls to play/pause music and answer calls and up to five hours of listening time.

You will have to pay a little extra for the convenience of a wireless charging case with the classic AirPods. The Apple AirPods with a wireless charging case cost an extra £30 at £149. Unfortunately, you do have to buy a wireless charger separately, costing £39.

Then there’s the new member of the family - the AirPods 3 - which will set you back £169.

The Apple AirPods Pro are the more expensive choice but have the added benefit of a more secure fit and active noise cancellation to keep out unwanted background noise or distractions - neither of the other two sets comes with ANC. With Apple currently selling them for £239, they are some of the more expensive wireless earbuds you can buy. Others in a similar price bracket include the Grado GT220 and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and feature ANC, touch controls and a battery life that lasts up to seven hours on a single charge.

Battery life

AirPods vs AirPods Pro

The AirPods 3 have improved on the battery life of the previous generation of earbuds, now offering up to six hours playback and 30 hours of charge in the case.

Both the gen-2 AirPods and the AirPods Pro offer just under five hours of battery life from a single charge, although this does drop to just over three hours when you use them for a lot of calls. With help from the charging case, both Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro will last up to 24 hours.

This battery life is pretty average for wireless earbuds, with most models lasting between four and nine hours on a single charge. Some of the best battery life can be found with Cambridge Audio’s Melomania 1+ and the Huawei FreeBuds 4i, which both offer upwards of 10 hours of battery life.

Design

Apple AirPods review

The design is one of the most obvious differences between the classic Apple AirPods and the AirPods Pro. The shape of the classic AirPods has become iconic for the brand and is incredibly comfortable over long periods of time. However, the AirPods Pro have a different design with silicone tips to give a more secure fit.

The shape of the AirPods Pro makes them a great option for the gym and aids the active noise cancellation. The downside to this design is that they can become uncomfortable over long periods of time, and we struggled to wear them for more than three hours at once.

Sound quality

Apple claims the AirPods 3 are the best sounding AirPods yet, but we’ll be holding on with our verdict until we test them out for ourselves.

When it comes to the slightly older pairs, the sound quality of the Apple AirPods is well-balanced and a vast improvement on the wired EarPods. They’re not particularly bass-heavy, but vocals in music are clear, and speech sounds great. This makes the classic Apple AirPods a good option for any iPhone user simply looking for a solid pair of earbuds for everyday use.

The overall sound quality of the AirPods Pro is a step-up from the classic AirPods. There is a richness to the AirPods Pro, not offered by the entry-level earbuds. Again, you won’t find the Apple AirPods Pro to have immense bass, but the sound is well-balanced and sharp. The AirPods Pro also offers active noise cancellation, which is extremely beneficial when on a noisy train or working.

Features

AirPods Pro review

All three pairs have touch controls along with voice control provided by Siri. The voice assistant is pretty accurate, and there’s only a momentary delay between speaking the request and it being executed. The touch controls are simple to use, and users can play or pause music with a single tap on the earbud’s stem.

The Apple AirPods Pro also have the bonus of being water-resistant. While you should have no problem using the standard AirPods for a workout, AirPods Pro have more comprehensive water resistance with an IPX4 rating. This doesn’t mean that you can use these headphones while swimming, but you might find it more reassuring if you get caught out in heavy rain.

Both the AirPods Pro and AirPods 3 cases are MagSafe compatible, and both sets of earbuds have 3D spatial audio, but the AirPods 2 lack both of these features.

Finally, the setup with both is seamless. If you have an iPhone or are considering taking advantage of the new iPhone 13 release, the process takes literal seconds. With Bluetooth switched on, open the charging case’s lid, and a pairing notification will automatically pop up on your screen. Both AirPod models can also be paired to your Apple Watch Series 6 or Apple Watch SE.

Apple AirPods vs AirPods Pro: which should you buy?

For those that purely need a good pair of earbuds that work well with an iPhone, the Apple AirPods (with wired charging case) will serve you well. If you want the added benefit of charging the case wirelessly, there is also the option of buying the classic Apple AirPods with wireless charging case.

However, the more premium Apple AirPods Pro are likely the better choice if you want to use the earbuds when exercising. The shape of the earbuds is slightly different to provide a more secure fit, so they’re not going to fall out while running or in the gym. The Apple AirPods Pro are also the only earbuds from the brand to offer active noise cancellation. This means you will have to stretch the budget to the premium earbuds if this is a feature you know you want, but we found that it worked well and kept out any distracting noise.

The design of the new AirPods 3 is somewhere in-between the two previous iterations, but they lack the silicon tips that make the AirPods Pro a better exercise partner. However, with many of the AirPods Pro features - like 3D spatial audio and active EQ - they’re a good middle option.

You can order AirPods 3 from Apple right now; however, if you can hold on a little while, there’s a chance that retailers may include them in bundles with Apple’s latest phones or laptops.

Apple AirPods 3:

Apple AirPods 2 (with wired charging case):

Apple AirPods 2 (with wireless charging case):

AirPods Pro:

Head to our Technology section for more guides, reviews and the latest news. Looking for more on Apple? Head to our iPhone 13 vs iPhone 12 guide to see how the flagship devices compare.

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Or, if you're looking for an ideal gift for a friend or relative, then take a look at our tech gifts guide. 

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