Wireless earbuds are now ubiquitous — and Apple’s AirPods paved the way. With their tiny design, flip-lid charging case, and dead-simple operation, it’s no wonder the AirPods and AirPods Pro become the earbuds to which all others are compared.
But which AirPods should you buy? The classic AirPods received a major update with the $179 AirPods 3, which brings Spatial Audio and Adaptive EQ to the traditional line, while the $249 Pro features Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and other upgrades. Let’s pit these two against each other and see which is best!
Once you decide on which model is right for you, take a look at the best AirPods deals available now.
Apple’s AirPods start at $129 for the AirPods 2 (Apple no longer sells the first-gen AirPods), and that goes up to $179 for the AirPods 3, which are a significant upgrade. The AirPods Pro, on the other hand, ring in at $249, the same price as the Powerbeats Pro. Then there are the replacement costs associated with each, should something break or go missing. A single AirPod will cost $69 to replace, while the AirPods Pro will run you a cool $89 apiece. Even the charging case is more expensive: It’s $69 for the AirPods wireless case and $89 for the AirPods Pro wireless case.
There are plenty of reasons for the AirPods Pro’s hefty price, but there’s no doubt that if you’re looking for the most wallet-friendly way to get your AirPods on, you’ll want the second-gen AirPods or spring for the AirPods 3, which is something of a compromise between AirPods and AirPods Pro.
Ever since Apple introduced the original AirPods, consumers and reviewers alike have bemoaned the fact that they aren’t officially able to deal with sweat or rain. Apple finally changed this with the AirPods 3, which come with IP4X water resistance. This is the same resistance rating that the AirPods Pro have. It means you don’t have to worry about wearing them in the rain or working up a sweat.
They’re still not waterproof, however. You certainly can’t swim or shower with them, and even cleaning them should be done with care.
The AirPods Pro have excellent sound, especially when compared to the AirPods 2. AirPods 3 change this comparison a bit because they have massively upgraded sound and support for Spatial Audio plus Adaptive EQ — although they don’t offer noise cancellation and can’t quite reach the audio heights of the Pro.
So, the AirPods Pro are an easy choice over earlier versions of the AirPods. While the AirPods 3 are far closer in sound quality to the Pro, they don’t have the same passive or active noise cancellation that the Pro can offer, which puts the AirPods Pro over the edge.
Winner: AirPods Pro
The AirPods Pro are the first AirPods to offer active noise cancellation (ANC), a feature that is becoming more common among the better wireless earbuds on the market. The technology uses a combination of microphones and software to analyze outside noise, and effectively cancels it out using equal and opposite frequencies. Additionally, the earbuds offer three noise cancellation settings — on, off, and something called Transparency Mode, which allows the microphones to let some outside sound in, so you can hear what’s going on around you.
AirPods, including the AirPods 3, have no active noise cancellation at all. This is simply a category they can’t compete in.
Now, let’s talk about passive noise cancellation. Again, it’s hard for the non-regular AirPods to compete here. Passive noise cancellation is basically the noise that’s kept out due to the seal the earbud makes in your ear. The universal fit of the AirPods may be adequate to block out some sound for some users, but if noise cancellation, passive or active, is an important feature for you, the AirPods Pro offer three sizes of eartips for you to choose from.
Winner: AirPods Pro
It wasn’t by mistake that Apple’s original iPod earbuds became so popular (and iconic) — after all, their one-size-fits-all design was perfectly adequate for most people. For many, however, the fit had been lacking. Their hard plastic could become uncomfortable over hours of prolonged use, and it can be hit or miss how easily they stay in ears (like fingerprints, everyone’s ears are a little unique). The AirPods 3 updated the design for a rounder, fuller fit designed to help deal with some of these problems.
The AirPods Pro addressed this problem with a redesign that includes customizable silicone tips, allowing the earbuds to fit a wide range of ear shapes. The tips allow for a better seal (see passive noise canceling above) and more comfort, especially when wearing for longer periods of time. The snug fit also ensures the buds stay put even during the most rigorous workout. The Pros also feature a unique venting system that helps reduce that feeling of pressure inside the ear, which is often associated with tight-sealing earbuds. Vents on the outside of each bud equalize that pressure for further comfort.
If you’re not sure what size tip is the best for you, Apple’s thought of that, too. Using the microphones and speaker drivers in each earbud, as well as the Ear Tip Fit Test app, you can measure sound levels to help determine if you’re getting the best fit or if you should try a different size.
Winner: AirPods Pro
The AirPods Pro suffer from success when it comes to battery life: The active noise cancellation really eats into the battery, and the latest versions still haven’t improved this number at all. If you keep ANC turned on, you only get 4.5 hours of continuous playback. Recent rivals, such as Sony’s stellar WF-1000XM3, which offer 6 hours of noise-canceling operation (8 hours without), are raising the bar.
The AirPods 3, on the other hand, a big battery improvement compared to past models, with an easy six hours per charge and 30 hours total time with a fully charged case.
It’s rare to be on a Zoom call these days without seeing many participants sporting Apple’s iconic AirPods. When it comes to call quality, the AirPods have been known to perform well, with the latter generation getting noise reduction upgrades and improvements when it comes to handling wind. When compared with the AirPods Pro, call quality is actually pretty close, with perhaps a slight advantage going to the Pros. But where the Pros really take a significant lead is in their sound-isolating design. Not only does the tighter seal allow you to hear calls better, but the microphones in each earbud work with speech detection to reduce background noise and pick up your voice better. The AirPods Pro’s vent system also works here, helping to reduce wind noise for even quieter calls.
Note that the AirPods 3 also have additional touch-based gesture controls that allow for more customization when switching modes, etc., than previous AirPods did, although not quite up to the level of the AirPods Pro.
Winner: AirPods Pro
With a more rectangular shape, but a smaller overall size, the wireless charging case for the AirPods Pro is more pocketable than the older AirPods’ charging case. The lid opens on the wide end, but it is every bit as easy to open one-handed once you get used to the new shape.
The AirPods 3 updated the charging case with a new design that’s much more similar to the AirPods Pro, enough that you’d have trouble telling them apart at a glance. Both also support wireless charging, including MagSafe charging options using Apple’s latest chargers.
AirPods Pro is the latest and greatest in headphone technology, although you have to pay around $100 more for all their features. However, we think the expense pays off in innovative features such as active noise cancellation and superior sound.
With improved sound quality comes better call quality, but the upgrades to the AirPods Pro don’t stop there. They also fit better and feel more comfortable due to their customizable silicone tips.
The AirPods 3 made many improvements to the formula of previous AirPods, drawing them much closer together. There’s a reason we called the AirPods 3 the, “missing link between the original AirPods and the AirPods Pro” in our review. They are a big step beyond past versions of the AirPods. However, they still lack some of the features of the Pro, especially noise cancellation.
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