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

Without putting too much thought into it, when thinking of getting yourself a new pair of wireless earbuds the mind kind of heads straight in the direction of Apple’s omnipresent white AirPods — especially if you’re an Apple user. But when deciding on which pair of AirPods is best for you, the main choices are the latest generations of the company’s two offerings, the AirPods 3 and the AirPods Pro 2. But which should you choose?

The classic, semi-open designed third-generation AirPods received a major update in 2021 and go for $179 (with MagSafe charging case) and $169 (with the Lightning case). With that update, they got Apple’s immersive head-tracking Spatial Audio sound and Adaptive EQ. But the second-generation AirPods Pro feature that secure, in-ear form that many prefer, everything that the AirPods 3 offer, plus active noise cancellation (ANC) with adaptive transparency mode and more. All this, however, will run you $249.

When it comes down to simply which are better earbuds, of course, the more premium AirPods Pro 3s take the cake. But maybe you don’t need the AirPod Pro 2’s ANC and extra features and would rather save the $70 by getting the AirPods 3. The choice is yours, but let’s compare to help you decide.

Fit and comfort

Woman running while wearing the new Airpods 3rd Gen.
Apple

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 first-generation AirPods Pro addressed this problem with a redesign that included three sizes of customizable silicone tips, allowing the earbuds to fit a wide range of ear shapes. The second-generation AirPods Pro continues this design, even adding an additional extra-small size of eartips. The silicone tips allow for a better seal and more comfort, especially when worn for longer periods of time. The snug fit also ensures the buds stay put even during the most rigorous workouts. The AirPods Pro 2 also feature a unique rear venting system that helps reduce that feeling of pressure inside the ear, which is often associated with tight-sealing earbuds.

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 2

Sound quality

The AirPods Pro 2 audio drivers.
Apple

We’re not going to pretend that the AirPods 3 can top the AirPods Pro 2 in the sound quality department, but sound is subjective and you might not need all the bells and whistles that the AirPods Pro 2s have, so we’ll just compare and you can take it from there.

The AirPods Pro 2 have excellent sound, as opined by our reviewer Simon Cohen, who praised their “punchy bass, and very clear high frequencies,” as well as their “pleasingly wide soundstage,” that can be largely attributed to the new low-distortion drivers and high dynamic range amplifiers Apple put in them.

With that being said, Cohen also praised the sound quality of the AirPods 3, and when he reviewed them at the end of 2021 he gave them props for sounding every bit as good as the original AirPods Pro, as long as you were in a relatively quiet location (their semi-open back form doesn’t have very good passive noise canceling). When up against the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro, the AirPods 3 still hold their own, with clarity and a warm bass response. But where the AirPods Pro get a leg up on the AirPods 3s is with the addition of ANC, which brings a level of sound isolation that greatly enhances the listening experience. When deciding, this is probably the big one to consider.

Additionally, both the AirPods 3 and the Pro 2s have support for beautifully immersive personalized spatial audio with dynamic head-tracking and adaptive EQ that uses microphones in the earbuds to measure your ears and adjust the sound to suit. Sound-wise, we have to give it to the AirPods Pro 2, but if you don’t mind the semi-open design and the lack of ANC in the AirPods 3, you’re still getting a good-sounding pair of earbuds.

Winner: AirPods Pro 2

Noise cancellation and transparency

AirPods Pro by phone.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The first-gen AirPods Pro were the first AirPods to offer ANC, a feature that has become pretty 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. The ANC on the original AirPods Pro was good, but the second-gen took it to another level with beautifully silent noise cancellation that, in our reviewer’s words, is frighteningly close to the best-in-class Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II.

The AirPods Pro 2s upped the game again with the addition of a new Adaptive Transparency mode. To refresh your memory, transparency mode is an earbud feature that allows the listener to adjust the amount of the outside world they want to hear — such as traffic hazards if you’re out jogging or having a conversation with a co-worker. Apple’s Adaptive Transparency is a whole other beast, actively listening to the outside world and automatically adjusting the volume of the sounds and noises to safe listening levels. it’s a great feature and the AirPods Pro 2s do it very well.

The AirPods 3, on the other hand, have no active or passive noise cancellation (the ability of the earbud to create a sound-isolating seal in the ear canal) or transparency mode at all. This is simply a category they can’t compete in. The universal fit of the AirPods 3 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 2 offer ANC and four sizes of eartips for you to choose from.

Winner: AirPods Pro 2

Water resistance

Man wearing AirPods Pro.
Digital Trends

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 IPX4 water resistance. This is the same resistance rating that the AirPods Pro 2 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.

Winner: Tie

Battery life

The AirPods Pro 2 suffer from success when it comes to battery life: The ANC function can really eat into battery life, but the latest version of the AirPods Pro got a little bump in power. If you keep ANC turned on, you only get up to six hours of continuous playback per charge. With four full charges from the AirPod Pro 2’s case, you get up to 30 hours, which is pretty impressive. That and the new case adds the Find My feature to the case as well.

The AirPods 3, on the other hand, got a big battery improvement compared to past models and is on par with the AirPods Pro 2 at up to six hours per charge and 30 hours total time with a fully-charged case.

Winner: Tie

Call quality

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 third generation getting noise reduction upgrades and improvements when it comes to handling wind.

When compared with the AirPods Pro 2, however, the advantage, predictably, goes to the AirPods Pro 2. Their sound-isolating eartips are one thing, but the latest enhancements to background noise cancellation have easily nudged them past the AirPods 3. 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 2 vent system also works here, helping to reduce wind noise for even quieter calls.

Winner: AirPods Pro 2

Price

Apple AirPods Pro 2 next to first-gen AirPods Pro.
First-gen Apple AirPods Pro (left) and second-gen AirPods Pro. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Apple’s AirPods start at $129 for the second generation AirPods (Apple no longer sells the first-gen AirPods), and that goes up to $179 for the AirPods 3, if you go for the MagSafe wireless charging case ($169 with the standard Lightning cable case ). The AirPods Pro 2, on the other hand, ring in at $249, the same price as the Powerbeats Pro. It may be worth noting that you can still find the first-gen AirPods Pro on Amazon for around $195, while they last.

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 2’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 AirPods 3.

Winner: AirPods 3

Conclusion

The AirPods Pro 2 are among the latest and greatest in headphone technology, although you have to pay around $70 more for all their features. However, we think the expense pays off in innovative features such as ANC, transparency mode, and superior sound.

With improved sound quality comes better call quality, but the upgrades to the AirPods Pro 2 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.

What it really comes down to when choosing, is your need or want for ANC and the improved sound and immersion that it and the sealed fit of the AirPods Pro 2 can deliver. If you’re willing and able to pay the price, then it’s a no-brainer.

Derek Malcolm
Derek Malcolm is a Toronto-based technology journalist, editor, and content specialist whose work has appeared in…
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