In the past two years, Apple has moved from selling one AirPods model to four. You can currently buy three earbuds: the 2nd generation AirPods, 3rd generation AirPods and 2nd generation AirPods Pro, or the AirPods Max over-the-ear headphones.
Let’s put that last one aside for a moment. If you’re willing to spend $500 or more on a pair of cans, you’re making a very different purchase decision than if you want true wireless earbuds.
But that still leaves three relatively similar earbuds to choose from. So what suits you?
Features at a glance
Perhaps the best way to make a purchase decision is to see how the three current AirPods sit side by side.
AirPods (2nd generation)
AirPods (3rd generation)
AirPods Pro (2nd generation)
0.14 oz (4 grams)
0.15 oz (4.3 grams)
0.19 oz (5.3 grams)
1.35 oz (38 grams)
1.34 oz (38 grams)
1.79 oz (50.8 grams)
5 hours + 19 of case
6 hours + 24 of case
6 hours + 24 of case
Apple Music only, no head tracking
Music and video, with head tracking
Music and video, with head tracking
Force sensor on stem
Power sensor on stem, wipe on stem
The most obvious difference between the three models is their design. The 2nd-generation AirPods retain the design you’ve known since 2016, with long white stems and earbuds that resemble the wired earbuds that used to come with iPhones, just without the wire.
The new 3rd generation AirPods have shorter stems and a more bulbous, rounded earcup. Despite the shorter stems, they are very similar in weight to the older AirPods. The charging case is very similar to that of the AirPods Pro: shorter and wider. The AirPods Pro take the short stem design and add rubber ear tips to the ear tips, to create more of a seal that blocks out noise and improves sound quality.
Whichever AirPods you choose, you’ll only get them in glossy white.
This is where the AirPods Pro stand out, and it’s the one feature that will make you prefer them over the 3rd generation AirPods. Not only do the rubber ends help block out more ambient noise, the active noise cancellation gives you a real sense of a more private listening room.
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 spatial audio from Dolby Atmos in Apple Music. You can even force it for: each headphones. But spatial audio for video in the TV and other supported apps, with head tracking, is not supported on the 2nd generation AirPods. For that you need the 3rd generation or the AirPods Pro.
The 3rd generation AirPods also have better sound than the 2nd generation in other ways. Apple has a new, redesigned, low-distortion driver that is said to deliver better sound quality, and they support Adaptive EQ like the AirPods Pro. AirPods Pro (2nd generation) sound significantly better than regular AirPods, even without active noise cancellation. The 2nd generation version, released in September 2022, offered a major improvement in sound quality over the original AirPods Pro.
Features and Controls
You control the 2nd generation AirPods by tapping on them, while the 3rd generation AirPods and AirPods Pro have a small cut-out section on the stem that is sensitive to pressure. Squeeze the stem (there is a false “click” sensation) to play/pause, skip forward or backward or summon Siri. The AirPods Pro can also detect a swipe up or down on the stem to change the volume (which is new in the 2nd-gen model). All AirPods models support “Hey Siri” hands-free operation.
Both AirPods Pro and 3rd gen AirPods are water and sweat resistant and probably better suited for working out, although you don’t want to dip them in the pool. The 2nd generation AirPods are not water resistant.
The 3rd generation AirPods support expanded Find My support for locating lost earbuds and setting separation alerts. The AirPods Pro also have a speaker on the charging case since the release of the 2nd generation version to play a loud tone when using Find My, and have the U1 chip so you can be directed directly to it. The 3rd generation AirPods and AirPods Pro also support Announce Notifications, which allows Siri to dictate important messages and alerts as they arrive.
The 2nd generation AirPods last for five hours and you can charge about four times with the charging case for a total of 24 hours of listening time.
The 3rd generation AirPods and AirPods Pro extend that listening time by one hour for six hours of listening time, and with four additional charges in the case you get a total of 30 hours. With AirPods Pro, turning off noise cancellation will add about an hour of listening time.
Apple only sells the 2nd-generation AirPods with a wired case, but you can purchase a wireless charging case separately for $79. The 3rd-gen and AirPods Pro both come with a wireless charging case that allows you to charge via Lightning, a Qi wireless charger, or MagSafe. You can also charge the AirPods Pro with your Apple Watch charger.
Each of the three AirPods models Apple offers is very different. If you don’t care about wireless charging, the 2nd gen AirPods at $129 are a good buy. They don’t sound as good or last as long as the 3rd generation AirPods, but they are a good affordable option. If wireless charging is important, definitely buy the 3rd generation AirPods, as buying the charging case with the 2nd generation AirPods actually costs $20 more than the 3rd generation AirPods. The AirPods Pro were updated to a second-generation model in September 2022, and while they cost a lot more, they offer much better sound quality and unique features like active noise cancellation, adaptive transparency, and call boost.
We think the 3rd generation AirPods are the best buy for most. They are technically cheaper than the 2nd generation AirPods with a wireless charging case and come with a whole host of new features. They have better battery life and sound better. Since the release of the second-generation AirPods Pro, they are clearly the superior choice in every way, but usually you pay more than 40% more for them. If noise cancellation is important to you, it’s worth the extra cost.