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Apple’s new AirPods (3rd generation)—aka the AirPods 3—have finally arrived, and you know what that means: it’s time to play Pick Your Pods! The latest iteration of Apple’s standard AirPods have a heap of upgrades that bring them a lot closer to the massively popular AirPods Pro.
But which pair is the best value? Which features are new in the latest AirPods, and on the other side what do you gain by going with the Pro? Most importantly, which pair is right for you? The answers lie below as we lay out a point-by-point comparison of Apple’s top buds.
It’s always great to start out with an easy one, but even this topic has its curveballs, as the pricing of Apple’s AirPods Pro are somewhat in flux. Launching in October of 2019, the original AirPods Pro have had some time to settle in well below their original $249 MSRP. We’ve seen them below $180 sale, and their current sale price (at time of publication) is around $200.
For their part, the AirPods 3 (as we’ll call them from here out) cost $179, and having recently launched, they may not budge for a while. That’s pretty close to a draw, especially if the Pro buds drop to recent lows. But hang on, because Apple is pulling the classic minor-feature price rise. The AirPods Pro will soon get an upgrade for MagSafe charging, which will bring the "new" AirPods Pro to $249 (until Apple puts those on sale as well).
If you can get either version of the AirPods Pro on a good sale, the price difference is basically a draw, but given that this is conditional and subject to major change, we’ll give this round to the standard AirPods 3.
Our pick: AirPods 3
Fit and design
The big headline for the AirPods 3 is the new, slim and trim design. With shorter stems bearing a Force Sensor for controls the new AirPods look a lot like, you guessed it, the AirPods Pro. Frankly, it’s tough to tell them apart at a glance.
The buds weigh almost the same (the standard AirPods are 4.2 grams to the Pro’s 5), they take up about the same amount of space and only the AirPods Pro’s larger case stands out (it’s a bit bigger and wider). Like the Pro, the AirPods 3 buds now have IPX4 water resistance and that includes their MagSafe-ready charging case (the Pro’s case isn’t labeled as tested for water resistance and the original version isn’t MagSafe ready).
There are plenty more similarities that we’ll dig into in the Features section, but one place that really sets these buds apart is their heads, so to speak: the AirPods Pro bear the slick, magnetic ear tips that were a first for Apple buds, while the AirPods 3 stick with a slightly shaved down version of the one-size-fits-some plastic shells.
Now, which of these is preferable is more controversial than I’d have guessed. My brother loves the plastic-pod fit, claiming they're the only earbuds that fit his ears, and I know he’s far from alone. That’s all well and good, and if you’re in that camp, feel free to protest, but since my brother isn’t writing this post I get to make the call. For me it’s no contest: ear tips or bust.
Not only are the AirPods Pro’s ear tips likely to be more comfortable and stable for most ears thanks to their multiple size options, but they also allow for a better seal for improved audio performance, while still providing a semi-open feel. As such, while these designs are quite close, I’m giving the win to the AirPods Pro’s ultra-comfy fit. All angry letters on this topic can be sent to my brother, whose address will be listed below.
Our pick: AirPods Pro
Features and controls
There are so many similar features between these two models, it’s easiest to just start with everything they share. Both earbuds offer all sorts of extras designed for the Apple faithful, and that starts with the moment you open the case.
The fact that all AirPods (as well as Apple’s Beats buds) magically show up on your iPhone when you open the package is a brilliant way to start things off. Google and Microsoft have their own versions, but they’re not quite as simplified as Apple's closed system.
Like buds before them, both of these AirPods models carry the H1 chip, which lets you seamlessly transition from Apple devices when logged into iCloud. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s mostly accurate and a great function for working from home.
Thanks to new sensors in the AirPods, they also share the same “Find My” functionality as the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max with iOS 15, letting you track your buds with better accuracy and over longer distances from your iPhone when compared to earbuds that offer only Bluetooth tracking. You can even get separation alerts so you’ll know when your buds go missing.
As mentioned, both pairs offer a Force Sensor on the stems for tapping your way to play/pause, song skipping, and calling up Siri (which you can also do with a simple “Hey, Siri” voice command). And while I wish either pair offered onboard volume controls, “Hey, Siri” makes this pretty easy to accomplish, alongside plenty of other functions. It’s especially fast with a newer iPhone. Other features include the ability to use one bud at a time, as well as sensors for auto-pause when you take them out (the new AirPods even have an improved in-ear detector).
There is one feature (or features) in the AirPods Pro that the AirPods 3 don’t offer, and it’s a biggie: ambient sound modes like active noise canceling and transparency mode. The AirPods Pro offer both functions, including seriously impressive noise canceling for a pair of buds so light and comfy. That’s a huge miss for the AirPods 3, and one we’re seeing more often in middle-tier models like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2.
It would have been a difficult ask given the AirPods 3’s open-style design, but it’s still something we expect at earbuds priced close to $200.
Our pick: AirPods Pro
Upgrading the battery was an easy win for the new AirPods, as it’s the biggest weakness in the AirPods Pro. While it’s by no means a coup when compared to other rivals, the AirPods 3 offer improved battery life of 6 hours per charge, and up to 30 hours away from the outlet with the charging case. The AirPods Pro get just 4.5 hours with ANC, and 24 hours total with the case.
There’s a caveat here, as active noise cancellation sucks down more juice, but a win is a win and the AirPods 3 take the medal here.
Our pick: AirPods 3
Calling and sound performance
When it comes to calling, in the tests we performed it was difficult if not impossible for callers on the other end to determine between calls on the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro. That is to say they both sounded very good, which is a great bonus for those who spend a lot of time on the phone.
When it comes to listening, there are some other cool new additions to the AirPods 3 borrowed from the Pro, including Adaptive EQ, which uses an interior microphone to continuously measure frequencies and adjust the sound for your specific fit, as well as Spatial Audio.
Spatial Audio is probably the most notable, though it is pretty limited when it comes to use cases. It’s designed to offer a more hemispheric soundstage with supported content, including TV and movies mixed in Dolby Atmos on services like Apple TV+ and Disney+, as well as songs mixed in Dolby Atmos Music via the Apple Music service.
While the feature does add some extra immersion to Dolby Atmos video content, when it comes to music it’s the head tracking that’s most interesting. It allows the soundstage to be anchored to your source device. If you turn your head, it keeps the soundstage centered to the device, allowing you to virtually explore the aural space. This helps to isolate instruments in the soundstage and generally adds a more live feel to your listening experience.
It’s great that Apple has added these features to the AirPods 3, and there’s no doubt the new custom drivers and amplifiers in these buds have also improved the audio quality over previous standard AirPods models. That said, they’re still rather limited, and a big part of that comes down to the open-shell design. They can’t offer the same intimacy, instrumental body, or overall detail as the AirPods Pro—or plenty of other earbuds at or even below their price point.
Some of this will depend on just how well they fit—the better the seal, the better the sound. But in this race, while there are many similar features at play, the AirPods Pro easily win on sound.
Our pick: AirPods Pro
And the winner is …
While the AirPods 3 put up a solid fight, with loads of features borrowed from the AirPods Pro, it’s clear the Pro buds are the winners here. Not only do the AirPods Pro win more categories overall, but especially on sale, they’re simply a better value.
The major asterisk here is that, if your ears are the type where only the plastic shells will do, the AirPods 3 may be a better fit, literally. In that case, you’ll need to ask yourself if the new features are enough to make them a better buy than the cheaper AirPods 2, which are now available at $129 or less.
Otherwise, when it comes down to the best Apple buds, the AirPods Pro are the clear winners.