If you’re thinking of buying AirPods any time soon, you’ve got a few options to choose from. Apple currently has four models in the range, but how do they compare in terms of features? In this article, we take a look at which AirPods are the best for your needs, not to mention your bank balance.
What types of AirPods are there?
Apple sells various types of AirPods. These range from the standard AirPods right up to the over-the-ear AirPods Max and as the models vary quite a bit in terms of construction and features, the range also encompasses a wide span of pricing. (If you are in based outside the U.S. you will be glad to learn that Apple reduced the prices of all AirPods in September 2023.)
In September 2023 Apple updated the 2nd-generation AirPods Pro with USB-C, replacing the 2nd-generation AirPods Pro with Lightning, more about that update below.
There are some AirPods that are no longer sold by Apple, we’ll mention them here because you might still find one of these older models on sale elsewhere, so you should be aware of them:
AirPods (1st generation): Launched in December 2016 and discontinued in March 2019.
AirPods (2nd generation): The version that came with the MagSafe case is no longer sold.
AirPods Pro (1st generation): Apple discontinued the 1st generation AirPods Pro when it introduced new Pro models in September 2022.
AirPods Pro (2nd generation with Lightning): Apple discontinued the Lightning version of the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro when it introduced the USB-C equipped models in September 2023.
You may be able to get any of the above AirPods at a discounted price from an independent reseller – including the generations no longer on sale. We’ll include the best pricing for Apple’s AirPods right now in the sections below, but we also have a separate roundup of the best AirPods deals that we update monthly.
What can AirPods do?
You may be thinking of Apple’s AirPods as earbuds, earphones, headphones or whatever you call them. Perhaps all you want to do with your AirPods is listen to music, but there is so much more that they can do.
Here are a few of the benefits of having AirPods:
Simple set up – the AirPods are easy to set up to use with all your Apple products. You can instantly pair them with every device linked to your iCloud account just by tapping the AirPods once on your iPhone or iPad.
Automatic switching – You can seamlessly move from listening to audio on your Mac to answering a call on your iPhone.
They are intelligent – They sense when they’re in your ears and pause when you take them out and resume when you put them back in. They recognise when you’re speaking and filter out external noise so that your voice is clear.
Audio Sharing – You can share an audio stream between two sets of AirPods. Want to listen to your favourite album or Podcast with a friend? Bring their AirPods near the iPhone, iPad or Apple TV you’re listening to and they will connect. You can listen together and each of you will have independent volume control.
Conversation Boost – helps you hear people talking to you.
Live Listen – helps you to hear people across the room by working with your iPhone to pick up sound from a distance.
Access to Siri – Siri, your AI assistant, can read your messages or alerts as they arrive. You can even get Siri to reply to messages using voice commands.
If you are wondering what the main differences between the various AirPods read on. We also cover elements like design, controls, waterproofing, noise cancelling, sound quality, charging times and battery life, below. First we’ll run though the key differences between the various AirPods sold by Apple, starting with the most expensive model. You can also see the best prices right now.
At more than twice the cost of the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max are the definition of a considered purchase. Thanks to the size of the ear-cups, Apple is able to put a H1 chip in each one, as opposed to the single chip that appears in all of the other AirPods.
Like on the Pros, there are features such as Active Noise Cancellation, Transparency mode and Spacial Audio, but the Max doesn’t have the custom high-dynamic range amplifier found in the 3rd gen and Pro AirPods, or (more surprisingly) any form of waterproofing. The smart case is also different in that you can’t use it to charge the AirPods Max, but this isn’t as bad as it sounds, as the onboard batteries provide around 20 hours of listening time.
Again, thanks to the size of the AirPods Max, controls are handled not by taps but a Digital Crown similar to that found on the Apple Watch, and a dedicated Noise Control button. There are also multiple microphones to aid with noise cancellation, plus updated sensors for better performance. For a comprehensive look at the AirPods Max, read our full review.
The AirPods Pro had a significant update in 2022, bringing Find My to the charging case, better battery life, improved noise cancellation and enhanced audio quality, new extra small ear tips and so much more.
Then in 2023 Apple switched Lightning on the case for USB-C and added a few new features including a case that charges with USB-C instead of Lightning, the ability to use an iPhone 15 to reverse your AirPods case, better protection against dust, and Lossless Audio with ultra-low latency for Apple Vision Pro.
The AirPods Pro are better than ever, but the price is still high.
The 3rd generation AirPods arrived in 2021. They add IPX4 sweat- and water-resistance, so you can wear them while working out or walking in the rain. There’s also an inward-facing microphone for better control of Siri and clearer call quality, plus an additional hour of battery life. Apple added various tap controls on this model too, allowing you to not only play and pause music like on the 2nd gen, but also skip forward and backward through tracks, and launch Siri. Oh yes, and the case supports wireless charging.
In terms of audio quality, the 3rd-gen AirPods come with Adaptive EQ which is claimed to adjust the sound to suit the shape of your ear, plus there’s also Spatial Audio for a more immersive listening experience.
There are two versions, a MagSafe version that can charge wirelessly and a Lightning version which needs to be plugged in (see below).
The only difference between the MagSafe and Lightning versions of the 3rd generation AirPods is the way they charge and how much they cost.
If you don’t care about being able to charge the AirPods by laying them on a wireless charging mat then you might as well save money and buy the lightning version. The only reason not to do that is that Apple might decide to switch Lightning for USB-C on the 3rd-gen AirPods, and you might wish you’d waited for that to happen.
If you want a simple, relatively affordable pair of earbuds for listening to music, podcasts and audiobooks and taking phone calls, then the AirPods (2nd gen) will do all of this very happily. They also, due to their age, work with some older devices such as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 5s, as well as the iPad mini versions 3 and 4. To read more about them, take a look at our AirPods (2nd Generation) review.
We’ll now run through all the differences between the various AirPods, looking at the design, controls, waterproofing, noise canceling, sound quality, compatibility, charging times and battery life to help you decide which AirPods will meet your needs.
All earbud style AirPods are available in white, just like the iPod earbuds that were so iconic. However, if you are willing to spend more on a pair of over-ear Apple headphones then the AirPods Max come in a variety of two-tone colours including Space Gray, Pink, Silver, Green and Sky Blue. The AirPods Max are designed to create an acoustic seal around your ear to aid noise cancellation. There’s a Digital Crown on one side for volume control.
There was an expectation that the AirPods Pro would have shorter stems when Apple updated them in 2022, but this wasn’t the case. This means that to distinguish between the AirPods (3rd generation) and the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) you need to look to the ear bud – only the AirPods Pro come with silicone ear tips to create a seal in your ear. There are four sizes: XS, S, M, L included in the box. The extra small size is new with the AirPods Pro (2nd generation). The AirPods Pro are the only other AirPods to offer external noise cancellation.
You might not be keen on pushing something inside your ear, in which case it’s worth noting that the AirPods Pro 2nd generation offer a vent system for pressure equalisation so that it feels comfortable to wear them. This vent system combined with the silicon ear tips means you may find the AirPods Pro 3 more comfortable to wear than the standard AirPods with their hard plastic tips that sit in your ear.
The most obvious difference between the AirPods 2 and 3 is the size of the stem – the 3rd generation have smaller stems. There’s a lot else that is visibly different though, as you can see from the image above.
Size is another difference, that may or may not matter to you since it doesn’t really impact comfort or fit. The second generation AirPods are fractionally lighter than the third generation AirPods and those are lighter than the third generation AirPods Pro which are 5.3g (0.19oz). The AirPods Max weigh a lot more at 384.8g (13.6oz).
One of the benefits of using any kind of AirPods is that you can also tell Siri – the artificial intelligent assistant – to do things for you. However, you don’t have to use Siri to control your music playback (luckily). You can use a combination of taps and swipe depending on which AirPods you have.
On AirPods 2nd generation you use a double tap to play, skip or answer the phone.
AirPods 3rd generation use a force sensor. It’s one press for play, pause or answer call, two presses to skip forward, and three presses to skip back. Press and hold to activate Siri.
AirPods Pro 2nd generation use touch control with different presses for different features. It’s one press for play, pause or answer call, two presses to skip forward, three presses to skip back. You press and hold to switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Adaptive Transparency, swipe up and down to adjust volume, and you Say Hey Siri to trigger the voice assistant.
AirPods Max feature a Digital Crown that you turn to control volume, press to play, pause or answer a call, press twice to skip, three times to go back, and press and hold to activate Siri (or say Hey Siri). There’s also a Noise control button to switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode.
Waterproofing: Are AirPods waterproof?
Given that a lot of people like to wear headphones when exercising or walking around outside, so the question “can AirPods get wet” is a fair one. The answer to the question is that the AirPods 3rd generation and AirPods Pro 2nd generation are sweat and water resistant (IPX4 rated), according to Apple. Which means you can wear then when exercising, in the shower and in the rain but not in the swimming pool.
The AirPods 2nd generation and the AirPods Max aren’t considered water resistant, so if it’s raining outside it’s probably best not to wear them on the walk to the bus stop.
Noise cancelling: Are AirPods noise cancelling?
The AirPods Max, 2nd generation AirPods Pro and the now discontinued 1st generation AirPods Pro offer Active Noise Cancellation. Noise cancellation works by using a microphone to detect external sounds and then countering them by playing anti-noise. The 2nd generation AirPods Pro offer better noise cancellation thanks to a new driver and improved acoustic algorithms as well as better microphones and a new speaker grille on top of each earbud to help filter out outside sounds.
There’s no noise cancelling on the standard AirPods.
Active Noise Cancellation isn’t the only sound related feature in the AirPods. There is a Transparency mode available on the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max that lets the outside noise in when you need to hear what’s going on around you. You can switch between these two modes by tapping on a location on your AirPods Pro or AirPods Max (indicated by the blue arrows in the image above).
There’s a difference between the Transparency Mode on the AirPods Max and the Pro – the new AirPods Pro 2nd generation offer Adaptive Transparency, which will minimise the intensity of loud noises like sirens, so you won’t be deafened if an ambulance passes while you are using Transparency Mode.
Conversation Boost is a feature that came to the AirPods Pro in an October 2021 software update. The feature can be used to enhance the voice of the person talking beside you, which could be helpful for the hard of hearing. The feature can be turned on in iOS Accessibility settings, here’s How to use Conversation Boost to turn your AirPods Pro into a hearing aid.
Another related feature is Live Listen, which can be used in conjunction with an iPhone or iPad to help you listen to someone speaking from across the room or in a noisy place. You can use Live Listen with AirPods, AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and also Powerbeats Pro or Beats Fit Pro. Read How to use Live Listen.
Sound quality: Which AirPods have the best sound quality?
We’ve never had any reason to criticise any AirPods sound quality, although they aren’t necessarily the best sounding headphones you can buy. However, we were glad to find that the 3rd generation AirPods 3rd offer much better sound than the 2nd generations did thanks to new drivers. The 3rd generation also support Adaptive EQ like the AirPods Pro (1st and 2nd generation) do. Adaptive EQ tunes music to your ears using inward facing microphones that detect what you can hear and adjust the frequencies in the low and mid-range to customise the sound for you.
Another way that AirPods can create personalised sound is via Personalized Spatial Audio – which requires iOS 16 on iPhones with the TrueDepth camera and is compatible with 1st and 2nd generation AirPods Pro, AirPods (3rd generation) and AirPods Max. It can also be used with Beats Fit Pro. A personal profile based on your unique ear shape is set up for you based on a photo of your head and each of your ears in order to create a three-dimensional audio experience when you move your head. Dynamic head tracking can also be beneficial in group FaceTime calls.
As big an improvement as there is in the sound of the 3rd generation AirPods compared to the 2nd generation models, the leap from the standard AirPods to the AirPods Pro is vast, and now that the AirPods Pro 2nd generation are here that gap is even greater. One new feature of the 2nd generation AirPods Pro is a custom-built driver and amplifier that work with the new H2 chip to provide lower distortion during playback – which should allow for deeper bass and crisper highs.
All AirPods support Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio in Apple Music, but only the 3rd-generation AirPods or either generation of the AirPods Pro support Spatial Audio for video with head tracking.
Charging and battery life
Before we get onto battery life, a few words on charging. The charging case for the 2023 version of the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro includes USB-C instead of Lightning, so you can charge with a USB-C cable. But perhaps even better, you don’t need to find a power adapter to plug the cable into: you can reverse charge the 2023 version by plugging the case into any iPhone 15. You can also charge the 2nd-gen AirPods Pro and the MagSafe-equipped 3rd-gen AirPods wirelessly.
Here’s how the battery life of the different AirPods Apple sells compares:
AirPods 2nd generation – 5 hours listening or 3 hours talking, plus 24 hours listening or 18 hours talking from charging case.
AirPods 3rd generation – 6 hours listening or 4 hours talking, plus 30 hours listening or 20 hours talking from charging case.
AirPods Pro 2nd generation – 6 hours listening or 4.5 hours talking, plus the AirPods Pro 2 charging case can add a total of 30 hours of listening or 24 hours talking.
AirPods Max – 20 hrs on one charge, but no charging case boost here.
These battery life measures are claimed by Apple. It’s worth noting that the AirPods Pro 2nd generation battery life if superior to the 1st generation of that model (previously 4.5 hours and 24 hours listening time).
To check the remaining battery life users can hold AirPods next to their iPhone or ask Siri “How’s the battery on my AirPods?”. Should AirPods need charging a notification will appear on the paired iPhone.
Prospective buyers will also want to know how quickly the AirPods will charge – or how quickly you can charge them before leaving the house.
AirPods 2nd generation – 15 minutes in the case provides about 3 hours battery life.
AirPods 3rd generation – 5 minutes in the case provides around 1 hour of battery life.
AirPods Pro 2nd generation – 5 minutes in the case provides around 1 hour of battery life.
AirPods Max – 5 minutes of charge time provides around 1.5 hours of battery life.
Again, those are the times quoted by Apple.
You won’t always be in a hurry to charge your AirPods of course. Under more usual circumstances the AirPods have a variety of ways in which they can be charged.
All but the 2nd generation AirPods can come with a wireless charging case – named MagSafe Charging Case by Apple. There did used to be a version of the 2nd generation AirPods that came with a wireless charging case, but Apple no longer sells that model.
In the case of the AirPods 3nd generation you need to pay $10/£10 to get the MagSafe charger version rather than the Lighting Charging Case. The MagSafe case can also be charged via the Lightning port so there’s little reason to save that money, you might as well get the MagSafe case. In fact we can’t really understand why Apple offers the Lightning option.
The 2nd generation AirPods Pro come with a MagSafe charging case that offers two useful additional features: a lanyard loop so you can carry it around and a speaker which combines with a U1 chip inside the case to make it possible to use Find My to locate the case should you lose it. The only thing that would be more useful than being able to locate a lost case would be being able to locate a lost ear bud, but for now that’s not what’s on offer so just remember to put the AirPods Pro back in their case.
We mentioned already that AirPods don’t only work with Apple products. They are bluetooth headphones and as such can connect to any device that supports Bluetooth. In that respect there might be some difference based on the fact that both generation of AIrPods and the AirPods Max support Bluetooth 5.0 while the 2nd generation AirPods Pro support Bluetooth 5.3, which brings improvements such as less interference and improved sound quality.
So, if you were wondering if AirPods can connect to your PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox, Android or even Samsung phone, the answer is yes. You just need to connect via Bluetooth.
One last thing to note: if you have a really old iPhone and want to use AirPods, only the AirPods 2nd gen work with iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 5s and the iPad mini 3, iPad mini 2 and iPad Air (1st generation) and iPod touch (6th generation). Other AIrPods won’t work with those ageing devices. But we can’t imagine many AIrPod users will have such old Apple devices.
The AirPods that are right for you will no doubt depend on a variety of factors. Perhaps you want the cheapest option, in which case the 2nd generation AirPods at $129/£129 might look the most attractive.
But if you are a real music lover the AirPods might not be enough for you. The AirPods Pro offer noise cancellation, superior sound and many more benefits (including USB-C and reverse charge from the iPhone following the 2023 update). They cost a lot more though, at $249/£229. We think they are worth the extra expense, but you might not.
If you have money to spend though then the AirPods Max, which have a very high price in comparison with the rest of the range, at $549/£549, do have a lot of appeal. But those who would appreciate what they offer can look beyond Apple’s offering and probably find something just as good, or better.
One other factor influending your decision though is if you find a good deal on a new or old pair of AirPods. Check out the deals below to see if the AirPods you want are discounted – then perhaps you can afford to splash out on the AirPods Pro instead of the AirPods.