The AirPods 3 Are Great but Don't Dismiss Earlier Models

Choosing isn’t easy

Key Takeaways

  • The AirPods 3 improves on the AirPods 2 in almost every way.
  • The AirPods Pro is still the only in-ear model with noise-canceling.
  • The previous-gen AirPods are still a great buy, and now much cheaper.
person running while wearing the AirPods 3

Apple

The AirPods lineup just got a little better, and a lot more confusing. 

If you want to buy some wireless Apple headphones, you now have four choices. If we discount the big, over-the-ear AirPods Max, then we’re left with three models—the new AirPods 3, the AirPods Pro, and the old AirPods 2, which are still on sale at a new, lower price. How on earth do you decide which ones to get?

"Here’s a hot take: the AirPods 3 are a better buy than the AirPods Pro," says Bloomberg gadget writer Mark Gurman on Twitter. "1 hour more of battery, 6 hours more of battery life in the case, a more compact case, universal fit, and $60 less than the Pro. Only plus for the Pro is janky noise-cancellation—not enough of a gap."

The New AirPods vs AirPods Pro

The new AirPods, announced alongside Apple’s new MacBook Pro in mid-October, are an improvement in most ways. You get better battery life, MagSafe and inductive Qi charging, and sweat resistance. 

You also can enjoy Spatial Audio, which has its uses, and the new design inspired by the AirPods Pro, only without the silicone tips that seal your ear canals against outside sound, and offer a measure of size adjustability.

These new AirPods are pretty much AirPods Pro Lite, including many of their most advanced features. In fact, there’s really only one feature that now distinguishes the AirPods Pro—active noise cancelling (ANC). This is the feature that samples the sound around you, and generates anti-sound to cancel it out. It’s far from perfect, but the combination of ANC, and the tight seal of the Pro’s silicone tips, makes for a pretty great barrier to the outside world. 

Not only that, but you also can choose to let some of the outside world back in. Transparency mode cancels the noise as usual, but then feeds a bit of the ambient noise back into the mix. It becomes overwhelming if you’re walking next to a busy road or riding the subway, but for everything else, Transparency mode lets you listen to your podcast, music, or audiobook, but still remain in the world.

"[Transparency mode] works beautifully, achieving a nice blend between your music and the outside world—without sounding too synthetic," AirPods user and marketing specialist Sally Stevens told Lifewire via email.

"Part of Apple’s magic is the new products often make the old ones seem less attractive almost immediately."

This feature, alone, might be worth the price difference between the $249 Pro and the $179 AirPods 3, although it’s a tougher sell now that the regular AirPods have so many previously Pro-only features.

In some ways, though, the new AirPods 3 are better than the Pro. They get better battery life, for one—six hours per charge, vs. 4.5 hours, and 30 hours total when recharging from the case, vs. 24 hours.

The bottom line is that the new AirPods 3 are the standouts in the lineup. The others are there to either save money or get noise canceling, and that’s about it. 

Why Not Just Keep Using Your Old Ones?

The new AirPods are typical Apple products, in a way. They take the existing model, and improve it in almost every way, without changing the formula that makes it great to begin with. Part of Apple’s magic is the new products often make the old ones seem less attractive almost immediately. The slim screen bezels in the new MacBook Pro, for example, make all previous Mac laptops look old-fashioned. 

AirPods Pro paired with iPhone

Apple

So it is with AirPods. It’s easy to sell yourself on an upgrade, and toss out a perfectly good pair just to get the new features. But is it worth it? For me, the AirPods’ killer features are noise cancelling and transparency mode, and you only get those with the Pro. Qi charging? You can just replace the AirPods case. Spatial Audio? Pointless for music and movies, in my opinion, but great for wellbeing apps. 

Even though the AirPods 2 aren’t classed as sweat proof, I’ve never had any problems with them in the rain or when "working out" (running for a bus). And if the batteries in your old AirPods are dying? PodSwap is a service that swaps them for you. 

It’s not to say that the new AirPods aren’t better in almost every way. It’s just that the old ones are still as good as ever, which is to say they’re still some of the best wireless earbuds around. And they have one brand-new killer feature: the price. The new, lower $129 price means a whole bunch of people can now enjoy AirPods instead of going for a previously cheaper alternative.

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