Apple AirPods Pro in a woman's ear
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Apple’s AirPods are a great option for wireless headphones, but as Apple expands the lineup, it’s tough to choose a model. We’ll compare all of them to see which AirPods are the perfect fit for you.

AirPods (2nd Generation): The Original

Apple 2nd-generation AirPods
Apple

The second-generation Apple AirPods, sometimes called the AirPods 2, are the closest you can get to the AirPods as they were when Apple introduced them in 2016. This model has a few nice features that the originals didn’t, mainly improved sound quality and better Siri integration.

Even if the original AirPods were available new, there wouldn’t be any reason to buy them over this model. Everything positive about the original AirPods—the fit that some people love, for example—is also present in the AirPods 2.

The AirPods 2 are perfect if you’re looking for grab-and-go in-ears and don’t want or need the features that filtered down from the AirPods Pro into the AirPods 3.

Most Affordable AirPods

Apple AirPods with Charging Case

The AirPods 2 replaced the original, adding more battery life and better features.

AirPods (3rd Generation): The Upgrade

Apple 3rd-generation AirPods
Apple

Unlike the upgrade from the original AirPods to second-generation AirPods, the introduction of the third-generation AirPods, sometimes called the AirPods 3, saw some major changes from the original. The first is the most polarizing: the shape.

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Apple’s original AirPods got their shape from the EarPods before them. This shape works very well for some people, while others can’t seem to keep them from falling out. If you’re happy with the fit of the original AirPods, the AirPods 3 and their more Pro-inspired shape may not work for you.

On the other hand, the AirPods 3 get a lot of the best features of the AirPods Pro, without the noise cancellation. Spatial audio, which can make videos sound like they’re playing directly in front of you, is a nice new feature, as is adaptive EQ.

If you found the onboard controls of the original AirPods and the AirPods 2 restrictive, the more responsive “force sensor controls” inherited from the AirPods Pro are another fine addition to the AirPods 3. Even better, the AirPods 3 are sweat and water-resistant, a first for the “standard” AirPods.

Pro Features on a Budget

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

The AirPods 3 bring many of the best features of the more expensive AirPods Pro into a more affordable package.

AirPods Pro: With Noise Cancellation

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple

Until the introduction of the AirPods 3, the AirPods Pro were the only in-ear model to support many major features. Now that most of those features have come to the standard AirPods, why should you pick the Pro?

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The AirPods Pro are the only in-ear AirPods with active noise cancellation. While it isn’t as effective as it is in over-ear headphones like the AirPods Max, the cancellation here is still useful.

This isn’t the only audio upgrade you get with the AirPods Pro either. The same microphones the AirPods Pro use for noise cancellation can also let sound in. Apple calls this Transparency Mode, and it’s incredibly handy if you love your AirPods but still need to hear what’s happening around you, like at the gym.

You can even use this feature to act somewhat like a hearing aid by enabling Conversation Boost. This helps you hear conversations directly in front of you, and as of October 2021, it’s only available on the AirPods Pro.

Of course, the extra audio processing comes at a higher price, but if you value either noise cancellation or Transparency Mode, it’s worth the extra cash.

Best In-Ear AirPods

Apple AirPods Pro

The AirPods Pro are the top of the line when it comes to Apple's in-ear offerings, thanks to the quality noise cancellation and Transparency Mode.

AirPods Max: The Big Headphones

Apple AirPods Max
Apple

We’re looking at the AirPods Max because, yes, they’re part of the AirPods lineup. At the same time, they’re very different from the other AirPods on this list thanks to the over-ear form factor.

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First off, there is the comfort factor. Even with the different sized tips that come with the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro, in-ear headphones fit differently for everyone. With the AirPods Max, you don’t have these same concerns.

Comfort is subjective, but the AirPods Max seem to be comfortable for most people buying them, and they pack bigger sound as well. Many key AirPods features like Siri integration, spatial audio, and adaptive EQ are here—just like the Max’s smaller siblings.

The AirPods Max carry a price tag to match the name, and this will be a dealbreaker for some people. That said, the audio and build quality justify the premium price.

Best Over-Ear AirPods

Apple AirPods Max

If you're not a fan of in-ear headphones, the Apple AirPods Max pack everything great about AirPods into a bigger set of headphones.

What About Other Wireless Headphones?

While you can use AirPods with Android and Windows devices, they’re easier to use with Apple devices, and this will likely influence whether you buy them. If you’re all Apple all the time, AirPods are an easy choice. If you float between various devices and platforms, that choice becomes less of an easy call.

Of course, AirPods aren’t the only name in town when it comes to audio on Apple devices. If you’re not fully sold on AirPods, take a look at our roundup of the best wireless earbuds for iPhone and iPad.

The Best Wireless Earbuds for iPhone and iPad of 2021

Best Earbuds Overall
Apple Airpods Pro
Best Budget Earbuds
Skullcandy Sesh Evo
Best Earbuds for Travel
Jabra Elite 75t
Best Workout Earbuds
Beats Fit Pro
Best Noise-Canceling Earbuds
Sony WF-1000XM4
Profile Photo for Kris Wouk Kris Wouk
Kris Wouk is a freelance tech writer and musician with over 10 years of experience as a writer and a lifetime of experience as a gadget fan. He has also written for Digital Trends, MakeUseOf, Android Authority, and Sound Guys. At MakeUseOf, he was Section Editor in charge of the site's Mac coverage.
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