Apple AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro (1st generation): Which earbuds should you buy?

Separate images of a woman wearing AirPods 3 and a woman wearing AirPods Pro.

The AirPods 3 (left) and AirPods Pro (right) aren’t the latest from Apple, but they’re still worth your attention.

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It’s been more than half a decade since Apple released the original AirPods, and while the shiny white buds have taken on new shapes and sizes since then, the AirPods remain among the best wireless earbuds today.

If you’re shopping for a new pair of AirPods to kick off the new year, they probably are Third generation AirPods And Apple is older but it’s still hanging on Original AirPods Pro in your mind.

Between the two AirPods models, there are several differences to note that, while not easily distinguishable from Apple’s marketing language and labels, make your buying decision more obvious than you might think.

Also: Earbuds vs. Headphones: Which is Right for You?

To help you decide which one you should buy, I’ve listed the main arguments for each model below.

Determination

AirPods 3

AirPods Pro (1st generation)

mics

double beam

double beam

listening experience

Custom spatial audio

Custom spatial sound, active noise cancellation, and transparency mode

Connection

Bluetooth 5.0

Bluetooth 5.0

durability

Earbuds: IPX4

Earbuds: IPX4

battery

Up to 6 hours of listening time on a single charge

Up to 4.5 hours of listening time on a single charge

chip

H1

H1

price

$169

$169


Should You Buy AirPods 3 If …

A woman leans forward and puts AirPods 3 in her ear.

an Apple

1. You prefer the classic AirPods design

the AirPods 3 They’re the newer of the two models I’m comparing, but they retain that familiar stem design of the first-generation AirPods. If you prefer it to the cushioned hooks of the Pro, AirPods 3 are the way to go.

Also: The best AirPods and AirPods Pro deals right now

While the non-Pro model is less flashy on paper, the AirPods share two notable audio features with their pricier siblings: Spatial Audio and Adaptive EQ. The first is Apple’s in-house technology that synchronizes audio playback via dynamic head tracking. Basically, the sounds of music, videos, and movies are played into your ears as if the sound sources were physically in front of you. Adaptive EQ helps AirPods 3 automatically adjust the low and mid frequencies so you get the fullest, most realistic sound possible.

2. You want a more durable case

While both earphone models are rated IPX4, meaning they can withstand splashes of water, the AirPods 3 charging case also has the same certification, while the AirPods Pro charging case does not. While you often have the charging cases hidden in a pocket or bag anyway, there’s still more objective protection with the newer AirPods 3.

3. You prioritize battery life and endurance

Besides convenience and sound quality, battery life is a mainstay between the two AirPods models. While the charging cases look almost identical, you can expect more endurance from the newer AirPods 3.

During our reviews, the AirPods 3 achieved an estimated 30 hours of music playback that Apple announced. That’s a step up from the AirPods Pro’s 24-hour battery life. One of the main reasons for this is the AirPods 3’s lack of Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). Without noise cancellation, non-Pro AirPods can conserve power more efficiently. Equally helps is turning off Spatial Audio, which only works with specific Apple Music media files.

reconsidering: AirPods 3: Improvements in all the right places

The AirPods 3 will last for about 6 hours before needing to be docked in the charging case, while the AirPods Pro will last 3-5 hours depending on whether you have ANC on or off. Either way, you can charge via a Lightning cable, wirelessly via Qi, or through Apple’s MagSafe system.

You should buy AirPods Pro (1st generation) if…

A woman presses the stem of AirPods Pro to control music.

an Apple

1. You want Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)

The biggest selling point AirPods Pro It is Active Noise Cancellation, or ANC. Not to be confused with “passive noise cancellation,” which comes from the natural sealing of the earbud tips, ANC uses the AirPods Pro’s external microphones to deflect ambient sounds such as chirping birds, fans, and chatter. This crown jewel of an audio feature has made its way through most, if not all, high-end earphones and headphones, and it could easily spoil you when it comes to listening to music.

AirPods Pro also have a Transparency mode that amplifies the sounds around you so you never miss a beat from reality. Instead of taking off the earphones, you can use Transparency mode to listen to subway stations, monitor traffic, or talk to a passerby.

2. Prefer cushioned earphones

The original AirPods were tall and too inconsistent in design for many. This is part of the reason why Apple later released the short-stemmed AirPods Pro. With silicone tips that come in small, medium, and large sizes, the AirPods Pro are arguably more customizable than the AirPods 3, and the in-ear design delivers superior passive noise cancellation.

reconsidering: Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation): Better ANC and improved charging case

Comparatively speaking, the AirPods 3 rely on a specific form factor—not rubber tips—to stick to your ears. Of course, there’s a bit of a seal with this model, though many will find the less intrusive application more comfortable, especially when wearing the buds for hours on end.

3. Want to get a cheaper earphone replacement?

Let me preface this by saying that the AirPods Pro are not a direct replacement for hearing aids. The difference in price (about $169 vs. $2,000 to $3,000) should make that clear enough. However, a recent study by Taipei General Hospital for Veterans found that the AirPods Pro’s noise-canceling and live listening features were effective enough at amplifying sound for those with moderate hearing loss — and in some cases, outperforming traditional hearing aids.

Even if you’re not hard of hearing, the AirPods Pro should make the sound clearer and easier to understand in general.

Alternatives to consider

Open to prospects for other wireless earbuds? Consider these devices tested by ZDNET:

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