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The best AirPods 2021: which Apple headphones are right for you?

best airpods
(Image credit: TechRadar)

Thinking of buying some AirPods, but not sure where to start? You've come to the right place.

Once synonymous with the flimsy EarPods you got in the box with an iPhone, Apple has become a true contender in the audio tech space with its AirPods range of true wireless earbuds and over-ear headphones.

But which Apple headphones are right for you? That’s why we’ve created this guide, to tell you more about Apple’s AirPods, the different models on offer and how they stack up against the competition. 

There are actually only three AirPods models to choose from: the 2019 AirPods, the AirPods Pro, and the AirPods Max. That doesn't leave you with much choice, so you'll find some Beats headphones that we rate in this guide as well - that's because Apple acquired Beats back in 2014, expanding its audio portfolio to include running earbuds and on-ear headphones. 

Not sure about Apple headphones at all? We've also included a few AirPods-alternatives to consider at the end of this page.

The best AirPods

The Airpods pro

(Image credit: Apple)

1. Apple AirPods Pro

The best AirPods you can buy today

Weight: 5.4g
Drivers: Dynamic
Battery life : 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Good noise cancellation+Better fit than AirPods (2019)
Reasons to avoid
-More expensive than better rivals-USB-C charging cable in box

The AirPods Pro are the best AirPods you can buy in 2021 bringing active noise cancellation, a snug fit, and an improved design to the company's previous true wireless earbuds.

They're not quite the best true wireless earbuds out there (that honor goes to the Sony WF-1000XM4), and at $249 / £249 / AU$399 they aren't cheap, either. 

That said, if you’re an iPhone user looking for some well-fitting earbuds with strong sound quality, you could do a lot worse than the latest AirPods – the redesign means they’re far less likely to fall out, and the additional microphones provide strong noise-cancelling (particularly when commuting), as well as a useful Transparency mode, which really does let the outside world in.

The sound quality of the AirPods Pro has certainly improved since the previous iteration – there’s a notable emphasis on vocals and bass, meaning these earbuds are better for pop fans than those who enjoy a more natural presentation that lends itself to classical music or more orchestral sounds.

Apparently, there's a new AirPods model on the horizon to join the original buds and the newer Pros. The AirPods Pro 2 are rumored to be a new, cheaper variant of the company's popular true wireless earbuds, and they could be released this year.

Read more: Apple AirPods Pro review


the AirPods Max in silver and white

2. Apple AirPods Max

The best AirPods for sound quality

Weight: 350g
Drivers: 40mm dynamic
Battery life: 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Unbelievable audio performance+Fantastic user experience+Brilliant extra features for iOS+Great noise cancellation
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive compared to rivals-No 3.5mm audio port-Limited features for Android-Ineffective carrying case

The Apple AirPods Max were some of the most highly-anticipated headphones ever. Rumors and speculation about what they'll look like and sound like have been swirling for years. So do they live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. 

When we finally got our hands on the AirPod Max we found that, as you might expect, the audio quality was nothing short of extraordinary. The design and build was also solid and unmistakably Apple and they were comfortable too. We also appreciate the use of physical controls as opposed to the voguish swipe controls that most wireless headphones seem to favor these days. 

We particularly liked the reprisal of the Apple Watch's Digital Crown, which allows you to precisely adjust the volume and easily control your music playback. What's more, they have brilliant quality of life features for those already devoted to the Apple ecosystem. 

But it isn't all good news. The most obvious drawback is the price. Apple has always created luxury tech with a higher-than-average price tag, but these are $549 / £549 / AU$899. In our review, we didn't think the performance (although great) matched the sky-high price. 

They also come with a case that preserves the battery while the headphones are in use. This sounds good, in theory. But it doesn't offer any protection. Instead, the Smart Case leaves the headband of the AirPods Max totally exposed. 

Read more: Apple AirPods Max review


(Image credit: techradar)

the apple airpods and their charging case

(Image credit: Apple)

3. Apple AirPods (2019)

The most popular AirPods are still worth considering

Weight: 4g (38g with case)
Drivers: Dynamic
Battery life: 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Faster pairing+Wireless charging
Reasons to avoid
-Wireless charging case costs extra-Audio hasn't improved since originals

The second generation Apple AirPods, the AirPods (2019), aren't a huge improvement on their predecessors, but they still sport some cool features, that may make them worth buying if you're an iPhone user in particular. 

They still feature the iconic design of the original AirPods, and sound quality hasn't changed at all – it's lively, but not on par with the best true wireless earbuds of 2020. The bulk of the upgrade comes from the new H1 headphone chip, which improves connectivity and battery life, and allows for a new ‘Hey Siri’ voice activation feature.

The AirPods (2019) also come with an optional wireless charging case means you can use a Qi-compatible charging mat to power the case, rather than sticking a cable into the Lightning charging port in the bottom of the case. 

Like their predecessors, they are super easy to pair, but they are very much optimized for using with iPhones. The best true wireless earbuds give you more flexibility when it comes to your device of choice, and can offer superior sound quality – as well as sleeker designs. 

There’s also no getting away from the fact that these are an expensive pair of headphones, and for that kind of money we think that you can find better products elsewhere – especially if you're looking to pair with anything other than an iPhone. 

Read more Apple AirPods (2019) review

The best Beats headphones

Apple headphones aren't just limited to AirPods - Beats headphones are worth checking out, as well. These days there are lots of different Beats headphones to choose from, including in-ear headphones for sports, true wireless earbuds that give the AirPods Pro a run for their money, and comfortable pairs of on-ear headphones that make your music shine.

the beats solo pro headphones in red

(Image credit: Apple)

1. Beats Solo Pro

The best Beats for active noise-cancelling

Weight: 267g
Drivers: 40mm
Battery life: 40 hours
Reasons to buy
+Great noise cancellation+40-hour battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Lightning port only-Lacks 3.5mm Aux port

Bringing top-notch adaptive noise cancelling to its on-ear offering for the first time, Beats Solo Pro is a marked step up from its previous iterations – particularly when it comes to build quality.

Sturdier than the Beats Solo 3 and sporting a cool matte finish in each color, the Beats Solo Pro feel like the biggest step up in quality the series has seen in some time for its larger line of headphones. Like the 2019 AirPods and AirPods Pro, they come with the H1 chip which allows for fast pairing and hands-free Siri integration.

Read more: Beats Solo Pro review


the beats studio buds in red

(Image credit: Beats)

2. Beats Studio Buds

The best-sounding Beats earbuds... with a few caveats

Weight: 5g
Drivers: N/A
Battery life : 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Great sound quality+Comfortable to wear
Reasons to avoid
-ANC could be stronger-Lackluster call quality

The Beats Studio Buds are rock-solid true wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation and support for Apple’s Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos format. They sound great, with a lively sound quality that elevates the highs and lows of your music, and feel supremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time. 

They're not without some drawbacks, though. Chief among them is their lackluster call quality and lack of an H1 Wireless Chip. Battery life with either ANC or Transparency mode turned on is a little short at only five hours (15 hours with the case), and their noise cancellation isn’t exactly class-leading, either. 

Saying that, they're cheaper than the AirPods Pro and their predecessors, the Powerbeats Pro, making them a more budget-friendly option if you want to buy a pair of Beats earbuds. 

Read more: Beats Studio Buds review


the beats powerbeats pro in dark blue

(Image credit: Beats)

3. Beats PowerBeats Pro

Super-comfortable workout ‘buds from Beats

Acoustic design: Closed
Drivers: N/A
Battery life (on-board): 25 hours
Reasons to buy
+Easy pairing with iOS+Immaculate fit
Reasons to avoid
-Case is fairly bulky-Limited noise isolation

The PowerBeats Pro true wireless earbuds are something special – they’re supremely comfortable, sound decent and seem to never, ever fall out. 

They might not be the best true wireless earbuds in Apple's audio arsenal now that the AirPods Pro are here, but they are Apple’s most premium play into the world of running headphones, and are the buds we'd recommend to most workout enthusiasts.

That's thanks to features like the pressure-reducing micro-laser barometric venting hole, their long on-board battery life and good sound quality. If we had to choose between wearing these and the original AirPods around the house or office, these are what we’d wear.   

Read more: Beats PowerBeats Pro review


The Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones in black with gold logo

4. Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones

The best Beats headphones for noise-cancelling

Weight: 260g
Drivers: 40mm
Battery life : 40 hours
Reasons to buy
+Excellent noise-cancelling+40-hour battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Soggy mids-Weak sub bass

With an over-ear, closed back design, the Studio 3 are among the best noise-cancelling headphones Beats has ever made. 

The battery has massively improved since previous models too, so you can enjoy music for up to 22 hours, or 40 with the active noise cancellation turned off – just like the Beats Solo Pro. 

However, there are sound issues you just don’t hear in other good headphones at the price. It’s not boomy bass but a tire of blubber sitting between the bass and mids that makes the Beats Studio 3 Wireless less articulate and open-sounding than most alternatives.

Read more: Beats Studio 3 review


The powerbeats 4 in red

(Image credit: Apple / WinFuture)

5. Beats PowerBeats 4

A cheap alternative to the Powerbeats Pro

Weight: 26.3g
Drivers: 12mm
Battery life: 15 hours
Reasons to buy
+Improved sound quality+Hands-free Siri+15-hour battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Difficult fit-The wire isn’t ideal-No noise reduction

The latest Beats Powerbeats (the PowerBeats 4) are a significant upgrade on the company's wireless workout earbuds, offering a sound quality that's just as good as the Beats Powerbeats Pro. They also boast an IPX4 rating and Apple’s H1 Wireless Chip, which can summon Siri with the sound of your voice. 

They’re supposed to last 15 hours per charge – six hours more than the Powerbeats Pro and three more than their predecessors, the Powerbeats 3 – and can be paired to multiple devices and share songs wirelessly with another pair of Beats headphones.

They're not quite as good as the Apple AirPods Pro – especially in terms of the way they fit and sit in your ears, but they have a lot of the same technology and specs to make them a decent cheaper alternative.

Read more: Beats PowerBeats 4 review

Best AirPods-alternatives

Apple's AirPods are popular, but neither the 2019 AirPods nor the AirPods Pro are the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today. Here are a few AirPods-alternatives that are worth considering, too.

The best true wireless earbuds of 2021, the sony wf-1000xm4 in black with rose gold accents

(Image credit: Sony)

1. Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earbuds

The best true wireless earbuds you can buy today

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 7.3g
Frequency response: 20-40,000Hz
Drivers: 6mm
Battery life : 8 hours (earbuds) 16 hours (charging case)
Reasons to buy
+Rapid, full-bodied and eloquent sound+Truly useful features+Impressive call quality
Reasons to avoid
-Unremarkable battery life-No aptX support

Sony is largely responsible for the rude health of the active noise-cancelling earbuds market, and with the WF-1000XM4, the company has combined performance, ergonomics, and build quality more effectively than ever before. 

While other true wireless earbuds surpass the Sony WF-1000XM4 in particular areas – noise cancellation, for example – no other model comes close to offering such excellent quality across the board. That’s why the Sony WF-1000XM4 are hands-down the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today.

Read more: Sony WF-1000XM4 review

The Nuratrue true wireless earbuds in black wth a white logo

(Image credit: Nura)

2. Nuratrue

The most customizable wireless earbuds you can buy

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight : 7.4g (each bud)
Frequency Response: N/A
Drivers: N/A
Battery life (onboard) : 6 hours
Reasons to buy
+Excellent sound+Highly personalized+Noise cancellation
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn’t use latest Bluetooth version-Battery life could be better

The NuraTrue are perhaps the most personalized wireless earbuds you can buy today – and they’re among the best-sounding, too. 

They offer unbeaten levels of customization that allow the earbuds to be tuned to your ears exactly. The accompanying app even analyzes how well the buds fit into your ears.

The end result is outstanding audio performance that reveals superb levels of detail in your music, and a wide soundstage that enables every instrument to sing. 

Read more: NuraTrue review

The cambridge audio melomania 1 plus true wireless earbuds, with the earbuds on the left and the charging case on the right

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

3. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus

Mind-blowing sound without the wires

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 9.2g
Frequency response: 20-20,000Hz
Drivers: 5.8mm
Battery life (on-board): 9 hours (earbuds) 41 hours (charging case)
Reasons to buy
+Stunning audio performance+Great app+Easy controls
Reasons to avoid

Cambridge Audio may be best known for its high-end audio equipment, but the past couple of years has seen the British company branch out into the world of true wireless earbuds. 

While the design of the Melomania 1 Plus hasn’t deviated too far from its predecessors, there’s a clear step up in terms of audio performance, with levels of detail and clarity that could rival some of the best over-ear headphones

A helpful app, easy controls, and excellent connectivity just makes us love them even more. The only downside is that there’s no active noise cancellation. However, when these earbuds sound this good, we doubt you’ll miss it much. 

Read more: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review

The Sennheiser CX true wireless earbuds in their charging case

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

4. Sennheiser CX True Wireless

Excellent audio performance and battery life for a great price

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 6g (single earbud) 37g (charging case)
Frequency response: 5 hz - 21,000 Hz
Drivers: TrueResponse Transducer Sennheiser 7mm dynamic driver
Battery life : 9 hours (earbuds) 18 hours (charging case)
Reasons to buy
+Rich bass lines+Improved battery life+Upgraded connectivity
Reasons to avoid
-Uncomfortable for smaller ears-No noise cancellation-Bulky case

The audio quality of the CX True Wireless is exactly what you’d expect from the German audio giant, with a wide soundstage, clear mids, detailed trebles, and powerful bass frequencies. Nevertheless, we were still surprised by how good these earbuds sound for the price. 

The controls and accompanying app are very easy to use, and Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity ensures a stable connection with your device. Hi-res audio support is included, too, for those who want to eke out every last bit of detail from their music.

Our only real bugbear is the CX True Wireless’ design, which we found far too bulky for our ears. We’re hesitant to judge Sennheiser too harshly for this, since most users will probably be able to use them without issue.

Read more: Sennheiser CX True Wireless review


How much do AirPods cost?

The regular AirPods cost $159 / £159 / AU$249, which jumps up to $199 / £199 / AU$319 when you opt for a wireless charging case. The AirPods Pro are more expensive at $249 / £249 / AU$399, though both models are regularly discounted - read our guide to the best AirPods deals for the latest price cuts.

Are Apple headphones worth buying?

It depends on what you're looking for – if you want easy pairing with your iPhone, you can't go wrong with Apple or Beats headphones. Looking for pure audio fidelity? You're better off looking at competitors like Sony and Bose, though the AirPods Max sound very good indeed.

Can I work out with Apple headphones?

Yes. The best Apple headphones for working out at the Powerbeats Pro, thanks to their earhook design and sweatproof IPX4 rating. Other models, like the AirPods Pro have no such rating, though Apple says that they're water and sweat-resistant.

Can AirPods connect to Android phones?

Yes, they can. You might find they're marginally slower to pair than they would be with an iPhone, but the difference is negligible. However, if you are using AirPods with an Android, you'll miss out on features like auto-pause or the ability to customize noise cancellation.

Apple headphones: what's coming next?

Now that the Apple AirPods Max have been announced, what's next in the world of Apple headphones?

Well, we're hoping to see the next-gen AirPods 3 before the year is out, and the AirPods Pro 2 in 2022.

Industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has speculated that the next-gen AirPods would start mass production in early 2021, with a new AirPods Pro model arriving in 2022 too (via AppleInsider). 

The new 'Pods will apparently take their design cues from the AirPods Pro, which ditched the rigid plastic tips and super long ear stems of the 2019 Apple AirPods, in favor of silicone eartips and a sleeker look. Whether that means they'll come with noise cancellation as well remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the AirPods Pro 2 will reportedly be an entry-level version of the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro, which suggest the rumored wireless earbuds might be cheaper than the most expensive Apple earbuds currently on the market. 

Apple headphones deals

Olivia Tambini

Olivia is TechRadar's Audio & Music Editor, covering everything from headphones to music streaming services. Based in TechRadar's London offices, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, Top Ten Reviews Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine.  In her spare time Olivia likes gardening, painting, and hanging with her cat Ethel and golden retriever Dora.