If you're wondering what the best AirPods to buy today are, one of the questions you'll almost certainly have is about the cheapest of the options, and whether they're still a good-value buy today.
The AirPods 2nd Gen were released in March 2019, and the world of the best wireless earbuds has moved on a lot in that, especially when it comes to value for money. They're now the cheapest AirPods available, having dropped in price since then, but the other true wireless earbuds options have been falling in price even more aggressively, while also improving audio quality.
And then you have the introduction of the AirPods 3rd Gen, which feature a slicker design, better sound, and support for Apple's excellent head-tracked Spatial Audio – plus all the other features that AirPods share (which we'll talk about in a bit). These third-generation AirPods cost more than the AirPods 2nd Gen, but are the improvements so good that you'd be a fool to buy the cheaper set?
The short answer here is… yes. At this point, we don't think many people should buy AirPods 2nd Gen, based on their price, audio quality and features. However, they still might be a good option in some cases, so let's break down the reasons you probably shouldn't buy them and what you should buy instead, before we return to the reasons why you still might go for them.
1. Sound quality
AirPods 2nd Gen do not sound bad, but they don't sound good either. Though they were released in 2019, the audio tech in them goes back to the 2017 first-gen version, and that's a long time in the wireless tech world.
AirPods 2nd Gen's sound is good in the bass and fine in the mid-range, but it's overall bottom heavy, with the treble feeling overwhelmed by the other parts of the sound, so you don't get the elevated sparkle that you should from higher-pitched instruments and vocals.
If you want great sound quality for less money than AirPods, you want the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus, which feature truly unbeatable sound for their price. Even better, if you have a phone that supports aptX higher-quality audio transmission, they support that too.
But you'll get an overall better balance from just about anything new at the same price, and many other options that cost less. The Sony WF-C500 are the perfect example – strong sound, half the price.
And AirPods 3rd Gen offer better sound quality too – the treble is really freed up in them, giving the whole soundscape more energy, freedom and life.
2. Better features
When AirPods 2nd Gen came out, active noise cancelation was a feature only high-end earbuds included. And now you can get them on multiple earbuds for the same kind of price, or even cheaper. But AirPods not only don't feature ANC, their open-ear design means it'd be largely pointless even if they did support it.
Beats Studio Buds are now regularly available for the same price as AirPods, and they sound better, while also offering solid active noise cancelation… and they include all the other special sauce Apple features that AirPods do, including fast pairing and instant switching between devices.
Or for half the price of the AirPods, you can get the EarFun Air Pro, which sounds really good and have effective active noise cancellation.
And then there's battery life, which is obviously important too. The battery life of AirPods is… fine. The fine hours of listening is the minimum you expect these days, but it's enough for most people. The 24 hours of total charge from the case is pretty much par for the course, so that's good.
But you could go for the previously mentioned Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus and get up to 10 hours of listening from the buds alone. Getting 6-8 hours from the buds is common these days.
Finally, there's head-tracked Spatial Audio. If you go for AirPods 3rd Gen, you get this awesome feature for Dolby Atmos movies and music, which makes it feel like you're inside an elite speaker setup, instead of listening through two tiny drivers poked into your ear.
We've actually already touched on this a lot above, but the price of the AirPods today just doesn't match their sound quality and how good certain features are. There's nothing wrong with earbuds costing £109/$99 (as they are at the time of writing), but as we've mentioned, there are better-sounding buds that cost less. There are better-features buds that cost less. And there are buds that do both that cost less.
For me to feel AirPods 2nd Gen are actually good value at this point, I think the price would need to fall to £60/$70 or so.
But even then, in 2022 we've tested the alarmingly good JLab Go Air Pop for just £20/$20 – it feels like AirPods are squeezed from both the bottom and the top.
But… maybe you still want them?
Here's the thing: despite all that, there are good reasons to buy AirPods still. There are two different things in particular that might tempt you.
The first is the design. Some people really prefer the outer-ear fit of AirPods compared to the in-ear fit of most earbuds. It means you're more aware of your surroundings (although, on the flip side, it lets in more outside sound). There aren't a ton of options for earbuds that are designed this way, so AirPods remain a go-to. AirPods 3rd Gen still have an outer-ear fit, but if your budget doesn't stretch that far, then AirPods might remains your default choice.
And the other design feature they have is that the case is very small. It's basically the smallest on the market, and this can be pretty significant. If you need to slip your case into your pocket and you don't want it to bulge massively, these AirPods basically have the most pocket-friendly case out there.
The other thing AirPods offer that almost no other similarly priced earbuds do is extra-slick compatibility with iPhones. Instant pairing, seamless switching between your Apple devices, audio sharing from one device to multiple AirPods, and – most importantly of all – Find My support, so you can see where you last had them if they get lost.
Now, Beats Studio Buds support all of these features, so AirPods aren't totally alone in supporting them at this price. We would generally steer people towards those – but as we mentioned above, some won't want the in-ear fit.
So if you like an outer-ear earbuds fit, and you want features such as Find My support with your iPhone, AirPods 2nd Gen could still be a good choice.
For everyone else, there's probably one of the best cheap wireless earbuds that will suit you even better.