All these new features could make the AirPods 3 an appealing prospect over the older AirPods 2 - but now that the latter have been given a permanent price cut, you may be wondering which Apple earbuds you should buy.
We've tested both sets of wireless earbuds extensively - but if you don't have time to read our full AirPods (3rd generation) review, read on for everything you need to know to help you pick the best AirPods for your needs.
AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: price and availability
The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) are available to buy now. Costing $179 / £169 / AU$279, they’re more expensive than the AirPods 2, but still cheaper than the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro.
The second-gen AirPods launched back in March 2019, at $159 / £159 / AU$249 with the standard charging case, and $199 / £199 / AU$319 with the Wireless Charging Case bundled in.
However, older true wireless earbuds have now been given a permanent discount, with the price dropping to $129 / £119 / AU$219.
There’s a catch though - that price will get you the AirPods 2 with a standard charging case, and Apple is no longer selling them with the wireless charging case as a bundle. If you want the second-gen AirPods with a wireless charging case, you’ll have to fork out an additional $79 / £79 / AU$129 - which is more expensive than buying the new AirPods 3.
So, if you’re fine with a standard charging case, the AirPods 2 are the cheaper option - and they’re sure to be discounted heavily over Black Friday 2021 (previous AirPods Black Friday deals have seen them drop as low as $99 /£99 / AU$99). But, if wireless charging is a deal breaker, your best option is to buy the new AirPods 3.
- Black Friday AirPods deals: the best early discounts
AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: design
The AirPods 3 and the AirPods 2 share a similar aesthetic, with an all-white, minimalist design, but there are a few key differences between the two models.
Firstly, Apple has shortened the stems for the AirPods 3, as well as furnishing them with touch-capacitive sensors that you can squeeze to control your music playback and phones calls, as with the AirPods Pro.
The housings of the AirPods 3 wireless earbuds have also been made more streamlined, with a contoured design that’s supposed to funnel audio directly into your ear canals. Neither of the models comes with interchangeable eartips, unlike the AirPods Pro.
Another new feature for the AirPods 3 is water- and sweat-resistance, which should make them better to use while working out than the AirPods 2. Like the AirPods Pro, the AirPods (3rd generation) boast an IPX4 rating, which should be enough to protect them from a drop of rain or sweat.
Overall, we think the look of the new AirPods is sleeker and more sophisticated than that of its predecessors, and they feel more comfortable to wear - though that semi-open fit means you get hardly any passive noise cancellation. In other words, you'll be able to hear what's going on around you, whichever pair of AirPods you go for.
AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: audio performance
The AirPods (3rd generation) offer a big step up in audio performance compared to the older model.
The latest AirPods come with a new custom-made low distortion driver and a high dynamic range amplifier, giving them a well balanced sound (though we did find trebles could be a little harsh, which is a problem suffered by the AirPods 2 as well).
While neither model allows you to tweak the EQ settings to your own exacting standards, the AirPods 3 do come with Adaptive EQ. This feature was first introduced with the AirPods Pro, tuning the sound of the earbuds in real time based on how they fit in your ears. In theory, this will boost the low and mid frequencies to account for any loss in detail or volume due to variances in how the AirPods 3 fit.
Another new audio feature coming to the AirPods 3 is Spatial Audio support, which makes music and soundtracks sound as though they’re coming at you from every angle, using the earbuds’ built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers to ensure the sound is positioned accurately.
If you're looking for a reason to buy the AirPods 3 over the AirPods 2, this is it; the spatial audio performance is absolutely breathtaking, and it really gives your favorite songs and films a new immersive quality that's worth spending the extra money on.
There's also an improvement to call audio with the AirPods 3. They come with beamforming microphones that are covered with an acoustic mesh that’s designed to reduce the sound of wind. They also support the AAC-ELD codec, which Apple says will deliver "full HD voice quality".
Neither the AirPods 3 nor the AirPods 2 come with active noise cancellation, however. For that, you’ll need to look to the AirPods Pro, or the over-ear AirPods Max.
AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: battery life
While the 2019 AirPods offered 24 hours of playback in total (that's about 5 from the earbuds and a further four charges from the charging case), the new AirPods 3 offer a 30-hour max battery life.
That can be broken down into six hours of listening time or up to four hours of talk time from the buds themselves, with four additional charges from the case. Saying that, the onboard battery life is reduced to five hours if you’re using Spatial Audio, which is the same as the AirPods 2.
Both buds come with a quick-charge feature, with five minutes in the case giving you about an hour of playback.
They also both come with wireless charging cases - though as we mentioned earlier, you have to pay extra for that feature with the AirPods 2 - but the AirPods 3 charging case is also MagSafe-compatible.
AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: connectivity
Unsurprisingly, both the AirPods 3 and the AirPods 2 are optimized for use within the wider Apple ecosystem, with features like super speedy pairing and auto-switching between devices making it easy to swap between your iPad, iPhone, or MacBook.
Both models also support the ‘Hey Siri’ feature, which lets you summon the voice assistant hands-free, as well as the Announce Notifications feature. This allows Siri to read you time-sensitive updates from apps such as Messages, Reminders, and Calendar.
New connectivity features for the AirPods 3 includes Audio Sharing, which means you can also share the audio stream between two sets of AirPods, AirPods Pro, or AirPods Max, while using your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Apple TV.
Inside the AirPods 3 is a skin-detect sensor, which tells the AirPods 3 if they're actually in your ears, as opposed to on a table or inside your pocket. If they're not in your ears, music playback will be paused, which will presumably spare you some precious battery life.
If you have an Apple device that runs iOS 15, you'll get access to a few extra features with the third-gen AirPods, including Spatial Audio and dynamic head tracking in Group FaceTime calls, and integration with the Find My network.
Of the two models, the AirPods 3 come with more handy connectivity features, but you’re still getting an awful lot of ‘Apple-ness’ with the AirPods 2 thanks to excellent integration with the company’s other devices.
As most of these new features are restricted to iOS devices, we wouldn't necessarily recommend the AirPods 3 for Android users - these are buds that are made for Apple lovers.
The newest AirPods represent a significant upgrade over their predecessors, with a much better audio performance, a sleeker design, and even better connectivity with iOS devices.
If features like wireless charging, Spatial Audio, water resistance, and Adaptive EQ are deal breakers for you, the new AirPods (3rd generation) are going to be your best bet.
That said, those upgrades come at a price, and now that the AirPods 2 have been given a permanent price cut, it's still worth considering the older earbuds if you’re on a strict budget.
- Apple AirPods Pro 2: everything you need to know
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Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, 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, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.