Skip to main content

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

A close up shot of the airpods pro in their charging case
(Image credit: Shutterstock.com)

Apple has become a true contender in the audio tech space, giving some of the most well-established audio brands a run for their (or more importantly, your) money. But which Apple headphones are right for you? That’s why we’ve created this guide, to tell you more about Apple’s headphones, the different models on offer and how they stack up against the competition. 

Apple headphones were once synonymous with the flimsy EarPods you got in the box with your new iPhone. However, the brand's 2014 acquisition of Dr Dre’s Beats headphones expanded Apple’s portfolio to include colorful, fashion-forward on-ear headphones, wireless over-ear headphones, and slick running earbuds

In 2016 we got the Apple AirPods, which were upgraded in 2019 to include the company's H1 chip - something that brings super fast connectivity and hands-free Siri support to the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max, as well.

Which are the best AirPods you can buy today? Or should you opt for a pair of Beats headphones? To help you out, we’ve put together this guide. 

Our top picks

The Airpods pro

(Image credit: Apple)

1. Apple AirPods Pro

The best Apple headphones you can buy

Specifications
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

Apple's best headphones of 2021, the AirPods Pro, bring active noise cancellation, a much better 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

Divider

the AirPods Max in silver and white

2. Apple AirPods Max

The best Apple headphones for sound quality

Specifications
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

divider

(Image credit: techradar)

the beats solo pro headphones in red

(Image credit: Apple)

3. Beats Solo Pro

The best Beats for active noise-cancelling

Specifications
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.

Priced at $299.95 (£269.95 / AU$429.95 / NZ$499.95), the Solo Pro will likely appeal most to users who want a great pair of Beats cans without committing to Apple's bulkier, pricier over-ear option, the Beats Studio 3 Wireless.

The active noise-cancelation brings Apple's Beats somewhat closer to the best offerings from Sony and Bose, although those two are still ahead by some distance – the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are our top two picks in this field. 

We do like the simple-one button access to the transparency mode here, though. This optional feature allows some outside noise to come through, which can be handy in an office if you want to be aware of someone calling your name or making sure you're aware of traffic around you when walking or cycling.

Read more: Beats Solo Pro review

divider

the beats studio buds in red

(Image credit: Beats)

4. Beats Studio Buds

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

Specifications
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

divider

the beats powerbeats pro in dark blue

(Image credit: Beats)

5. Beats PowerBeats Pro

Super-comfortable workout ‘buds from Beats

Specifications
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

divider

The Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones in black with gold logo

6. Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones

The best Beats headphones for noise-cancelling

Specifications
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.

Still, they're a good match for iPhones missing 3.5mm jacks – in fact, you can pair them with any smartphone thanks to the Bluetooth technology. The Studio 3s are available in multiple colors too, including red, matte black, white, porcelain rose, blue and shadow grey.

Read more: Beats Studio 3 review

divider

the apple airpods and their charging case

(Image credit: Apple)

7. Apple AirPods (2019)

The most popular true wireless earbuds today

Specifications
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

divider

The powerbeats 4 in red

(Image credit: Apple / WinFuture)

8. Beats PowerBeats 4

A cheap alternative to the Powerbeats Pro

Specifications
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 new 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 Apple's high-end alternatives – the Beats Powerbeats Pro and 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

FAQs

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.