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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. It now gives some of the most well-established audio brands a run for their 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 what we thought of them when we tested them. 

One of the main reasons that Apple is excelling in this field is thanks to its 2014 acquisition of Dr Dre’s Beats headphones in 2014. This was an exceptionally smart move and expanded Apple’s portfolio to include colorful, fashion-forward on-ear headphones, wireless over-ear headphones, and slick running earbuds

Fast-forward to 2019 and Apple upgraded its Apple AirPods to include its own H1 chip. This took the world by storm and cemented Apple as an even greater source of some of the best headphones around – now adding true wireless earbuds to its offering. 

The H1 chip continues to be improved upon and adds the ability to summon Siri hands-free, super-fast pairing with iPhones, and increased battery life when it comes to taking calls. This is what’s since the Apple AirPods Max, Apple’s first own brand over-ear phones that boast excellent performance. 

What we’re saying is, there’s probably a great pair of Apple headphones to suit most people and preferences. But how do you begin to compare the $249 / £249 / AU$399 Apple Air Pods Pro to the even more eye-wateringly expensive Apple AirPods Max (priced at $549 / £549 / AU$899)? To help you out, we’ve put together this guide. 

Before we dive into our top picks, we've answered some of the most common questions you might have about Apple headphones to make your buying decision even easier:

The best Apple headphones: FAQ

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 more Apple headphones like the AirPods Pro sound very good indeed.

How much are Apple headphones? Prices vary, but Apple headphones tend to sit at the pricier end of the mid-range. For example, the Beats Powerbeats 3 cost $199.95 / £169.95 / AU$259.95 at launch, while the AirPods Pro cost $249 / £249 / AU$399. Meanwhile, the new AirPods Max over-ear headphones cost an eye-watering $549 / £549 / AU$899.

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.

Are AirPods noise-cancelling? The only noise-cancelling AirPods are the AirPods Pro and over-ear AirPods Max. Otherwise you'll have to look to Beats headphones like the Studio 3 Wireless and the Solo Pro to block out environmental sound.

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 cancelation.

Do Beats work better with Apple? Again, Apple headphones – and therefore Beats headphones – are designed to work seamlessly with Apple's ecosystem. That doesn't mean you can't use Beats headphones with other operating systems, but you may miss out on some features if you do.

The best Apple headphones of 2021

The Airpods pro

(Image credit: Apple)

1. Apple AirPods Pro

The best Apple headphones you can buy

Specifications
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 5.4g
Frequency response: 20-20,000Hz
Drivers: N/A
Driver type: Dynamic
Sensitivity: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Battery life (on-board): Up to 5 hours
Battery life (charging case): 24 hours
Wireless range: N/A
NFC: Yes
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-1000XM3), 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

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the AirPods Max in silver and white

2. Apple AirPods Max

Apple combines fantastic audio and over-ear noise-cancelling

Specifications
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 350g
Cable length: N/A
Frequency response: N/A
Drivers: 40mm
Driver type: Dynamic
Sensitivity: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Battery life: 24 hours
Wireless range: N/A
NFC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Unbelievable audio performance+Fantastic user experience+Brilliant extra features for iOS+Great noise cancellation
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive-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

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(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
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 267g
Frequency response: N/A
Drivers: 40mm
Driver type: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Battery life : 22 hours
Battery life (ANC off): Up to 40 hours
Wireless range: N/A
NFC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great noise cancelation+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-1000XM3 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

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the beats studio buds in red

(Image credit: Beats)

4. Beats Studio Buds

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

Specifications
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 5g
Frequency response: N/A
Drivers: N/A
Battery life : 8 hours (earbuds) 16 hours (charging case)
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

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the beats powerbeats pro in dark blue

(Image credit: Beats)

5. Beats PowerBeats Pro

Super-comfortable workout ‘buds from Beats

Specifications
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: N/A
Frequency response: 20-20,000Hz
Drivers: N/A
Driver type: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Battery life (on-board): 9 hours
Battery life (charging case): 16 hours
Wireless range: N/A
NFC: No
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

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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
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 260g
Frequency response: N/A
Drivers: 40mm
Driver type: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Battery life : 22 hours
Battery life (ANC off): Up to 40 hours
Wireless range: N/A
NFC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Excellent noise-cancelling+Good 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

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the apple airpods and their charging case

(Image credit: Apple)

7. Apple AirPods (2019)

The most popular true wireless earbuds today

Specifications
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 4g (38g with case)
Driver type: Dynamic **Battery life (on-board):** 5 hours
Battery life (charging case): 20 hours
Wireless range: 10m
NFC: No
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

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Beats PowerBeats 3 in black

(Image credit: Beats)

8. Beats PowerBeats 3

Fitness-focussed in-ears get the W1 treatment

Specifications
Acoustic design: Open-back
Weight: 30g
Driver type: N/A **Battery life (on-board):** 12 hours
Battery life (charging case): N/A
Wireless range: 10m
NFC: No
Reasons to buy
+Great battery life+Good wireless range
Reasons to avoid
-Fit could be better-High price

The PowerBeats 3 running headphones are yet another pair of Beats headphones that aim to keep your tunes pumping while you keep your legs pumping. They may come with the high price that is a signature of the Beats and Apple brands, but they offer a lot for runners, and especially for Apple users.

With a 12-hour battery life and a quick charge function that can add an hour of battery life in a few minutes, the PowerBeats 3 should rarely run out of juice in the middle of anything short of an insane ultra-marathon. They’re also ready for all the sweat from your brow, and can even handle a run in the rain.

The Beats Powerbeats 4 could be coming soon, too – and they could make perfect running headphones. After some digging around in iOS 13, a new icon for the upcoming buds was discovered, which shows they'll sport the same workout-friendly design as the true wireless Powerbeats Pro.

Read more: Beats PowerBeats 3 review

The best Apple headphones, at a glance

  1. Apple AirPods Pro
  2. Apple AirPods Max
  3. Beats Solo Pro
  4. Beats Studio Buds
  5. Beats Powerbeats Pro
  6. Beats Studio 3 Wireless
  7. Apple AirPods (2019)
  8. Beats PowerBeats 3 

Apple headphones: what's coming next?

Which headphones style is best for you?

Check out TechRadar's exhaustive guides to the best headphones, including the best over-ear headphones, best on-ear headphones and the best in-ear headphones.

For some more specialist pairs, take a look at our guides to the best wireless headphones, best true wireless earbuds, best wireless earbuds, and the best noise-cancelling headphones.

Need a specific brand? We have guides to the best Sony headphones, the best Bose headphones, and the best Audio-Technica headphones.

Looking for some headphones you can work out with? Check out our guide to the best swimming headphones and the best running headphones

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, the AirPods Pro 2, and the Powerbeats Pro 2 in the next year or so.

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. 

Rumors have been circling since mid-February, after a report from DigiTimes claimed that the new true wireless earbuds will launch in the first half of 2020. Of course, they never materialized, and everything's pointing to a 2021 release at the earliest.

Olivia Tambini

Olivia is TechRadar's Audio & Music Editor, covering everything from headphones to smart speakers. Based in TechRadar's London offices, she previously worked in the music industry for a few years before finding her calling in journalism. In her spare time Olivia loves playing retro video games, hanging with her cat Ethel and golden retriever Dora, and bingeing on Netflix.