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Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro (1st Gen): Which earbuds should you still buy?

It's a face-off for the new year between Apple's AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro (1st Gen). Here's our take on which earbuds reign supreme and all the reasons why.
Written by June Wan, Technology Editor on
Separate photos of a woman wearing the AirPods 3 and another wearing the AirPods Pro.

The AirPods 3 (left) and the AirPods Pro (right) are not the latest from Apple, but still worthy of your consideration.

Apple

It's been more than half a decade since Apple released the original AirPods, and while the glossy, white buds have taken new shapes and sizes since then, AirPods remain among the best wireless earbuds today.

If you're shopping for a new pair of AirPods to kick off the new year, then chances are high that the third-generation AirPods and Apple's older but still outstanding original AirPods Pro are on your mind.

Between the two AirPods models, there are several differences to note that, while not as easily distinguishable from Apple's marketing lingo and posters, should make your buying decision more straightforward than you'd think. 

Also: Earbuds vs headphones: Which one is right for you?

To help you decide which of the two you should buy, I've listed the key arguments for each model below.

Specifications


AirPods 3

AirPods Pro (1st Gen) 

Microphones

Dual beamforming 

Dual beamforming 

Listening experience

Personalized Spatial Audio

Personalized Spatial Audio,  Active Noise Cancellation, and Transparency Mode  

Connectivity 

Bluetooth 5.0 

Bluetooth 5.0

Durability 

Earbuds: IPX4

Earbuds: IPX4 

Battery

Up to 6 hours of listening time with one charge

Up to 4.5 hours of listening time with one charge 

Chip 

H1

H1

Price 

$169

$169


You should buy the AirPods 3 if... 

Woman leaning forward with the AirPods 3 in ear.
Apple

1. You prefer the classic AirPods design

The AirPods 3 are the newer of the two models I'm comparing, but they retain that familiar stemmed design of the first-generation AirPods. If you prefer that over the cushioned hooks of the Pro, then the AirPods 3 are the way to go.

Also: Best AirPods and AirPods Pro deals right now

While the non-Pro model is less flashy on paper, the AirPods share two notable audio features with their more expensive sibling: Spatial Audio and Adaptive EQ. The former is Apple's in-house tech that synchronizes audio playback via dynamic head tracking. Basically, the sounds of music, videos, and movies play in your ears as if the sources of the sound are physically in front of you. Adaptive EQ helps to automatically adjust the low and mid frequencies of the AirPods 3 so that you get the most full and true-to-life sound.

2. You want a more durable case

While both earbud models are rated IPX4, meaning they can sustain splashes of water, the AirPods 3's charging case also has that same certification, while the AirPods Pro's charging case does not. While you'll often have the charging cases tucked away in a pocket or bag anyway, still, there's objectively more protection with the newer AirPods 3.

3. You prioritize battery life and endurance

Beyond comfort and sound quality, battery life is a pillar that's worth the weigh-in between the two AirPods models. While the charging cases look nearly identical, you can expect greater endurance from the newer AirPods 3.

During our reviews, the AirPods 3 achieved the estimated 30 hours of music playback that Apple advertised. That's a step up from the 24-hour battery life of the AirPods Pro. A key reason for this is the AirPods 3's lack of active noise cancellation (ANC). Without the noise-canceling feature, the non-Pro AirPods are able to retain power more efficiently. Turning off Spatial Audio, which only works with select Apple Music media files, helps just as much.

Review: AirPods 3: Improvements in all the right places

The AirPods 3 will last you about 6 hours before needing to be docked in the charging case, while the AirPods Pro will last from 3 to 5 hours depending on whether you have ANC on or off. In both cases, you can charge via Lightning cable, wirelessly via Qi, or through Apple's MagSafe system.

You should buy the AirPods Pro (1st Gen) if… 

Woman pinching at the stem of the AirPods Pro to control music.
Apple

1. You want active noise cancellation (ANC)

The biggest selling point of the AirPods Pro is active noise cancellation, or ANC. Not to be confused with "passive noise cancellation," which comes from the natural sealing of the earbud tips, ANC uses the external microphones of the AirPods Pro to deflect ambient sounds like bird chirps, fans, and chatter. This crown jewel of an audio feature has made its way across most, if not all, high-end earbuds and headphones, and may easily spoil you when it comes to listening to music.

The AirPods Pro also have a transparency mode that amplifies the sounds of your surroundings so you don't miss a beat of reality. Instead of taking off your earbuds, you can use transparency mode to listen for subway stops, monitor traffic, or converse with a passerby.

2. You prefer cushioned earbuds

The original AirPods were long and too jarring of a design for many to wear. That's part of why Apple later launched the short-stemmed AirPods Pro. With tapered silicone tips that come in small, medium, and large sizes, the AirPods Pro are arguably more customizable than the AirPods 3, and the in-ear design provides superior passive noise cancellation.

Review: Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Gen): Better ANC and an improved charging case

Comparatively, the AirPods 3 rely on a contoured form factor -- not rubber tips -- to cling onto your ears. Naturally, there is less of a seal with this model, though many will find the less intrusive application more comfortable, especially when wearing the buds for hours on end. 

3. You'd like a possible hearing aid replacement that's cheaper

Let me preface this by saying that the AirPods Pro are not a direct replacement for hearing aids. The difference in price (about $169 versus $2,000 to $3,000) should make that clear enough. However, a recent study by the Taipei Veterans General Hospital did find that the AirPods Pro's active noise-canceling and Live Listen features were effective enough in amplifying sound for those with moderate hearing loss -- in some cases, beating the performance of traditional hearing aids.

Even if you don't experience difficulty hearing, the AirPods Pro should generally make audio clearer and easier to comprehend.

Alternatives to consider 

Open to other wireless earbuds prospects? Consider these ZDNET-tested devices:

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