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Apple AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Which wireless earbuds should you buy?

Apple's latest pairings of wireless earbuds are crowd-pleasers in more ways similar than not. But with a $60 price gap, these are the differences that you should consider to determine which are right for you.
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Written by June Wan, Tech Editor on
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Apple's AirPods can be easily credited for the widespread adaption of wireless earbuds over the past decade. Notably, the AirPods Pro, which introduced active noise cancellation and a bevy of audio enhancements back in 2019, are one of the best wearable options that we've tested at ZDNet.

But with great products comes great competition, and if you've been eyeing a new pair of AirPods, there's a good chance that the AirPods (3rd generation) -- released in October of 2021 -- are among the options you're considering.

While the newer AirPods are not as feature-rich as the timeless, $249 AirPods Pro, they offer a well-rounded audio package with all the Apple quirks for just $179. Here's everything that you should consider before going low or going Pro.

Design and fit

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. Two years later, the 3rd generation of AirPods (or, AirPods 3 as I'll call them from this point forward) were released with a design that inspired the label of "AirPods Pro Lite." Basically, the look and feel of both models are very similar.

Where the two differ physically is in the ear tip cushioning. With tapered silicone tips that come in three sizes (small, medium, and large), the AirPods Pro are arguably more customizable and its in-ear design provides superior passive noise cancellation. That's when the shape of the earbuds themselves helps to block out external noises. Given its "Pro" nature, Apple also offers an "Ear Tip Fit Test", which plays chimes to find the best ear tip sizes for you.

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. They're also lighter than the Pros at 0.15 ounces (versus 0.19 ounces).

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Left: AirPods 3, Right: AirPods Pro

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Both earbuds are rated for IPX4, meaning they can sustain splashes of water. Whether you're running in the rain or breaking a sweat indoors, you won't have to worry about water damage with either model. However, the key difference lies with the charging cases. The AirPods Pro's charging case does not have the same IPX4 certification as the earbuds, whereas the AirPods 3's does. While you'll often have the charging cases tucked in a pocket or bag, there's objectively more protection with the newer AirPods 3.

Also: Getting AirPods Pro? Here's why you should get AppleCare+ as well

Sound and features

In terms of audio performance, the biggest selling point of the AirPods Pro -- especially when compared to the AirPods 3 -- is active noise cancellation (ANC). Not to be mistaken with the aforementioned "passive noise cancellation," ANC uses the external microphones of the earbuds 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 well spoil the way you listen to music.

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Image: CNET

Reversely, the AirPods Pro carries 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, monitoring traffic, or conversing with a passerby.

Also: Our top picks for noise-cancelling headphones

While you will have to pay the "Pro" tax to acquire these noise-cancelling qualities, the AirPods 3 retains two notable audio features from its 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 instrumentals are physically in front of you. Take a step left or right and you will hear the shift in positioning.

Speaking of immersion, Adaptive EQ helps to automatically adjust the low and mid frequencies of AirPods 3 so that you get the most full and true-to-life sound. In general, our testing has found both AirPods to deliver exceptionally clear and rich audio. It also helps that both the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro are built with Apple's H1 chip, meaning interactions with Siri and quick-pairing are virtually the same across the board.

More: AirPods Pro: Apple's best wireless earbuds yet

Battery and charging

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

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Logiix

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, believe it or not, is the AirPods 3's lack of ANC. By doing without the high-computing feature, the more affordable AirPods are able to retain power efficiently. Turning off Spatial audio, which only works with select Apple Music media files, helps even more.

More: AirPods 3 review: Improvements in all the right places 

Going by the numbers, the AirPods 3 will last you about six hours before needing to be docked in the charging case, while the AirPods Pro will last between three to five hours depending on whether you have ANC on or off. In both cases (literally), you can charge via Lightning cable, wirelessly via Qi, or through Apple's MagSafe system.

Pricing

As mentioned earlier, $60 is what separates the new AirPods 3 from the AirPods Pro. However, given the older tenure of the Pro, you'll be more likely to come across a cost-saving deal for that model than the AirPods 3. In fact, at the time of this writing, the Pro model is on sale, bringing it in line with the newer AirPods. At that price, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better pair of wireless earbuds for the money.

Still, it's not impossible to snag a pair of AirPods 3 for less than its $179 retail price. With a little patience, the earbuds can be had at a discount. The argument for these over the Pro boils down to two things: Comfort and battery life. The AirPods 3 are exquisitely well-balanced and offer the bare necessities of an Apple-powered wearable and then some.

More: Don't buy your AirPods from Apple! These are the best deals across the web

Alternatives

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

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