Why you can trust ZDNET : ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.


How to choose the best AirPods for you: ZDNET's buying guide

Whether you're buying your first pair of Apple AirPods or upgrading, here's how to choose the right pair.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief on

Originally a cultural lightning rod when first launched in 2016, Apple's AirPods have redefined the way we think of headphones, convincing a lot of us that we want to do away with wires and spawning a whole legion of competitive products. Apple eventually redesigned the AirPods, launched a couple of higher-end versions, and kept a pair with the original design at a discounted price. 

There are now plenty of wireless earbuds and headphones that cost a lot less than the AirPods, and even a few that cost more. The main benefit of getting Apple's version over the others is if you have an iPhone, which makes AirPods easier to pair, set up, and connect repeatedly throughout the day. That benefit multiples if you have an iPad and/or a Mac, because AirPods can connect to all of them and automatically switch between them as you move from one device to another.

So if you've decided that you don't want one of the competitors but want a pair of Apple's headphones, I'll help you select the AirPods that will best meet your needs and your budget. 

Also: The best Apple deals: iPads, MacBooks, and more on sale now

I have used the AirPods Pro every day since they launched in October 2019, and upgraded to the AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) at launch in 2022. I have used them with iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac, and Apple TV. Before that, I used the original AirPods, even though they wouldn't stay in my ears and I had to use the Aha Style silicone tips to keep them in, as I wrote about for CNET at the time. More recently I tried the AirPods Max on an international family vacation over the summer. 

My pick for the best AirPods -- the recently revised AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C -- is based on my extensive experience using and testing the different versions of AirPods, as well as competitors from Beats, Soundcore, Samsung, Sony, Microsoft, and many others. Here are my recommendations for the best AirPods for you.

The best AirPods of 2023

Pros & Cons
  • Very comfortable to wear
  • Impressive sound quality
  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Case offers wireless charging
  • Rarely discounted in seasonal sales
  • Volume control gesture doesn't work well
More Details

AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C features: Type: In-ear | Chip: H2 | Battery life: 6 hours | Water-resistant: Yes

The AirPods Pro 2 are the most easily recommendable of the four current models of AirPods. That's because they fit almost every type of ear, they are very comfortable to wear, and they include all of the best and latest features that Apple has to offer in headphones. Plus, they get a bonus set of new features as part of the iOS 17 update, which won't come to any of the other AirPods. 

The AirPods Pro 2 use silicon tips to fit into your ears (with four sizes to choose from), similar to the ones you're probably familiar with in most of the earbuds you've used. Comparatively, the standard AirPods have hard plastic tips like the traditional Apple EarPods that used to come in the box with most iPhones -- which many people found fell out of their ears easily, or weren't very comfortable to wear. 

The AirPods Pro 2 were the first to get Apple's latest H2 chip for improved sound. That includes active noise cancellation, which roughly doubles the noise cancellation of the first-gen AirPods Pro and works impressively in loud environments like airplanes and city streets. It also includes adaptive transparency mode, which lets you hear the world around you when you have your earbuds in, while also automatically reducing loud sounds such as sirens. 

One of the best features of the AirPods Pro 2 is the fact that the case can charge wirelessly on an iPhone MagSafe charger, an Apple Watch charger, or a standard Qi-compatible charging mat used by lots of non-Apple products. The one disappointing feature of the AirPods Pro 2 is that the volume control gesture -- where you swipe up on the stem with your index finger -- can be frustrating to use and simply doesn't work very well. So don't count on being able to use that -- you'll still be relying on the volume rocker on your iPhone most of the time. 

In 2023, Apple slightly revised this model as the "AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C," swapping out Apple's Lightening connect with the more universal USB-C that has also come to iPhone 15. But it also added Lossless Audio with ultra-low latency for the Apple Vision Pro headset that will launch in early 2024. 

If you're someone who uses headphones more than a couple hours every day, then your wireless headphones might be your most important device next to your smartphone and your laptop -- and they can enhance the experience of using both of those devices. If you use headphones that much, then spending $250 on the best and most versatile wireless earbuds Apple has to offer will likely be a worthy investment to raise the quality of your daily life.

Pros & Cons
  • Pairs with all your Apple devices
  • Noise cancellation is outstanding
  • Transparency mode is realistic
  • More comfortable than most over-the-ear headphones
  • Eye-watering price tag
  • Sound quality is about the same as less expensive headphones
  • You'll need to buy a real case
More Details

AirPods Max features: Type: Over-ear | Chip: H1 | Battery life: 20 hours | Water-resistant: Yes

The AirPods Max are the most premium headphones Apple sells, and even do a few specific things better than the AirPods Pro 2, which have more advanced technology thanks to Apple's H2 chip. When it comes to immersive sound and blocking out the world, the AirPods Max offer a glorious experience at a premium price of $550 -- although you can find sales and discounts to knock off a big chunk of that price.

The noise cancellation for the AirPods Max is the best I've experienced. For example, I used it on a very loud and very long flight where I was seated just over one of the engines with a constant roar, and putting on the AirPods Max brought almost complete silence and a welcome bit of peace. Equally strong is the transparency mode, where the the eight microphones in the AirPods Max make it sound like you're not wearing a pair of over-the-ear headphones at all. The quality of these two modes are better than any other traditional headphones I've used and are the main reason to buy the AirPods Max -- along with the fact that they can pair with all your Apple devices and automatically switch between all of them when you're using them. 

Okay, one other main reason to buy the AirPods Max: comfort. I've never been able to wear most over-the-ear headphones for more than about 30 minutes because they are uncomfortable on my ears and make the sides of my head very sweaty. I've been able to wear the AirPods Max for several hours in a row on long flights because the ear cushions are comfortable and ventilate well. 

The audio quality in the AirPods Max is very solid, but it's generally about the same as other $250-$350 wireless over-the-ear headphones. At some point, there's only so much quality you can get over Bluetooth. 

The other cool bit of intelligence that Apple builds into the AirPods Max is that it senses when you put the headphones on and take them off, and automatically starts and stops the track you're playing.

If you have multiple Apple devices, truly love audio or immersing yourself in your favorite music or movie, and/or are a frequent traveler, then you're likely to really love the experience of the AirPods Max. Just keep in mind that you'll probably also need a separate pair of earbuds for walking outside, working out, and wearing under a warm cap in cold weather. 

Read the review: AirPods Max review

Pros & Cons
  • Can work across all your Apple devices
  • Often discounted to $99
  • Iconic original design
  • Easy to use
  • They don't fit in all ears
  • Missing latest AirPods innovations
  • No water or sweat resistance
More Details

AirPods (2nd Generation) features: Type: In-ear | Chip: H1 | Battery life: 5 hours | Water-resistant: No

The original AirPods remain as iconic as ever and are still available to purchase in the upgraded 2nd Generation version. While they retail for $129, they regularly go on sale for $99 at Amazon and other places. With their solid sound, easy setup, ability to connect to all your Apple devices, and 5-hour battery life, the AirPods 2nd-gen are a very straightforward buy. 

This version of the AirPods was the first to add Apple's H1 chip in 2019, which offered a solid set of upgrades over the first generation AirPods, including a more stable wireless connection to devices, faster switching between devices, lower latency for activities such as gaming, and a quicker connection with your iPhone for phone calls. 

A fully charged case can charge the AirPods 2nd-gen up to five times. With up to five hours of battery life on each charge, that results in over 24 hours of battery life before you need a full recharge of the case and the AirPods. 

The biggest drawback to these earbuds -- aside from not having the latest tech available in the AirPods Pro 2 -- is that their hard plastic tips don't fit into everyone's ears and sometimes simply drop out. That's obviously not ideal, especially for a product this expensive where falling out could mean losing an AirPod down a drain or a subway tunnel, for example. So, I'd recommend getting silicone ear tips (such as these from AhaStyle for less than $10) to keep them more securely in your ears -- even though it can be a bit of pain to have to carry the extra ear tips and to take them off and on between uses.

If you can live with their drawbacks, the AirPods 2nd-gen are a great first introduction to Apple's wireless headphones. The freedom of not having wires will typically make you want to wear the AirPods more and listen to more of your favorite music, podcasts, and audiobooks. They're also great for connecting to your laptop during Zoom meetings.

Pros & Cons
  • Refined version of original design
  • Spatial audio surround sound
  • Adaptive EQ
  • Water and sweat resistance
  • Don't fit in all ears
  • Don't have latest H2 chip
  • No noise cancellation or transparency mode
More Details

AirPods (3rd Generation) features: Type: In-ear | Chip: H1 | Battery life: 6 hours | Water-resistant: Yes

The AirPods (3rd Generation) offer nearly all of the same high-end audio features as the AirPods Pro 2 -- except for noise cancellation and transparency mode -- but at a lower price of $169, or $179 with the wireless case, which is well worth it. That means you get spatial audio surround sound, adaptive EQ using Apple's algorithms to adjust the sound quality, better dynamic range, an extra 20% of battery life per charge, and faster charging while in the case (five minutes in the case gives an hour of usage time). 

These AirPods also integrate more controls directly into the stems. With the AirPods 3rd-gen you can press once to play/pause or answer a call, press twice to skip forward, press three times to skip back, and press-and-hold to activate Siri. Those are the same controls that the AirPods Pro 2 have (minus the volume control gesture that doesn't work very well).

The AirPods (3rd Generation) suffer from the same ear fit issues as the first two generations of traditional AirPods. For some people, the hard plastic tips won't stay in your ears or will fall out easily, depending on the shape of your ears. I'd recommend getting some silicone ear hooks, as I mentioned above for the AirPods 2nd-gen; however, the silicone tips for the AirPods 2nd-gen won't fit these because of the new design. So I'd suggest getting these $15 ones on Amazon for the AirPods 3rd-gen, if these fit loosely in your ears or have issues falling out.

All things considered, the AirPods 3rd-gen are generally the Apple headphones that are the hardest to recommend. That's because if you want the least expensive entry into the AirPods experience then the AirPods 2nd-gen are a no-brainer at $99. And if you want a more advanced pair with the latest features and upgrades, then you want the AirPods Pro 2 -- even at $249 they could be worth the investment if you spend multiple hours a day with headphones on. The AirPods 3rd-gen sit uncomfortably in the middle between those two products. There are people out there who prefer the traditional hard plastic fit. If you're one of those and you want to get most of the features of the AirPods Pro 2 but want to save $70, then these are the ones for you. 

Read the review: Apple AirPods (3rd Generation) review

What are the best Apple AirPods?

If you're not familiar with the four models of AirPods that are currently sold by Apple, here's a quick look at their primary features.

Best Apple AirPods

Retail Price


Audio Chip

AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C


6 hours


AirPods Max


20 hours


AirPods (3rd Generation)


5 hours


AirPods (2nd Generation)


6 hours


Which are the right Apple AirPods for you?

If you're still trying to decide which set of AirPods are the best for you to buy, here's the main reason to buy each of the products in the lineup.

Choose this pair of Apple AirPods...

If you want...

AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C

All of the latest sound quality and ease-of-use features

AirPods Max

Superior noise cancellation, transparency mode, and other AI smarts

AirPods (2nd Generation)

The original AirPods form factor and the best price (often on sale for under $100) 

AirPods (3rd Generation)

Most of the features of the Pro earbuds, but with the hard plastic tips and for $70 less

How did we choose these Apple AirPods?

I have been using AirPods every day for over five years, and have tried all of the various models. I've also used many other wireless earbuds, wireless over-the-ear headphones, and wired earbuds and headphones. I've used inexpensive $20 models and I've used ones that cost over $500. I've taken all of that experience and used it to make recommendations on the best AirPods to buy, based on your needs and budget.

In evaluating the four models of AirPods, I've especially focused on these four factors:

  • Cost: Budget is where most people start, so we always have to keep that at the forefront of the conversation about AirPods.
  • Features: The things that determine how AirPods work and what you can do with them are always going to be at the center of consideration, so we have to look at noise cancellation, transparency mode, spatial audio, water resistance, charging case, interface controls, and other key features. 
  • Battery life: Few things affect daily use more than battery life, so we have to take that into account when considering the usefulness of each product.
  • Chip: To power the AirPods, Apple has both the H1 and H2 chips. These are the key to a number of features as well as the software upgradeability of the AirPods, as we've seen with the nice feature bump that the AirPods Pro 2 got in iOS 17 because they have the H2.

What are the best cheap Apple AirPods?

The Apple AirPods (2nd Generation) cost $129 and regularly go on sale for $99 or less. These are the original AirPods with some upgraded internal features from 2019 and they don't have the latest technologies you'll find in the AirPods Pro 2. But at less than half the price of the Pro model, the AirPods 2nd-gen are an enticing first pair of Apple wireless earbuds.

How much do Apple AirPods cost?

Apple AirPods come in four different models and four different retail price tags: AirPods 2nd Generation ($129), AirPods 3rd Generation ($169), AirPods Pro 2nd Generation with USB-C ($249), AirPods Max ($549). However, the street price of the AirPods range from $99 for the AirPods 2nd-gen up to $469 for the AirPods Max. AirPods are extremely popular as gifts during the holiday shopping season and often go on sale from various retailers, especially on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Are there alternatives to Apple AirPods worth considering?

While the Apple AirPods are often a great pick if you are deeply embedded in the Apple ecosystem, ZDNET has also tested a lot of other great earbuds and headphones from other companies as well. So, don't miss the rest of our picks for the best headphones, the best earbuds, and the best noise-canceling headphones. Here are a few of our picks for the best AirPod alternatives. 

Sony WF-1000XM5 in black on a wooden table

Best AirPods alternative

Sony WF 1000XM5

These Sony earbuds can cancel out noise like a pair of over-ear headphones, offer a 24 hour battery life, and are extremely comfortable to wear, according to ZDNET's review.

View at Best Buy
A photo of a person holding Amazon Echo buds

Best budget AirPod alternative

Amazon Echo Buds

Amazon's newest generation of Echo Buds offer excellent sound and is equipped with Alexa integration -- all for $50. If you're in the market for a less expensive pair of earbuds for your workouts and work calls, these are a great option for you.

View at Amazon
Sony WH-1000XM5 Headphones

Best over-the-ear AirPod alternative

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones

Sony's over-the-ear headphones offer tons of features, including market-leading active noise cancellation (ANC), advanced voice chat quality for better video conferencing and calls, and extremely quick charging -- a 3-minute quick charge gives you 3 hours of power. If you using headphones all day long, they may be worth the price for you.

View at Best Buy

If you like Apple wearable tech, then also check out my list of the Best Apple Watches and see my hands-on impressions of the Apple Vision Pro.

Editorial standards