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How to choose the best AirPods for you: Expert advice

New AirPods could be coming this fall, but if you can't wait that long, we've ranked the best AirPods you can buy right now based on our hands-on testing.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief and  Nina Raemont, Associate Editor
Reviewed by Kayla Solino
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C | Best AirPods overall
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C
Best AirPods overall
View now View at Amazon
Apple AirPods Max | Best AirPods for travelers and audiophiles
Apple AirPods Max
Best AirPods for travelers and audiophiles
View now View at Amazon
Apple AirPods (2nd Generation) | Best AirPods for the price
Apple AirPods (2nd Generation)
Best AirPods for the price
View now View at Best Buy
Apple AirPods (3rd Generation) | Best traditional AirPods
Apple AirPods (3rd Generation)
Best traditional AirPods
View now View at Amazon

Two new AirPods models are coming this fall, but if you can't wait that long to snatch up a new pair, we've got recommendations for the best Apple earbuds and headphones you can buy right now. Before you purchase AirPods, you should know they work best with other Apple devices, like iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks, and important features like seamless device switching, spatial audio, and Find My only work with these devices. With all that said, if you're in the market for a new pair of AirPods, 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

So why should you trust me? I 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 tried every model of AirPods and have strong opinions on which pairs are the best for specific use cases. 

What are the best AirPods right now?

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 competing earbuds from Beats, Soundcore, Samsung, Sony, and many others. Here are my recommendations for the best AirPods for you.

The best AirPods of 2024

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

Out of the four current models of AirPods, I recommend the AirPods Pro 2 the most because they fit almost every type of ear, they are 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. 

Most Redditors agree that the AirPods Pro 2 take the cake. It's pretty difficult to find an alternative AirPods recommendation when searching on Reddit for the best AirPods to buy. One user on the r/AirPods thread called the earbuds "transcendent," and another said they are totally worth the money.  

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. 

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 launched this week.

If you're someone who uses headphones for more than a couple hours every day, 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.

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

Pros & Cons
  • Pairs with all your Apple devices
  • Noise cancellation is outstanding
  • Transparency mode is realistic
  • More comfortable than most over-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

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 chunk of that price.

The noise cancellation for the AirPods Max is the best I've experienced. 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 eight microphones in the AirPods Max make it sound as though you're not wearing a pair of over-the-ear headphones at all. The quality of these two modes is better than any other traditional headphones I've used and is 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 any of them. 

There's 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. 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 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. 

Owners on Reddit say the AirPods Max is worth it, if you have $500 to spare. Some users recommend even waiting for the next generation of these headphones, even though it's TBD when that next generation arrives. 

Read the review: AirPods Max review

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

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

The original AirPods remain as iconic as ever and are still available to purchase in the upgraded 2nd-generation version, even if the newer generations of AirPods, like the Pro 2s, have made this generation less popular, according to Reddit. 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. 

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. 

Also: How I used the same AirPods for five years straight (and you can, too)

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. 

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

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

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 gen suffer from the same ear fit issues as the first two generations of traditional AirPods. For some AirPods 3 owners on Reddit, 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 -- the AirPods 2nd gen are a no-brainer at $99. And if you're seeking 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 to the silicone ear tips. 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

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

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 (2nd Generation)


5 hours


AirPods (3rd Generation)


6 hours


Which Apple AirPods are right 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.

Factors to consider when choosing the best AirPods:

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. The AirPods on this list cost anywhere from $99 to $550, depending on the model you choose, the AirPods generation, the features included in the pair like noise cancellation and spatial audio, and whether you're opting for earbuds or the AirPods Max. All of these factors will raise the price of a pair significantly, but also the quality level. 
  • 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. The AirPods on this list have battery life that ranges from six to 20 hours. 
  • 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.

How did we test these 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 the AirPods' performance, battery life, customer reviews, your needs, your use cases, and your budget.

ZDNET only spotlights products we actually recommend to people, and when we like a product, we will spotlight it or write an official review, and then put the product on one of these best lists. 

Is Apple coming out with new AirPods anytime soon?

It's looking like two new AirPods models are coming our way shortly. One will be an inexpensive pair, predicted to be priced at around $100, and the other will be a new pair of AirPods Max, as ZDNET's Nina Raemont writes. Both AirPods models will feature USB-C charging, a new design, and a comfortable, improved fit. 

More: New AirPods Lite and AirPods Max expected later this year 

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.

Which AirPods are better: the AirPods Pro 2 or the AirPods 3?

We think the AirPods Pro 2 run circles over the AirPods 3, for their value, their comfort, the noise cancellation, and much more. And many AirPods Pro 2 owners agree -- just look at any Reddit thread about which earbuds to buy and you'll find the AirPods Pro 2 the clear winner. People report that the AirPods 3 are much bigger and less comfortable, plus they don't come with the stellar noise cancellation of the AirPods Pro 2. 

Why are the AirPods 3 cheaper than the AirPods Pro 2?

The AirPods 3 are cheaper than the AirPods Pro 2 because the earbuds don't come with as many bells and whistles as the AirPods Pro 2. The Pro 2, for example, come with noise cancellation, transparency mode, and Apple's latest H2 chip, two things the AirPods 3 lack. This naturally raises the price of the AirPods Pro 2. 

What are good alternatives to AirPods?

There are plenty, from Sony's WF-1000XM5 earbuds, to Bose's QuietComfort Ultra earbuds, there are tons of competitive earbud options from other brands, if you're not keen on Apple. 

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). 

What's the lowest price AirPods go for?

So, there's Apple's price that it sells its products for, and then there's the lower price e-commerce sites like Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart are actually selling the products for. You'll see the AirPods 2nd gen sell for $129 on Apple's site and $90 on Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart. Apple sells its most expensive AirPods Max for $549, while Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart regularly discount the price to $480. And, finally, for the AirPods Pro 2, our best overall pick, Apple sells the earbuds for $250, while Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart regularly sell it for $190. 

Other products we tested:

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. 

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