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AirPods vs. AirPods Pro: Should you spend the extra $80?

Should you buy the standard AirPods or the AirPods Pro? Here's how Apple's truly wireless earbuds stack up.

Apple currently makes two true wireless earbud models: the second-gen AirPods (which list for $159, but are generally sold for closer to $120 in the US) come with optional wireless charging and the $249 AirPods Pro, which feature active noise cancellation and now frequently sell for as low $200 (but have dipped as low as $170 since Black Friday). I personally prefer the AirPods Pro and rated them higher than the standard AirPods in my review. But they cost around around $80-$100 more than the base AirPods without wireless charging and not everyone likes their noise-isolating design, which leaves you with a silicone ear tip pushed slightly into your ear canal. The looser fit of the AirPods has its advantages if you don't want to spend $200 or more on earphones, especially ones that are easy to lose. 

AirPods vs. AirPods Pro Comparison


AirPods AirPods Pro
Apple Store price $159 $249
Street price $120 $199
Active noise cancellation No Yes
Noise-isolating design No Yes
Battery life (between in-case charges) 4.5 hours 5 hours
Wireless charging In $199 model Yes

That, in a nutshell, is why some people aren't sure about which AirPods to buy. And while there are plenty of excellent non-Apple true wireless earbuds out there -- just peruse my list of the best true wireless earbuds of 2021 -- you're presumably here because you're on the fence about the AirPods or AirPods Pro. Hopefully, we can help you make a decision.

Note that recent rumors suggest that Apple may release a new set of AirPods this year (people are calling them the "AirPods 3" because they'd be third-generation AirPods). The next AirPods could be an open-style earbud that simply looks more like the AirPods Pro and shares its features except for noise-canceling. Or it could have the same noise-isolating design of the AirPods Pro and leave off the noise canceling. I'd bet on it being the former. But either way, these could appear as soon as March 23, if you believe the current rumor mill.

Read more: Best cheap true-wireless earbuds of 2020

Sarah Tew/CNET

Simply put, the main reason to buy the standard AirPods is to save money. The model with the regular charging case currently sells for $120 while the model with the wireless charging case sells for $150 ($199 if you buy at the Apple Store). Occasionally, the prices dip $10 or $20 (the all-time low is $99). I personally think wireless charging is a bit overrated (when it comes to headphones, anyway), so I wouldn't pay the extra money for it. If I was buying the standard AirPods, my goal would be to pay as little as possible for them.

All that said, there's a second big reason many people opt for the standard AirPods: comfort. Some people don't like having silicone buds stuck in their ears. And the way the AirPods just sort of nestle in your ear is a huge selling point for many -- when they fit right, they're really comfortable. A few folks at CNET have told me that even though the AirPods Pro sounded better, they still preferred the fit of the regular AirPods.

I'm among those who can't get the standard AirPods to stay in my ears securely without using third-party stabilizing wings (and you have to take off the wings to get the AirPods back in their charging case, which is a nuisance). That's the main reason I prefer the AirPods Pro. 

The biggest drawback of the standard AirPods' "open" design is that it allows ambient sound to leak in. They sound decent in quieter environments -- and their performance as a headset for making calls is almost as good as the AirPods Pro -- but the listening experience deteriorates in noisy environments.

While plenty of people use the standard AirPods for working out and even running, Apple does not say they are sweat-resistant -- they have no IPX water-resistance rating -- and any water damage isn't covered by their warranty. The AirPods Pro have an IPX4 water-resistance rating, which makes them splashproof and sweat-resistant. 

Read our Apple AirPods 2019 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The standard AirPods fit some people's ears perfectly (some people have no trouble running with them), but plenty of people can't get a secure fit. If you're in the latter group, I highly recommend you spend the extra money on the AirPods Pro. The AirPods Pro design simply fits more ears than the original AirPods. I hesitate to call it a universal fit because there are always exceptions, but they're close.

As noted, the only issue is that some people simply don't like having silicone buds stuck in their ears, even if they're as soft and pliant as these tips are. Also, some people are sensitive to the pressure sensation, albeit slight, that's a byproduct of active noise canceling.

The first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is that they simply sound better than the standard AirPods because they have more bass. The reason they have more bass is largely due to their new noise-isolating design and new drivers that are tuned for that design. The standard AirPods sound decent enough in quiet places but due to their open design, they just don't do well when confronted with external noise -- the bass frequencies get drowned out. The AirPods' noise cancellation, which is effective, also helps with external noise, and the combination of the tips' seal and the ANC means they sound much better in noisier environments such as city streets.

The standard AirPods are quite good for making calls. With the release of the second-gen model in 2019 -- the ones discussed above -- Apple improved their noise-reduction capabilities, particularly when it comes to wind noise. The AirPods Pro have three microphones on each bud, one of which is a beamforming mic that's designed to pick up your voice. They also have similar noise-reduction capabilities, plus a vent system that's not only supposed to relieve some of the pressure that can build up in your ear from a noise-isolating design coupled with noise-canceling features, but can help cut down on wind noise a tad, an Apple rep told me. More importantly, you can simply hear callers better because of the Pros' noise-isolating design.

As noted, the AirPods Pro have an IPX4 water-resistance rating, which makes them splashproof and sweat-resistant, while the standard AirPods have no water-resistance rating.  

With the debut of iOS 14 in 2020, the AirPods and AirPods Pro now have automatic switching between Apple devices. However, only the AirPods Pro now have the the  "spatial audio" feature that simulates surround sound. It works surprisingly well when watching movies and television shows with video services that support the feature (many now do). 

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

 

Read more: Apple's new spatial audio feature should have Bose and Sony worried

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