The decision should come down to active noise cancellation and design preference.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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Having a hard time choosing between Apple's AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro 2? Ask yourself whether you prefer active noise cancellation in a noise-isolating design, or open earbuds that don't require you to jam silicone ear tips into your ears.
Yes, there's a price difference -- the AirPods Pro 2 sell for about $200 online (regularly priced at $249), while the AirPods 3 cost about $150. But with only around $50 separating the two AirPods models, it's probably more important to focus on those key differences rather than dwelling too much on price.
Apple has bridged the gap between its Pro and regular AirPods by upgrading the AirPods 3's design -- it now looks more like the Pro's design minus the silicone ear tips -- and giving it the same IPX4 splash-proof water resistance rating. Additionally, the AirPods 3, like the AirPods Pro and Pro 2, also have Apple's spatial audio with head-tracking feature.
But there are still certain benefits you can only get on the pricier AirPods Pro 2, the biggest being active noise cancellation and transparency mode. Multiple ear tip sizes, the ability to swipe up and down to control music volume and ultra wideband support are also exclusive to the Pro 2. But noise cancellation will likely make the biggest impact in everyday use, and it's the most important factor to consider.
AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3
AirPods Pro 2
$169 (Lightning case)
£179 (Lightning case)
AU$279 (Lightning case)
Active noise cancellation, Adaptive transparency, spatial audio with dynamic head tracking
Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking
Adaptive EQ, custom high-excursion Apple driver, custom high dynamic range amplifier, vent system for pressure equalization
Adaptive EQ, custom high-excursion Apple driver, custom high dynamic range amplifier
The biggest difference in terms of design is that the $169 AirPods don't have interchangeable silicone tips like the AirPods Pro 2, which include four sizes to choose from. The AirPods 3 are also lighter than the AirPods Pro 2 at 0.15 ounce (4.3 grams) versus 0.19 ounce (5.3 grams).
The AirPods 3 and second-generation AirPods Pro share some similarities when it comes to design, although it's very easy to tell them apart. The AirPods Pro 2's stems, for example, are noticeably shorter than those on the AirPods 3. But both models are sweat and water resistant, which could make them more appealing than the $129 regular AirPods for those who want to wear them during exercise.
The case for the AirPods 3 sort of looks like a cross between the case for the standard AirPods and that of the AirPods Pro. It's much shorter and wider than the entry-level AirPods case, but it's not as wide as the holster for the AirPods Pro. You can also charge the case for the AirPods 3 or the AirPods Pro via Apple's wireless MagSafe charger, or by plugging it in with a Lightning cable. But you'll have to pay an extra $10 to get the MagSafe wireless charging case bundled with the AirPods 3. The MagSafe-compatible case for the AirPods Pro 2 also has a lanyard loop, unlike the AirPods 3's case.
The second-generation AirPods Pro's case also has another capability: ultra wideband support. That essentially means the case has a built-in AirTag for easier location tracking.
Watch this: AirPods Pro 2 Review: Hard to Beat for Apple Users
AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3: Audio
You'll still have to splurge on Apple's top-of-the-line earbuds to get active noise cancellation and transparency mode. Since the second-generation AirPods Pro have Apple's new H2 chip, they can cancel up to twice as much noise as the previous AirPods Pro, according to Apple's claims. Transparency Mode has also gotten an upgrade on the second-generation model. The new chip can reduce loud noises from your surroundings when in Transparency Mode, which should make sounds like a passing vehicle seem less jarring.
That new H2 chip also brings improved audio to the AirPods Pro 2, further distinguishing them from the AirPods 3. As my colleague David Carnoy wrote in his review, the H2's computational power helps the AirPods Pro process a broader range of frequencies.
You'll also get swipe controls for managing volume levels on the AirPods Pro 2. The AirPods 3 just have Apple's force sensors, which you can press to skip ahead, pause music or answer calls.
But both the AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods 3 have dynamic spatial audio and adaptive EQ. The former is essentially virtual surround sound, while the latter adjusts the sound to your ears.
AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3: Battery life
Battery life is similar for both models, although there are some slight differences. Both earbuds should provide up to 6 hours of listening time, according to Apple's claims. But you'll get 5.5 hours of battery life when using spatial audio and head tracking on the AirPods Pro 2, while the AirPods 3 offer slightly shorter 5-hour battery life with that surround sound feature enabled. Apple also claims the AirPods Pro 2 provides 4.5 hours of talk time, while the AirPods 3 offer up to 4 hours.
The case for both earbuds should provide up to 30 hours of listening time, says Apple. But when it comes to talk time, you can expect to get 24 hours from the AirPods Pro 2's case and 20 hours from the AirPods 3's case. Five minutes in each case is expected to replenish around one hour of listening time or roughly 1 hour of talk time.
AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3: How to choose
The AirPods Pro 2 are for those who want active noise cancellation, better audio and a more customizable fit. You'll also get some other perks, like the ability to track them down more easily should they get lost, thanks to the U1 chip. The AirPods 3 are a more suitable choice if you don't care about noise cancellation and prefer earbuds with an open design (and yes, they cost about $50 less, so they do offer some appeal to those on tighter budgets). At the same time, the AirPods 3 still have more to offer than the AirPods 2, which lack features like water resistance, adaptive EQ and spatial audio with head-tracking.
The new AirPods Pro (2nd generation) are powered by Apple's new H2 chip, which delivers more processing power while being more energy efficient, according to Apple. The new chip, combined with new low-distortion drivers, allows for improved sound that offers better clarity and depth. The noise canceling is also improved -- Apple says the new AirPods have "double" the noise canceling of the original AirPods Pro. Additionally, the new AirPods add an extra hour of battery life, up from five to six hours with noise canceling on. Plus, a speaker in the case that emits a sound that helps locate your buds via Find My should they decide to hide from you.
Note that while Apple has discontinued the , they'll remain on sale until supplies are exhausted. However, most people should get this newer model if they can afford it. The AirPods Pro 2 continue to see small discounts, dipping to as low as $223 during Amazon' Early Access Prime event in October.
Battery Life Rated up to 6 hoursNoise Canceling NoMultipoint NoHeadphone Type Wireless earbudsWater-Resistant Yes (IPX4 -- splash-proof)
Take one look at the new design of the third-gen AirPods, and the first thing you'll probably think is: "Those look like the AirPods Pro without ear tips." You wouldn't be wrong. While they're more fraternal than identical twins, the AirPods 3 are shaped like the AirPods Pro, with the same shorter stems and same pinch controls as those of the Pro. Aside from the design change, which should fit most ears better than the AirPods 2nd Generation (though not very small ears), the biggest change is to the sound quality: It's much improved. Also, battery life is better, and the AirPods 3 are officially water-resistant.