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Apple AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3: How to Decide Between Them

The AirPods Pro 2 have active noise cancellation, which is the biggest factor to consider. Here's what else sets them apart from the AirPods 3.

Lisa Eadicicco Senior 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.
Expertise Apple | Samsung | Google | Smartphones | Smartwatches | Wearables | Fitness trackers
David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
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, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Lisa Eadicicco
David Carnoy
6 min read
AirPods 3rd Generation

The third-generation AirPods.

David Carnoy/CNET

Apple's AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro 2 share some common traits, but there are some important differences between them. If you're trying to decide which is the right fit for you, start by asking yourself two questions. Do you prefer active noise cancellation in a noise-isolating design? Or are you a fan of 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 (regularly priced at $169 through Apple). But with only around $50 usually 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 it has an IPX4 splashproof water-resistance rating. Additionally, the AirPods 3, like the AirPods Pro and Pro 2, also have Apple's spatial audio with head-tracking feature.

Read more: Best Wireless Earbuds for 2023

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. 

The new AirPods Pro 2 model that Apple launched in September also has dust-resistance, some audio optimizations that should enable them to work better with the upcoming Vision Pro headset and a USB-C charging port, matching the iPhone 15's. But noise cancellation will likely make the biggest impact in everyday use, and it's the most important factor to consider.

Apple is also expected to launch two new pairs of AirPods, possibly later this year, according to Bloomberg's Mark Gurman. That could include a non-Pro model with active noise cancellation, meaning you may not have to splurge on Apple's top-of-the-line earbuds to get that feature in the future. Both new AirPods models are expected to have a fresh design and USB-C charging cases, and Apple's suppliers are said to be gearing up for production ahead of a fall release, reports Bloomberg. If you're not in a rush to buy new AirPods, it could be worth waiting to see what Apple has in store for later this year.  

AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3

AirPods Pro 2 (2023)AirPods 3
Price (USD) $249$169 (Lightning case)
Price (UK) £249£179 (Lightning case)
Price (AU) AU$399AU$279 (Lightning case)
Weight (earbuds) 0.19 ounce0.15 ounce
Audio features Active noise cancellation, Adaptive transparency, spatial audio with dynamic head trackingSpatial audio with dynamic head tracking
Audio technology Adaptive EQ, custom high-excursion Apple driver, custom high dynamic range amplifier, vent system for pressure equalizationAdaptive EQ, custom high-excursion Apple driver, custom high dynamic range amplifier
Durability IP54 sweat-, water- and dust-resistantIPX4 sweat- and water-resistant
Charging MagSafe or USB-CMagSafe or Lightning (extra $10 for MagSafe case)
Multiple ear tips YesNo
Chip H2 chip, U1 chip in charging caseH1 chip
Battery life (earbuds) 6 hours of listening time6 hours of listening time
Battery life (case) 30 hours of listening time30 hours of listening time
Microphones Dual beamforming microphones; inward-facing microphoneDual beamforming microphones; inward-facing microphone
Sensors Skin detect sensor, motion detecting accelerometer, speech detecting accelerometer, touch controlSkin detect sensor, motion detecting accelerometer, speech detecting accelerometer, Force sensor
Controls Hey Siri, touch controlsHey Siri, Force sensor

AirPods Pro 2 vs. AirPods 3: Design and case

The AirPods Pro 2 pictured with their case

The AirPods Pro 2.

David Carnoy/CNET

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. Only the 2023 AirPods Pro 2, however, is dust resistant in addition to offering sweat and water resistance.

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. 

But the 2023 AirPods Pro 2 has a USB-C charging port instead of Lightning, which might make it a more convenient option for iPhone 15 owners who want to plug in their AirPods using the same cable. You can also charge the new AirPods Pro 2 by plugging them into your iPhone via USB-C. That's important to consider if you're leaning towards the AirPods Pro 2 and are deciding whether to buy new or refurbished. 

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 

AirPods Pro 2 being held by the stem

The AirPods Pro 2 have active noise cancellation and transparency mode.

David Carnoy/CNET

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 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

The AirPods 3 on a MagSafe charger

The AirPods 3 (pictured) and AirPods Pro 2 offer similar battery life.

David Carnoy/CNET

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, and USB-C charging. 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.

David Carnoy/CNET

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 original AirPods Pro, they'll remain on sale at discounted prices 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.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C) review.

David Carnoy/CNET
Battery Life Rated up to 6 hoursNoise Canceling NoMultipoint NoHeadphone Type Wireless earbudsWater-Resistant Yes (IPX4 -- splash-proof)


  • Significantly improved sound with better bass and battery life
  • Performance when making calls is excellent
  • Robust feature set for Apple users, including spatial audio

Don't like

  • May not fit ears as securely as AirPods Pro
  • Open design allows sound to leak in and out

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.

Read our Apple AirPods 3 review.

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