Apple makes excellent AirPods earbuds and headphones for iPhone users. Find out which AirPods are best for you -- and get the best deals on them.
Updated Oct. 23, 2023 11:28 a.m. PT
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David CarnoyExecutive 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, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
ExpertiseOver 20 years experience in electronics and gadget reviews and analysis, and consumer shopping adviceCredentials
Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
While one could argue that the full-size AirPods Max headphones are the best overall AirPods, I think the more affordable AirPods Pro 2 earbuds are the better value and best overall AirPods. Equipped with Apple's new H2 chip and now USB-C charging (instead of Lightning), they're the latest AirPods to be released and got some new features with the release of iOS 17, iPadOS 17 and TVOS 17. These include an adaptive audio mode that mixes noise canceling with transparency and a "conversation awareness" mode that automatically lowers the volume of what you're listening to as soon as you start talking.
That said, not everyone is looking for noise-isolating earbuds with silicone ear tips that you jam in your ears (a good seal is crucial for optimal sound quality and noise-canceling). There are plenty of other AirPods options along with some headphones and earbuds from Apple-owned brand Beats -- no, they're not called AirPods, but in some cases, they share the same Apple chipsets and features.
I've tested hundreds, if not thousands of headphones over 20 years of evaluating headphones, and I've tested and fully reviewed all of Apple's headphones and earbuds that are on this list. Note that we also keep a close eye on their prices so we can bring you the best deals on every AirPods model. While Apple doesn't discount AirPods online or in its brick-and-mortar stores, other retailers do, and sometimes the savings are substantial.
Apple not only swapped in USB-C for Lightning connectivity in its new iPhone 15 models, but it made the switch with the AirPods Pro (2nd generation). The new AirPods Pro 2 with MagSafe (USB-C) are nearly identical to their Lightning predecessor, delivering the same excellent sound, noise canceling and voice-calling performance. That said, they offer some other small upgrades, including additional dust resistance and a new acoustic architecture that allows for Lossless Audio with the Vision Pro, Apple's upcoming wearable headset that's set to be released in early 2024 and costs $3,499. Is it possible that new acoustic architecture makes the buds sound subtly different with current devices like the iPhone? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C) are easy to recommend to Apple users despite their high price.
While the Beats Fit Pro technically aren't AirPods, they're built on the same tech platform as the AirPods Pro (yes, Apple owns Beats). Unlike Beats' earlier and less expensive Studio Buds and new-for-2023 Studio Buds Plus, the Beats Fit Pro include Apple's H1 chip and have most of the AirPods Pro's features, including active noise canceling, spatial audio and Adaptive EQ. I'd venture to call them the sports AirPods you've always wanted.
Yes, they're expensive, but the AirPods Max deliver richer, more detailed sound than lower-priced competitors from Bose and Sony. They also feature arguably the best noise canceling on the market along with premium build quality and Apple's virtual surround spatial audio feature for video watching. While they're heavy, they manage to be surprisingly comfortable, though I did have to adjust the mesh canopy headband to sit a little more forward on my head to get a comfortable secure fit when I was out walking with them. They should fit most heads well, but there will be exceptions.
Take one look at the new design of the third-gen AirPods ($179), 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.
Since they're open earbuds, they let some sound in, so they're not as good as the AirPods Pro 2 for both listening and making calls in noisy environments. But they do a nice job reducing background noise during calls and picking up your voice clearly.
Alas, for those of you who bought the original Beats Studio Buds, which remain on the market for now, I'm sorry to report that these new Plus buds are significantly improved, with better sound, noise canceling and battery life. Additionally, they now deliver top-notch voice-calling performance.
The transparent version is getting a lot of attention (who doesn't like transparent electronics?), but the big changes are on the inside. Beats says 95% of the components are new and improved, and the buds' "acoustic architecture" has been revised. The speaker drivers remain the same, but the Studio Buds Plus are powered by a new, more powerful custom chipset and have three new microphones in each bud, which are three times larger and more sensitive than the ones found in the Beats Studio Buds.
Love 'em or hate 'em, Beats Studio headphones are among the most popular headphones of all time, launching as wired headphones back in 2008. This is the fourth generation of them, and they carry the same list price as their predecessor and look very similar on the outside but have some big changes on the inside that make them significantly better headphones. I'm tempted to describe them as more affordable plastic versions of the AirPods Max. However, that's not quite accurate due to a choice in chipsets and one notable missing feature. But read our full review to find out what makes these very good headphones, albeit with some caveats.
Apple's second-generation AirPods remain in the line but no longer include a wireless-charging option. Apple has dropped the official price of the AirPods 2 to $129, though you can usually find them for $100 or less.
They're not as feature-packed as the other AirPods on this list, but they remain an appealing option for folks on a tighter budget or those who've worn out their original pair but love their fit and simply want to replace them.
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AirPods price comparison
Apple Store price
Best price right now
Best all-time price
AirPods Pro 2
Beats Fit Pro
Other AirPods we tested
Beats Studio Buds: The Beats Studio earbuds often sell for less than $100 and offer decent sound and performance. But the new Studio Buds Plus are a significant upgrade, with better sound, noise canceling and voice-calling performance, so we recommend users buy those instead.
Factors to consider when choosing AirPods
The AirPods come in three styles: open earbuds (AirPods 2 and AirPods 3), noise-isolating earbuds with noise canceling (AirPods Pro 2) and over-ear headphones (AirPods Max). Some people like the standard AirPods because they have an open design and don't require you to jam silicone ear tips into your ears. Note that the AirPods 2, which are based on the original AirPods design, have longer stems and have slightly smaller buds than the AirPods 3, which feature a new design. The AirPods 3 have better sound and spatial audio, but the AirPods 2 may fit some smaller ears better. Meanwhile, the Beats Fit Pro have built-in wingtips that may help you get a more secure fit.
AirPods or Beats earbuds and headphones?
Because Apple owns Beats, the various AirPods models and Beats models can share similar components and features. Beats products tend to be geared to both Apple and Android users, while the AirPods tend to be focused more toward Apple users (they have more exclusive features for Apple users), though they can be paired with Android devices.
Because the fit of your earbuds is so important, it's critical to buy your buds at a retailer that has a good return policy, in case the buds aren't a good match for your ears.
How we test wireless headphones and earbuds
We test wireless headphones and earbuds based on six key criteria: design, sound quality, noise-canceling performance, voice-calling performance, features and value.
Design: We assess not only how comfortably the headphones or earbuds fit (their ergonomics) but also their build quality and how well the controls are implemented. With wireless headphones and earbuds, we'll note if they're water-resistant, but only a few full-size headphones have water- and dust-resistance ratings.
Sound quality: We evaluate sound quality by listening to a set playlist of music tracks and comparing headphones to top competing products in their price range. Sonic traits such as bass definition, clarity, dynamic range and how natural the headphones sound are key factors in our assessment.
Noise-canceling performance: If the headphones we're testing feature active noise canceling, we evaluate ANC performance by wearing the headphones in the same spot indoors near a noisy HVAC unit to see how well they do at muffling lower frequencies. Then we head out onto city streets to test the headphones in a real-world environment where we see how they do at muffling not only street noise but also people's voices.
Extra features: Some great-sounding headphones and earbuds aren't loaded with features, but we do take into account what extra features are on board. These include everything from quick-access awareness to transparency modes (your music pauses and the headphones open up to the outside world so you can have a conversation) to special sound modes to ear-detection sensors that automatically pause your music when you take the headphones off your ears. We also take a look at the companion app for the headphones if there is one and how user-friendly it is.
Voice-calling: When we test voice-calling performance, we make calls on noisy city streets and evaluate how well the headphones or earbuds reduce background noise and how clearly callers can hear our voice.
Value: We determine value after considering the strength of the headphones against all these criteria and what they're able to deliver compared with other models in their price class.
Apple AirPods FAQ
What are the newest AirPods?
The newest AirPods are the AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C), which hit stores in September 2023 and have some small upgrades from the 2022 version of the AirPods Pro 2 that included Lightning charging. The third-generation AirPods with enhanced functionality, improved sound and an updated design arrived in stores in October 2021. Meanwhile, on the Beats side, the Beats Studio Pro headphones were released in July 2023 while the Studio Buds Plus were released in May 2023. The Beats Fit Pro -- which share most of the same features as the original AirPods Pro -- arrived in November 2021. While they're not AirPods by name, we and others have referred to them as "the sports AirPods you always wanted."
Are the AirPods Pro 2 better than the Beats Fit Pro?
With their integrated wingtips, the Beats Fit Pro may offer you a more secure fit than AirPods Pro 2 and they do cost $50 less (and sometimes even less when they go on sale). Otherwise, the AirPods Pro 2 are better -- they have slightly better sound quality and noise canceling along with better voice-calling performance.
Also note that the Beats Fit Pro are missing wireless charging and the MagSafe compatibility found in the AirPods Pro 2.
Should I buy AirPods in the Apple Store?
If you can help it, no: The various AirPods models typically sell for less online at other retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Amazon, meanwhile, typically matches the lowest price at other retailers. Generally, we'd only buy AirPods at the Apple Store if we want engraving, which isn't available elsewhere. That said, if you opt to go into an Apple Store for Apple deals, you should ask about price matching. While Apple doesn't seem to have any official policy, it's been reported that it will offer up to 10% price matching. As an example, that would be $25 off the AirPods Pro, which list for $249. That's not much, but it's worth asking to see if you can get 10% off.
Does spatial audio sound different on different AirPods?
The short answer is, not really when you're talking about spatial audio with head tracking for movie and TV watching. While the AirPods Max offer the best sound overall, using the spatial audio virtual sound feature is largely the same experience on all the AirPods that support it.