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Yes, the AirPods 2 are still worth buying, even though the AirPods 3 are pretty great

Commentary: Don't forget about the second-gen AirPods, which have many of the characteristics that made AirPods so popular in the first place.

apple-airpods-3-vs-airpods-2.png

Apple's third-gen AirPods (left) have better sound, but the older second-gen AirPods (right) still have a lot to offer. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Apple's new AirPods 3 have richer audio, a sleeker design with easier touch controls, better battery life, water-resistance and wireless charging. So there's no reason to buy the older second-geon AirPods, right? Wrong. 

Yes, the AirPods 3 are a notable improvement over their predecessors. But the 2019 AirPods still offer the core experience that's made Apple's wireless earbuds such a hit. They easily pair with your Apple devices, have a comfortable fit, offer decent audio and come with iPhone-centric features like the ability to have Siri read texts. For many people, that's probably enough. Their new $129 price (£119, AU$219) also makes them a more compelling budget option, especially since you'll likely find them for less on Black Friday.

Still, it's important to consider what you're missing out on by choosing Apple's 2-year-old AirPods. If you're only able to find them at Apple's full retail price, you might consider spending the extra $50 to upgrade to the $179 AirPods 3 (£169, AU$279). And if you're looking for active noise cancellation and even better audio, you can also keep an eye out for discounts on the $249 AirPods Pro (£239, AU$399), which often go on sale.  

Read more: Apple's AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: All the biggest differences

Apple AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2


AirPods (third generation) AirPods (second generation)
Weight 0.15 ounces 0.14 ounces
Features Spatial audio, adaptive EQ, easy pairing, hands-free Siri, audio sharing Easy pairing, hands-free Siri, audio sharing
Wireless charging/MagSafe Yes No
Water resistant Yes No
Customizable fit No No
Chip Apple H1 Apple H1
Battery Life (earbuds) 6 hours of listening time 5 hours of listening time
Battery Life (case) Up to 30 hours of listening time More than 24 hours of listening time
Microphones Dual beamforming microphones; inward facing microphone Dual beamforming microphones
Sensors Skin-detect sensor, motion-detecting accelerometer, speech-detecting accelerometer, Force sensor Dual optical sensors, motion-detecting accelerometer, speech-detecting accelerometer
Price (USD) $179 $129
Price (GBP) £169 £119
Price (AUD) AU$279 AU$219

The AirPods 2 are solid wireless earbuds, especially at a discount

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The AirPods 2 (left) vs. AirPods 3 (right).

David Carnoy/CNET

The second-gen AirPods still have a lot to offer despite the arrival of Apple's new AirPods. The sound quality is good enough for casual listeners, and they still excel where it matters most: convenience. 

Similar to the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro, the AirPods 2 support hands-free Siri access, automatically pair with your iPhone when you flip open the case's lid (after you set them up for the first time) and can pause music when you remove an earbud from your ear. They also continue to get additional features with new iOS software releases. In iOS 15, for example, Apple introduced a feature that allows Siri to read notifications through your AirPods.

Apple's long-stemmed AirPods run on the same H1 chip as the AirPods 3 and the AirPods Pro, meaning they should switch between Apple devices just as quickly as their pricier counterparts. Comfort can be subjective, but I've found that the second-gen AirPods maintain a firm and secure fit even when I'm running, which I can't say about many other earbuds. They even fit more snugly for me than the new AirPods. 

If you're leaning toward the second-gen AirPods, be sure to look for them at a discounted price. Apple lists them at $129, but they go on sale frequently, especially around Black Friday. They'll hit an all-time low price of $89 on Nov. 10 at Walmart as part of its early holiday shopping promotions. That means they'll be about half the amount of the AirPods 3, making them a no-brainer if you don't need the enhanced audio and other features that come with the AirPods 3 or AirPods Pro. 

The bottom line is that the second-gen AirPods are still a great choice if you want the fundamentals of Apple's wireless headphones while valuing convenience and comfort above all else. They come with many of the aspects we've highlighted as being among the best AirPods features in our reviews: a lightweight design, reliable wireless connectivity, always-on Siri and great call quality. 

Now playing: Watch this: AirPods third-gen review: They actually sound good now
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What you're missing out on by choosing the AirPods 2

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The second-gen AirPods. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The $179 AirPods 3 fill in the gap between the standard AirPods and AirPods Pro. They come with several improvements over the AirPods 2, but sound quality is the biggest upgrade. The most recent AirPods include similar audio technology as the AirPods Pro, such as Apple's custom high-excursion driver and high-dynamic range amplifier. They also feature adaptive EQ, which automatically optimizes the sound based on how the earbuds fit. 

Taken together, these changes give the AirPods 3 bolder bass and a more balanced sound with more depth. When testing the third-gen AirPods against the second-gen AirPods in side-by-side listening tests, the new AirPods generally sounded a bit cleaner and crisper at higher volumes. That lines up with our full review from my colleague David Carnoy, who wrote that the third-gen AirPods "deliver richer, fuller sound with more detail and better bass."

You'll also get spatial audio with head tracking on the AirPods 3, another audio feature that's missing from Apple's AirPods 2. Apple Music supports Dolby Atmos -- which is Dolby's surround-sound standard -- for the second-gen AirPods. To get Apple's spatial audio that works across apps like Netflix and FaceTime, you'll need the AirPods 3, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. 

Though spatial audio isn't enough of a reason on its own to opt for the AirPods 3 or AirPods Pro, it's a great perk if you watch a lot of movies and television shows on your mobile device. When streaming Netflix on my iPad, I almost had to double-check that my AirPods were connected since the audio sounded so broad and expansive. 

The other major change is the AirPods 3's different design, which makes them look like a cross between the AirPods and AirPods Pro. They have a narrower earpiece and shorter stems like the AirPods Pro but without the swappable silicone tips. The updated look means they're more discreet than their long-stemmed predecessors, and they also come with Apple's force sensor on the stems to easily manage playback controls. 

Unlike the AirPods 2, the AirPods 3 are water-resistant, both the earbuds and their case. They also offer slightly longer battery life, lasting 6 hours on a single charge and up to 30 hours with the case. (Compare that to the AirPods 2, with 5 hours of battery life and 24 hours or more with the case.) You can also power up the AirPods 3 by using any Qi-compatible wireless charger or Apple's MagSafe charger. The AirPods 2 require you to buy a separate wireless charging case for an extra $79. 

Wait for Black Friday deals -- and don't forget about Apple's other earbuds

beats-fit-pro-wet

The new Beats Fit Pro. 

David Carnoy/CNET

If you think that the AirPods 3 may be right for you after reviewing the differences, I'd encourage you to look out for Black Friday deals before making a decision. The AirPods Pro are already available for $190 on Amazon, making them about $10 more than the AirPods 3. That's a notable chunk off the AirPods Pro's $249 list price through Apple. 

The AirPods Pro have the same audio improvements as the AirPods 3, but with active noise cancellation and customizable fit. You may want to also compare Apple's other wireless headphone line: The new Beats Fit Pro debuted at $199 and join the Beats Studio Buds, which are currently on sale for $130.

All told, the second-gen AirPods are a solid choice if you want reliable, easy-to-use earbuds that quickly pair with Apple devices -- and especially if you can find them at a discount for $100 or less. Just keep in mind that you'll be sacrificing certain features like spatial audio, improved sound quality and water-resistance.