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.
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.
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.
The AirPods 2 are solid wireless earbuds, especially at a discount
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.
Watch this: AirPods third-gen review: They actually sound good now
What you're missing out on by choosing the AirPods 2
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
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.