Which Apple AirPods Should You Buy?

There are now multiple headphones called AirPods, including noise-canceling models and an over-the-ear version

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Different versions of the Apple Airpods Photo: Apple

Apple sells four products called AirPods. And if you factor in the first-generation AirPods, there have been a total of five of these headphones on the market since the line launched in 2016—some available in multiple variations with different accessories. 

It can be tough to figure out which AirPods you should buy. To start, these aren’t all just updated versions of the same headphones. There are meaningful differences among the various products in terms of features, performance, and design.

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For example, two AirPods have an open design that lets in outside sound on purpose, while the others are noise-canceling. Three are earbuds; one is a big over-the-ear pair of headphones. Several are compatible with wireless charging, a few have extra features such as Spatial Audio, and CR’s tests turn up significant variation in sound quality. The list goes on.

To make sense of it all, here are the key variations among the four Apple AirPods that are still being manufactured, with advice on which of these headphones might be best, depending on what you’re looking for.

2nd-Gen. AirPods: The Bargain Option

CR has never recommended the second-generation AirPods, which came out in 2019. Our tests show that their sound quality is significantly worse than a wide swath of true wireless headphones that you can buy for a lot less. But even though the audio quality is mediocre, it isn’t terrible, and these earphones have a lot of other things going for them.

Like all AirPods, they’re convenient to use, especially with other Apple devices. They’re dead simple to pair with your iPhone or a MacBook, they’ll switch seamlessly between the two as you use them, and they pause automatically when you take them off. These AirPods also feature an open-air design that lets in some outside sound. That makes you feel less cut off from the outside world, but it can make your music harder to hear. For some people, that’s a plus. For others, it’s a drawback.

Unlike some of the other AirPods, they don’t have noise-canceling technology, and they’re the only model that doesn’t work with Apple’s Spatial Audio feature (more on that below). You’ll also need to pay more for an upgraded case if you want to use a wireless charger. Apple advertises a 5-hour battery life, with a charging case that will power the headphones more than four times on the go.

Who they’re best for: If you want AirPods and don’t care about sound or the latest features, these are the ones to buy. In basically every capacity except for price, these are the least appealing of the four AirPods. But at their normal $129, they’re the cheapest by far.

3rd-Gen. AirPods: The Best Value

The third-generation AirPods are the most recent addition to Apple’s headphones line, and they feature significant improvements over the second generation. First, the sound quality is far better, thanks to a revamped design, updated drivers, and new software.

These earphones have all the convenience of the second-generation AirPods, with a few upgrades. They have pressure-sensitive squeeze controls, which are a bit easier to navigate than the older model’s tap controls. They have new sensors to prevent them from playing when they’re not in your ears, improved compatibility with Siri, and, according to Apple, better call quality. 

Like the older model, these feature an open-air design that won’t seal you off from the world, and they aren’t noise-canceling. What they do have is compatibility with Spatial Audio, a feature that simulates a surround-sound stereo on certain tracks. We found that feature to be a bit of a gimmick, but some people might like it. The third generation also comes standard with a charging case that’s compatible with wireless charging mats. Apple says there’s a battery life improvement as well, with 6 hours of run time and a charging case that will power the headphones over four more times on the go.

Who they’re best for: The third-generation AirPods are a savvy choice if you want the most bang for your buck. At $179, these AirPods will sit right in the sweet spot for a lot of people. The new features, major sound quality improvements, and battery boost make them a worthwhile upgrade over the old model, but the price is still significantly lower than the other premium pairs.

AirPods Pro: Apple's Best Earbuds

The AirPods Pro stand apart from the two earbuds above for one key reason: They feature noise cancellation, and the sound reduction rates as well as any pair we’ve tested.

The AirPods Pro feature an isolating design with soft silicone tips that physically seal the ear canal, unlike the second- and third-generation AirPods, which rest just outside of it. That doesn’t mean you have to feel cut off, though; you can dial the level of noise cancellation up or down. There’s also a transparency mode, which pipes in outside sound on purpose in a way that’s so effective it almost feels like you don’t have headphones on. The Pros also have sound quality that’s a bit better than the third-generation model, though it still doesn’t match that of the best headphones in our tests.

Aside from the noise cancellation, the Pros have a lot in common with the third-generation model. All the other features are the same, including standard compatibility with wireless charging. Noise cancellation uses up more power, though. This model’s advertised battery life is 5 hours with noise cancellation off, just 4.5 hours with it turned on. The case should provide a bit more than four full charges before you need to plug it in.

Who they’re best for: The Pros are for you if want the best AirPods and you’re willing to pay a bit more. With a slight uptick in sound quality and onboard noise cancellation, the AirPods Pro are the clear winners in terms of performance. They do cost a bit more, though. The sticker price is $249.

AirPods Max: Expensive Over-the-Ear Headphones

The AirPods Max stand out from other AirPods in several ways. First, these aren’t earbuds; they’re big, over-ear headphones. Second, they’re very pricey. Apple will sell you a pair for a whopping $549. Even at the lowest sale price we’ve come across, they still cost hundreds more than almost every model in our ratings. 

Are they worth the money? As far as sound quality and noise-canceling performance are concerned, definitely not. Three over-ear noise-canceling headphones in our ratings score higher, with better sound and equal noise-blocking capability, and they’re all cheaper. The least expensive among them, from Sennheiser, costs just $160.

What you do get for your money is great, but not outstanding, sound quality, and excellent noise cancellation that you can ramp up or down with a handy dial. They have a distinct look and the premium feel you might expect from an Apple product, and the seamless compatibility with the company’s other products that made AirPods famous. They have all the premium features, too, including transparency mode, to route in outside sound, and Spatial Audio. There’s no wireless charging option, nor is there a charging case. But unlike the other models, they take USB-C instead of a lightning cable, so you can use the same charger that powers your laptop. The advertised battery life is 20 hours.

Who they’re best for: If you’re looking for a piece of bling that shows off how much money you have to throw around, the AirPods Max will do the trick. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify the price when there are better, cheaper competitors. Unless you’re an Apple superfan—or someone who thinks easy pairing with other Apple products is worth hundreds of dollars—we recommend that you try one of the other top noise-canceling headphones from our ratings.

Headshot of CR editor Thomas Germain

Thomas Germain

I want to live in a world where consumers take advantage of technology, not the other way around. Access to reliable information is the way to make that happen, and that's why I spend my time chasing it down. When I'm off the clock, you can find me working my way through an ever-growing list of podcasts. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( thomas.germain@consumer.org) or follow me on Twitter ( @ThomasGermain) for my contact info on Signal.