Which Apple AirPods should I buy?

Apple AirPods 2, AirPods 3, AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods Max on a white background
(Image credit: Apple)

Since Apple launched its first pair of AirPods at the tail end of 2016, the tech giant has introduced a variety of products in the range, each offering something slightly different for audio lovers. If you’re wondering why the AirPods price varies so wildly, these different models are the reason.

There’s the second generation of the regular AirPods – with or without a wireless charging case – the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro (now also in the second generation), and even the premium over-ear AirPods Max for those who are serious about sound. The more expensive models aren’t necessarily always the best option for you, so we’ve taken a look at what makes each of Apple’s headphones suitable for you.

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

A person taking an AirPod out of its case

(Image credit: Future)

RRP: $219

While the original AirPods from 2016 are no longer available, the cheapest option is the second generation AirPods from 2019. There was a time when these were available with the option of a wireless charging case, but no longer. You can only purchase it with a regular wired case for $219.

This case offers around 20 hours of backup charge and the buds themselves get you up to five hours on a single charge.

Inside the buds is Apple's H1 chipset, which treats you to a no-fuss, high-quality connection to your paired Apple device, be it an iPhone, an iPad, Apple Watch or MacBook.

As for the audio itself, the quality isn’t quite up to the standard offered by the AirPods Pro (and certainly not the AirPods Max), but it’s still fairly solid. One of the main differences between the regular AirPods and the AirPods Pro is that the former doesn’t use silicon tips to seal in your ears, instead opting for a more traditional ‘open’ design that Apple has used (albeit with many improvements) since first launching the iPod.

The second-gen AirPods present great value for those that already have an Apple iPhone or similar device, wanting to take calls, use Siri and listen casually to music.

The good news here is that the Apple AirPods 2 are often discounted, particularly on Amazon, so you can pick them up for way under $200.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

the apple airpods 3 with an iphone 13 mini

(Image credit: Future)

RRP: $279

In October 2021, Apple released the third iteration of the AirPods. This is a worthy upgrade over the 2nd generation model, coming with a refreshed design, better connectivity and, importantly, superior audio performance with the inclusion of spatial audio support.

In terms of design, it's got a shorter stem and better contours for the earpiece housing so they fit better. The housings are touch sensitive and play home to a host of controls, although volume controls aren't available here. The charging case, too, got a redesign, being made shorter than the older model. There's also a tiny LED light that uses traffic signal colours to indicate battery life. The case can also be topped up wirelessly, although a Lightning connection port is available on the bottom for wired charging.

The third-generation AirPods feature Adaptive EQ that debuted with the first-gen AirPods Pro, and sound better than their predecessor. As mentioned, there's also spatial audio support here, which offers a more 3D feel to supported audio files and makes for a more immersive experience.

Battery life also gets an improvement here, but just barely. You get up to 6 hours from the buds themselves, and an additional 24 hours from the case.

While they're more expensive than the 2nd-generation AirPods, we think the higher price is justified. That said, they're cheaper than the AirPods Pro currently available.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation)

Apple AirPods Pro 2 on top of iPhone on gray backgorund

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

As you have deduced by now, the ‘pro’ version of Apple’s true wireless in-ears takes much of the success of the regular versions but adds a variety of quality-of-life and performance features. As such, the AirPods Pro are priced at $399, reflecting these improvements. 

One of the major additions to the Pro is active noise cancellation (ANC), which uses external microphones to detect and block out unwanted outside sound – ideal for commuting or other moments where you’d like to shut the world out. These same microphones can allow outside sounds to be put through to your ears in ‘transparency mode’, when you need to have a conversation, cross a road or similar.

Part of what makes ANC possible in the AirPods Pro is the addition of soft silicon tips (shipping with three different sizes in the box) that create a seal in your ear. These already offer great passive noise-cancelling but also allow for improved audio quality with better bass response as well as a more secure fit in the ear. This secure fit comes in handy for the active wearer as well, coupled with an IPX4 rating for sweat- and water-resistance so your workouts don’t damage your new buds.

If you’re serious about your music and would use your earbuds often, the AirPods Pro are certainly a worthwhile investment. And they come with a wireless charging case by default. We feel the extra dosh is worth it for the increased audio quality alone, let alone the ANC and sweat- and water-resistance the Pro model offers over the regular AirPods.

Apple AirPod Max

Black AirPods Max beside its case

(Image credit: Future)

Meanwhile, another much more substantial jump in the product line lands you with the AirPods Max, priced at a whopping $899, but often discounted by a little on Amazon. For the most part, these are just AirPods by name, as they offer an entirely different form factor (over-ear, wireless headphones) and a whole host of improvements.

Undoubtedly offering the best audio experience of the AirPods lineup, the Max promises a number of neat features to make your music shine, including an adaptive EQ which measures your ear’s seal with the cans and adjusts the sound accordingly. The larger drivers are also able to handle the full frequency spectrum in a more accurate way than their inherently limited in-ear counterparts. The ANC is much improved over the already-great AirPods Pro, with nine external microphones leading the charge. You’ll also score a similar battery life – 20 hours in total – compared with the other AirPods, but this with no need for a charging case to boost it every five or so hours.

As for design, Apple has taken great lengths to make a unique looking product. The aluminium earcups and headband both exhibit minimalism and restraint in their styling, with the latter sporting a broad mesh surface to comfortably sit on your head. The structural components are made from stainless steel, offering solid integrity, although there’s no official weather-resistance IP rating. Unlike the AirPods and AirPods Pro which are only available in white, the AirPods Max comes in a variety of colours – silver, grey, light blue, pink, and green. 

If you’re an audiophile, love Apple gadgets, or want to make one sound investment in a pair of headphones that you’ll look after for years, then the AirPods Max makes a lot of sense. For casual everyday listeners or those looking for an easy way to take hands-free phone calls, the cheaper options in the lineup would certainly suffice.