AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods 2nd Gen: are the new earbuds worth the upgrade?

In the battle of AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2, is it worth spending more on the newer model? We explain all the differences

Apple AirPods 3rd Gen and Apple AirPods 2nd Gen on coloured background
(Image credit: Future)

If you're looking at buying a new pair of AirPods today, your first question might be about AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods 2nd Gen – with both the older model and newer version on sale, at different prices, it's important to understand the differences.

Thankfully for our bank balances, unlike the iPhone, the AirPods don’t undergo a yearly refresh but we are now firmly into numbered territory with the AirPods 3. So if you’re looking for the best wireless earbuds it’s all the more important to take some time to measure up AirPods 3 against AirPods 2 to make sure you’re getting the right ones for you.

The now iconic ear-worn golf clubs were first released back in 2016, with the AirPods 2nd Gen released in March 2019. AirPods have taken the world by storm with their iconic lines and few famous heads are complete without a telltale glimpse of white in the ear area. The 2021 AirPods 3rd Gen buds are the first big redesign outside of the AirPods Pro (which is arguably its own separate thing) with shorter stems and a suite of other welcome upgrades. Here we’ll break down the differences you need to know, so you can decide which are right for you – and we have our full AirPods 3rd Gen review, of course.

If you're wondering about AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro, then click on that guide to see the differences between two of the best true wireless earbuds available today.

Apple AirPods 3 worn by woman running in the rain

(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods 2nd Gen: Price

As is so often the case with Apple products, the introduction of new AirPods doesn’t mean that the old ones immediately disappear. Both the AirPods 3rd Gen and AirPods 2nd Gen are now available on Apple’s Store in the dedicated AirPods section. The 3rd Gen official retail price is sitting at £169/$179/AU$279, while the 2nd Gens are now £119/$129/AU$219. Other retailers have already been discounting both beyond that price, so you should expect to pay less unless you're buying from Apple directly. 

These aren’t the cheapest prices amidst a very busy true wireless earbud market but it’s important to balance up features, especially if you have an iPhone. While neither the AirPods 3rd Gen or AirPods 2nd Gen have active noise-cancelling, leaving that to the more expensive AirPod Pros, the ability to switch effortlessly between Apple devices and the brilliant Find My function are especially attractive. If those don’t matter to you, though, and you just want a great-sounding set of buds for a low price, you can invest £89/$89 in a set of Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus

There’s also the fact that if you want to go for active noise cancelling and stick with Apple, for not much more you can get the excellent Apple AirPods Pro which officially retail at £239/$249 but can regularly be found under £200/$200 at the moment.

Apple AirPods family on white table

AirPods Pro (left); AirPods 3rd Gen (middle); AirPods 2nd Gen (right).

(Image credit: Future)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods 2nd Gen: Design and battery life

The AirPods 3rd Gen have had a serious overhaul in the design department. The long stems of the 2nd generation are gone, leaving much shorter sticks that feel great to squeeze for control but don’t get in the way nearly as much when you are taking on or off a facemask. The bud itself is slightly bigger but there’s no difference in fit between the AirPods 3rd Gen and 2nd. 

Yes, for better or worse, if you don’t like the smooth plastic fit of one, you also won’t like the other – or you will like it, of course. Silicone ear tips are only available for the Apple AirPods Pro so if your ears don’t like the fit of these, you’ll want to upgrade anyway. 

For those who do enjoy the fit though, once you’ve got them snug, both sets of AirPods will happily stay for light running and at the gym. Only the 3rd Gen models are sweat and water resistant though, so if you’re a regular gym rat, you will want the upgraded versions. Design wise, as we said in our Apple AirPods 3rd Gen review, “the design is as premium as you'd expect to get from Apple. The buds have a pristine, almost seamless finish. The case does too, and Apple has the best balance of hinge quality and magnet strength on the lid out of everyone – it's so satisfying to flick open and closed if you like to fidget.”

Apple understands that battery life is one of the biggest considerations when we’re investing in true wireless buds and has bumped up the hours of charge significantly between the generations. 

There’s only one more hour of charge in each bud – the 2nd Gen holds 5 hours and the 3rd holds six – but the extra juice available in the 3rd Gen's case equals 30 hours of play, while the 2nd only provides 24 hours. Depending on your commute, this might be a few extra train journeys per charge which is always helpful. The AirPods 3rd Gen also come with a MagSafe- and Qi wireless charging-compatible case while the 2nd can only be charged via Lightning.

AirPods 2nd Generation on grey background

(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods 2nd Gen: Features and sound quality 

The good news is that there’s a suite of excellent features shared across both generations of AirPods. Both are part of Apple’s Find My network so you can always see where you’ve left them on a map, you can share audio across multiple sets of AirPods to watch movies or listen to music together, and the AirPods effortlessly switch between Apple devices so you don’t need to faff around with endless menu screens and pairing modes. 

But of course the AirPods 3rd Gen do come with some bonuses. Apple’s new Spatial Audio feature is a particular highlight. This means you feel like you’re actually in a room with the audio coming from speakers or instruments all around you. There’s an option for head tracking so you can turn and the sounds don't follow your ears, but rather sound like they're staying put, which is especially great for movie soundtracks – it's like being in a cinema speaker system.

That applies to instruments too in music, but even with that turned off, the Spatial Audio soundscape is an impressive beast. We found ourselves listening to our favourite songs just to hear them in rich Dolby Atmos – Apple Music has a growing collection of them, and the big movie streaming services support the feature too.

The overhaul of sound quality is one of the biggest, most welcome additions to the new model. Where the AirPods Gen 2 have a perfectly serviceable audio quality, it never truly shines – but the Gen 3 are significantly more inline with the quality of the AirPods Pro. 

There’s a dynamic sound to this audio that makes the listening experience exceptional. As we said in our Apple AirPods 3rd Gen review “it makes the earlier model immediately feel like the bass is actually weighing down the soundscape, and like the treble is only just keeping its head above the surface. In comparison, the new model feels like the high-end has burst out of the water, unfurled wings and taken flight.” The bass here is excellent without being too overwhelming and the sound really feels worth the investment.   

One extra point to note is that without an in-ear fit or active noise-cancelling, both the AirPods 3rd Gen and AirPods 2nd Gen do let in external noise. In some ways this is ideal for safety as you can still hear the traffic and people around you in busy city situations, but also means that loud transport noise can overwhelm the details. If you want the world to disappear entirely, you might want to look to the AirPods Pro, or more of the best noise-cancelling earbuds.

Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) on white background

(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods 2nd Gen: Verdict

The AirPods 2nd Gen still have a lot of reasons to invest in them if you're an iPhone owner on a budget… but if you’ve got the extra cash, the AirPods 3rd Gen are absolutely worth the step up. 

The sound quality alone should convince you but the addition of sweat and water resistance and that extra battery life sweeten the deal even more. If you need silicone ear tips you’ll have to go up to the Apple AirPods Pro or elsewhere but the AirPods 3rd Gen are an ultra solid set of true wireless buds with a premium feel. 

Louise Blain

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in technology, gaming, and entertainment.  She has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland and is the presenter of BBC Radio 3's monthly Sound of Gaming show. She can also regularly be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, and The Evolution of Horror podcast as well as writing for GamesRadar and NME. Louise loves finding ways that tech can make our lives better every day and no, she doesn't have enough smart lighting yet.