AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro: which Apple wireless earbuds are right for you?

We compare AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro to help you tell the difference between Apple's best true wireless earbuds

Apple AirPods Pro vs Apple Airpods 3rd Gen, image shows both sets of headphones
(Image credit: Future)

If you're an Apple user looking for some new earbuds, the question of AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro might be biggest one to solve before you invest in a pair of the best wireless earbuds. Mirroring other ranges, there are now three different sets of AirPods available on Apple’s Store. The AirPods 2nd Gen released back in 2019 are sitting as the cheaper option, the newly-redesigned AirPods 3rd Gen are a step up in battery life and functionality, and the AirPods Pro are the most premium of the group with active noise-cancelling and silicone ear tips for a better fit. 

In this feature, we’ll compare all the key stats of the AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro and break down whether you really need to spend the extra cash for ANC. Both sets feature in our list of the best true wireless earbuds for good reason so both buds are a boon for iPhone owners. We also have our separate AirPods 3rd Gen review and AirPods Pro review, if you want to read more about each model individually.

As always, the best tech is the gear that suits your lifestyle and needs so we’ll compare some of the key differences between the AirPods 3rd Gen and AirPods Pro to see, quite literally, what fits.  

AirPods Pro on wooden surface

(Image credit: Future)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro: Price

There is a clear separation in Apple's official pricing between these two earbuds, but other retailers have already slightly reduced both the AirPods 3rd Gen and more dramatically reduced the AirPods Pro. 

So while the official Apple price for the AirPods 3rd Gen is £169/$179/AU$279 and the AirPods Pro is £249/$249/AU$399, you will already find plenty of places where that has been dropped significantly. Check the constantly updated prices below for some of the best current AirPod deals. You should be able to find the Pros available for just shy of £200/$200.

Comparing these prices to the rest of the market, the AirPods Pro are very competitive with more of the best noise-cancelling earbuds, such as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds or Sony WF-1000XM4.

The AirPods 3rd Gen, however, are a little on the expensive side in a very competitive area. Given the price of $149/£129/AU$199 for a pair of Beats Studio Buds with ANC and a suite of great iPhone features, the 3rd Gen do seem steep without ANC – though we should note that the AirPods offer better sound quality than those Beats.

Apple AirPods (3rd Gen) on white background

(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro: Design and battery life

The AirPods Pro was the first set of Apple’s buds to slice those long golf-club-style stems and opt for shorter in-ear sticks. The result is another slickly minimalist offering with satisfyingly smaller buds than a lot of the noise-cancelling competition. 

The biggest upgrade, though, is a set of silicone tips to make sure you get the best possible fit – you can even do an ear fit ‘test’ using the in-ear mics to make sure there’s no sound leakage. You’ll see a tick on screen when you fit them just right and the seal is impressive at shutting out the world.

The 3rd Gen has largely followed the Pro in terms of design with smaller sticks that you squeeze to control playback. As we said in our Apple AirPods 3rd Gen review, this is one of our favourite ways to control music, as it can’t be done accidentally like many other headphones on the market. But as we also note in our review, the 3rd Gen aren't exactly the same as the Pro – “the sticks on the new AirPods sit closer to the skin than they do on AirPods Pro, so you don't have quite as much margin for pinching” – but the overall experience is exceptionally similar. 

However it’s important to note that the lack of silicone ear tips does mean that if your ear canals don’t suit the AirPod design there’s no way of making them fit better. Some people prefer the lack of in-ear tips, and are happier without such strong noise isolation – that's a personal preference thing. But let's be clear that you can hear music better in noisy situations with the Pros.

As a bonus both the 3rd Gen and AirPods Pro are both sweat and water resistant so you can take them to the gym without worrying about frying your buds the minute you get on the treadmill. Both also have a MagSafe charging case so you can stick to a wireless lifestyle, and also support Qi charging as well as using a Lightning cable.

Battery wise, the AirPods 3rd Gen are the longest lasting of the two. While the AirPods Pro have 4.5 hours of charge in each bud (with ANC on) and 24 hours in the case, the 3rd Gen have 6 hours in each bud and a total of 30 hours in the case. This is a big difference, especially in such small cases, and just shows the improvement of the tech in a matter of years.  

AirPods Pro out of their case on a wooden surface

(Image credit: Future)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro: Features and sound quality 

Features wise, both sets of AirPods are a dream for iPhone users. The AirPods 3rd Gen and AirPods Pro share a suite of Apple specific tech that makes them well worth the investment over other earbuds. Both make the most of the Find My network so you can see where you last had them if you're not sure, you can share audio wirelessly with other AirPods or Beats users, and both offer automatic switching between Apple devices. Listening to music on your Mac or iPad before taking a call on your iPhone without any hassle feels truly like the future of connectivity. Both earbuds also have similarly performing mics so you don’t need to worry about call quality despite the microphones seeming so far from your mouth 

Both AirPods also have Apple’s new Spatial Audio functionality which delivers positional audio for both movies and music. This even includes a setting where you can turn your head in a movie the surround sound will stay in the same “place” relative to the screen, as if you're sitting between speakers rather than wearing headphones. The effect is remarkable. 

In terms of sound quality, the AirPods Pro especially sing. As we said in our five-star Apple AirPods Pro review “The AirPods Pro do a really impressive job of letting every part of a track break through. High-end, mids and bass don't blur into each other, and every instrument feels like it is presented clearly. That's especially true when you have noise cancelling on, as it makes everything feel brighter, since it's not competing with background sound.”  The ANC too is excellent and features a transparency mode which is less discerning than some of the competition but works admirably when you’re ordering a coffee or just want to be a little more aware of your surroundings. 

And the AirPods 3rd Gen aren’t far behind. There has been a significant aural upgrade from the 2nd Generation which is welcome. As we said in our review; “The improvement seems to come from a more dynamic driver, because what you'll notice immediately is how much clearer and brighter everything from the mid-range up is. Vocals feel unchained compared to the older model, and everything feels more natural and livelier.” It is worth remembering though that the lack of ANC means that you will have to crank up the volume in noisier areas and there will be cases where you’ll hear more of the world than your favourite podcast.  

Apple AirPods Pro worn by woman on the subway

(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods 3rd Gen vs AirPods Pro: Verdict

The AirPods 3rd Gen have arrived with a slightly awkward proposition. The improved audio quality and excellent features means there are plenty of reasons to recommend them, but the ANC and silicone ear tips of the AirPods Pro loom large, for only a little more money at most retailers. 

If you want to hit mute on the world while you travel then the Pro option are the only way to go, but if you are happy hearing a little bit of the world and you’ve found a good price, the AirPods 3rd Gen will make your ears very happy.

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.