AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: what's the difference? Should you upgrade?

Apple AirPods 3 in their case on a wooden table
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Considering the second-generation AirPods arrived in 2019, owners may well be wondering whether to upgrade to the latest model, the AirPods 3. If that sounds like you, or you can't decide whether to upgrade your first-gen AirPods to the second-gen or third-gen pair, this article has been written for you.

After many, many months of rumours and patient (and then not-so-patient) waiting, Apple finally unveiled the third generation of its AirPods in October 2021, introducing a raft of improvements over the 2019-released predecessor. Fast forward to today and they are still the current generation of AirPods, though an AirPods 4 is expected sometime this year.

Still, if you want to upgrade right now, you have a decision to make; are the current AirPods 3 or older, discounted AirPods 2 the better buy? There is also the AirPods Pro 2, of course, but if you don't care much for noise cancellation or have a more modest budget, the standard AirPods will be your pick of the two.

So, how do the latest AirPods stack up against the AirPods 2? Below we compare old and new in terms of price, battery life, features and all-important sound quality, to help you decide which pair is best for you...

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: price

AirPods 3 out of their case on a blue pillow

Apple AirPods 3 (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The current AirPods 3 sit between the AirPods 2 and noise-cancelling AirPods Pro 2 in Apple's current wireless earbuds line-up and, as such, are priced accordingly. 

The AirPods 3 launched at £179 / $169 / AU$289, but now that they have experienced some shelf life can often be picked up with a small 10-15 per cent discount. That's considerably less than the AirPods Pro 2 at around £239 / $239 / AU$389 but more than the current RRP of the AirPods 2 – £129 / $149 / AU$219. Indeed, Apple has kept the older-gen pair in its lineup.

Demand has remained strong and prices have held up reasonably well until now, so a price drop for the older AirPods is welcome. Like the newer pair, the AirPods 2 can often be picked up at 10 per cent less than their RRP. You can check our listing of today's best AirPods deals to see the cheapest prices.

As you'd expect, plenty of improvements and new features justify the AirPods 3's higher price – even if that price is a fair bit higher than is typical for non-noise-cancelling earbuds these days. If you're on a tighter budget, Apple loyals, the AirPods 2 are great value now in their dying days, though we'd argue the AirPods 3 are worth the £50 / $20 / AU$70 premium...

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: battery life

Wireless headphones live or die by their battery life – literally. A pair might have the best sound quality and feature set in the world, but they won’t be much good if they give up the ghost after five minutes.

The AirPods 2 have a very healthy battery life indeed. You get five hours of run time from the buds themselves, plus an extra 19 from the carry case. That makes a total of 24 hours of music. You’ll have to stop and charge up, admittedly. But still, that’s a day and a night of listening pleasure before you need to find a plug socket.

The AirPods 3 manage to improve on this, offering an excellent 30 hours of battery – six from the buds plus four full charges in the case. Just note that you'll get slightly less if you consistently crank up the volume and/or deploy spatial audio.

Both Apple pairs put in an admirable performance. We think 24 or 30 hours will be satisfactory enough for most people. That said, some of the best wireless earbuds competition offer more earbud battery life – the budget Sony WF-C500 offer 10 hours, for example – which we'd argue is more helpful than a bigger charging case battery.

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 earpieces with a grey background

Apple AirPods 3 (Image credit: Apple)

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: design

The AirPods 2 are a sleek, compact affair, but their design has proved divisive. Not only does their one-size-fits-all approach not actually comfortably fit everyone (unlike most earbuds, they don't come with different-sized ear tips), but their stems have caused bemusement and ridicule in equal measure since they debuted on the original AirPods back in 2016. Once someone has compared them to electric toothbrush heads, it's difficult to shake that image.

But their design has endured, winning them legions of fans across the globe.

For the AirPods 3, Apple has switched the design up a bit – well, only as far as the original AirPods Pro. They now have the Pro-like stems that are shorter than the AirPods 2's, making them less conspicuous when worn. This Pro copycat includes the stems' control functions, too: while the AirPods 2 required a double-tap on the earbuds’ body to play music, skip forward tracks or answer a phone call, the AirPods 3’s controls are more versatile – squeeze the stem once to play, pause or answer a phone call, twice to skip forwards, and thrice to skip backwards.

The charging case has also had an update – it's now a bit curvier (like the Pro's case but smaller). And like the earbuds themselves, it is handily water-resistant to the IPX4 rating too.

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: features

AirPods 3 in their case beside an iPhone and iPad

Apple AirPods 3 (Image credit: Apple)

Of course, there’s a lot more to AirPods than a nice design and an Apple badge. The reason they have become the earbuds of choice for many the world over is because of their effortless usability. The connection with Apple devices is seamless, with "Hey Siri" voice commands letting you control hands-free.

The AirPods connect instantly to your last audio device and the bud-to-bud connection is exceptionally strong. They also support Apple's Audio Sharing feature, which lets you and another AirPods-owning pal listen to the same audio from one iPhone, iPad or Apple TV.

The AirPods 3 do all this and more, with the big news being that they join the AirPods Max and AirPods Pro 2 in supporting full spatial audio with dynamic head-tracking. That means users can take advantage of Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks from the Apple Music catalogue, but also, more uniquely, get a theatre-like experience with movies and TV shows from, say, Apple TV+ and Netflix. The idea is that the sound always stays relative to the screen, so if you move your head, the audio will adjust accordingly for a more realistic experience – turn your back on the screen, and it'll sound like it's coming from behind you, for example. It works, too – and most impressively with movies. As we noted in our AirPods 3 review, the technology is true to its word, keeping voices and action tied to the screen regardless of movement. The ambush scene in the first episode of Apple TV+'s See is much more involving when the sound is ‘spatialised’ – the soundstage opens up so that falling boulders sound more dramatic, and even the extra envelopment of heavy rainfall makes for a more compelling audiovisual experience. 

The AirPods 3 also get Adaptive EQ, which was introduced with the Pro model and means the earbuds will tune the sound they produce in real-time according to how they fit in the ear. Since the AirPods 2, Apple has also worked to improve voice call quality, firstly by bringing in support for a codec called AAC-ELD, specifically designed to enhance speech, and secondly by covering the beamforming microphones on the earbuds with an acoustic mesh in an effort to reduce wind noise.

Both the AirPods 2 and AirPods 3 use the same H1 chip – there's been no evolution there, with the superior H2 exclusive to the AirPods Pro 2 for now – but you should know that the new AirPods do require Apple devices running the now available iOS 15.1, iPadOS 15.1, watchOS 8.1, tvOS 15.1, or macOS Monterey.

Note that while the AirPods Pro 2's charging case now sport a USB-C connection, both the AirPods 2 and 3's cases use Lightning. Fourth-gen AirPods will almost certainly ditch Lightning for USB-C.

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: sound quality

The Apple AirPods 2 were a marked improvement over the first-generation model, capable of going louder and sounding more composed. They're pleasingly tonally neutral and low-level dynamic shifts are handled admirably, even if we prefer a number of AirPods alternatives for their better performance.

Apple hasn't stood still in the sound department: the AirPods 3 deliver a sonic step up from the AirPods 2. A brand-new "low distortion" driver has been tuned similarly to recreate that familiar easygoing, natural balance, but the generational leap is defined by added fullness, more defined bass and extra clarity and cleanliness. Everything's just that bit more precise and organised. 

To quote our AirPods 3 review, "it’s evolution over revolution, but that is OK. We’re fans of their neutrality and clarity, and the AirPods sound better than the cheaper crop of ANC-less competition".

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: verdict

There's no doubt the AirPods 3 up the ante with smarter technology, better battery life, a sensible Pro-like aesthetic, and some great new features headlined by spatial audio. They also raise the bar in terms of sound quality and, now that they aren't averse to price drops and discounts, no longer cost that much more than the AirPods 2 – the gap at the time of writing is £40 / $20 / AU$40.

As the AirPods 4 will likely launch in 2024, the AirPods 2 are presumably near the end of their shelf life. That said, the AirPods 3 could be too if rumours of two new standard AirPods arriving this year are to be believed.

All in all, the jump from second- to third-gen represents a reasonable evolution for the AirPods line, and we think the AirPods 3 make a very strong case for being the ones to upgrade to – especially if you use your iPhone or iPad to watch movies and TV shows and will take advantage of spatial audio.


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.