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

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2
(Image credit: Apple)

After many, many months of us patiently (and then not so patiently) waiting, Apple finally unveiled the AirPods 3 wireless earbuds earlier this month. So, how do they stack up against the AirPods 2? The latest true wireless earbuds, now in their third generation, bring a raft of improvements over their 2019-released predecessors, including a natty new design and improved specs, rounded off by advanced sound quality.

The question is, are they worth upgrading to? And should those in the market for a pair of AirPods buy them or the now-cheaper AirPods 2? Below we compare old and new in terms of price, battery life, features and all-important sound quality...

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: price

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Apple)

Available to order now with shipping beginning on Tuesday 26th October, the new AirPods 3 sit below the AirPods Pro in Apple's wireless earbuds armoury. As such, they're priced accordingly. The new models cost £169 ($179, AU$279), which is less than the AirPods Pro at £239 ($249, AU$399) and slightly more than the launch price of their predecessors, which are, by the way, still current in Apple's AirPods line-up.

In the wake of the AirPods 3, the AirPods 2 have now officially dropped to £119 ($129, AU$219), which is more or less around the price they've been lingering at in recent times. 

Demand has remained strong and prices have held up reasonably well until now, so a price drop for the older 'Pods is welcome. You can check our listing of today's best AirPods deals to see the cheapest prices. And it's those we imagine will be on the better end of a Black Friday deal when that event rolls around, too.

Obviously, there are plenty of improvements and new features justifying the AirPods 3's higher price – even if that price is a fair bit higher than the increasingly typical figure of other wireless earbuds without noise-cancelling these days. If you're on a tighter budget, Apple loyals, the AirPods 2 are the better bet.

**Winner: AirPods 2**

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.

Neither the new nor old AirPods are definitively class-leading in this regard, as neither can match the class-leading Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+, which deliver a staggering 45 hours of playing time from the buds and carry case combined. But both Apples put in an admirable performance regardless. And we think 24 or 30 hours will be satisfactory enough for most people.

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3

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 latest model, Apple has switched the design up a bit – well, only as far as the 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

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 in supporting full spatial audio with dynamic head-tracking. That means users can take advantage of 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 note 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 and means the earbuds will tune the sound they produce in real-time according to how they fit in the ear. And 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, it's present across the AirPods line-up – 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.

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 2 vs AirPods 3: sound quality

The Apple AirPods 2 proved a marked improvement over the first-generation model. There's no artificial bass boost, but they go louder and sound more composed. Sound is 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 also deliver a sonic step up from the AirPods 2. A brand-new "low distortion" driver has been tuned similarly to recreate that familiar easygoing, natral 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".

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: early 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. 

All in all, it's a reasonable evolution for the AirPods, and we think they make a good case for upgrading your AirPods 2 – especially if you use your iPhone or iPad to watch movies and TV shows and will take advantage of spatial audio. Good things don't come cheap, of course, and there's a not-insignificant price gap of £50 ($50, AU$60) between the old and new models. Ultimately though, we think it's worth it.


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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 eight 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.