AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro (1st Gen): which Apple headphones are better?

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro (1st Gen)
(Image credit: Apple)

Following months of speculation, Apple revealed its latest generation of wireless earbuds, the AirPods 3, at the end of 2021. 

They're very decent options for Apple fans and iOS users, but if your budget for a new pair of AirPods is around £200/$200/AU$300, you might well be torn between buying the AirPods 3 and the last generation of noise-cancelling AirPods Pro, which launched back in 2019 and have since been surpassed by the pricier AirPods Pro 2.

(We should say that if you're looking for a comparison between both the latest AirPods and Pro models, you should check out our AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro 2 article instead.)

The AirPods 3  sit below the AirPods Pro (and now AirPods Pro 2) in Apple's wireless earbuds line-up, but they aren't short of interesting features. So, which AirPods are best for you? Find out as we pit the two against one another no-holds-barred head-to-head...

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: price

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: which are better?

(Image credit: Future)

The AirPods 3 cost £169 / $179 / AU$279, though you can sometimes find them slightly cheaper by, say, a tenner. You're much more likely to find the AirPods Pro below their original launch price of £249 / $249 / AU$399 due to their older age (they launched back in 2019). Nowadays they tend to be much closer in price to the AirPods 3, even if they are nearly always still the pricier of the two models.

Unsurprisingly, they are both comfortably more affordable than the new AirPods Pro 2, which tend to attract a premium of around £40 / $40 / AU$60 more.

You'll find the current best prices for the AirPods 3 and AirPod Pro below...

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: battery life

There's no point cutting the cord if the battery of your wireless headphones don't last a decent length of time.

The AirPods Pro claim 4.5 hours of playback plus another 19 hours from the charging case. You can squeeze even more life out of the battery if you're prepared to disable noise-cancelling.

The AirPods 3 take advantage of new battery technology to improve on this. They offer 30 hours of playback (six from the buds; 24 from the case) but, of course, no noise-cancelling.

**Winner: AirPods 3**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: design

AirPods 3

(Image credit: Apple)

Before the AirPods 3 launched, there were rumours that they would be called the 'AirPods Pro Lite' – and you can see why. They take design cues from the AirPods Pro, with smaller stems, force sensors, and earpieces angled to fire directly into your earholes.

The AirPods Pro are exceptionally comfortable and come with three pairs of elliptical tips in the box. We prefer the option of interchangeable silicon tips for their secure fit and seal. If you go for the AirPods 3, you'll have to hope they're a snug fit right from the off. 

The AirPods 3 get the same IPX4 rating as the AirPods Pro, meaning they are sweat- and water-resistant. As for weight, the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro are slightly heavier (5.4g per bud vs 4g per bud). 

The AirPods 3 charging case looks similar to the one you get with the original AirPods, rather than the more rectangular case provided with the AirPods Pro. Upgrades include a coloured LED on the front telling you how much charge is left. MagSafe wireless charging is now supported, too.

**Winner: draw**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: features

The AirPods Pro have extremely effective active noise cancellation that is continuously adjusted 200 times per second. Noises such as the rumble of a train are more or less completely erased, while office chatter is reduced to a whisper. The AirPods 3 don't have active noise-cancelling, so you'll have to rely solely on the physical noise isolation provided by the buds themselves. 

Plenty of AirPods Pro features have been carried over to the AirPods 3, though, including full support for Apple spatial audio with Dolby Atmos and dynamic head-tracking, which should offer discerning listeners the same immersive experience. Do the AirPods 3 sound as "rich and full" as the AirPods Pro? We'll answer that in the next section...

The AirPods 3 also get Adaptive EQ, which was introduced with the AirPods Pro and means the headphones will tune the sound they produce in real-time based on how they fit in the ear. Other features include Audio Sharing (which allows an Apple device's audio to be played simultaneously through two sets of AirPods) and Auto-pause, meaning the buds can detect whether or not they are in your ears. 

If you're wondering if the newer AirPods (3rd generation) boast a faster processor, they don't. They use the exact same Apple H1 chip as the AirPods Pro. One neat feature the new AirPods lack is Conversation Boost, which uses the beam-forming microphones on the ‌AirPods Pro‌ to boost the volume of a person talking in front of you.

All in all, the AirPods 3 offer similar tech to the AirPods Pro. Your decision will likely come down to whether or not you want noise-cancelling buds.  

**Winner: draw**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: sound quality

The AirPods 3 certainly sound similar to their predecessor where sonic character is concerned, but the newer buds step things up with a new "low distortion" driver, tuned to produce an easygoing balance that doesn’t unduly favour any part of the frequency spectrum. Sound is slightly fuller in general, with a gutsier bottom-end that gives basslines a sharper kick.

Despite the improvements, the pricier AirPods Pro are still the better sounding AirPods of the two. They offer more space and dynamic expression making for a more compelling delivery. 

Want an even better sound? Consider the similarly priced Sony WF-1000XM4 or the pricier Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II or AirPods Pro 2 – which all set the sonic benchmark at their respective prices. The Sonys and Boses are current What Hi-Fi? Award winners, at that.

**Winner: AirPods Pro**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: verdict

The AirPods 3 are a great option for Apple fans who aren't bothered about active noise cancellation. With better battery life than the AirPods Pro and a cheaper price, the AirPods 3 will surely become Apple's best-selling true wireless earbuds before long.  

Those who prioritise active noise-cancellation technology, sound quality or both, or who simply aren't concerned about the price difference, will be instantly drawn to the AirPods Pro. They deliver effective ANC and a seamless user experience that makes them just as smart as the AirPods 3. Got a bigger budget still? The better-still AirPods Pro 2 are the Apple wireless earbuds we would most strongly recommend.

Before you splash the cash, it's worth checking out the current cheapest AirPods prices and deals to see if they impact your buying decision.


AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: which are better?

Weigh up the options: best true wireless earbuds

Our pick of the best wireless Bluetooth headphones you can buy

Save big with this week's best AirPods deals 

What Hi-Fi?

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London, Reading and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.

Read more about how we test