Should you buy Apple AirPods? Are AirPods worth it?

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple AirPods are some of the most popular wireless earbuds on the market – and since December 2020, when the AirPods Max arrived, the most popular over-ears too. Whether you're listening to music, making voice calls or chairing a Zoom meeting, you can rely on the AirPods to do a good job. As such, it's nigh-on impossible to ride a bus or hit the gym without seeing a pair of Apple's colourful oversized ear cups being pulled out of a bag, or Tim Cook's familiar white buds poking out of someone's ears. 

In addition to the classic AirPods (2019), Apple has introduced a duo of pricier, noise-cancelling buds called the AirPods Pro, replaced them with the 2022-released AirPods Pro 2, and added the over-ear AirPods Max to the line-up. There's also the AirPods 3 – a sort of middle ground between the Pro variant and the regular AirPods. So which are the best wireless headphones for you? And how can you grab a stonking deal on a pair of Apple AirPods? 

Being a premium product, the Cupertino giant's AirPods don't come cheap – in any of their guises. But with so many stores competing for your cash, you can score some decent deals and discounts if you shop around. Not keen on spending your evenings trawling every online retailer under the sun for the best prices? You'll find find a complete overview of the Apple AirPods range, along with the very best deals, below...

Quick overview of the Apple AirPods family

Apple's AirPods family

(Image credit: Apple)

There are a few good reasons why Apple AirPods are so popular: they're lightweight, easy to use, reliable, offer decent sound-per-pound and bring Siri to life in your ears. Plus, although they work best when used with an Apple product, they can be paired with any Bluetooth device, from smart TVs to smartphones

The original Apple AirPods hit the shelves back in 2016 at £159 ($159, AU$249). They were big on features but somewhat lacking in the sound department. You might find the odd pair for sale via third-party retailers, but Apple has long since replaced them with the far more appealing 2nd-generation AirPods (2019) – and, most recently, the more fully-featured AirPods 3.

The arrival of the second-gen AirPods (2019) saw Apple up the ante with improved sound, better battery life and the introduction of a nifty wireless charging case. The AirPods 3’s price of £169 ($179, AU$279) is slightly higher than the launch price of their predecessors, which remain current in the line-up with an official price drop to £119 ($129, AU$219) – the price they’ve actually been available at for some time. That makes the newest AirPods middle-sitters in Apple’s true wireless earbuds range, below the AirPods Pro and AirPods Pro 2.

Now, the AirPods Max. These are Apple's biggest and most expensive headphone offering and launched in December 2020 – but oh, are they worth it, if you can afford them.

In October 2019, Apple unveiled its beefiest and most expensive buds, the noise-cancelling Apple AirPods Pro. Unlike the AirPods (2019) and AirPods 3, the AirPods Pro come with a choice of silicone ear tips to help you achieve a tight seal. The AirPods Pro 2 landed in September 2022, bringing improved sound, better noise-cancelling tech and longer battery life – and finally gained the full five stars at What Hi-Fi?

Now is a great time to look out for deals – possibly on slightly older buds from the still-current AirPods range. Prefer Apple's plush, premium AirPods Max? All good; we'll scour the internet for deals on those too – should we find any, they'll be listed both on this page and on our dedicated AirPods deals page. 

AirPods Pro (2nd generation)

Apple AirPods Pro 2

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)
  • H2 headphone chip
  • Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), Adaptive Transparency mode
  • Battery life: 6 hours (earbuds); 24 hours (charging case)
  • Bluetooth: 5.3, AAC
  • Dual beamforming microphones with inward-facing mic
  • Spatial Audio (personalised with dynamic headtracking), Adaptive EQ
  • "Hey Siri", touch controls, IPX4, auto-pause, Conversation Boost
  • Dimensions: 30.9 x 21.8 x 24mm (earbuds); 45.2 x 60.6 x 21.7mm (charging case)
  • Weight: 5.4g (earbuds); 45.6g (charging case) 

Apple's flagship AirPods Pro 2 earbuds earned the brand its first five-star review for the in-ear models. Thanks to the powerful new H2 chip, the noise-cancelling is improved two-fold, sound quality is now on par with the class leaders, and there are plenty of additional user-friendly features. 

Battery life has increased to six hours in the earbuds, with 24 extra hours with the charging case, which now has a built-in speaker to emit tones. A fourth XS ear tip is included for an even better fit, and a new "Adaptive" Transparency Mode damps down loud and sudden harsh noises to great effect. 

But it's the excellent sound quality that's king here. Weighty, detailed, open and with plenty of dynamic subtlety – these really are accomplished performers. For iOS users, they're the only wireless earbuds you'll ever need.

AirPods Pro (1st generation)

Apple AirPods Pro 1st gen

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)
  • H1 headphone chip
  • Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), Transparency mode
  • Battery life: 5 hours (earbuds); 24 hours (charging case)
  • Bluetooth: 5.0, AAC
  • Dual beamforming microphones with inward-facing mic
  • Spatial Audio (personalised with dynamic headtracking), Adaptive EQ
  • "Hey Siri", force sensor controls, IPX4, auto-pause, Conversation Boost
  • MagSafe Charging Case with speaker and Apple U1 chip
  • Dimensions: 30.9 x 21.8 x 24mm (earbuds); 45.2 x 60.6 x 21.7mm (charging case)
  • Weight: 5.3g (earbuds); 50.8g (charging case) 

In October 2019, Apple unveiled its first-ever noise-cancelling earbuds, the Apple AirPods Pro. Not only were they the most expensive earbuds from Apple, they also featured a raft of updates.

First up, the biggest new features are Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) and the Transparency mode that actively allows sound in from the outside world – they both work a treat. A 'vent system for pressure equalization' is also introduced for ANC, although this is considerably improved for the 2nd generation model.

Secondly, the stems got shorter and the charging case got more compact. Unlike the AirPods before it, the Pro model's design has the facility for adding eartips, which help achieve a much better, tighter and more secure seal. Three tips (S, M, L) are included. The Pro models introduced 'force sensors' where you can pinch the stems in various degrees to control playback and calls, while a 'press and hold' manoeuvre lets you switch between the noise modes.

Battery life is a meagre 4.5 hours on a single charge (with ANC and Transparency mode turned on) or five hours (ANC/Transparency turned off), while you get 24 hours with the charging case. A 5-min charge results in one hour of playback.

The charging case is also compatible with Qi-certified chargers or you can simply connect it to a power source using the provided Lightning cable. 

Spatial audio, auto-pause and various features also join the list. The AirPods Pro couldn't quite compete with the likes of Bose, Sony and Sennheiser when it came to outright sound quality and ANC, but it was pointing in the right direction. The quality is of a high standard, with the AirPods Pro only missing out by degrees. 

The launch of the newer Pro 2 flagship means the 1st-gen model has been discontinued by Apple and deals are actually getting harder to find.

AirPods 3

  • H1 headphone chip
  • Battery life: 6 hours (earbuds); 24 hours (Lightning charging case)
  • Bluetooth: 5.0, AAC
  • Dual beamforming microphones with inward-facing mic
  • Spatial Audio (personalised with dynamic headtracking), Adaptive EQ
  • "Hey Siri", force sensor controls, IPX4, auto-pause
  • Dimensions: 30.79 x 18.26 x 19.21mm (earbuds); 46.4 x 54.4 x 21.38mm (charging case)
  • Weight: 4.28g (earbuds); 37.91g (charging case) 

The newest standard AirPods (now in its 3rd generation, released in October 2021) advance closer to the Pro model, with a redesign that sees shorter stems and a more compact charging case, new force sensors on the stems for more controls, and spatial audio support.

The AirPods 3 take advantage of new battery technology to improve on the AirPods (2019) and first-gen AirPods Pro's offerings. The new buds offer 30 hours of playback in total: six from the buds; 24 from the case – that's on par with the flagship AirPods Pro 2's battery life.

Many features from the Pro models can be found in the AirPods 3, including Adaptive EQ (where the headphones tune the sound they produce in real-time based on how they fit in the ear) and Auto-pause (where the buds can detect whether or not they are in your ears). Personalised spatial audio with dynamic headtracking was also added to the AirPods 3 post-Pro 2 launch.

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 and the older AirPods 2, but don't necessarily offer the same features. Conversation Boost, which uses the beam-forming microphones on the ‌AirPods Pro‌ to boost the volume of a person talking in front of you, is missing here, for instance. 

The AirPods 3 still lack ANC (you'll need to splash out on the Pro models for that), but they're a great all-round package. The sound is balanced, clear and detailed, and the seamless connectivity and use with iOS devices is unbeatable. 

The AirPods 3 have actually risen in price (by a tenner) since we originally reviewed them and there's no shortage of great rivals at this price from Sony, JBL and Beats. All in all, the AirPods 3 offer similar tech to the AirPods Pro model. Your decision will likely come down to whether or not you want noise-cancelling buds.

AirPods (2019)

Apple AirPods (2019)

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)
  • H1 headphone chip
  • Battery life: 5 hours (earbuds); 18 hours (Lightning charging case)
  • Bluetooth: 5.0, AAC
  • Dual beamforming microphones
  • "Hey Siri", on-ear tap controls
  • Dimensions: 40.5 x 16.5 x 18mm (earbuds); 53.5 x 44.3 x 21.3mm (charging case)
  • Weight: 4g (earbuds); 38.2g (charging case) 

The 2nd generation of AirPods was released in March 2019 and while these buds are showing their age now, they're currently the cheapest AirPods you can buy.

If your budget can't stretch to the newer AirPods 3, they remain a solid pair of hassle-free, cost-effective buds for iOS users. They have decent sound quality, voice-activated Siri and reliable Bluetooth connection, securing a four-star review and is a solid recommendation for anyone after a mix of convenience and good performance.

Like the new AirPods 3, they sport the original long stem design with buds that sit in your ears (there's no ear tip here) and don't feature ANC. There's no provision for spatial audio, but it supports Siri and is fitted with the H1 chip. 

You get five hours of charge in the earbuds, with around 24 hours using the Lightning charging case (which can be charged via a wired connection only). A 15-min charge in the case gives up to three hours of listening time. Controls are minimal: double tap to skip, pause, play or answer a call.

You'll see it listed at £139 on the Apple UK website, but it can be found for less on other retailers. We regularly see the price of this model drop down to under £100, so keep your eyes peeled for a deal, especially around Prime Day and Black Friday.

Best Apple AirPods alternatives

With stellar offerings from the likes of SonyCambridge Audio, JBL, Beats and Bose, the AirPods aren't short of competition in the true wireless earbud space. Here are our favourite AirPods alternatives... 

Want buds with a bit more sonic depth than the standard AirPods? The five-star and What Hi-Fi? 2021 Award-winning Panasonic RZ-S500W could be the best wireless earbuds for you. There's noise cancelling onboard (unlike the AirPods 3) and they also come in at just £100 – highly competitive. Not fussed about ANC at this budget pricing? Try the Sony WF-C500 instead.

Move a notch up the price ladder and there's the splendid Sony WF-C700N and JBL Live Pro 2 TWS (both of which sport ANC) and the Apple-tech-packed Beats Fit Pro, which offer a fun, colourful alternative to the white-only AirPods (and offers many iOS-only features to Android users too).

And then there's the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning Sony WF-1000XM4 and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II if you're looking for a flagship AirPods Pro 2 alternative. The Bose and Sony buds sport active noise-cancelling tech that works remarkably well for a pair of in-ears, isolating you from the outside world and allowing the excellent sound quality into your ears unhindered. While the Bose cost a premium at £280, the Sonys are one of the best true wireless buds we've tested, especially at its current £200 deal price.


See our pick of the best wireless earbuds

Or check out the best noise-cancelling earbuds: budget and premium

Now peruse the best cheap headphones deals

AirPods tips: how to reset, pair and get the most from your Apple headphones

How to clean AirPods easily at home

Becky has been a full-time staff writer at What Hi-Fi? since March 2019. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, she freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 20-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance is of course tethered to a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo, This is Cabaret and The Stage. When not writing, she dances, spins in the air, drinks coffee, watches football or surfs in Cornwall with her other half – a football writer whose talent knows no bounds. 

With contributions from
  • jonas1995
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