Apple is a relative newcomer to the headphones space. Its first AirPods launched in 2016, yet in that short time, the white earbuds have become near-ubiquitous. Walk down a busy street in any country in the world, and chances are you'll see someone wearing them.
Other models have followed – we're now on the third-generation of the wireless AirPods, the second generation of AirPods Pro noise-cancelling buds, with Apple's range topped off by the AirPods Max over-ears.
Wondering what the differences are, and what each model offers? We've ranked Apple's AirPods below so you can see how they compare and which is the best pair for you.
There's quite a big price difference between the pairs, so consult our guide to make sure you buy the best for you.
Of course AirPods are aimed squarely at Apple users – anyone with an Android phone will miss out on some pretty crucial features. But fear not, there are plenty of other noise-cancelling wireless earbuds around. And they're about to be joined by the Sony WF-1000XM5, or so the rumours say. Check out our list of best wireless earbuds to see what else is available.
How to choose the best AirPods for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
First things first – are AirPods definitely the best headphones for you? If you don't have an iOS device, then probably not. Yes, Apple's AirPods do work with other devices, but to get the best out of them, you really need to have at least one foot in Apple's ecosystem.
Next, you'll want to decide between an on-ear or in-ear design. For the former, your only choice are the AirPods Max, Apple's premium, pricey wireless headphones. Your in-ear options are either the standard AirPods (choose between the third- and second-generation models), and the AirPods Pro (first- and second-generation models).
What's the difference between the two? The AirPods Pro offer active noise-cancellation, but the standard AirPods do not.
Then there's the question of budget. The AirPods Max sit at the top of the range, and are even more expensive than most of the best noise-cancelling headphones offered by Sony, Bose and Bowers & Wilkins. The AirPods Pro 2 are the next priciest pair, followed by the third-gen AirPods, and then second-gen AirPods. Apple doesn't sell the first-gen AirPods Pro anymore, but you can find them at other retailers.
Now let's dig a little deeper into each of these and see which is right for you. And whichever pair you decide on, be sure to check out our AirPods tips and how to clean your AirPods advice.
Apple's in-ear AirPods have always been decent, but unremarkable – something their string of four-star reviews attests to. But with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple has made a pair of true wireless buds capable of cracking that fifth star.
How? Better noise-cancelling, better battery life, new features and, more importantly, better audio performance. They also cost the same as their predecessors at launch, which helps.
A new XS size of eartips should help with fit, and thanks to their vents, they feel a lot less intrusive than some in-ears. Apple has finally added on-bud volume controls, which is a lot more intuitive than digging out your phone or barking commands at Siri.
The noise-cancelling blocks out twice as much background sound as their predecessors, while Adaptive Transparency muffles loud noises when letting in ambient sounds. And the sound quality? With added weight, greater detail and even greater dynamic subtlety than the original Pros, they really are a class act.
Read the full Apple AirPods Pro 2 review
Apple might have been late to the over-ear headphone party, but it arrived with a bang. The AirPods Max are impressively engineered and they make flagship pairs from industry stalwarts like Sony and Bose look cheap by comparison.
And they've got the sound quality to back up the design. They're so sonically gifted they cross over from wireless headphones to wireless hi-fi. Delivery is spacious and super crisp, with an energy and clarity rarely heard from wireless headphones. The precision is such that – combined with the wide open soundstage – it sounds as if you're in the room with the musicians.
They're also superb for watching movies – Spatial Audio combines with dynamic head-tracking to anchor sounds to the screen, so when you turn your head it sounds as if the audio is still coming from the TV.
Add excellent noise-cancelling to the mix, and you've got a first-rate pair of headphones. Just remember to use them with an Apple device to make the most of their abilities.
Read the full Apple AirPods Max review
Why would you buy the AirPods Pro over the standard AirPods? Plenty of reasons, chief among them active noise-cancellation.
This is helped by silicone tips that not only block your ear canal to prevent any unwanted background sound interfering with the music, but also provide a much more snug fit than the standard AirPods (which don't fit some people at all).
The noise-cancelling itself is pretty clever. It's continuously adjusted 200 times per second, and serves to drown out constant sound and severely mute occasional, less predictable noise. There's also a transparency mode that lets in outside noise, so you can have a chat without removing the earbuds.
Spatial Audio is on board, and battery life stands at 24 hours (that's less than the AirPods 3, but it is measured with noise-cancelling activated).
Sonically, they're impressive, though not quite up there with the likes of the Sony WF-1000XM4. And the sound is a little warmer without ANC switched on – it's tonally richer and rhythmically crisper. It shouldn't dissuade you from using noise cancellation, but we would advise only activating it when necessary.
Note: Apple no longer sells the original AirPods Pro, but you can find them from other retailers.
Read the full Apple AirPods Pro review
This is the latest version of the headphones that started it all. Over 200 million pairs of AirPods have been sold since the device burst onto the scene in 2016. And for many, the standard model will have the most appeal.
They're cheaper than the AirPods Pro, but boast many of the same features, including spatial audio, which positions sounds around you, creating a wider, more immersive soundstage. Adaptive EQ is also new to this model – this adapts the sound in real-time based on how the earbuds fit in your ear.
There's new tech for voice calls, too. That's because they support a codec called AAC-ELD, which is designed to enhance speech, and the beamforming microphones on each earbud are covered with an acoustic mesh to reduce wind noise.
Battery life has been upped to 30 hours (from 24 on the second-gen AirPods), and the case also has the same water resistance rating as the earbuds themselves.
They're closer in design to the AirPods Pro, with shorter stems replacing the ludicrously long ones of their predecessors. And the sound? It's the same trademark neutral sonic profile, though now it has added oomph in the bottom end.
They're not the best-sounding earbuds out there and are relatively expensive for a pair without active noise-cancelling. They won’t fit everyone either and, of course, they still hugely favour Apple device owners. But generally, third time proves a charm here.
Read the full Apple AirPods 3 review
As a premium company, Apple takes a smart approach to cheaper devices. Instead of investing in new low-end devices, it drops the price of its older ones – or, as with the iPhone SE, rebadges an older one as new. The first-generation AirPods aren't around anymore, but you can pick up the second-gen model for a pretty reasonable price.
Your money gets you Apple's typically seamless wireless tech, decent – if unremarkable – sound quality and healthy battery life. The stems are longer than the third-gen models (and the AirPods Pro), and they don't fit as well as the third-generation model.
But if you're looking for the AirPods experience on the cheap, these are your best option.
Read the full Apple AirPods (2019) review
How we test AirPods
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door.
Of course, testing AirPods doesn't require such facilities. Instead, we compared each pair to the best in its price and style class – whether that's one standout pair or a few we favour the highest among the 100+ pairs we listen to each year for reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, and we keep class-leading products in our stockrooms so we can always compare new products to ones we know and love.
We'll try plenty of different types of music and give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in). It's not just about sound quality, of course. Call quality is important and if a pair has active noise cancellation, we'll ensure part of our testing involves using them in different environments like an office, a busy street, on a train, and – if we can – on a plane.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible, too. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
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