Best AirPods 2024: Apple's wireless headphones ranked and rated

Best AirPods 2024: Jump Menu

AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro 2 in cases

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

1. The list in brief ↴
2. Best overall: Apple AirPods Pro 2
3. Best premium: Apple AirPods Max
4. Best mid-range: Apple AirPods 3
5. Best budget: Apple AirPods (2019)
6. Also consider
7. How to choose
8. How we test
9. F.A.Q
10. Recent updates
11. Best deals

AirPods aren't the only true wireless earbuds around, but they are the most recognisable. Apple's trademark white design stands out a mile, and while the cheap imitations might be able to ape the look, they can't hold a candle to Apple's functionality and legendary user-friendliness.

Each pair of AirPods has its strengths, but how do you know which is best for you? We've tested every model since the originals launched in 2016, so to say we're well-versed in Apple's earbuds would be an understatement. We've recommended the best models below, along with a more concise version of each of our reviews so you can find out why we rate them. Want to dig a little deeper? We've linked to our full reviews, so you can read about every aspect of each pair.

Our reviews don't stay static. We're constantly updating them to mention new features and bug fixes that arrive via software updates, as well as to reference new models announced in the meantime, so you can contextualise each pair and see if they're still worth your money.

Members of our reviews team have more than 100 years of experience between them. Review verdicts are agreed upon by the whole team in order to avoid personal bias and we compare each model to its closest rivals to judge how they stack up. To find out more about our reviews process, read the how we test AirPods section further down this page.

Joe Svetlik
Joe Svetlik

I've been testing and reviewing all manner of AV gadgetry since 2004, when an iPod with a click wheel was considered the height of sophistication. The best music source in the world isn't much use if you're using substandard headphones. Apple's AirPods haven't always sounded the best, but that is changing. For Apple users who are passionate about sound (that's me), the right pair of AirPods will be a very worthwhile investment.

The quick list

The best AirPods we recommend in 2024

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.

Best overall

These the best-sounding in-ear AirPods you can buy.

Specifications

Bluetooth: AAC, SBC, 5.3
Water resistance: IPX4
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: 30hrs
Weight: 5.4g each

Reasons to buy

+
Clear, detailed and powerful sound
+
Excellent noise-cancelling
+
Longer battery life
+
Smooth, intuitive use with iOS devices

Reasons to avoid

-
Many features restricted to iOS devices only
-
Customisable ANC modes would be useful

The AirPods Pro 2 are the first in-ear AirPods that earned five stars from us. That's thanks to their improved noise-cancellation, longer battery life, array of new features and better sound quality. And all without a higher price than their predecessors.

They will fit more people too, thanks to the new XS size of eartip that joins S, M and L. Whichever size you choose, they'll feel much less intrusive than their rivals, thanks to their vents allowing for greater airflow. They're also the first AirPods with on-bud volume controls, which is more convenient than using your mobile or Siri.

ANC is one of the main selling points of the Pro variant of AirPods – it's one of the biggest points of difference over the standard model. And the Pro 2's is more advanced than ever, cancelling twice as much background sound as before and boasting an Adaptive Transparency feature which nullifies the loudest noises while allowing in ambient sound. But perhaps the biggest improvement is the jump in sound quality – bass has more impact, sound has greater texture and the dynamics are even subtler than the Pro v1. 

What else do you need to know? September 2023 saw Apple replace the Lightning-charged case with a USB-C one, in order to comply with new EU regulations. But the earbuds themselves remain unchanged. This did bring one welcome bit of news to UK customers – the USB-C model is £20 cheaper than the Lightning model at launch, though the price remains the same in the US and Australia.

Substantially better than the standard AirPods in areas that really matter, yet much cheaper than the over-ear AirPods Max, the AirPods Pro 2 are the best AirPods overall.

Read the full Apple AirPods Pro 2 review

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Test results
AttributesNotesRating
SoundMore detail, clarity and power than before★★★★★
FeaturesVery good, but plenty of features are iOS-only★★★★☆
ComfortAn extra ear tip size means they fit more people than previously★★★★★

Best premium

Apple’s most expensive AirPods justify their huge price tag.

Specifications

Bluetooth: AAC, SBC, 5.0
Water resistance: No
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: 20hrs
Weight: 385g

Reasons to buy

+
Superb audio and noise-cancelling
+
Cinematic spatial audio
+
Exceptional build quality

Reasons to avoid

-
Near-pointless case
-
Audio cable not included
-
Practically Apple-only

Apple might have been late to the over-ear headphone party, but it arrived with a bang. The AirPods Max are impressively engineered, making 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

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Test results
AttributesNotesRating
SoundCrisp, spacious and energetic, the sound is very special indeed★★★★★
BuildSuperb build quality, using high-end materials. But shame about the case★★★★☆
ComfortSo comfy they make rivals feel cheap★★★★★

Best mid-range

AirPods advance closer to the Pro model with a redesign and stand-out spatial audio.

Specifications

Bluetooth: AAC, SBC, 5.0
Water resistance: IPX4
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: 30hrs
Weight: 4.3g each

Reasons to buy

+
Spatial audio support is a real bonus
+
Balanced, clear and detailed sound
+
Strong battery life

Reasons to avoid

-
Beaten for transparency
-
Still no on-bud volume adjustment
-
Fit won't be for everyone

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 if you want a step up on the older AirPods below without spending too much, these strike a nice bang-for-buck balance.

Read the full Apple AirPods 3 review

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Test results
AttributesNotesRating
SoundPleasingly neutral, though rivals do sound better★★★★☆
BuildThey take design cues from the Pro variant, which is a very good thing★★★★☆
FeaturesSpatial Audio is their crowning glory, but there are plenty of other features to enjoy too★★★★★

Best budget

Second-gen AirPods are the best option for Apple-using bargain hunters.

Specifications

Bluetooth: AAC, SBC, 5.0
Water resistance: No
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: 24hrs
Weight: 4g each

Reasons to buy

+
Tonally balanced
+
Improved sonic sophistication 
+
Flawless wireless tech

Reasons to avoid

-
Won’t fit everyone
-
No buttons
-
Sound harsh when pushed

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 (from 2019) for a pretty reasonable price.

Your money gets you Apple's typically seamless wireless tech, decent – if unremarkable – sound quality and healthy battery life. There are downsides, of course. They don't sound as good as the latest model, and the battery doesn't last as long. The stems are longer on this model too, 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. They're certainly better than some of the knock-offs.

Read the full Apple AirPods (2019) review

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Test results
AttributesNotesRating
SoundDecent, but they've been bested by rivals since launch★★★★☆
BuildBasic, with no on-bud controls, but they do the job well★★★★★
FeaturesApple's trademark ease of use makes them a joy day in, day out★★★★★

Also consider

The best AirPods alternatives we've tested:

Sony WF-1000XM5: probably the best AirPods alternatives you can buy, the Award-winning XM5 outgun the AirPods Pro 2 for ANC and sound quality, and they work just as well with Android devices. 

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: noise-cancelling earbuds don't get better than this pair from Bose. The ANC is superb, and sound quality has improved, though they're let down by a sub-par battery life. 

Sony WF-C700N: cheaper than the cheapest AirPods, these Award-winning earbuds from Sony pack decent noise-cancellation, very good sound quality and a comfy fit for the money.

How to choose the best AirPods for you

First things first – are AirPods definitely the best headphones for you? If you don't have an iOS device like the iPhone 15, 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 over-ear or in-ear design. Apple's over-ears are the AirPods Max, a pricey pair of noise-cancelling 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 – the first-gen AirPods Pro are no longer sold by Apple, but you might find them elsewhere).

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. You can always find cheaper AirPods alternatives, but you have to weigh up whether they will meet your needs. 

Whichever pair you choose, be sure to check out our AirPods tips and advice on how to clean your AirPods.

How we test AirPods

You've probably read all about our state-of-the-art testing rooms, but they're not the only place we review AirPods. Instead, we take them out and about where most people will use theirs: on the train, to the pub, in busy shops, on the bus. And if the opportunity presents itself, we'll take them on a plane to see how their noise-cancellation handles screaming children.

We don't test AirPods in isolation – we pit them against the best wireless earbuds (or over-ear headphones, in the case of the AirPods Max) in the same price bracket to see how they compare. Because there's nothing worse than discovering you haven't bought wisely.

We test hundreds of pairs of headphones every year for our reviews as well as What Hi-Fi? Awards judging, and with over 100 years of experience between us, we know what we're talking about. Our stock room stays chock full of class-leading products against which we compare new ones.

When it comes to analysing sound quality, the testing rooms come into their own – it's nice and quiet down there, with no distractions. Like all headphones we test, we give each pair of AirPods plenty of time to run in, and play all manner of different music genres through them – ours is a broad church, and there's no better way to judge performance. We try each and every feature – including the oft-overlooked call quality – and subject the ANC to all kinds of different background sounds in different environments (cue the screaming kids).

We agree our review verdicts as a team rather than giving one person the power to make or break a product. Not only does this eliminate the potential for personal bias, it also makes sure we're being as thorough as possible. We don't take any suggestions from PR or sales people, not now, not ever. We've been delivering honest, unbiased reviews for nearly 50 years, and don't intend to stop now.

You can read more on our dedicated how we test page.

MORE:

Best Apple deals UK: the cheapest prices on Apple products

Find a bargain with the best AirPods deals

Or avoid Apple with the best AirPods alternatives

Check rumours concerning the AirPods 4, AirPods Pro 3 and AirPods Max 2

F.A.Q

Which are the best AirPods?

It depends what you're looking for and how much you have to spend. The best in terms of performance are the AirPods Max, but such a pricey over-ear pair won't be for everyone. We find the AirPods Pro 2 the best overall when you consider features, performance and price.

Are AirPods worth it?

If you don't use an iOS device, then maybe not, as quite a few AirPods features are iOS-only. Android users might be better served by a decent pair of Sonys or Boses. But Apple users will find that AirPods work seamlessly with their other devices.

Why are AirPods 3 so cheap?

Not everyone would consider them cheap – there are much cheaper wireless earbuds around. But they forego more advanced features like active noise-cancellation and different sizes of ear tips that you find on the AirPods Pro 2 to be more affordable. 

Recent updates

  • 23rd February 2024: Changed to new Best Buy format. Added new 'Also Consider' section, new F.A.Q section.
  • 11th December 2023: Added new intro text.
  • 5th October 2023: Added references to the iPhone 15 and the new USB-C case for the AirPods Pro 2. Dropped first-gen AirPods Pro from the list.
  • 1st June 2023: Added new images for entries.

Today's best AirPods deals

Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.