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AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: what's the difference? Which are better?

Apple AirPods 3 wireless earbuds
(Image credit: Apple)

After months of speculation, Apple finally revealed its next-generation wireless earbuds, the Apple AirPods 3, at the end of last year. But how do they compare to the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro that launched back in 2019? 

The new AirPods 3 might sit below the AirPods Pro in Apple's wireless earbuds line-up, but the newer buds aren't short of interesting features. So, which AirPods are best for you? Find out as we pit the new AirPods 3 against the AirPods Pro in a 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 new AirPods 3 cost £169 ($179, AU$279), which is considerably less than the AirPods Pro's £249 ($249, AU$399) and Apple's first over-ear headphones, the AirPods Max, which cost £549 ($549, AU$899). 

The Apple AirPods Pro launched in October 2019 for £249/$249/AU$399 but the price fluctuates throughout the year, especially around the time of big sales events such as Black Friday.

You'll find the current best prices for the AirPod Pro below, but if you're on a budget, the AirPods 3 are almost certainly going to be the cheaper headphones.

**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 doesn't last a decent length of time.

The AirPods Pro claim 4.5 hours 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 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)

There was talk of the AirPods 3 would be called the 'AirPods Pro Lite', and you can see why. Apple's newest buds take their cue 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 silicons 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 newer buds 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 cheaper AirPods 3 don't have active noise-cancelling, so you'll have to rely on the 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 a moment.

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. You 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 best-sounding AirPods. They offer more space and dynamic expression making for a more compelling delivery. Want an even better sound? Consider the noise-cancelling Sony WF-1000XM4. The current class leaders are wonderfully musical and significantly subtler in their delivery.

**Winner: AirPods Pro**

Apple AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: verdict

The AirPods 3 are a great option for those who aren't bothered about active noise-cancellation. With better battery life than the AirPods Pro and support for Spatial Audio, the nicely-priced AirPods 3 will surely become Apple's best-selling true wireless earbuds.     

Those who prioritise active noise-cancellation technology, or who simply aren't concerned about the rather large price difference, will be instantly drawn to the AirPods Pro. Apple's most expensive buds deliver high-end noise-cancelling technology and a seamless experience that makes them just as smart as the AirPods 3.

Before you splash the cash, it's worth checking our pick of the best wireless earbuds deals around. Also, keep in mind that Apple could launch the AirPods Pro 2 within the next 12 months, prompting some of the best AirPods Pro deals yet.


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What Hi-Fi?
What Hi-Fi?

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