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AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Which wireless earbuds are best?

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2
(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

It’s taken long enough due to the COVID-19 pandemic and production setbacks, but the AirPods 3 is finally available for purchase. The latest entry in Apple’s true wireless lineup is the significant upgrade that we’ve clamored for over the past year. It introduces new features (e.g., skin-detection sensors, MagSafe charging), carries over several hallmarks from the AirPods Pro (e.g., Adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio), and comes with longer battery life. Hallelujah!

While the public spotlight is currently placed on Apple’s newest creation, let’s not forget about the model that arguably brought the AirPods to peak mainstream stardom: the AirPods 2. This second-gen version not only improved the sound quality of the original but also continues to receive new iOS updates that extend its lifespan even longer. The AirPods 2 also introduced wireless charging to the series.

Overall, you’re looking at two of the best wireless headphones available. As for which is the superior model, our AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2 comparison will determine that.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Specs

AirPods 3 AirPods 2
Price$179 $$149, $199 (with wireless charging case)
Wireless charging caseYes (included)Yes (optional)
ProcessorH1H1
Battery life (rated)6 hours, 30 hours (with charging case)5 hours (24 hours with charging case)
IPX ratingIPX4None
Size and weight (buds)1.21 x 0.72 x 0.76 inches, 0.15 ounces1.59 x 0.65 x 0.71 inches, 0.14 ounces
Size and weight (charging case)1.83 x 0.84 x 2.14 inches, 1.34 ounces1.7 x 0.8 x 2.1 inches, 1.4 ounces
Special features: Adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio, automatic switching, audio sharing, announced messages with Siri, Enhanced Find My, “Hey Siri” voice-activated assistance, Live Listen, Lost Mode, MagSafe charging caseAudio sharing, "Hey Siri" voice activation, auto switching, customizable sound via iPhone settings, Live Listen, smart controls

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Price

The AirPods 2 were originally sold for $149 and have since undergone a markdown after Apple announced the AirPods 3. You can now purchase them for $129. A wireless charging version is sold for $159 on Amazon. These are two great bargains.

Newer to market, the AirPods 3 carries the higher MSRP: $179. Considering the functionality these buds carry, it’s surprising to see how relatively affordable they are compared to the AirPods 2 wireless charging version and $249 AirPods Pro.

Be sure to bookmark out Best Black Friday headphone deals page for the latest AirPods sales

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Design

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The AirPods 3 has shrunk 33% from the AirPods 2. On top of that, Apple did a copy and paste job with this version, giving it the same appearance and build quality as the AirPods Pro, along with some of the same details. Notice the black grilles, force sensor on the stem, elongated sound port, and shorter stems. These buds also come with IPX4 sweat/water resistance and the same all-white plastic casing. 

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

We also love that the charging case resembles the AirPods Pro’s case, only smaller.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Comfort and fit

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Future)

The AirPods 2 feels light as a feather on the ear, but it offers some of the worst on-ear stability of any pair of wireless earbuds. Apple’s decided to go with an open design, which they say provides a universal fit, but does not. Without any ear tips, these buds just rest on the concha and don’t form a tight seal around the canal to lock them in place. This only increases their risk of falling out.

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Some of these same issues still exist on the AirPods 3, granted Apple did make the sound port more ergonomic, so that the buds rest comfortably on the ear and nestle into the canal. It just doesn’t insert all the way like the average in-ear model would.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Controls

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Both pairs of wireless earbuds come with on-ear detection for auto-pause/play and “Hey Siri” voice activation, which operates flawlessly on all AirPods models. One of the key differences between these two AirPods versions is the control scheme. Where the AirPods 3 has gone a more progressive route and incorporated the AirPods Pro’s awesome Force Sensor technology, the AirPods 2 employs touch sensors.

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The AirPods 3 has the more reliable controls with the Force Sensor producing solid tactility to ensure all intended commands are being met. We also like how responsive the buds are to multi-presses. You don’t really get that same accuracy out of the AirPods 2’s touch controls.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Audio

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

It’s unfair to match these two up in the audio department. The AirPods 3 is stacked with audio features like Adaptive EQ that adjusts frequencies in real time for listeners to hear music more precisely, plus Spatial Audio for 3D sound that can be experienced in multiple ways. These include FaceTime calls, select songs on Apple Music, and movies on supported streaming services, such as Apple TV+, Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, Plex, and Hulu. Even outside of these features, the AirPods 3 has a sonic advantage, boasting an all-new low-distortion driver that pumps out “powerful bass” and well-balanced frequencies. It won’t match the premium sound quality of other models like the Sony WF-1000XM4 or Bowers & Wilkins PI7, but it’s engaging.

AirPods 2 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Sound on the AirPods 2 is clean and favors the warm end of the audio spectrum, meaning you’ll get some tight bass presence. However, it isn’t enough to do contemporary music genres justice, primarily hip-hop and rock selections. 

You can personalize sound by selecting from over 20 presets in the iPhone settings, but you can also do the same on the AirPods 3. Another feature available on both models is audio share, giving an iPhone the option to share its audio with a second set of AirPods.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Special features

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple does a fantastic job of giving every AirPods model its fair share of features, many of which carry over to future releases and are tied to the H1 chip. The AirPods 2 and AirPods 3 share several of them, including audio share, Announce Messages/Notifications, “Hey Siri” voice activation, and music presets. For what hasn’t been mentioned, there is automatic switching between Apple devices and Live Listen, which turns on the iPhone mic and sends those noises to your preferred pair of AirPods (think of it as a low-level Transparency Mode).

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

As for the rest, well, they come by way of the AirPods 3. We already touched on high-end features like the aforementioned Adaptive EQ and Spatial Audio, but there are a handful of others worth checking out. Enhanced Find My helps track lost AirPods while they are within close distance of iDevices or a MacBook. Apple included the AAC-ELD speech codec to enjoy full HD voice quality on FaceTime calls. The AirPods 3’s charging case is also MagSafe-compatible.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Battery Life

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple finally addressed battery life on the AirPods, increasing it by one hour on the AirPods 3 (6 hours on a full charge). The AirPods 2 remains at 5 hours. Apple also increased the amount of playtime stored on the AirPods 3 MagSafe charging case from 24 to 30 hours.

Another key factor is that wireless charging comes standard on the AirPods 3. You must spend extra to get the AirPods 2 wireless charging case.

Quick charging remains the same: 5 minutes equals 1 hour of listening time.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Call Quality

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

As great of a calling headset as the AirPods 2 is, several advancements make the AirPods 3 the better option for voice and video calls. The combination of beam-forming mics and acoustic mesh performs wonders, reducing ambient noise and wind reduction better than any other wireless earbuds, except for the AirPods Pro and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds.

Winner: AirPods 3

Overall winner: AirPods 3

We didn’t think Apple was going to equip the AirPods 3 with so many signature features, but they took it there and assembled a third-gen version that is a definite step up from the AirPods 2. The inclusion of Adaptive EQ and Spatial Audio, along with ergonomic changes and increased battery life, are all the convincing you need to purchase these buds, if you aren’t sold on spending a little extra on the AirPods Pro. Apple adding other proprietary technologies (e.g., MagSafe charging, Enhanced Find My) into the mix give the AirPods 3 even more mass appeal.

AirPods 3 AirPods 2
Value (5) 54
Design (10)76
Comfort and fit (10)76
Controls (10)108
Audio (25)2018
App and special features (20) 1614
Battery life and charging case (10)76
Call quality (10)98
Total score (100)8170

While the AirPods 2 has been revered for the past three years, it’s time to move on and make the upgrade, unless you’re bargain hunting or want to gift someone entry-level wireless earbuds. Sound is decent, but what you’ll really enjoy most are the strong wireless performance, superb call quality, and extended functionality via iOS updates. Still, all the major improvements Apple made to its successor should only encourage you to spend extra on the better AirPods model, the AirPods 3.