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AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Which Apple wireless earbuds are best?

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

After a full year of leaks and production setbacks, the AirPods 3 has finally made its way into the Apple Store and major online retailers. Already considered one of the best wireless headphones, this upgrade receives numerous proprietary Apple technologies, including Adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio, and MagSafe wireless charging. It also has the longest battery life of any AirPods model.

Two years on the scene and the AirPods Pro remains both a critical darling and top seller. These buds introduced several firsts for the series, from active noise cancellation to the same sound features (e.g., Adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio) mentioned above. Furthermore, they are the smallest version of the AirPods to date.

If there are two models that show Apple’s relevance as both an audio innovator and true wireless leader, you’re looking at them. But only one can claim the title of Apple’s best wireless earbuds. Check out our AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro comparison to get the full lowdown.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Specs

AirPods 3 AirPods Pro
Price$179 $249
Wireless charging caseYes (included)Yes (included)
ProcessorH1H1
Battery life (rated)6 hours, 30 hours (with charging case)4.5 hours (ANC on), 5 hours (ANC off), 24 hours (with charging case)
IPX ratingIPX4IPX4
Size and weight (buds)1.21 x 0.72 x 0.76 inches, 0.15 ounces1.22 x 0.86 x 0.94 inches, 0.19 ounces
Size and weight (charging case)1.83 x 0.84 x 2.14 inches, 1.34 ounces1.8 x 0.9 x 2.4 inches, 1.6 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 caseActive noise cancellation, transparency mode, adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio, automatic switching, Ear Tip Fit Test, audio sharing, announced messages with Siri, Enhanced Find My, “Hey Siri” voice-activated assistance, Live Listen, MagSafe charging case (2021 version)

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Price

The newer release happens to be more affordable. Apple launched the AirPods 3 at $179, an MSRP that lies somewhere between what the AirPods 2 originally launched for the standard ($159) and wireless charging versions ($199). You can add an engraving on the case for free when purchased directly through Apple.   

The AirPods Pro don’t come cheap at $249, though we’ve seen it go for as low as $179. Knowing how often it has gone on sale, consumers may feel inspired to wait for a sale, when numerous retailers might have them at a cheaper price.   

You can’t go wrong with either set of AirPods.

Winner: Draw

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Design

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Compared to the original AirPods, the Pro version has undergone the most cosmetic changes. The all-plastic casing remains intact, but Apple made notable improvements like smaller stems, black vents to equalize pressure, and IPX4 sweat and water resistance. Build quality isn’t anything to brag about, granted, that’s always been the case with all AirPods, including the third-gen model.

(Image credit: Future)

Moving onto the latest version, the AirPods 3 nearly duplicates the appearance of its noise-cancelling sibling. The only differences are the extra mic grille on top and longer stems. Oh yeah, and that it lacks ear tips. Everything else is the same, from the plastic sheath to the IPX4 rating.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Future)

The charging cases are identical for the most part, except that the AirPods 3’s case is smaller and comes with IPX4 protection. They’re made from the same recyclable materials and have the same details, including the LED on the front, Lightning port on the bottom, and pairing button on the back.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Comfort and fit

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Ear tips make all the difference, which is why the AirPods Pro is the better-fitting model. It creates a tight seal around the canal, letting you exercise with the buds freely and not worry about them slipping out when performing lateral movements. Apple even created an Ear Tip Fit Test to achieve optimal fit by analyzing your ear and determining the best tip size.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Future)

The AirPods 3’s contoured sound port rests nicely on the ear and nestles into the canal, but not all the way like the AirPods Pro. This increases the buds’ risk of falling out. We do find the AirPods 3 are slightly more comfortable. You can wear it for 4 hours straight before fatigue sets in; that time is cut in half when wearing the AirPods Pro.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Controls

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The controls for these two models are equally great. You get Apple’s Force Sensor at the bottom of each stem for accurate input, along with flawless “Hey Siri” voice activation to execute commands, hands-free. It’s also cool that you can utilize features like Announce Messages and Announce Notifications, which have Siri read out incoming updates. Something else you can do is control playback and other functions when connected to the Apple Watch.

Winner: Tie

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Audio

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple made the bold decision to give the AirPods 3 two major audio features found on the AirPods Pro. The first is Adaptive EQ, which adjusts frequencies in real time for listeners to hear music more precisely. Spatial Audio is the second and the technology brings 360-degree effects to video calls, select songs on Apple Music, and movies on supported streaming services: Apple TV+, Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, Plex, and Hulu.

There’s also the option to personalize sound on either model by selecting from over 20 presets in the iPhone settings. You can also share audio between two pairs of Apple or Beats headphones.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

So, which is the better-sounding model? We believe it’s the AirPods Pro by a nose. You’re going to get well-balanced, lively sound out of either pair of AirPods. But, again, the ear tips come into play, along with ANC, to produce full, distraction-free sound across all media formats. You’ll get zero noise isolation from the AirPods 3, meaning external sounds will creep into the soundscape and not let you hear songs the way musicians intended them to be heard.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: App and special features

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

It turns out the two latest AirPods versions carry many of the same features, the majority tied to the H1 chip, which offers excellent iOS integration and strong connectivity. These include the aforementioned Adaptive EQ, Announce Messages/Notifications, audio sharing, “Hey Siri” voice activation, and Spatial Audio. You can also add Enhanced Find My to the list, a new feature introduced on the latest iOS 15 update that helps users track lost AirPods while they’re near iDevices or a MacBook.   

However, the AirPods Pro has more tricks underneath its porcelain hood. As previously mentioned, the Ear Tip Fit Test is only available on the AirPods Pro. What else?

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Let’s start with the biggest feature of them all: ANC. The AirPods Pro offers some of the best noise cancellation in the category, eliminating between 85 to 90% of ambient noise. Low and mid frequencies are effectively tamed, and though high frequencies are unavoidable, they won’t distract you from whatever is playing on the buds. Transparency Mode is another exclusive and works well for increasing your awareness of surroundings. The last is Conversation Boost, a recent addition via iOS 15 update that employs the AirPods Pro’s mics to boost the volume of a person talking in front of you, so you can hear them more clearly during chats.   

The AirPods 3 may not have a Transparency Mode, but it does support Live Listen, one of those hidden features that Apple barely promotes. Live Listen transforms your iPhone into a mic, sending sounds to the earbuds. It’s essentially a weaker version of Apple’s ambient listening mode, but it is sufficient for eavesdropping on conversations taking place a few feet away from you.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Battery Life

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple fixed one of the series’ biggest problems on the AirPods 3: battery life. Playtime has been increased to 6 hours, one hour more than the previous models. The AirPods Pro not only comes up short at 4.5 hours with ANC on, but turning off the feature only extends listening time by 30 minutes. You’ll also get more charges out of the AirPods 3 case (30 hours) versus the AirPods Pro case (24 hours).

Both models come with the same quick-charging technology, generating an hour of use after a 5-minute charge, as well as wireless charging. Apple announced that the AirPods 3 case supports MagSafe charging, and recent reports confirm they are selling the AirPods Pro with Magsafe Charging Case (opens in new tab). Whether the older AirPods Pro case supports this feature is unknown.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Call Quality

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

The calling experience is fantastic, no matter which AirPods you choose. Each model has beam-forming mics that do a tremendous job of picking up vocals and minimizing background interference. The AirPods 3 have acoustic mesh covering the mics for stronger wind resistance. Still, the AirPods Pro is the superior calling headset and produces clear-sounding conversations in all environments.

Winner: AirPods Pro

Overall winner: AirPods Pro

There’s only one other true wireless model we have ranked higher than the AirPods Pro, and it isn’t the AirPods 3 (that honor goes to the 5-star Sony WF-1000XM4). Overall performance is just better on Apple’s flagship buds. Music and movies sound dynamic, connectivity on both the iOS/macOS platforms is stellar, and the number of serviceable features at your disposal are endless. Not to mention you’re getting phenomenal call quality and solid noise neutralization. Battery life still sucks, but we can live with that.

AirPods 3 AirPods Pro
Value (5) 55
Design (10)78
Comfort and fit (10) 78
Controls (10)1010
Audio (25)2022
App and special features (20) 1618
Battery life and charging case (10)75
Call quality (10)910
Total score (100)8186

Just because the AirPods 3 lost this battle doesn’t make it any less of an elite model. We awarded it a 4.5-out-of-5 rating for several reasons. The upgrades in audio alone are well worth the price, from Adaptive EQ to Spatial Audio to the speech codec for full HD voice quality. Access to most of the same software perks as the AirPods Pro, along with MagSafe charging and an extra hour of playtime sweeten the deal. Unfortunately, the lack of ANC and unreliable fit should persuade you to spend a little extra on its more premium counterpart.