AirPods 2 vs. AirPods 3 Buyer's Guide: Should You Upgrade?

In late 2021, Apple announced a major update for its standard AirPods, with the new earbuds featuring spatial audio, Adaptive EQ, force sensor controls, sweat and water resistance, MagSafe charging, and more.

AirPods 3 Feature Red
Apple continues to sell the second-generation AirPods that it introduced in March 2019, now for the lower price of $129. This makes them the entry-level model in the AirPods lineup.

Should you consider purchasing the second-generation AirPods for $129, or do you need the latest AirPods, which sell for $179? On the other hand, you may already have the second-generation AirPods and are considering whether you should upgrade. Our guide helps to answer the question of how to decide which of these sets of AirPods is best for you.

Comparing the Second-Generation AirPods and Third-Generation AirPods

The second-generation and third-generation AirPods share a large number of important features such as the H1 chip and beamforming microphones. Apple lists these identical features of the two devices:

Similarities

  • Motion-detecting accelerometers
  • Speech-detecting accelerometers
  • Dual beamforming microphones
  • H1 chip
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Hey Siri
  • Automatic device switching
  • Live Listen audio
  • Headphone levels
  • Personalized engraving option

Apple's breakdown shows that the two sets of AirPods share a number of key features. Even so, there are some meaningful differences between them that are worth highlighting, including design, spatial audio, and ‌MagSafe‌ charging.

Differences


Second-Generation AirPods

  • Dual optical sensors
  • Double-tap to play, skip forward, or answer a phone call
  • Charging Case
  • Up to five hours of listening time with a single charge
  • More than 24 hours of listening time with charging case
  • 15 minutes in the case provides up to three hours listening time
  • $129


Third-Generation AirPods

  • Custom high-excursion Apple driver
  • Custom high dynamic range amplifier
  • Inward-facing microphone
  • Skin-detect sensors
  • Force sensor
  • Press once to play, pause, or answer a phone call, press twice to skip forward, press three times to skip back, and press and hold for ‌Siri‌
  • Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking
  • Adaptive EQ
  • IPX4 Sweat and water resistance
  • ‌MagSafe‌ Charging Case with Qi wireless charging
  • Up to six hours of listening time with a single charge (up to five hours with spatial audio)
  • Up to 30 hours of listening time with charging case
  • Five minutes in the case provides around one hour of listening time
  • $179

Design

The design of the second-generation and third-generation AirPods differ significantly, but both have a similar fit and a glossy white plastic finish. The second-generation AirPods largely mirror the design of Apple's wired EarPods, with long stems that extend from the ear.

airpods2
While neither set of AirPods has the in-ear silicone tips of the AirPods Pro, the third-generation AirPods have a design that is very similar to Apple's high-end earbuds. This means that they have much shorter stems and a larger in-ear portion, which may result in a better fit for some users. The third-generation AirPods charging case is also shorter and wider.

airpods 3 and case
The overall look of the third-generation AirPods is much more subtle and modern, but which design and fit you prefer is ultimately up to you.

Sweat and Water Resistance

Only the third-generation AirPods are IPX4-rated for sweat and water resistance. This includes both the earbuds and the ‌MagSafe‌ charging case.

Apple AirPods 3rd gen lifestyle 01 10182021 big

Audio Quality

The audio hardware of the third-generation AirPods is based on the ‌AirPods Pro‌, featuring a custom Apple-designed high-excursion driver and a custom high dynamic range amplifier, resulting in significantly better sound quality.

airpods 3 internals
The third-generation AirPods also benefit from Adaptive EQ, which uses an inward-facing microphone and computational audio to create an accurate sound profile for every wearer. Sound is tuned in real time based on the fit of the AirPod in the user's ear, with the AirPods constantly adjusting and tuning the low and mid frequencies to account for what might be lost due to fit differences.

airpods side
The smaller in-ear portion of the second-generation AirPods leaves less internal space for audio hardware, and without features such as Adaptive EQ, the sound quality is not as good as the third-generation AirPods.

It is worth noting that as compact earbuds, the sound quality of the standard AirPods will not match higher-end offerings such as the AirPods Max. Nevertheless, if you highly value sound quality, you will appreciate the better audio hardware of the third-generation AirPods.

Spatial Audio

The third-generation AirPods join the ‌AirPods Pro‌ and ‌AirPods Max‌ in offering spatial audio with Dolby Atmos. Apple Music songs, TV shows, and movies can take advantage of spatial audio and it will sound like the audio is coming from all around you when the feature is enabled for an immersive, theater-like experience.

airpods 3 with iphone
Dynamic head tracking is also available, which makes music, TV, and even Group FaceTime calls more engaging. Spatial audio algorithms and directional audio filters adjust the frequencies that each ear receives, allowing AirPods to produce sound all around the user.

Spatial audio works with ‌Apple Music‌ and the Apple TV app, but it is also compatible with many third-party apps. The second-generation AirPods do not offer spatial audio, so you will have to get the third-generation model to have this experience.

Skin Detection

The standard AirPods feature an all-new skin-detect sensor to more accurately discern if AirPods are in the ear to pause playback. The new skin-detect sensor works by detecting water content in the wearer's skin, which ensures that it does not mistake pockets, tables, or other surfaces for skin.

Instead of skin-detect sensors in each earbud, the second-generation AirPods use dual optical sensors to detect if they are in a user's ear. While they effectively perform the same function, the optical sensors can simply tell when they are against a surface or covered up, rather than specifically against skin. This means that if you put an AirPod in a pocket or on a surface, it could accidentally resume playback.

Controls

The second-generation AirPods can be controlled by tapping on the stems, and users can double-tap to play, skip forward, or answer a phone call.

airpods 3 vs airpods pro 6
The third-generation AirPods feature force sensor controls like the ‌AirPods Pro‌, allowing users to press once to play, pause, or answer a phone call, press twice to skip forward, press three times to skip back, and press and hold for ‌Siri‌.

The force sensor controls allow for a wider range of commands to be issued, but some users may accidentally dislodge an AirPod when using them. On the other hand, the second-generation AirPods tap-based controls are very sensitive and may be accidentally triggered. It is ultimately a matter of personal preference which input mechanism you prefer.

Charging Case

Both sets of AirPods have a charging case with a Lightning port to store and charge the earbuds, but the charging case of the third-generation AirPods also features wireless charging and ‌MagSafe‌. This enables users to charge the AirPods using any standard Qi wireless charging pad or ‌MagSafe‌ charger for easy magnetic alignment.

airpods 3 magsafe

Battery Life

The second-generation AirPods can deliver up to five hours of listening time with a single charge, while the third-generation AirPods add an extra hour of battery life. When spatial audio is enabled on the third-generation AirPods, the battery life reduces to five hours.

The charging case of the second-generation AirPods can deliver more than 24 hours of listening time, while the third-generation AirPods offer up to 30 hours of listening time. Since there is only an iterative improvement between the two models when it comes to battery life, it is likely not worth getting the third-generation AirPods simply on the basis of its battery life.

Other AirPods Options

If you are looking for AirPods, but are looking for Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) or an in-ear design, there are the ‌AirPods Pro‌, which start at $249. These have all of the same features as the third-generation AirPods, but have silicone tips to fit inside the ear canal and offer ANC, as well as Transparency mode to let noise from the outside world in.

airpodsprocase
If you have problems getting standard earbuds to stay in your ears or simply prefer an in-ear design, the ‌AirPods Pro‌ will be a better choice if you can afford them. Likewise, the ‌AirPods Pro‌ will be more suitable for use in noisy environments thanks to ANC. It is also worth buying ‌AirPods Pro‌ if you could make good use of Apple's Conversation Boost accessibility feature.

For a higher-fidelity audio experience, there are the ‌AirPods Max‌, which are priced at $549. These are over-ear headphones that take the listening experience to the next level with improved sound quality, better Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), and up to 20 hours of listening from one charge.

airpods max pink

Final Thoughts

Providing you can afford the extra $50, it will be worthwhile getting the third-generation AirPods over the second-generation model. The third-generation AirPods add a raft of meaningful features and improvements over its predecessor, including improved design and sound quality, spatial audio, Adaptive EQ, sweat and water resistance, and ‌MagSafe‌ charging. The second-generation model is also now fairly old.

airpods 3 in case
Whether you are looking for AirPods that are suitable for workouts or use in the rain, a more immersive experience with music and movies, compatibility with an existing ‌MagSafe‌ charger, or simply a more subtle appearance, the third-generation AirPods are a much better choice. If you already have the second-generation AirPods, it may worth upgrading to the third-generation model if you are attracted to any of the new features or are looking for a range of overall improvements.

The second-generation AirPods are still a good introduction to the AirPods experience with seamless pairing, automatic device switching, and Hey ‌Siri‌ functionality, but if possible you should get the third-generation model due to its large number of improvements. AirPods frequently see substantial discounts through Amazon and other third-party retailers, so stepping up to the third-generation version may be more worth it if you can take advantage of one of those deals.

Related Roundup: AirPods 3
Buyer's Guide: AirPods (Neutral)
Related Forum: AirPods

Top Rated Comments

chriswhv6 Avatar
3 weeks ago

For what it's worth, both the Earpods and Airpods 2 fit in my ears extremely well. The AirPods Pro and AirPods 3rd gen do not.

That said, if the Earpods fall out of your ears easily, I feel like Airpods 3rd gen will work best for your ears. If I remember correctly, the 2nd gen Airpods are a little smaller than the Earpods, but still fit pretty similar. Airpods 3 are larger than both of those.
Yeah im starting to think perhaps AirPods 3 for the shape might be the ones i have to go for now....
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)
CausticSoda Avatar
9 months ago

Beware! The fit of the AirPod 3 is not the same as the AirPod 2! They are definitely not the same form! I loved the 2's but upgraded to the 3's for all the great reasons noted above. Unfortunately, the 3's, just like the AirPod Pros, would not stay in my ears securely and I was forced to return them for a new set of 2's. I would also note that the different interchangeable tips for the Pro did not solve the problem. At the risk of speaking heresy, I would also note that I actually prefer the sound of the 2's, with less brilliance and a better bass presence. I would also add that in my experience they are easier on the ears and easier to listen to for extended periods. I heard from the Apple Store personal that others had returned theirs with the same complaint, so be sure to try them out with this in mind.
I could not agree more! This has been my experience. It seems likely that in a quest for more features (which the 3's/pros undeniably have) a compromise was made on how well they would fit the average ear. I have 3's and 2's and I recently bought the Beats Fit Pro (or whatever stupid name they have) and these do fit much better than the 3's, with the same features as the AirPod pros and 3's. These could be worth a look. I use the small tips and the "wings" are good at keeping them in place. It must still be said, nothing is as comfortable as my 1's were and now my 2's. I like what features the new devices offer, though, and envy people with large ear cavities! If I could have a pro that fitted like my 2's, I would be very happy.
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)
mikext Avatar
3 weeks ago

Hope someone could answer me this question i have...
Out of curiosity i tried to wear the included EarPods that came wth my iPhone X and they just simply will not stay in my ears.....keep falling out especially if i lay down on the bed for example.

So my question is do the AirPods 2nd gen the shape of them match more closely to wired EarPods.
Im thinking the 3rd gen are different shape??

I truly wanted to pick up a pair of AirPods but i cant decide which ones to go for :/
For what it's worth, both the Earpods and Airpods 2 fit in my ears extremely well. The AirPods Pro and AirPods 3rd gen do not.

That said, if the Earpods fall out of your ears easily, I feel like Airpods 3rd gen will work best for your ears. If I remember correctly, the 2nd gen Airpods are a little smaller than the Earpods, but still fit pretty similar. Airpods 3 are larger than both of those.
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Related Stories

Universal Control Colored Feature

Universal Control: Everything You Need to Know

Thursday February 3, 2022 1:48 pm PST by
iOS 15.4 and macOS Monterey 12.3 introduce Universal Control, a long-awaited feature that Apple first previewed at the 2021 Worldwide Developers Conference. Universal Control is designed to allow you to control multiple Macs and iPads with a single trackpad/mouse and keyboard, and this Universal Control guide covers the ins and outs of the feature and answers all the questions you might have ...
iphone 13 matte black bronze and lurid

What to Expect at the September 14 Apple Event: iPhone 13, Apple Watch Series 7, and More

Friday September 10, 2021 1:04 pm PDT by
Apple is holding its annual iPhone-centric event on Tuesday, September 14, and like last year, it will be entirely digital. We've been hearing rumors about what's coming for many months now, so we have a good idea of what to expect. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. We're expecting the new iPhone 13 models and Apple Watch Series 7 models to debut at the event, along...
MAsk On Face ID iOS 15

iOS 15.4 Features: Everything New in iOS 15.4

Monday March 14, 2022 1:45 pm PDT by
Apple today released iOS 15.4 and iPadOS 15.4, the fourth major updates to the iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 operating systems that first came out in September. iOS and iPadOS 15.4 are huge updates that bring quite a few useful new features to the iPhone and the iPad. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Face ID With a Mask With iOS 15.4, there is now an option to unlock your...
ipad pro vs air early 2022

iPad Air 2022 vs. iPad Pro 2021 Buyer's Guide

Wednesday March 9, 2022 1:59 pm PST by
In March 2022, Apple introduced the fifth-generation iPad Air, featuring the M1 chip, 5G connectivity, and a new front-facing camera system. The updated iPad Air comes almost a year after in Apple introduced its current iPad Pro lineup, which also features the M1 chip and 5G connectivity, but sports a number of high-end features like ProMotion and a Thunderbolt port. The introduction of the...
iphone se 3 vs iphone 11

iPhone SE 3 vs. iPhone 11 Buyer's Guide

Wednesday March 9, 2022 9:34 am PST by
The third-generation iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 are Apple's lowest-cost iPhone options, starting at $429 and $499 respectively. Apple released the iPhone 11 in late 2019, and has bumped it down in price since then to make it more accessible as new iPhone models have been released. On the other hand, the third-generation iPhone SE launched in early 2022, refreshing the most affordable iPhone...
Lossless Support Feature

Apple Music Lossless: What Devices are Supported?

Tuesday May 18, 2021 9:17 am PDT by
Apple in June 2021 added new Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless tiers to Apple Music, but so far, it's a bit confusing trying to determine which devices support Apple Music's Lossless Audio and which devices do not. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. This guide covers everything that we know so far about Lossless Audio, and we'll be updating it as we learn more. What is...
ipad mini vs air early 2022

iPad Air 5 vs. iPad Mini 6 Buyer's Guide

Thursday March 10, 2022 10:49 am PST by
Apple recently introduced the fifth-generation iPad Air, featuring the M1 chip, 5G connectivity, and an upgraded front-facing camera system. Last year, Apple introduced the sixth-generation iPad mini, offering an iPad Air-style redesign with a larger display, the A15 Bionic chip, and more. The iPad mini now effectively shares the design of the iPad Air, with both devices possessing many of...
iPhone SE 2022 Red Feature

Everything We Expect to See From Tomorrow's Apple Event

Friday March 4, 2022 1:18 pm PST by
Apple is set to hold its first event of 2022 on Tuesday, March 8 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time. Apple's spring events sometimes aren't as exciting as the September and October events, but it's nice to have new devices on the horizon in the new year. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. For the 2022 spring event, we're expecting a refreshed version of the iPhone SE, a new...

Popular Stories

iphone 14 pro max vs 13 max 2

Camera Comparison: iPhone 14 Pro Max vs. iPhone 13 Pro Max

Thursday September 29, 2022 7:44 am PDT by
The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max introduce some major improvements in camera technology, adding a 48-megapixel lens and low-light improvements across all lenses with the new Photonic Engine. We've spent the last week working on an in-depth comparison that pits the new iPhone 14 Pro Max against the prior-generation iPhone 13 Pro Max to see just how much better the iPhone 14 Pro Max can be. Subscrib ...
tony blevins car

Apple Procurement VP Departs Company After Vulgar TikTok Comment

Thursday September 29, 2022 12:38 pm PDT by
Tony Blevins, Apple's vice president of procurement, is set to depart the company after he made a crude comment about his profession in a recent TikTok video, reports Bloomberg. Blevins was in a video by TikTok creator Daniel Mac, who was doing a series on the jobs of people he spotted with expensive cars. After seeing Blevins in an expensive Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, Mac asked Blevins what ...
Dark Sky App Featured

Dark Sky Removed From iOS App Store Ahead of Upcoming Shutdown

Wednesday September 28, 2022 4:27 pm PDT by
The Dark Sky weather app that's owned by Apple is no longer available for download in the U.S. App Store, suggesting that it has been removed ahead of schedule. Apple acquired Dark Sky back in March 2020 and has since incorporated elements of the app into the Weather app available on the iPhone (and soon, the iPad). Dark Sky remained available for purchase as a standalone weather app...
adaptive transparency airpods pro

iOS 16.1 Beta Brings Adaptive Transparency to Original AirPods Pro

Thursday September 29, 2022 1:08 pm PDT by
The third beta of iOS 16.1 that was released earlier this week expands the Adaptive Transparency feature introduced with the second-generation AirPods Pro to the original AirPods Pro. As noted on Reddit, first-generation AirPods Pro owners who also have the AirPods beta software will now see an "Adaptive Transparency" toggle in the AirPods section of the Settings app. The 5A304A beta...
tim cook malala

Tim Cook: Not Too Long From Now, You'll Wonder How You Led Your Life Without AR

Thursday September 29, 2022 7:26 am PDT by
Speaking at Università Degli Studi di Napoli Federico II in Naples, Italy, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that not too long from today, people will wonder how they led a life without augmented reality, stressing the "profound" impact it will have on the not so distant future. At the university, Cook was awarded an Honorary Degree in Innovation and International Management and also sat down for a...
iOS 16 Wallpaper Spectrum Feature

Five Wallpaper Apps to Check Out for iOS 16's New Lock Screen Depth Effect

Thursday September 29, 2022 9:08 am PDT by
One of the biggest new features in iOS 16 is a completely redesigned iPhone Lock Screen. The new Lock Screen is entirely customizable, letting you change the colors and fonts, add widgets and new wallpapers, and more to make your iPhone uniquely yours. Of course, even before iOS 16, you could customize your Lock Screen with a wallpaper of your choice. iOS 16 takes the Lock Screen wallpaper...
maxresdefault

Apple Responds to Video Testing Crash Detection Feature With Junkyard Vehicles

Friday September 30, 2022 9:11 am PDT by
The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern recently traveled to Michigan to test Apple's new crash detection feature on the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch Ultra. In response, Apple provided some additional information about how the feature works. Stern recruited Michael Barabe to crash his demolition derby car with a heavy-duty steel frame into two unoccupied vehicles parked in a junkyard — a 2003...
iphone 14 iphone 14 plus in hand feature

iPhone 14 Is Secretly Hiding a Beloved Mac Feature

Friday September 30, 2022 3:24 am PDT by
The iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro models bring over a longstanding Mac feature, but the setting to enable it is off by default. The feature, which is actually a new accessibility option, allows the iPhone to play a startup chime like the Mac. When enabled, the sound comes alongside a new shutdown chime. The Mac has featured a startup chime since 1987's Macintosh II, and the iconic "bong"...
Hero0005

Best Apple Deals of the Week: M2 MacBook Air Hits New All-Time Low Price at $1,049, Plus Sales on AirPods Pro and More

Friday September 30, 2022 9:05 am PDT by
This week's best Apple deals focus on the AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro 2, and M2 MacBook Air, including numerous all-time low prices on these devices. You'll also find up to 50 percent off discounts on Anker and Eufy accessories on Amazon. Note: MacRumors is an affiliate partner with some of these vendors. When you click a link and make a purchase, we may receive a small payment, which helps us...
iPhone 15 to Switch From Lightning to USB C in 2023 feature sans arrow

Kuo: iPhone 14 Pro Max Popularity Could Lead to More Differentiation Between iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max

Wednesday September 28, 2022 10:22 am PDT by
Apple has seen high demand for the 6.7-inch iPhone 14 Pro Max, which could lead the company to further differentiate the next-generation iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max, according to Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. Apple could add exclusive features to the iPhone 15 Pro Max in an effort to encourage more people to purchase the larger and more expensive device. Kuo last week said that Apple asked...