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

Earlier this year, 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.

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 (Buy Now)
Related Forum: AirPods

Related Stories

AirPods 3 vs Pro Buyers Guide Feature 2

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro Buyer's Guide

Wednesday October 20, 2021 12:45 pm PDT by
Earlier this year, 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. Should you consider purchasing the $179 third-generation AirPods, or do you need the higher-end AirPods Pro, which sell for $249? Our guide helps to answer the question of how to...
AirPods Gen 3 Feature

AirPods 3: Everything We Know So Far

Saturday January 23, 2021 10:02 am PST by
October 18: Apple has announced the third-generation AirPods, available to order now ahead of an October 26 launch. This guide will be updated shortly. Apple is working on a third-generation version of the AirPods, and for this updated version rumored to be launching in 2021, we could see some design changes for the first time since the AirPods came out in 2016. This guide covers everything...
AirPods Pro Gen 2 Feature2

AirPods Pro 2: Everything We Know So Far

Wednesday January 13, 2021 12:42 pm PST by
Since the AirPods Pro were released in October 2019, we haven't seen an updated version, but that could change in 2021. Apple is rumored to be working on a new version of the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Pro 2, and there could be some design changes in store. This guide covers everything that we know so far about the AirPods Pro 2. Design Changes The AirPods Pro already feature a shorter...
iOS 15

iOS 15.1 Features: Everything New in iOS 15.1

Monday October 25, 2021 2:02 pm PDT by
Apple today released iOS 15.1, the first major update to the iOS 15 operating system that was released in September. iOS 15.1 introduces new features that were delayed from iOS 15 plus it adds camera improvements for iPhone 13 Pro users. This guide highlights everything that's been added in the iOS 15.1 update. SharePlay Integrated into the FaceTime app, SharePlay is a feature that's...
Ports 2021 MacBook Pro Mockup Feature 1 copy

What to Expect From October 18 'Unleashed' Apple Event: New MacBook Pros, AirPods 3 and More

Friday October 15, 2021 2:10 pm PDT by
Apple's first fall event of 2021 focused on the iPhone and the Apple Watch, but the second, set to be held on Monday, October 18, is expected to be Mac-centric. The upcoming event will see the debut of the highly anticipated 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pro models, plus we could also get refreshed AirPods and a new Mac mini. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. This guide...
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...
iOS 15

Everything New in iOS 15.2 Beta 2: Legacy Contacts, Hide My Email Improvements, and More

Tuesday November 9, 2021 3:17 pm PST by
Apple today released the second beta of an upcoming iOS 15.2 update to developers for testing purposes, and the software update adds quite a few new features. This guide highlights everything new that we've found in the second iOS 15.2 beta. Legacy Contacts With Legacy Contacts, you can set a trusted person to be able to access your Apple ID and your data (or "Digital Legacy") after you...
2020 iMac Mockup Feature teal

Apple's 2022 iMac Pro: Everything We Know

Friday November 12, 2021 2:14 pm PST by
Apple is working on a redesigned version of the larger-screened iMac that could bring back the "iMac Pro" name to differentiate it from the 24-inch iMac that Apple released in 2021. The larger iMac is expected to have an updated design, M1 Pro/Max chips, and a mini-LED display, and it could launch in the first half of 2022. Design The upcoming iMac will be similar in design to the 24-inch...
Apple Watch Series 8 What We Know Feature 2

Apple Watch Series 8: Rumors, Specs, Release Date

Friday October 29, 2021 2:02 pm PDT by
We're still many months away from the launch of the Apple Watch Series 8, but we're already hearing details about Apple's next-generation wrist-worn device. This guide aggregates everything we know about the Apple Watch Series 8 so far based on rumors. Note that it's still early, so these features have yet to be confirmed. Design and Size Options Little is known about the design of the...
iphone se vs

iPhone SE vs. iPhone 11 Buyer's Guide

Thursday October 14, 2021 8:54 am PDT by
The iPhone SE and iPhone 11 are Apple's lowest-cost iPhone options, starting at $399 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 iPhone SE launched in early 2020 as a low-cost iPhone option. With just $100 between them, should you get the ...