AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: which is best for you?

Airpods 3 vs AirPods Pro
(Image credit: Apple/Future)

For so many of us, a good pair of headphones are essential, not just for our leisure time, but for work as well. Whether you find your concentration gets a boost while listening to music, or you need some solid earbuds for frequent video calls, top-notch earphones can make a real difference.

And when it comes to earphones, Apple makes some of the best: AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro. But which are best audio quality? Which offer the most features? And is it worth paying extra for the AirPods Pro? Our guide will help you find the answers. And once you’ve decided, we can even help you find a great AirPods deal as well. For more on Apple's offerings, see our best Apple headphones guide.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: design

A pair of AirPods Pro inside their Magsafe Charging Case.

The AirPods Pro look pretty similar to the AirPods 3 (Image credit: Apple)

It used to be easy to tell the difference between regular AirPods and AirPods Pro simply by looking at them, since they had such different designs. AirPods had the longer stems of the product’s original design, while AirPods Pro took on a much stumpier appearance. Now, AirPods 3 have the same short-stem look as AirPods Pro, meaning both sets of earphones only protrude a small amount from your ears.

There always used to be one way to tell the difference, though, and it’s still true today: The ear tips. AirPods Pro have rubberised tips, making for a snug fit in your ears that is essential to enabling their active noise cancellation (ANC). Since AirPods 3 lack ANC, they go without the rubber tips and just use the same plastic moulding as the rest of the device instead.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: battery life

A pair of Apple AirPods 3 next to each other.

These AirPods 3 last for up to six hours on a single charge (Image credit: Apple)

When thinking about AirPods battery life, there are two things to consider: The battery life of the earphones outside their charging case, and the total battery life you’ll get before everything needs to be recharged. That’s because the MagSafe charging cases for both AirPods products juice up the earphones every time they’re placed inside. Each case can do this multiple times before it itself needs to be recharged.

AirPods 3 last for up to six hours of listening time on a single charge, five hours with ANC enabled, or four hours of call time. You’ll then get four additional charges from the charging case.

For AirPods Pro, those numbers are slightly lower: five hours of listening time on one charge, 4.5 hours with ANC enabled, or 3.5 hours of talk time. Apple says you’ll get “more than 24 hours of listening time,” including the charges from the case.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: features

A person standing in a subway station wearing a pair of Apple AirPods Pro and looking at their phone.

Decide whether you want to tune in or tune out (Image credit: Apple)

The most obvious difference in terms of features is that AirPods Pro have active noise cancellation, which helps cut out distractions so you can focus on what you are listening to. A similar feature only found on AirPods Pro is Transparency mode, which does the opposite to ANC by letting more sound in when you’re wearing the earphones, helping you be more aware of the world around you.

Both products feature spatial audio with head tracking, meaning you get wraparound sound that changes based on your head’s position, and both also sport a MagSafe charging case, which benefits from 15W charging speeds.

In both instances, you also get the Apple H1 chip, which works with Bluetooth 5.0 and lets you launch Siri with your voice (rather than using the device’s stem like on the first-generation AirPods). This chip also allows for fast and easy connections to other Apple devices.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: sound quality

A person's hand holding a pair of AirPods 3 inside their Magsafe Charging Case.

Your inner ear shape shouldn't matter... (Image credit: Future)

While neither AirPods 3 nor AirPods Pro are likely to convince serious audiophiles of their merits – they aren’t $1,000 headphones, after all – they both offer superb sound quality for pretty much everyone else. 

Both models offer a feature called Adaptive EQ. Apple says this uses a microphone to monitor the sound inside your ear, then adjusts the audio output based on the earphones’ fit. That should mean you get great audio no matter the shape of your inner ears.

You also get spatial audio with both AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro. This creates a virtual space around your head when using the earphones, giving you 360-degree audio whatever you listen to.

Despite the similarities, we think the AirPods Pro pull ahead by a whisker thanks to their ANC, which can help give you a more immersive listening experience. It’s extremely close, however, and AirPods 3 still offer superb sound quality.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: price

A pair of Apple AirPods Pro next to each other.

AirPods Pro will cost you more than the AirPods 3 (Image credit: Future)

Price is one area where AirPods 3 take home the prize. For one thing, they’re more affordable, costing $179 (£169) to the AirPods Pro’s $249 (£239). Neither are exactly cheap, but if you’re on a more limited budget, AirPods 3 are certainly the more wallet-friendly option.

But there’s another aspect to this: Value for money. When Apple added some of the AirPods Pro’s best features to the AirPods 3, including Adaptive EQ and spatial audio, they closed the gap between the devices considerably. If you don’t care too much about active noise cancellation, AirPods 3 are a very tempting option and represent truly excellent value for money, considering how much you get for the price.

It’s also a good idea to watch out for AirPods deals. While Apple rarely cuts the price of its AirPods range, third-party retailers frequently put them on sale. Our round-up page will keep you in the loop.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro: the verdict

A person wearing Apple AirPods 3 in the rain.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro may just be a question of budget (Image credit: Apple)

Deciding whether to buy AirPods 3 or AirPods Pro depends in large part on how much you’re willing to pay. If money is no object, AirPods Pro will give you the most features and the best performance Apple has to offer – not counting the $549 (£549) AirPods Max, of course. If, on the other hand, price is more of a concern, AirPods 3 will be more up your street without forcing you to miss out on much.

And that last part is pertinent. Apple has managed to make AirPods 3 tremendous value: Not only do they have almost all the same features as AirPods Pro, but they have better battery life too. If active noise cancellation is essential to you, get the AirPods Pro. For everyone else, the AirPods 3 will likely be the best choice. 

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Alex Blake

Alex Blake is a freelance tech journalist who writes for Creative Bloq, TechRadar, Digital Trends, and others. Before going freelance he was commissioning editor at MacFormat magazine, focusing on the world of Apple products. His interests include web design, typography, and video games.