Apple AirPods (2nd gen) vs AirPods (3rd gen): Which should you buy?

A blended image of the Apple AirPods (2nd generation) and Apple AirPods (3rd generation) with versus text overlaid.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) seem to one-up the AirPods (2nd generation) in just about every way. With the inclusion of an IPX4 rating, MagSafe charging case, and spatial audio, they seem to be a slam-dunk over their predecessor. But newer doesn’t always mean better. Are the AirPods (3rd generation) worth the upgrade, or are you even better off with another pair of true wireless buds altogether? Find out in this Apple AirPods (2nd generation) vs AirPods (3rd generation) comparison.

Do the AirPods (3rd generation) fit better than the Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?

A hand holds a Apple AirPods (3rd generation) earbud by the stem to reveal the open-type fit and embedded sensors.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) are a bit more rounded and angled than the AirPods (2nd generation), and have shorter stems. That leads to a fit which most people will likely find more comfortable on the outer ear, but less so in the ear canal entrance. Neither set of buds will feel securely anchored in your ears, though. The AirPods (3rd generation) have an IPX4 rating, however, so you can wear them to the gym without any worries about sweat.

On the topic of fit and comfort, wearing detection works via a skin sensor for the AirPods (3rd generation), instead of an optical sensor like with the older model. That means auto play/pause works better than before, and you shouldn’t experience any unwanted starts and stops.

How do you control the AirPods (3rd generation) and (2nd generation)?

The Apple AirPods (2nd generation) on an arts magazine with the case above it, shut.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The touch sensors on the AirPods (2nd generation) were unmarked, but the AirPods (3rd generation) swaps that out for force sensors on the stems. These work the same as on the AirPods Pro with commands assigned to a series of taps and squeezes. If you want to remap these controls, open the Settings app while paired to an iPhone or iPad, and the option will be in the Bluetooth settings section — there’s no way to do it on Android. Prompts will ask you what you want to do with each stem. The defaults are assigned according to the chart below:

Action (stems)Either earbud

One tap

Play/pause

Two taps

Skip forward

Three taps

Previous track

Press and hold

Siri

“Hey Siri”

Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more

How is the AirPods (3rd generation) case different from the AirPods (2nd generation) case?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) open case holds the earbuds and sits on a wood surface.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The AirPods (3rd generation) charging case looks and feels a lot like the AirPods Pro case, rather than the AirPods (2nd generation) case. It now boasts MagSafe compatibility.

The AirPods (2nd generation) case doesn’t have MagSafe and instead comes in two varieties: wired and wireless. The latter option costs more, but it’s still less expensive than the third-gen AirPods.

Is there an app for the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Apple AirPods (2nd generation)?

The AirPods (2nd generation) on top of an iPad and next to the Google Pixel 3.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

Apple does not offer an official app for the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Apple AirPods (2nd generation). You can only install software and firmware updates for either model using an iPhone or iPad.

Within the Settings app of your iOS device, you can change what the touch controls do, enable or disable in-ear detection, use the Find My feature, pick the microphone (left or right) that gets used for calls, and more. The features for both models end up being pretty similar, with the notable exception of spatial audio.

Many manufacturers offer some form of 3D sound for their headphones. Apple’s iteration comes in two flavors. Spatial Audio uses Dolby Atmos and head tracking — it’s quite immersive, but it requires source material specifically created for it. Then there’s Spatialize Stereo, which Apple introduced with the AirPods (3rd generation). It does not require any special source material, but the effect is much less dramatic. However, if your tracks were originally mixed in mono, it can help a bit.

Spatial audio works for the Apple AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, AirPods (3rd generation), and the Beats Fit Pro for now.

What Bluetooth codecs do the AirPods (2nd generation) and AirPods (3rd generation) support?

A hand holds the AirPods (3rd generation) in the right ear while touching the force sensor stem.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

Both the AirPods (2nd generation) and AirPods (3rd generation) support only the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, and they both use Bluetooth 5.0, plus both models use the H1 chip to sync with iOS devices. This gives them a fast and energy-efficient pairing process. Furthermore, all devices under the same iCloud account will recognize each other. As a result, you get automatic device switching if you’re using multipoint, too.

Of course, Android users can’t take advantage of any of these whiz-bang features because Android devices don’t have the H1 chip. Plus, AAC is inconsistent on these devices. For these reasons, we don’t recommend you use any model of AirPods with anything other than Apple devices. There are plenty of alternatives out there, after all.

Do the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have better battery life than the AirPods (2nd generation)?

The Apple AirPods (2nd generation) case with the 'buds inside.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The AirPods (3rd generation) have better battery life than the second generation. Our friends over at SoundGuys put these earbuds to the test and found that the AirPods (2nd generation) lasted four hours, seven minutes while the AirPods (3rd generation) ran for six hours, 21 minutes.

As mentioned above, only the third-gen AirPods support MagSafe, but both have Lightning ports. You can also fast charge the earbuds with either AirPods case: the AirPods (2nd generation) case yields 180 minutes of playtime after a 15-minute charge, and the AirPods (3rd generation) case supplies 60 minutes of playtime after a five-minute charge (technically, that’s the same efficiency, just listed differently on Apple’s website).

Does either set of AirPods block out background noise?

Both generations of the Apple AirPods have poor isolation and do virtually nothing to quiet your surroundings — only the AirPods Pro have noise-cancelling (ANC).

If you end up purchasing either of these, you’re going to hear a lot of your environment and not as much of your music as you may want. As long as you keep the volume down to a reasonable level, this shouldn’t be a problem. Still, don’t expect either of these models to immerse you in your tunes, especially on a bus or train.

Related: Best noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds

AirPods (2nd generation) vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation): Which AirPods sound the best?

A hand holds one of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) to the ear of a head simulator.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and second-generation have vaguely similar frequency responses in that neither sounds particularly good. Neither model seals your ear canal, and both under-emphasize sub-bass notes, and boost upper-bass and treble notes to varying degrees.

However, the AirPods (3rd generation) have more advanced software and hardware. They use bass reflex ports and Adaptive EQ, which adjusts the low and midrange frequencies to compensate for the unsealed design. Still, they can’t make up for the fact that audio masking will occur as a result of the unsealed design.

A chart compares the Apple AirPods (2nd generation) against the AirPods (3rd generation), as compared to the SoundGuys consumer curve.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

Relatively speaking, the AirPods (3rd generation) make treble notes sound about twice as loud as they do through the second-gen AirPods. Meanwhile, the AirPods (2nd gen) boost upper-bass notes (100Hz) to make it sound almost two times louder than the third-gen AirPods. Neither model lets you equalize the buds, so you get what Apple gives you unless you use an EQ within your favorite music player or a third-party EQ app.

Is the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone better than the AirPods (2nd generation)?

A single earphone of the Apple AirPods (2nd generation).

Zak Khan / Android Authority

The AirPods (3rd generation) microphone quality is very good and an improvement over the previous generation. Both models feature a slew of accelerometers and sensors in each housing to promote clear voice transmission, but the third-gen AirPods do it better.

Listen to our mic samples of both models below and decide for yourself:

Apple AirPods (2nd generation) microphone demo:

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo:

What are the specification differences between all in-ear AirPods?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) combine many of the AirPods Pro’s software features with the AirPods (2nd generation) hardware. Take a look at the table below to see how each model compares.

Apple AirPods (1st generation)Apple AirPods (2nd generation)Apple AirPods (3rd generation)Apple AirPods Pro

Size (earbud)

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

30.8 x 18.3 x 19.2 mm

Apple AirPods Pro

30.9 x 21.8 x 24 mm

Size (case)

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

46.4 x 21.4 x 54.4 mm

Apple AirPods Pro

45.2 x 60.6 x 21.7 mm

Weight (earbud)

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

4g

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

4g

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

4.3g

Apple AirPods Pro

5.4g

IP certification

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

N/A

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

N/A

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

IPX4

Apple AirPods Pro

IPX4

Fit type

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

Open

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

Open

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

Open

Apple AirPods Pro

Sealed (three ear tip sizes)

Bluetooth

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

SBC, AAC

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0

Apple AirPods Pro

SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0

Active noise cancellation

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

No

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

No

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

No

Apple AirPods Pro

Hybrid ANC

Wireless charging available?

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

No

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

Yes, with wireless charging case

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

Yes and MagSafe compatible

Apple AirPods Pro

Yes and MagSafe compatible (2021)

Chipset

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

W1

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

H1

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

H1

Apple AirPods Pro

H1

Touch controls

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

Yes

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

Yes

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

Yes, with force sensor

Apple AirPods Pro

Yes, with force sensor

Connector

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

Lightning

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

Lightning

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

Lightning

Apple AirPods Pro

Lightning

Battery life (75dB SPL)

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

3.45 hours

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

4.175 hours

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

6.35 hours

Apple AirPods Pro

5.1125 hours

Original price (USD)

Apple AirPods (1st generation)

(Discontinued)

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)

$159, $199 with wireless charging case

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

$179

Apple AirPods Pro

$249

AirPods (2nd generation) vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation): Which AirPods should you buy?

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) open case holds the earbuds and sits on a wood surface.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

We can’t wholeheartedly recommend you go for either the AirPods (2nd generation) or the Apple AirPods (3rd generation). There are lots of earbuds out there at around the same price point that fit better, stay in your ears more securely, and boast better audio without being platform-exclusive.

But if you really, really want a pair, we suggest the AirPods (3rd generation). The AirPods 3 have more advanced software, bass-reflex ports, and IPX4 rating, all of which the AirPods (2nd generation) lacks. The third-gen model is likely to see a longer support period from Apple, too — it is newer, after all.

What earbuds should you get instead of the AirPods (2nd generation) or the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

Airpods Pro Pairing

Chase Bernath / Android Authority

If you value staying within the Apple ecosystem, you should definitely consider the AirPods Pro ($249). They give you MagSafe charging, noise-cancelling, ear tips that seal, and much more. Sure, they’re more expensive, but you get far more bang for your buck.

However, if unsealed earbuds strike your fancy, then the Urbanista Libson ($49) are worth a look. They even fit better than the AirPods 2nd- and 3rd-generation models, thanks to their winged design.

The Beats Studio Buds ($149) are more Android-friendly than the AirPods (of any generation). They also boast an IPX4 rating, so the gym won’t be a concern — which goes for the Beats Fit Pro ($199), too. Similarly, Bose makes the Bose Sport Earbuds ($179) which have excellent sound plus a secure and comfortable fit. The JBL Reflect Flow Pro ($179) give you a fully-featured app on any platform and they fit average-to-large sized ears well, to boot.

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