The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) seems to one-up the AirPods (2nd generation) in just about every way. The third-generation AirPods has an IPX4 rating, MagSafe charging case, and supports features like spatial audio. However, even with all these new goodies, it retains the worst feature of the AirPods (2nd gen): an unsealed fit. You may be tempted to get the AirPods (3rd gen), but newer isn’t always better. In fact, you might just be better off with something else altogether.

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

Apple slightly tweaked the look of the AirPods (3rd generation), with a more rounded and slightly angled earbud shape compared to the AirPods (2nd generation). Shorter stems also prop the newer AirPods up, compared to the second generation’s long, spindly stems.

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

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a slightly angled design that supposedly makes it more comfortable.

With the third-gen model, you get a more comfortable fit against the outer ear, but a worse fit at the actual ear canal entrance. Neither headset will feel particularly secure, but the AirPods (3rd generation) has an IPX4 water-resistant rating. You can also safely bring the newer AirPods to the gym without short-circuiting the internals, something the second-generation AirPods can’t guarantee.

You get plenty of advanced sensors packed into either pair of AirPods. Apple adds a skin-detect sensor to the AirPods (3rd generation) in lieu of the optical sensor of older AirPods. Due to the newer sensor, automatic play/pause works much better on the newer AirPods than before. When you remove the third-gen earbuds and place them in your pocket music doesn’t automatically resume. If you do the same thing with the AirPods (2nd gen), music starts back up while the buds are in your pocket.

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

The AirPods (2nd generation) doesn’t have a skin sensor like the third-gen AirPods.

Apple also replaces the unmarked touch-sensitive region of the AirPods (2nd gen) with a force sensor on the AirPods (3rd gen) stems. The force sensor here operates the same as it does on the AirPods Pro, through a series of taps and squeezes. Both sets of earphones house the H1 chip for hands-free access to Siri, so you can change the volume, send messages, search the internet, and more.

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

When you use the AirPods with an iPhone or iPad, you can go into the Settings app. From there, you must open the Bluetooth settings to remap the controls. Prompts will ask you what you want to do with each stem.

Below are the default controls for the AirPods.

Action (stems)Either earbud
One tapPlay/pause
Two tapsSkip forward
Three tapsPrevious track
Press and holdSiri
"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.

The new case diverges from previous generations’ cases, more closely mirroring that of the AirPods Pro.

The AirPods (3rd generation) case looks a whole lot more like the AirPods Pro case than it does like the AirPods (2nd gen) case. You get a more stout build with the third-gen AirPods. You can use the third-generation case on the same MagSafe charger that you use with your iPhone 13.

You don’t get a MagSafe case with the AirPods (2nd gen), and if you want wireless charging you have to pay a bit extra. The AirPods (2nd generation) comes in two tiers: wired case and wireless case. Even if you fork out for the wireless case of the AirPods (2nd gen), you’ll still come out spending less than you would on the third-generation AirPods.

Is there an app for 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.

The AirPods (2nd generation) works on both Android and iOS, but you don’t any special software features when paired with an Android device.

There isn’t an official app in the Apple App Store to control and customize your AirPods. In order to receive software and firmware updates to any AirPods device, you need an iPad or iPhone.

Related: The best iPhone earbuds

From the iPadOS or iOS Settings app, you can adjust the touch controls, toggle automatic ear detection, use the Apple Find My AirPods feature, select which microphone (left or right earbud) the AirPods uses for phone calls, and more. On the whole, the AirPods (3rd generation) and AirPods (2nd generation) software features are very similar except for one thing: spatial audio.

What is spatial audio on the AirPods (3rd generation)?

The spatial audio pop-up on an iPad Pro.

Like the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, the AirPods (3rd generation) is compatible with Apple’s Spatial Audio and head tracking.

Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos is Apple’s version of 3D sound and it uses head-tracking technology to create a more realistic, immersive experience with music and movies. Apple introduced Spatialize Stereo with the AirPods (3rd generation), which doesn’t require source material with more than two channels to work. Spatialize Stereo isn’t particularly great, but it works well on tracks initially mixed in mono.

Apple’s spatial audio works just with the AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, AirPods (3rd generation), and the Beats Fit Pro.

What Bluetooth codecs does 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.

To take advantage of automatic ear detection, you need an iPhone or iPad.

Both sets of AirPods support the same Bluetooth codecs: SBC and AAC, the latter of which provides high-quality audio to Apple devices at a consistent rate. Bluetooth version 5.0 powers the third and second-gen AirPods, so there’s no difference in performance there.

Connection quality is excellent with either AirPods when paired to an iPhone because both use the H1 chip for energy efficiency and a fast pairing process. Once either AirPods establishes a connection to your iOS device, it’s immediately recognizable to all of your Apple devices under the same iCloud account. This matters for auto-connect and automatic device switching between products.

The old and new Apple AirPods (2019) next to each other.

Apple AirPods of all generations always play better with iPhones than Android phones.

Android users don’t get to take advantage of any H1 chip benefits, so you may see less stable connection quality and less efficient power consumption. To add insult to injury, the AAC Bluetooth codec is inconsistent across Android hardware. If you opt to buy the AirPods to use with an Android device, you might have the best luck with SBC. We really don’t recommend the AirPods to Android owners—there are plenty of other non-Apple true wireless earbuds to choose from.

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

The AirPods (3rd generation) has better battery life than the second generation. After subjecting each pair of AirPods to a constant 75dB(SPL), we found that the AirPods (2nd generation) lasted 4 hours, 7 minutes, and the AirPods (3rd generation) has a battery life of 6 hours, 21 minutes.

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

The AirPods (2nd gen) case doesn’t include wireless charging by default like the AirPods (3rd gen) does.

This improvement in battery life between generations extends to the charging cases too. The AirPods (3rd gen) case provides an extra four charge cycles, totaling over 30 hours of playtime, while the AirPods (2nd gen) case provides just under four extra charges for a combined battery life of just over 24 hours.

See: How to make your AirPods battery last longer

Only the AirPods (3rd generation) case supports MagSafe, but both cases can charge wirelessly and via Lightning connector. 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) supplies 60 minutes of playtime after a 5-minute charge. Yes, this is the same efficiency, just listed differently on Apple’s website.

Does either set of AirPods block out background noise?

No matter which way you slice it, both generations of the Apple AirPods have poor isolation and do virtually nothing to quiet your surroundings. What’s more, neither AirPods supports active noise cancellation (ANC). For those who want ANC and to remain within the Apple family, you need the Beats Studio Buds or Apple AirPods Pro.

While we often belabor how an unsealed ear canal is bad for sound quality, it can be quite a good thing for safety. Just know that if you end up purchasing either of these AirPods, 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.

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

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

We use a Bruel & Kjaer 5128 test head to perform isolation and frequency response tests with each set of AirPods.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and second-generation have vaguely similar frequency responses in that neither sounds particularly good. An unsealed ear further diminishes sound quality through either AirPods. Take these charts with a grain of salt as we conduct the tests under ideal (quiet) conditions. Both headsets under-emphasize sub-bass notes, and boost upper-bass and treble notes to varying degrees.

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

The second-gen AirPods (cyan) produces a bit more sub-bass than the third-gen AirPods (yellow dash), but this may have to do with how the older AirPods buds have tapered ear tips that get a bit closer to the ear canals.

Neither AirPods sound profile hews particularly close to our consumer curve, but the AirPods (3rd generation) has more advanced software and hardware. It uses bass reflex ports and Adaptive EQ, which adjusts the low and midrange frequencies to compensate for the unsealed design. Even with the advanced audio software baked into the AirPods (3rd generation), its wide deviations from our house curve give it a lower overall sound quality score than the AirPods (2nd generation).

Relatively speaking, the AirPods (3rd generation) makes treble notes sound about twice as loud as they do through the second-gen AirPods. Meanwhile, the AirPods (2nd gen) boosts upper-bass notes (100Hz) to make them sound almost two times louder than the third-gen AirPods. You can’t create a custom EQ with either set of AirPods, so you’re stuck with what Apple deems best.

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

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

With an iPhone, you can choose which AirPods earphone mic you want to use.

The AirPods (3rd generation) microphone quality is very good and an improvement over the previous generation. Each model houses a slew of accelerometers and sensors in each housing to promote clear voice transmission, but the AirPods 3 does it better. Take a listen to our microphone demos below and decide for yourself!

Apple AirPods (2nd generation) microphone demo:

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo:

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

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

 Apple AirPods (1st generation)Apple AirPods (2nd generation)Apple AirPods (3rd generation)Apple AirPods Pro
Size (earbud)40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm30.8 x 18.3 x 19.2 mm30.9 x 21.8 x 24 mm
Size (case)44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm46.4 x 21.4 x 54.4 mm45.2 x 60.6 x 21.7 mm
Weight (earbud)4g4g4.3g5.4g
IP certificationN/AN/AIPX4IPX4
Fit typeOpenOpenOpenSealed (three ear tip sizes)
BluetoothSBC, AACSBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0SBC, AAC; Bluetooth 5.0
Active noise cancellationNoNoNoHybrid ANC
Wireless charging available?NoYes, with wireless charging caseYes and MagSafe compatibleYes and MagSafe compatible (2021)
ChipsetW1H1H1H1
Touch controlsYesYesYes, with force sensorYes, with force sensor
ConnectorLightningLightningLightningLightning
Battery life (75dB SPL)3.45 hours4.175 hours6.35 hours5.1125 hours
Original price (USD)(Discontinued)$159, $199 with wireless charging case$179$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.

The AirPods (3rd gen) has bass reflex ports on the top edge of the earbuds. If you force the main nozzle output into the ear canal you don’t get the low-end contribution from the rear port.

To be frank, we don’t recommend that you buy either the AirPods (3rd generation) or the AirPods (2nd generation) when the AirPods Pro, and a slew of other excellent earbuds under $200 exist. Again, the open-type fit of second and third-gen AirPods has its place where safety is concerned, but if you value sound quality and don’t mind listening in mono mode when you need to hear your surroundings, we implore you to spend your money on a different headset.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

Now, if you’re still set on getting one of the AirPods discussed today, let us nudge you towards the AirPods (3rd generation). The AirPods 3 has more advanced software, bass-reflex ports, and IPX4 rating, all of which the AirPods (2019) lacks. Apple does a great job releasing software updates to all of its wireless devices from the AirPods Max to the Homepod mini, but the AirPods (2nd gen) is years older than the third gen. With that, you can expect Apple to discontinue software support for the second generation sooner than the third-gen AirPods.

Apple AirPods (2nd generation)
All prices listed in USD unless otherwise specified. Prices may change over time, and vary by region. Unfortunately, we cannot list Amazon prices on the site, as they vary greatly by currency.

See also: The best true wireless earbuds

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

The most obvious recommendation over either set of earbuds is the AirPods Pro. With these AirPods, you get buds that seal to the ear, a wireless charging case (MagSafe-compatible if bought after Oct 6, 2021), noise cancelling, and much more. While the AirPods Pro is generally more expensive than either open-fit AirPods discussed today, it’s a much better investment.

Another fine option that we alluded to is the Beats Studio Buds. This is another set of ANC earphones with a slightly bass-heavy sound. What really makes the Studio Buds special is that it works just as well on Android as it does on iOS. Save for hands-free access to Siri, you get all the same software features with the Beats Studio Buds on any handset. The IPX4 rating makes the Studio Buds a fine option for the gym. Although, if you want something even more gym friendly, look into the compact Beats Fit Pro, or Beats Powerbeats Pro for insanely long battery life.

The Bose Sport Earbuds true wireless workout earbuds sit outside of the closed charging case, all objects are covered in sprinkles of water.

The Bose Sport Earbuds boasts an IPX4 water-resistance rating and great touch controls.

Other great options outside of Apple’s reach include the Bose Sport Earbuds and Jabra Elite Active 75t. Listeners who want a comfortable, secure fit and excellent sound quality can’t do much better than Bose’s earphones. The Elite Active 75t may be a bit older than the Jabra Elite 7 Pro, but it still holds up well with its IP57 rating and excellent companion app.

Next: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

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