All products featured are independently chosen by us. However, SoundGuys may receive a commission on orders placed through its retail links. See our ethics statement.
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation)
The Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) has arrived, and comparing it to the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) reveals stark differences between these otherwise similar wireless earbuds. While both pairs of AirPods are made for iPhone owners, you may find the active noise canceling (ANC) Pro model makes more sense. On the other hand, those who prioritize awareness above all else may be more drawn to the unsealed third-gen AirPods.
Let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of these AirPods earbuds and see which makes the most sense for you.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on October 19, 2023 to add the Sony WF-1000XM5 to Alternatives, and to update formatting.
What’s it like to use the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) compared to the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
The most obvious difference between the AirPods Pro and the original AirPods lines is the addition of silicone ear tips. With the second-generation AirPods Pro, you get four sizes (XS-L) of interchangeable ear tips to secure a perfect in-ear fit. Additionally, the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) is the first set of Apple earbuds to feature both an IPX4-rated case and earbuds. The case also features a built-in speaker and lanyard loop, both of which are absent on the standard AirPods case.
Apple’s new H2 chip sits inside the new Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds, and a U1 chip is inside the carrying case. This H2 chip offers incremental improvements, including better wireless connectivity and battery life compared to the H1 chip in the Apple AirPods (3rd generation). The H2 chip also powers the noise canceling on the new AirPods Pro, though the H1 chip does the same on the first-gen AirPods Pro. With the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) case’s U1 chip, you can precisely locate the case separately from the earbuds in the Find My app.
Other than these differences, the two sets of AirPods are very similar. Both earbuds have the same glossy white plastic shell to match their cases, and both have an angled earbud head for a more ergonomic fit than the first- and second-generation AirPods. You even get pressure-sensitive stems with the AirPods Pro (2nd gen) and AirPods (3rd gen) to control media playback and more.
How do you control the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) and Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
The principle behind the controls on the Apple AirPods remains the same as ever. The listener can adjust playback and other settings by squeezing the stem on either earbud. You can exert additional control by saying “Hey, Siri” to check your notifications, make inquiries, and more.
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) controls:
Press and hold
Toggle ANC/Adaptive Transparency modes
Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) controls:
|Action (stems)||Either earbud|
Press and hold
Change volume, request directions, playback control, receive messages, and more
The main difference between the two earbuds is that the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) can increase and decrease the volume without summoning Siri or pulling out your phone to adjust it manually.
Should you use the apps of either Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) or Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
Both the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) and the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) primarily rely on the Settings app already found on all iOS devices. You can enjoy a roughly equivalent set of features, such as personalized Spatial Audio and firmware updates with either pair of buds. The AirPods Pro (2nd generation) has an ear tip fit test that isn’t available with the AirPods (3rd generation). This absence makes sense, given how the standard AirPods earphones don’t have ear tips. Both earbuds also support Find My AirPods, but you can only get the AirPods Pro (2nd gen) case to emit a sound through the integrated speaker.
For the AirPods Pro (2nd generation), you can use the iOS Control Center module to adjust your listening mode (noise canceling, Adaptive Transparency mode, and off). Either headset allows you to use the same Control Center to toggle Spatial Audio on/off along with head tracking.
Android users will find no such software support for these two sets of earbuds on that platform and should look elsewhere for their wireless earbud needs.
How do the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) and Apple AirPods (3rd generation) connect?
Both of these earbuds pair and connect over Bluetooth. The AirPods (3rd generation) uses Bluetooth 5.0, while the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) uses Bluetooth 5.3, enabling better power efficiency and a more stable connection. Regardless of which AirPods you go with, you’ll get support for the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs. The H2 chip allows higher bandwidth connectivity than the H1 chip found in the Apple AirPods (3rd generation).
When you open either AirPods case near an iPhone or iPad, a pop-up card will appear on your Apple device, asking you to connect to the AirPods. Once the headset establishes a connection with your device, all other Apple devices under your iCloud account will recognize the AirPods. Once setup, you’ll experience seamless device switching between Apple devices, and this integration gets iPhone owners to choose AirPods over alternatives.
Is battery life better on the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) or Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
Both the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) and the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have the same official 6 hour battery life. In our testing, the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) pulls ahead slightly at 6 hours, 21 minutes, compared to 5 hours, 43 minutes for the AirPods Pro (2nd generation). While you may notice this difference, you can top up either from the case. Both cases supply up to 24 hours of additional playtime.
Does the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) or Apple AirPods (3rd generation) block noise better?
One of the foremost selling points of the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) is its far superior noise isolation compared to the Apple AirPods (3rd generation). The ear tips effectively block out external noise, assuming you find the tips that fit your ears best. Conversely, the selling point of the AirPods (3rd generation) is that you are aware of your surroundings at all times. This is good for safety purposes, but the effects of auditory masking degrade sound quality.
The AirPods Pro (2nd generation) features active noise canceling, which blows the AirPods out of the water by actively blocking out low to mid-frequency noise. This makes the AirPods Pro a prime choice for commuters or anyone who often finds themselves in a loud environment that might interfere with their listening. When you want to hear your environment, you can enable Adaptive Transparency mode. Unlike the standard Transparency mode found on some H1 chip products, Adaptive Transparency actively reduces the loudness of unpredictable sounds as they happen. We’ve seen something similar from Bose on its QuietComfort Earbuds II.
Does the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) sound better than the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
Overall both the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) and the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have fairly similar frequency response profiles. Both products stick fairly closely to our our headphone preference curve, each with some deviations. The biggest difference is that the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) has a notable drop in output in the sub-bass region, caused by the absence of an acoustic seal. Both sets of earphones sound pleasant, but the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) wins out here with a much “fuller-sounding” low end. Both sets of buds include an Adaptive EQ feature that adjusts the EQ of each earbud to maintain a consistent sound across listeners.
Does the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) or Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have a better microphone?
Both of these products suffer from the usual true wireless earbud issues, with the microphone placed further away from the speaker’s mouth than would be ideal. Nevertheless, they both do a solid job of picking up the voice in ideal conditions. When you take a call with a lot of background noise, the person on the other end of the call will notice a drop in mic quality. You will hear this worsened mic quality in the samples labeled “office conditions.”
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) microphone demo (Office conditions):
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo (Office conditions):
Which microphone sounds better to you?
Editor’s note: Our standardized test setup plays back pre-recorded phrases from a calibrated artificial mouth in our test chamber, either with or without simulated background noises, simulated reverberant spaces, or artificial wind. This means that samples from every product can be directly compared, which makes it far easier to make meaningful comparisons between products in terms of the raw speech quality or the product’s ability to reject noise. While this setup is consistent, it’s unable to allow the earbuds to detect speech as they would in the real world (using vibrations), so you’re likely to experience something different than our demos above.
Should you get the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) or Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
Overall the choice between these Apple headphones leans firmly in favor of the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation). It has an expanded feature set, including ANC for commuters, and improved hardware with the H2 chip managing Bluetooth 5.3 connectivity. Additionally, the ear tips make for greater noise isolation and sound quality.
However, it’s important to consider the gulf in price between the two, a full $80 USD difference. In many ways, they’re still very similar and have comparable battery life, design, and build quality. All of this together makes it worth considering the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) if you’re on a budget or simply prefer the open fit.
What should you get instead of the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) and Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?
Our foremost recommendation for products outside these two AirPods models are the Sony WF-1000XM5 wireless earbuds. These come with excellent sound quality, active noise canceling, and a solid overall fit. Unfortunately, It’s pricier ($298 at Amazon) than either of the AirPods we’ve looked at here, but in our view, it’s justified for the long battery life and overall functionality.
You may also want to consider the Sony LinkBuds S ($148 at Amazon) or the Google Pixel Buds Pro ($119.99 at Best Buy) if you’re looking for something a little more inside the price range. The LinkBuds S has ANC that comes close to the WF-1000XM4, and the anonymous design keeps costs lower. With Google’s earphones, you can get Google Translate directly in your ears, and the ANC is very good.
If you’re a Samsung fan, the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro is where you should look, especially if you want superior active noise canceling and an IPX7 rating. Be aware, though, that there’s no app support for iOS, so it’s definitely primed for Android and Samsung users. You can find these for $179 at Amazon.
Frequently asked questions
Yes, you can connect the AirPods with an Android device, but you may run into issues on Android since there’s no app support. You’ll find difficulty acquiring firmware updates, as well as utilizing some of the neatest features of either of these earbuds. However, some features are still available, such as spatial audio through Apple Music.
The main difference between any generation of the AirPods and the AirPods Pro is the addition of soft ear tips and active noise canceling on the AirPods Pro. There are some smaller differences such as battery life, but the general distinction of the AirPods Pro is those two changes.