MacBook Pro this, MacBook Pro that.

Crikey, that’s all anyone’s talking about, isn’t it? It’s easy to forget that Apple launched a couple of entirely non-laptop-related products during their ‘Unleashed’ event earlier this month.

Unfortunately, they weren’t particularly exciting. We got some new HomePod colours and the long-awaited refresh of AirPods (the non-Pro version).

I’d been waiting for AirPods 3 for quite a while because I have a metric tonne of competing products to compare them against.

Today, I’ll explain the differences between Apple’s wireless earbuds, and try and guide you to the right purchasing decision, based on what you want (or need) from your earbuds.

AirPods 3: What you get

Apple’s big play with AirPods 3 was the significant redesign and Spatial audio. The design borrows pretty much everything from the more expensive AirPods Pro, bar the rubberised, replaceable tips. The stem is much smaller, and the ‘head’ of each AirPod is now more contoured and features a different, more powerful driver.

As a result, they’re less intrusive, more ergonomic, and benefit from IPX4 sweat and water resistance.

Beyond the improved sound (that’s made possible with Apple’s smart Adaptive EQ), Spatial Audio now makes an appearance on Apple’s base model AirPods. Owners will get to enjoy – or be entirely perplexed by – this in the Apple Music app, Apple TV, and even FaceTime calls.

There’s also a force sensor in each AirPod’s stem which provides the rather brilliant pinch control for interacting with the playback controls. I’ll take this over touch-sensitive controls any day of the week.

Add in 6 hours of listening time and up to 30 hours of battery performance with the case (thus comfortably beating the AirPods Pro in both instances), and the new AirPods are quite an upgrade over the old model.

Yes, they’re dangerously close to the AirPods Pro. But there are a couple of notable differences.

AirPods 3: What you don’t get

Apple obviously needed to give AirPods 3 some form of feature deficit to distinguish them from the AirPods Pro.

The first is the absence of noise-cancellation. This was the big selling point of AirPods Pro, and I can confirm that it is superb for in-ear headphones. Combined with the brilliant Transparency Mode, noise-cancellation is one of the main reasons I use AirPods Pro daily for everything bar deep work (which is where I always resort to over-the-ear cans).

Most reviews of AirPods 3 also agree that they’re not quite as impressive as AirPods Pro when it comes to sound quality. This is to be expected; the drivers are, likely, not quite the same spec, and AirPods 3 don’t have the rubberised tips which help create a more air-tight seal around the ear canal – something that is vital for in-ears if you have any interest in sound quality.

That’s about as far as the differences go, but they’re pretty significant depending on your use case and desire for the best sound possible.

AirPods 3 or AirPods Pro? Which is for you?

These are remarkably similar earbuds on paper. Crucially, they both benefit from Apple’s brilliant H1 chip, which makes pairing with your devices a cinch and switching between them equally hassle-free. They’re both brilliant earbuds for calls, too – indeed, I use mine every single day for that task. 

But dig in deeper, and it’s clear that AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro are for two very different sets of users.

Starting with price, AirPods 3 cost $179. AirPods Pro still retail for $249, although you’ll often find them cheaper on Amazon. That’s a pretty significant price difference and will be the immediate deciding factor for anyone who thinks first and foremost about their budget when choosing headphones.

If you’re not fussed about noise-cancelling and just want to upgrade your slowly dying original AirPods, then the AirPods 3 are a great buy. They’ll last you for a considerable amount of time, and the new design, water-proofing, and Adaptive EQ will feel like a tangible upgrade over your previous pair. The fact they feature better battery life than their big brother Pros is a huge feather in the cap, too.

But if you want the absolute best experience that this new form factor has to offer, the AirPods Pro remain the most sensible option on the market for anyone who’s embedded deep within Apple ecosystem. I use mine constantly, and it’s hard to overemphasise just how useful the noise-cancellation is. They’re super comfy, too.

However, these are still expensive earbuds, whether you go for AirPods 3 or AirPods Pro. If the $179 price tag for AirPods 3 is still far more than you’re happy to spend, you’ll be glad to hear that there are some alternatives.

The alternatives

I’ve tried a huge number of alternatives to AirPods, and I think there are three which deserve special mention.

  • SENNHEISER Momentum True Wireless 2. These can now be picked up for around $199, and offer full noise-cancellation, a comfy fit, no stem, and sound which beats the AirPods Pro, hands-down.
  • Creative Outlier Air V3. Entirely acceptable sound, 40-hours battery, and equally acceptable noise-cancelling, the Creative Outliers genuinely surprised me, given that they’re only $59.99.
  • Edifier NB2 Pro True Wireless Earbuds. Ok, they feel a bit cheap, and the case is far bigger than it needs to be… but they’re $79.99, sound great and have noise-cancelling built-in. They stay in my ears while running, too, which is always a bonus.

All of the above require old-fashioned Bluetooth pairing, but they’ll save you a significant amount of cash if AirPods 3 remain too expensive for your tastes.