When Apple unveiled the first pair of AirPods in 2016, little did we know that they would go on to shape the true wireless earbuds market.
Unlike Apple-owned Beats headphones with a variety of models geared towards specific types of wearers and lifestyles, AirPods have just three main models that run to the original AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max. Each design continues to rank among the best wireless headphones we've ever tested thanks to the slick iOS integration, superb comfort and sound quality, making it easy to understand why they're so well regarded.
The designs may not be for everyone but, nevertheless, they have become synonymous with the wireless earbud sector and triggered every rival maker to introduce their own wireless earbuds to get in on the action. Some even figured out how to create smaller, sturdier, and more stylish AirPods alternatives.
Despite a narrow choice of models compared to Beats, AirPods designs are seriously versatile and stand out among the best wireless headphones, best wireless earbuds, best noise-cancelling earbuds, and the best sports headphones we've ever tested.
To find out which model is right for you, keep reading and we’ll explain all about the best Apple AirPods headphones we've tested.
The best Apple AirPods you can buy right now
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We have been blown away by the AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) since Apple launched them in September 2022. They are without doubt the best earbuds with active noise-cancelation for iPhone users, and the most versatile model for all kinds of lifestyles. This next-gen model brings significant upgrades to the popular original AirPods Pro to take performance to the next level. Externally, they look pretty similar to the first generation (below), but battery life has been increased to offer 6 hours on a single charge from the earbuds and a further 30 hours from the wireless charging case.
Designed for iPhone owners looking for a more tailored listening experience, we think the AirPods Pro 2 are the pinnacle of Apple technology. While testing them out for all kinds of active lifestyle activities, we found that the fit had been improved to the point where they're a viable option for the best sports headphones and suitable for runners and gym workouts alike. Not only are the earbuds IPX4-rated for protection from sweat and light showers, but now too is the case itself.
On the audio front, Apple has included a new H2 chip with custom amp and driver that delivers better lower and higher frequencies, and you can use the iPhone's TrueDepth camera to create a personalized spatial audio sound to listen to some of the best Dolby Atmos sound in any pair of earbuds. Noise cancellation is double what the original AirPods Pro offered and is among the best we’ve yet to experience.
Read our full Apple AirPods Pro 2 review.
Renewed Apple AirPods Pro: was $249 now $169 @ Amazon
Although the first-generation AirPods Pro have officially been discontinued by Apple, Amazon has renewed AirPods Pro models on sale for $169. That's the best cheap AirPods Pro sale we've seen from any retailer (for a refurbished model). They're also backed by a 90-day Amazon guarantee. The AirPods Pro offer both sweat and water resistance (IPX4 certified) along with built-in noise cancellation.
Apple’s third-gen AirPods are the best value for iPhone users. Minus the eartips and noise cancellation, these buds look remarkably similar to the discontinued AirPods Pro not superseded by the AirPods Pro 2. They share many of the same features of the new Pro 2 version, and incorporate MagSafe wireless charging and skin-detect sensors that accurately discern when the buds are in your ears to enable auto-pause/play.
During our tests, we found music and movies were a delight to hear with Apple’s proprietary technologies like Adaptive EQ balancing the sound output, and Spatial Audio support with dynamic head tracking. We loved that the Force Sensor was added to this model for seamless playback control. Best of all, the battery life matches the Pro 2 at 6 hours, which is 1 hour more than AirPods 2 model below, along with 30 hours in total via charging case. Simply put, the AirPods 3 are a great buy for iPhone users unconcerned by ANC. The loose earbuds fit might not work for all, but for anyone looking to avoid inserting eartips into their ear canal, these are the best value AirPods you can buy.
Read our full AirPods 3 review.
Launched in December 2020, the AirPods Max are Apple's luxury over-ear headphones costing $549, although they can regularly be found discounted via online retailers. While the AirPods Pro 2 are a more cost-effective route into Apple's noise-canceling wireless headphones, the AirPods Max demonstrate that you get what you pay for. The impeccable build quality and luxury design offers astonishingly good comfort levels via comfy memory foam earcup padding, and what's more the AirPods Max are available in a choice of five color options including space grey, silver, pink, green, and sky blue.
On a purely technical level, Apple’s first over-ear cans sound absolutely fantastic. Active noise cancelling performs well enough for the AirPods Max to rank as one of the best noise-canceling headphones on the market. Spatial Audio sound on the AirPods Max is superb, and head tracking creates a striking surround sound effect as you move your head.
The 20-hour battery life with ANC remains pretty healthy compared to rivals, although it is one of the areas we're hoping to see improved when the rumored AirPods Max 2 arrive. It’s worth noting that if you ever want to switch to wired listening you’ll need to buy a separate $35 Lightning cable, but on Bluetooth alone Apples first over-ear headphones are an excellent iOS companion.
Read our full Apple AirPods Max review.
Launched in 2019, the AirPods 2 have been usurped by newer models, but they remain available to purchase from the Apple Store for $129 with charging case. Additionally, they can often be found via online retailers for less, and sometimes with the option of a wireless charging case.
Although, the AirPods 2 have fallen behind in terms of the latest iOS support, they were the first to use Apple's H1 chip, offering greater battery life and device switching twice as fast as their 2016 predecessor, and offer some neat tricks like summoning Siri by simply speaking its name, reading incoming messages and answering calls hands free.
Sound quality with music and calls is on a par with the AirPods 3, but audio features forgo Adaptive EQ and Spatial Audio support. Nevertheless, if you're an Apple fan looking for a great but pared down AirPods option that work seamlessly iOS devices, these are a worthy consideration.
Read our full AirPods 2 review.
Apple AirPods specs compared
|Header Cell - Column 0||AirPods 2||AirPods 3||AirPods Pro 2||AirPods Max|
|Price||$129 / £139 / AU$219||$169 / £179/ AU$279||$249 / £249 / AU$399||$549 / £549 / AU$899|
|Battery life (rated)||5 hours||6 hours||6 hours||20 hours|
|Spatial audio with head tracking||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Water resistance||No||Yes (IPX4-rated)||Yes (IPX4-rated)||No|
How to choose the best AirPods for you
Many factors come into play when shopping for the best headphones, but your decision should always come down to intended use. That being said, you’ll want to take the following categories into account before settling on any pair.
Design: Are you looking for in-ear, on-ear or over-ear headphones? Wired or wireless? Luxury or sporty? Since these are headphones that will be used for multiple occasions, you want something that suits your lifestyle. Whatever type you choose, make sure the headphones are well built, easy to carry, and comfy to wear for about 1 to 2 hours daily.
Sound quality: Different models offer different sound, and since you’re buying a pair to enjoy music individually, it’s important to find headphones that match your sound preference, be it heavy bass or distinctively clear to where you can hear the littlest nuances in recordings.
Battery life: We've criticized Apple's battery life in the past, which went from 5 hours to 6 hours with the arrival of AirPods 3 and Pro 2 models, whereas many rivals models run from 8 to 12 hours typically. While the AirPods Max offer 20 hours with ANC enabled, new over-ear designs typically manage around 30 hours of playback time with ANC. Although the AirPods haven't given the strongest playback times we've seen compared to rivals, the real-world durations have remained consistent and we haven't noticed any decrease in capacity with usage over time.
Accessories: It's disappointing spending money on a new pair of headphones only to find that you need to buy the accessories separately. For AirPods 3 and Pro 2 models you'll probably want to add one of our best wireless chargers, although a Lightning charging cable is supplied there's no USB adapter. Additionally, it’s worth noting that if you ever want to switch to wired listening on the AirPods Max, you’ll need to buy a separate $35 Lightning cable, and you may also want to consider one of our best AirPods Max cases and covers to offer better protection than the pouch that's supplied.
Pricing considerations: Obviously, price is a big consideration when looking for the best headphones. Although there are always exceptions, big-name brands will typically command a bit extra, but generally speaking, the less you spend on a pair of headphones the greater the chance that sound and features will be compromised. Going for a budget option isn't always the best choice, as any money you save on your purchase won't do you much good if you're constantly needing to recharge your audio gear, or the sound quality is poor.
As the saying goes: timing is everything; and right now it's worth checking out our best AirPods deals to help you pick up a pair of Apple headphones for less.
How we test the best AirPods headphones
With more than 30 years of experience in testing and reviewing consumer audio products for all kinds of media outlets and big-name brands around the world, the Tom's Guide audio team follows a rigorous test regime when it comes to determining the best products for recommendation in our buying guides.
In determining the best AirPods, we consider fit, battery life, sound quality, design and value (are they worth the price?). We also factor in features like how well the controls work and how easily the earbuds pair with our playback devices.
In terms of sound quality, we listen to many sample tracks that span a number of genres, including hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical and R&B, while evaluating volume, clarity and fullness. We also make phone calls to assess both call quality and microphone performance.
To discover more information on what we listen for during our testing and reviewing process, take a look at our companion page on how to get the best headphone sound for you.
During the testing phase, our reviewers wear each pair of headphones for several hours at a time throughout the course of a week. Reviewers will make a note of the battery life performance in real world use, and assess how well this matches the rated battery life provided by earbud makers.
Star ratings explained:
We evaluate earbuds based on a five-point system (1 = worst, 5 = best). If a product hits nearly every mark, it’s awarded a coveted Recommended badge, while our Best Value award speaks for itself. Only products with truly exceptional performance across the board are awarded an Editor's Choice badge.
Contributions from Alex Bracetti, Nick Pino, Sherri L. Smith, James Archer