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AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Which Apple wireless earbuds should you buy?

The AirPods 3 facing off against the AirPods Pro for our AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro comparison
(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

An AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro comparison will help anyone trying to choose between Apple's newest wireless earbuds and its most premium model.

The new AirPods 3 is a significant upgrade to the hugely successful AirPods 2. It packs new features (e.g., MagSafe charging, skin-detect sensors) and series staples (e.g., “Hey Siri” voice activation, Spatial Audio) into a familiar design. In addition, it comes with something that fans have clamored for since the second-gen version hit store shelves: increased battery life.

All of those upgrades have edged the AirPods 3 firmly into the territory already occupied by the AirPods Pro, one of a select number of products we’ve issued a perfect five-star rating to. 

The Pro gives you adaptive sound, customized fit, and effective active noise cancellation in the smallest AirPods design ever. And its feature set only continues to grow with every new iOS update; we’re anticipating that carrying over onto the rumored AirPods Pro 2.

With so many similarities between them, many people will be trying to decide which of the two to buy — particularly as we're already seeing some excellent AirPods Black Friday deals

But only one of these models can claim the title of Apple’s best wireless earbuds, so check out our full AirPods 3 vs AirPods Pro breakdown below to find out which is the winner.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Specs compared

AirPods 3AirPods Pro
Price$179$249
Wireless chargingYesYes
ChipH1H1
Battery Life (Rated)6 hours, 30 hours (with charging case)4.5 hours (ANC on), 5 hours (ANC off), 24 hours (with charging case)
Water ResistanceIPX4IPX4
Case Size1.83 x 0.84 x 2.14 inches1.8 x 0.9 x 2.4 inches
Case Weight1.34 ounces1.6 ounces
Special featuresAdaptive EQ, spatial audio, automatic switching, audio sharing, announced messages with Siri, Enhance Find My, head tracking, “Hey Siri” voice-activated assistance, Live Listen, Lost Mode, MagSafe chargingActive noise cancellation, transparency mode, adaptive EQ, Spatial Audio, automatic switching, Ear Tip Fit Test, audio sharing, announced messages with Siri, Enhanced Find My, “Hey Siri” voice-activated assistance, Live Listen, MagSafe charging case (2021 version)

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Price

Newer Apple products often carry a high MSRP, but the AirPods 3 launched at a relatively affordable price: $179. This is right in the middle of where Apple launched the AirPods 2, accounting for both the standard ($149) and wireless charging version ($199). Wireless charging is included on the third-gen version.    

The AirPods Pro originally launched for $249, though we’ve seen some retailers drop the price down to as low as $179. Considering how often this model goes on sale, along with its wide range of functionality, it is the more enticing purchase. FYI: Apple lets you engrave either charging case for free when purchasing the AirPods 3 or AirPods Pro on Apple.com.  

Bookmark our AirPods Black Friday deals page, along with our overall best Black Friday deals hub, to be informed of the latest sales and discounts on all Apple products.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Design

A side by side comparison of the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro wireless earbuds

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

From a design perspective, the AirPods 3 is practically the AirPods Pro minus the eartips, and with slightly longer stems. Many of the same details apply, including the black speaker and mic grilles, ergonomic sound port, Force Sensor indentation, and IPX4 water resistance. The all-white plastic casing remains intact, too, which is a scratch-and-scuff magnet for both sets of wireless earbuds and their respective charging cases.

A side by side comparison of the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro wireless charging cases

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Speaking of which, the charging cases are also identical. The only real differentiator is size, and, surprisingly, the AirPods 3 case is the smaller of the two. Other than that, everything else was left untouched. Reference the LED on the front, charging port at the bottom, and pairing button on the back.

If we must choose, smaller earbuds are more aesthetically appealing than smaller charging cases.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Comfort and fit

Our reviewer wearing the AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

iPhone users didn’t realize the importance of ear tips until they used the AirPods Pro for the first time. The tight seal and proper stability they provide make for a secure and comfy wear. Not only can you use the AirPods Pro for working out, but the tips also help to passively block out noise, so you can enjoy full, crisp sound. Apple even went as far as developing an Ear Tip Fit Test that analyzes your ears to determine the best tips for optimal fit.

Noise isolation being tested on the AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Apple’s decision to give the AirPods 3 the same open design as its predecessors isn’t surprising. While the ergonomic sound port allows the buds to rest snugly on the concha and nestle into the canal, it doesn’t go in all the way. Therefore, the risk of falling out is still high.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Controls

The Force Sensor being pressed on the AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Future)

The Force Sensor is one of Apple’s most underrated innovations, and fortunately for us, it is the main input method on both sets of AirPods. It supports single/multi-press and press-and-hold gestures, plus it produces solid tactility to ensure users that intended commands are being met. 

But it’s not just about the Force Sensor. Each model also comes with on-ear detection for accurate auto-pause/play, though the function is activated with different hardware. The AirPods Pro uses dual optical sensors to detect if they are in a user's ear, whereas the AirPods 3 employs all-new skin-detect sensors to do the same.

Testing the force sensor on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

“Hey Siri” voice activation is the other major control option on the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro, operating flawlessly to execute voice commands on the fly. We also love that Apple lets you take advantage of other cool features through Siri functionality, including Announce Messages and Announce Notifications to have incoming updates sent directly to your ear. On top of that, you can do other cool things like control playback and other functions when connected to a current Apple Watch.

Winner: Tie

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Audio quality

Spotify streaming on the AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Industry experts called it and the AirPods 3 received two of the AirPods Pro’s biggest sound features. The first is Adaptive EQ, which is equally great on either. However, the AirPods 3 received newer hardware in the form of a low-distortion driver that pumps out “powerful bass and crisp, clean high frequencies.” Honestly, the average listener won’t be able to tell the difference in audio quality when listening to music on either pair of buds.

Spatial Audio enabled on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Spatial Audio is the other major feature, creating 360-degree sound by using special algorithms and directional audio filters to adjust the frequencies that each ear hears. It’s most serviceable when listening to select songs in Apple Music, watching content from supported streaming services (e.g., Apple TV+, Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max) or taking a FaceTime call. 

All media sounded immersive and lively on the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro; the head-tracking technology adjusted vocals and sound effects accordingly to head positioning. That said, content sounded more immersive on the AirPods Pro, thanks to noise cancellation and the ear tips blocking out external sounds. 

It’s also worth noting that you can hear music from an iPhone or iPad on any two pairs of AirPods via audio sharing, as well as being able to personalize sound through EQs in the iOS sound settings.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Special features

Active noise cancellation being tested on the AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

We knew for the AirPods 3 to be taken seriously, it had to receive most of the same functionality as the AirPods Pro. Apple obliged. This wasn’t too difficult, since everything is tied to the company’s extensive ecosystem and H1 processor, the horsepower behind both models that is also responsible for instantaneous connectivity with iOS/macOS devices. 

We’ve already touched on the several features both models share, including Adaptive EQ, audio sharing, Announce Messages/Notifications, “Hey Siri” voice integration, and Spatial Audio. We’ve also discussed some exclusive features like the Ear Tip Fit Test (AirPods Pro) and skin-detect sensors (AirPods 3). Let’s tap into the rest.

Auto-connect on the Apple AirPods 3

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Enhanced Find My will help you track either set of AirPods while they are within close distance of iDevices or a MacBook, letting you see how close they are in the Find My app or Lost Mode. Automatic switching seamlessly switches the AirPods Pro or AirPods 3 from one Apple device to another, when they are connected to the same iCloud account. Live Listen is also available on the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro, turning on the iPhone mic and sending those sounds to the buds.

Now, let’s address the two biggest features not found on the AirPods 3: ANC and Transparency Mode. In short, the duo works incredibly well on the AirPods Pro. ANC eliminates a vast number of ambient noises across the frequency spectrum and Transparency Mode lets in lots of noise to increase your awareness of your surroundings. Something else you’ll only find on the AirPods Pro is Conversation Boost, a new mode that debuted on iOS 15 to hear voices better during chats.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Call quality

A FaceTime call being taken on the AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

These are two of the best headphones with a mic for voice and video calls. Each comes with beam-forming mics that perform double the work by producing loud and clean-sounding calls and minimizing background interference. Apple did install acoustic mesh on the AirPods 3’s mics to reduce wind interference and added AAC-ELD speech codec for full HD voice quality on FaceTime calls. However, the AirPods Pro’s noise neutralization blocks out more noise for clearer communication.

Winner: AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Battery life

The AirPods 3 MagSafe charging cases on a wireless charger

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)

Total playtime on the AirPods 3 when factoring in the charging case is 30 hours (6 hours per charge), while the AirPods Pro is rated at 24 hours (4.5 to 5 hours per charge). The extra hour is huge, especially for those who use their AirPods all day long. Quick charging is the same on all current Apple wireless earbuds (5 minutes = 1 hour of use). Both models also come with MagSafe wireless charging cases, though it has been reported that neither case supports reverse MagSafe charging for iPhone.

Winner: AirPods 3

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: Verdict

Based on overall performance and a few exclusive tricks, the AirPods Pro remains Apple’s top true wireless offering. Strong noise cancellation and a wide array of sound-enhancing features place it among the category’s best, while the installed tips do something that no other AirPods model does: keep the buds in your ears and passively block out incidental sounds. 

Battery life is the only legitimate argument you can make against the AirPods Pro, but factor in Apple’s intuitive battery management system and MagSafe charging (included on the newest version), and one can look past the short playtime.

AirPods 3AirPods Pro
Price and value (5)45
Design (10)67
Comfort and fit (10)78
Controls (10)1010
Audio quality (25)2122
Special features and apps (20)1617
Call quality (10)910
Battery life (10)75
Total score (100)8084

The AirPods 3 might be a few steps down from its premium sibling, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fantastic product. Transferring over several of the AirPods Pro’s features was a bold move by Apple that pays off, rewarding listeners with much of the same audio goodness and extended functionality. 

An increase in playtime also gives the AirPods 3 another strong selling point, even if we’re only talking an hour more of use. Still, the lack of active noise cancellation and ear tips works against this threequel, especially in this battle. 

Of course the AirPods 3 also costs less, so if you can't stretch to the AirPods Pro then you'll still be very happy with the cheaper model.

Alex Bracetti

A lifestyle journalist with an affinity for consumer products, Alex has over a decade of experience and has worked with popular publications such as Complex, Thrillist, Men’s Health, Gear Patrol, AskMen, and Hoop Magazine. He currently focuses on audio, reviewing the most coveted headphones in the market for both Tom’s Guide and Laptop Magazine.