I've been a happy AirPods Pro user since I bought them nearly two years ago, but after finding an unused pair of wired EarPods in an old iPhone box recently, I started thinking about how they compare.
I was already a wireless earbuds user before getting my AirPods, but there are some well-observed issues with using wireless earbuds compared to wired ones. I'll get into these below, along with what I found when swapping between the two earbuds over the course of a week.
Unsurprisingly, I do think the AirPods Pro are better. But the gap's not as large as you may think, and that should make you consider whether upgrading to wireless earbuds is the best way of spending your cash, or if you're better off sticking with cables.
AirPods vs. EarPods: price and design
Let's start with the price difference between these two sets of earbuds. A pair of AirPods Pro has a list price of $249/£239, although you can regularly find it on sale for less than $200/£200. Compare that against the $19/£20 EarPods, which come with a choice of either a Lightning or 3.5mm jack tip. In fact, you may already have got some EarPods for free like I did, as Apple shipped a pair with every iPhone sold prior to the iPhone 12.
EarPods use an older, open-fit design like the AirPods 2, while the AirPods Pro use gel tips. These are far more comfortable for me if I'm wearing 'buds for long periods of time, but I know many who feel the opposite. I haven't tried the AirPods 3, which use a new open-fit design, but I would imagine I'd still prefer having gel tips.
The main design difference, unsurprisingly, is the use or lack of wires. The cable on the EarPods can easily become a tangled mess in your pocket or snag on your hands, door handles or other inconvenient objects, but they're much faster to get out and use thanks to a simple connector. No waiting around for Bluetooth to wake up here.
AirPods vs. EarPods: features
What I appreciated most about the EarPods outside of their low price was the microphone/remote combo attached to the cable. The voice quality you get from the EarPods is so much better than the AirPods, simply because Bluetooth on the AirPods Pro can't wirelessly transmit as much data as a physical cable can.
That's paired with volume and play/pause buttons. You can move through a playlist with your AirPods by tapping and holding the stems, but there is no tap gesture to adjust the volume, something I didn't realize I missed so much when moving to the EarPods.
You also never have to worry about running out of power, as you do with the AirPods. 24 hours of combined battery life is good, but you never need to worry about charging the EarPods, or have to weigh up whether you can get away without taking your charging case to work today.
Looking even further ahead, you also don't have to worry about the EarPods eventually becoming useless because the battery degrades too much. The EarPods can in theory last forever as long as you take good care of the cables and connector, whereas the death of the batteries in the AirPods and their charging case is inevitable.
Wireless is much neater though, and since they need a carry case to charge, are much better behaved when left alone in a pocket or bag. Also having powered earbuds means you get active noise canceling, one of the things I missed most while using the EarPods. My commutes to work by bus were far noisier without the AirPods Pro's ANC shutting out engine noises and nearby conversations, and even listening to music at home was spoilt since it was impossible not to hear traffic noises or my fan spinning through the EarPods.
Weirdly, it's also easier to use wireless earbuds these days since Apple's gradually been removing the headphone jack from its products, and more recently started moving away from the Lightning port. That's currently only on iPhones and the basic iPad, while the headphone jack can only be found on the same basic iPad or a MacBook. Otherwise, you'll need a dongle to fit your EarPods into whatever port you have available, which you then can't use to charge the device or plug in other peripherals. Not so much of an issue on a MacBook, but a definite pain on single-ported iPhones and even the best iPads.
AirPods vs. EarPods: audio
Enough about the features though, now for the most important part: audio quality. This was the closest part of the AirPods vs. EarPods competition, but I think I have to give the gold medal to the EarPods here.
Listening to "Sweater Weather" by The Neighbourhood through Tidal, the mids of the song, including the guitars and vocals, were more defined on the wired earbuds. I couldn't detect much difference in the bass and percussion between the two sets of 'Pods, but the mids were sharper and clearer from the EarPods.
That all changes in a noisy environment though, thanks to the AirPods Pro's noise cancelation. The ANC keeps the key parts of the song audible above whatever hubbub's going on nearby.
One final advantage the AirPods Pro has for music is Spatial Audio, Apple's head-tracking surround sound feature. I don't tend to use this feature since I find it a bit disorienting, but it's something you don't have the option to use with the EarPods.
AirPods vs. EarPods: which are right for you?
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when buying tech is to pick a "default" option because you've heard the product is good, not because it's the best for your needs. The AirPods Pro, or any pair of AirPods, are good products, but they're also expensive and bring as many limitations as they do new features. If your tech budget is limited, or you already have a pair of EarPods hanging around somewhere, I'd seriously consider whether upgrading to wireless earbuds is right for you.
Aside from the price difference, the practicality of a better quality microphone, in-line volume controls, no battery issues to worry about and arguably better overall audio quality give these cheap wired earbuds an advantage over a product that costs more than ten times as much. The appeal of noise cancelation and the convenience of no wires are things I would miss if I relied solely on EarPods though. The lack of gel tips is also an issue, but other wired earbuds come with these if you're not wedded to EarPods.
You shouldn't feel like you need to ditch your EarPods, or other wired headphones, just because AirPods have become so ubiquitous thanks to some genuinely handy features. It's important to think about your needs before hitting the buy button. Maybe you'll find you can still enjoy your music, podcasts or whatever else using your older wired 'buds, and save yourself some money at the same time.
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Richard is based in London, covering news, reviews and how-tos for phones, tablets, gaming, and whatever else people need advice on. Following on from his MA in Magazine Journalism at the University of Sheffield, he's also written for WIRED U.K., The Register and Creative Bloq. When not at work, he's likely thinking about how to brew the perfect cup of specialty coffee.