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AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Biggest differences to expect

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2
(Image credit: 52 Audio)

The Apple AirPods 3 is rumored to launch this year, finally replacing the 2019 AirPods 2. The current model earned a place in our best wireless earbuds rankings, but still left room for improvement — so it will be interesting to see what spec upgrades and new functionality Apple is cooking up for the AirPods 3.

Various leaks have already given us hints of potential AirPods 3 features, and a recent photo leak may have even revealed what the upcoming pair of buds — and its charging case — will look like. Some tips are more reliable than others, but for now here’s how you can expect the AirPods 3 to be different from the AirPods 2.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Price

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2

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

Apple is in a tricky spot with the AirPods 3 pricing. The word is that the new buds will come with a variety of new features and hardware upgrades — more on that below — and this would likely push the AirPods 3 price beyond that of the AirPods 2. That’s currently $159 with the standard charging case and $199 with the wireless charging case, so the AirPods 3 could break the $200 barrier.

At the same time, Apple can’t bump up costs too much, or the AirPods 3 will end up competing with the AirPods Pro. This has a $249 MSRP but is often discounted to $200 or lower — check out the best AirPods deals to see what we mean.

Then again, Apple may be encouraged that the high price of the AirPods Max over-ear headphones (a cool $549) didn’t stop it from initially selling out. And there are even more expensive in-ear buds than the AirPods Pro, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. This might encourage Apple to raise the price of the AirPods 3, then do the same with the also-expected AirPods Pro 2 further down the line.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Design

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2

(Image credit: 52 Audio)

Leaks indicate that the AirPods 3 will keep the stalked design of the AirPods 2, but will make those stalks shorter and less conspicuous. The aforementioned photo leak shows a slightly more compact design for the AirPods 3, albeit not as well-trimmed as the current AirPods Pro.

A bigger change is the apparent introduction of user-replaceable, in-ear tips. Unlike the one-size-fits-all AirPods 2, the AirPods 3 will reportedly let you swap around various sizes of silicone tips to get the best possible fit. The AirPods Pro also has replaceable tips, and you can expect the feature to come to the AirPods 3 too.

The photo also backs up previous leaks that detailed a “pressure relief” system, again similar to that already used by the AirPods Pro. This involves using vents on top of each earbud — these vents are visible in the photo — to stop excess pressure building up in your ears, which can happen when you’re wearing in-ear buds that fill your ear canal.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Features

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It looks like the AirPods 3 will have more in common with the AirPods Pro than the AirPods 2, though without photo evidence the matter of new features gets a little muddier. For example, leaks have been contradictory as to whether the AirPods 3 will copy the active noise cancellation (ANC) of the AirPods Pro, or go without ANC like the AirPods 2.

Using in-ear tips to get a tighter seal would be beneficial to an ANC effect, but that’s not evidence of noise-cancelling in itself. Right now we’d say ANC on the AirPods 3 is something to be hopeful for, but not necessarily something you should expect as a given. The same goes for spatial audio, the surround sound feature shared by the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Apple will want to save its more advanced features for the pricier headphones, after all.

That said, you should definitely expect the AirPods 3 to have full compatibility with audio features Apple has added to iOS 14. That includes Headphones Accommodations, which lets you apply custom sound settings.

The AirPods 2 can use Headphones Accommodations, too, but there may be other new features just for the AirPods 3. Integration with the upcoming Apple AirTags is likely, for one, which would help you find a pair of lost buds. Apple could also transplant the Adaptive EQ feature from the AirPods Pro, even if it does end up leaving more premium tools like ANC and spatial audio for its more expensive models.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Sound quality

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2

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

Obviously we can’t say how the AirPods 3 will sound right now, but one of the disappointments with the AirPods 2 was that general audio quality didn’t improve much on the original AirPods. We fully expect Apple to take a different approach with the AirPods 3.

MacRumors editor Joe Rossignol suggested that the AirPods 3 could have the same sound quality as the sweeter-sounding AirPods Pro — just without the noise cancellation. This could also mean that Adaptive EQ is likely making an appearance on the AirPods 3.

And, even if the AirPods 3 lack full ANC, the ability to make a better in-ear seal using replaceable tips should logically result in superior passive noise isolation. So you may still be able to enjoy your music with fewer audible interruptions than the AirPods 2.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Battery life and charging

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2

(Image credit: PatentlyApple)

The AirPods 3 battery life is another unknown. Hopefully it’s an upgrade on the 5 hours or so that the AirPods 2 offers, though a more compact design could mean a shrunken battery unless Apple has also made it more efficient.

The better news is that the AirPods 3 will almost certainly feature the same fast-charging capabilities as the AirPods 2 and AirPods 3, so you’ll be able to claw back a few hours of listening time from a few minutes of charging.

We don’t know if Apple will once again sell both a standard charging case and one that can be refuelled with wireless charging, though the MagSafe charging tech on the iPhone 12 range opens up new possibilities for how you could recharge the AirPods 3. One patent even shows a pair of AirPods, loose outside the case, recharging directly from the back of an iPhone. Interestingly, it appears Apple may also be working on an iPhone 12 MagSafe battery that can act as a power bank for phones and accessories.

You might, therefore, be able to wirelessly charge the AirPods 3 even if you don’t have a case to hand.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Outlook

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2

(Image credit: Apple)

It’s looking very likely that the AirPods 3 could be closer to an “AirPods Pro Lite” than the current AirPods 2. You can definitely expect the new earbuds’ design to take cues from the premium buds, and sound quality is likely to surpass the AirPods 2 as well.

Still, the apparent design change is also the biggest difference we actually know about. ANC would be great but is far from confirmed at this point, and longer battery life is high on our wishlist but not a certainty.

A higher price also looks like a safe bet, though you can at least expect to get more for your money than the AirPods 2. Since the latter released, plenty of excellent wireless earbuds have proven that Apple’s competitors can beat it on sound quality or battery life. The AirPods 3 will be the response, and Apple knows it needs to be a big step up.

James Archer

As Audio Editor, James covers headphones, speakers, soundbars and anything else that intentionally makes noise. His favorite musical genre is rock, despite once claiming the guitar is “too complicated” for humans to play. He plays bass instead.