AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: What's the difference (and should you upgrade)?

Airpods 3 With Iphone
Airpods 3 With Iphone (Image credit: Apple)

The AirPods 3 are definitely a much more substantial upgrade than the AirPods 2 were over the original AirPods — it seems like everything's been changed. From a fresher design to a bunch of new features that aren't on the AirPods 2, it's hard not to be enticed by the AirPods 3. However, thanks to a drop in price, the AirPods 2 makes a compelling product for budget-wise Apple lovers that shouldn't be too easily overlooked. However, both are bound to be (or still be) some of the best true wireless earbuds for Apple users.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: It starts with the design

The first thing you'll notice about the AirPods 3 is the updated design, looking more akin to the AirPods Pro than the AirPods 2. While they don't have silicone ear tips, they do have shorter stems and the more angled design of the AirPods Pro, rather than the long-stemmed and straight design of the AirPods 2. In theory, this design should help the earbuds stay in your ear a little better than before and allow for a small increase in sound quality, since the sound is better directed down your ear canal with the new design.

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Header Cell - Column 0 AirPods 3AirPods 2
Battery life (talk)4 hours3 hours
battery life (music)6 hours5 hours
Adaptive EQYesNo
Water-resistanceIPX4No rating
Bluetooth version5.05.0
Siri connectionVoice-activated or double-tapVoice-activated or double-tap
Wireless chargingMagSafe sharing caseNo wireless charging case
Apple TV supportYesYes

You'll notice when you compare the specs of the AirPods 3 to the AirPods 2, it may seem like not too much has changed, but that's because the small improvements need a bit more explaining. Here's what this all means.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Sound quality

Apple Music on iPhone (Image credit: iMore)

This might be the hardest category to quantify because the sound quality of any pair of headphones is always a little subjective. However, the AirPods 3 do boast a few features that are supposed to make the listening experience better.

First, the AirPods 3 bring Spatial Audio to the table, which Apple has been pushing a lot over the last year or so. Spatial Audio with head tracking allows the music to stay in the same place in the soundscape your headphones create, even if you move your head. So, if you turn your head to the right or left, the music pans accordingly. It's like the AirPods 3 create a 3D map of the music and place you inside of it based on where it senses your head is at the current moment.

It's a neat feature, but some people find it really distracting and turn it off. It also seems to fit better with certain styles of music better than other ones, so even though Apple Music might have your favorite song in Spatial Audio, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it.

On top of that, AirPods 3 also include the same custom high-excursion Apple driver and high dynamic range amplifier that you find with the AirPods Pro and not with the AirPods 2. That should mean a better listening experience, although it's important to point out that the AirPods 3 don't have silicone ear tips that help with sound isolation. Without those, it's hard to exactly say how much better the AirPods 3 will sound over the AirPods 2 without listening to them yet. On paper, the AirPods 3 should offer better sound.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Battery life

Magsafe Charger Hero (Image credit: Joe Wituschek / iMore)

Wireless earbuds have always been slightly hampered by short battery life because it's hard to fit big batteries in a device that's so small, but Apple did manage to increase battery performance here. The AirPods 3 will now get six hours of playback time on a single charge, as opposed to the five hours that the AirPods 2 got. Plus, it can also give you about 30 hours of battery life when you consider the charging case. The AirPods 2 only had a max of about 24 hours, with the case factored into the equation.

The AirPods 3 are also MagSafe compatible and can fast charge for an hour of playback time in about five minutes. The AirPods 2 did have a wireless charging case option, but it appears that with the launch of the AirPods 3, the only model Apple is currently selling is with the wired sharing case. However, the AirPods 2 can still charge for about three hours of playback in about 15 minutes.

AirPods 3 vs AirPods 2: Controls

While the AirPods 2 had more controls than the original AirPods, the third generation has the same Force sensor and controls as the AirPods 3. That means you can tap once to play / pause music and answer a phone call, double-press to skip forward, triple-press to skip backward, and press and hold for Siri.

The AirPods Pro have fewer controls. They only have the ability to double-tap to play/pause and skip forward in playback, as well as answer phone calls. Plus, you have to talk to Siri to activate the Apple virtual assistant.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Device compatibility

While both the AirPods 3 and AirPods 2 can seamlessly switch between your Apple devices, the AirPods 2 are still compatible with some older Apple devices that the AirPods 3 do not.

The following devices are compatible with AirPods 2 but not compatible with the new AirPods 3:

  • iPhone 5s
  • iPhone 6
  • iPhone 6 Plus
  • iPad mini 2
  • iPad mini 3
  • iPad Air (1st-generation)
  • iPod Touch (6th-generation)

While this isn't a long list of devices, it's important to know in case you want to use AirPods with an older device. You don't want to end up buying yourself (or anyone else) a brand new pair of AirPods that aren't compatible.

AirPods 3 vs. AirPods 2: Which should you buy?

There's no doubt that the AirPods 3 are better than the AirPods 2. They should sound better, have more features, and have an official IPX4 rating, so you don't have to worry about taking them on a run. Top that all off with a design that should help the earbuds stay in your ears — although your mileage may vary based on your ear shape — and the extra battery life, the AirPods 3 are very compelling at $179.

Speaking of price, the AirPods 2 have now dropped down to $129, which is a great price for a set of Bluetooth earbuds that offer decent sound quality, a nice pair of microphones, and seamless switching between all your Apple devices. If you're on a tighter budget or have a much older device that the AirPods 3 doesn't support, the AirPods 2 are still a good pair of earbuds.

Luke Filipowicz
Staff Writer

Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way. 

Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.