Offering similar designs and price points, the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro differ in how they open or close your ears to the real world.
With the standard AirPods now very similar to the AirPods Pro, you might be wondering just which is better for your ears. After all, with similar feature sets and even similar designs, it mightn’t be all that easy to work it out quickly.
Apple, of course, has its own AirPods comparison system, but it’s more or less a spec-for-spec matchup, and mightn’t cover things from a review standpoint. Fortunately, we’ve reviewed both, covering the AirPods Pro in 2019 and reviewing the AirPods 3 this year.
So let’s go through the feature set bit-by-bit, and see if we can work out what’s going on, as we pit the AirPods 3 against the AirPods Pro to figure the best AirPod to consider this year.
And this starts with design, though you may not realise much of a difference between either, because in 2021, the AirPods and AirPods Pro look very, very similar.
In fact, if the AirPods Pro didn’t have earphone tips, they’d likely look the same, as Apple has more or less unified the designs this year. As a result, both are simple, modern, and comfortable.
Guess this one is a tie.
They both also sport the same degree of water resistance, with both the AirPods 3rd-generation and AirPods Pro getting an IPX4 water resistance rating, which is enough to say sweat resistant and dealing with light rain, but not enough that you’ll want to wear them running through a rain storm or even swimming.
Essentially, both major AirPods models in 2021 can handle some exercise and sweat, and based on the occasional tumble each managed to take during our reviews, both can also survive a fall from ear height onto cement, as well. We’re not sure how often we’d let that happen, but they are as durable as each other.
Comfort & Fit
In previous years for the category of comfort and fit, there was a clear winner for us. This year, however, it’s actually more of a tie.
With credit to Apple, the AirPods 3 are the first AirPods generation that we’ve found properly comfortable. We still prefer the earphones of the AirPods Pro, as they provide just that little bit extra stability, but this year, it’s a draw between both on comfort.
And thanks to that included stem in the design, the controls are more or less the same, as well. You probably won’t have to think too much about using them, with pause and playback control when you squeeze the stem, but it’s pretty similar on both, save for the feature differences.
Connection & reliability
Offering much the same hardware for connection, though, both the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro use the Apple H1 chip, which means they’re both going to be the same for connectivity.
It means you can expect a strong connection with iPhone and iPad, and they’ll place nicely with connections to a Mac, as well, with other operating systems talking to them, too.
And this year, they both win accolades for sound quality, which is rich, dynamic, and clear, and offers support not just for standard spatial audio, but also dynamic head-position spatial audio, though only on Apple Music.
This last one is a big win for us, because it means not only the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max get the support for this rich semi-interactive form of music, and it can also be shared to the open-audio style of listening in the AirPods 3rd-gen.
However, there’s one area where Apple has a clear winner: active noise-cancellation technology.
A feature commonly associated with premium earphones over the $250 mark, the $399 AirPods Pro have noise cancellation and the $279 AirPods 3 do not, giving the more expensive model an edge worth talking about.
That edge means only the AirPods Pro can place you in a bubble of sound, and that’s a win for us.
Winner: AirPods Pro
While Apple devices are clearly the focus for Apple’s earphones, both models will work with others, though not necessarily as well as you’d like.
The aforementioned Apple H1 headphone chip for wireless transmission will play nicely with any Bluetooth device, but the lack of software controls or customisation support on Windows and Android means only macOS and iOS owners can really do anything to edit how the AirPods and AirPods Pro work.
Yes, you can make these work on Windows and Android, but the customisation isn’t quite as strong as other brands, and certainly not as impressive as what Beats manages with its Android software.
This is a tie, though not a good one.
Without the noise cancellation, though, the AirPods 3 actually win one area: battery.
Supporting up to 6 hours of life compared to the AirPods Pro hitting a little over 4, the AirPods 3rd gen is just a little better on battery life. Turn off noise cancellation and the AirPods Pro still loses out, maxing out at 5, though the AirPods 3rd gen will match the 5 if you listen to dynamic head-tracking spatial audio.
That’s just enough to give the AirPods the win here. Not by much, mind you.
Winner: AirPods (3rd gen)
A similar design for the earbuds and earphones means Apple is largely keeping things the same, so neither model has a better case, but rather they’ve got something similar.
There’s a good $120 difference, however, and we think the AirPods Pro achieves value in the difference. Both are great earphones, but noise cancellation is actually a great feature to pay extra for.
At $279 in Australia for the AirPods 3 versus $399 RRP on the AirPods Pro, the more expensive of these models feels like the winner, though it doesn’t help that the AirPods 3 Australian price is reaching into territory where noise cancellation often is. For the past year, you’ve been able to find active noise cancelling earphones for this price point, so Apple’s AirPods 3 can feel over-valued, too.
Factor in the fact that the street price of the AirPods Pro is often much lower, and the picture becomes even clearer: the AirPods Pro are the better value when comparing the two.
Winner: AirPods Pro
What should I choose: AirPods Pro or AirPods 3?
With both clearly similar save for listening style, it may be difficult to make an obvious choice on these two.
The simple fact of the matter is both the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro are great earphones, and picking between each will likely come down to a preference of fit and listening choices.
Do you want to sit in a bubble of your own personal sound and cancel out the world, or even in-flight noise? Consider the AirPods Pro. Or do you prefer hearing the world as you walk around, making sure you can hear everything? You might want to look at the AirPods 3rd gen.
And importantly, are you an iPhone or iPad user? Because while both talk to Android and Windows, they play better with iOS and macOS.
Both are good, for sure, but it’s also worth noting that both have solid competition in the world of wireless earphones, as well, with noise cancelling options at competitive price points from across the board.
You can do well with either AirPod model, but picking between them will likely come down to how you want to listen to your music. Work that out, and you’ll be able to work out which is best for you.