In late 2021, Apple announced a major update for its standard AirPods, with the new earbuds featuring spatial audio, Adaptive EQ, force sensor controls, sweat and water resistance, MagSafe charging, and more.
Apple continues to sell the second-generation AirPods that it introduced in March 2019, now for the lower price of $129. This makes them the entry-level model in the AirPods lineup.
Should you consider purchasing the second-generation AirPods for $129, or do you need the latest AirPods, which sell for $179? On the other hand, you may already have the second-generation AirPods and are considering whether you should upgrade. Our guide helps to answer the question of how to decide which of these sets of AirPods is best for you.
The second-generation and third-generation AirPods share a large number of important features such as the H1 chip and beamforming microphones. Apple lists these identical features of the two devices:
Apple’s breakdown shows that the two sets of AirPods share a number of key features. Even so, there are some meaningful differences between them that are worth highlighting, including design, spatial audio, and MagSafe charging.
The design of the second-generation and third-generation AirPods differ significantly, but both have a similar fit and a glossy white plastic finish. The second-generation AirPods largely mirror the design of Apple’s wired EarPods, with long stems that extend from the ear.
While neither set of AirPods has the in-ear silicone tips of the AirPods Pro, the third-generation AirPods have a design that is very similar to Apple’s high-end earbuds. This means that they have much shorter stems and a larger in-ear portion, which may result in a better fit for some users. The third-generation AirPods charging case is also shorter and wider.
The overall look of the third-generation AirPods is much more subtle and modern, but which design and fit you prefer is ultimately up to you.
Only the third-generation AirPods are IPX4-rated for sweat and water resistance. This includes both the earbuds and the MagSafe charging case.
The audio hardware of the third-generation AirPods is based on the AirPods Pro, featuring a custom Apple-designed high-excursion driver and a custom high dynamic range amplifier, resulting in significantly better sound quality.
The third-generation AirPods also benefit from Adaptive EQ, which uses an inward-facing microphone and computational audio to create an accurate sound profile for every wearer. Sound is tuned in real time based on the fit of the AirPod in the user’s ear, with the AirPods constantly adjusting and tuning the low and mid frequencies to account for what might be lost due to fit differences.
The smaller in-ear portion of the second-generation AirPods leaves less internal space for audio hardware, and without features such as Adaptive EQ, the sound quality is not as good as the third-generation AirPods.
It is worth noting that as compact earbuds, the sound quality of the standard AirPods will not match higher-end offerings such as the AirPods Max. Nevertheless, if you highly value sound quality, you will appreciate the better audio hardware of the third-generation AirPods.
The third-generation AirPods join the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max in offering spatial audio with Dolby Atmos. Apple Music songs, TV shows, and movies can take advantage of spatial audio and it will sound like the audio is coming from all around you when the feature is enabled for an immersive, theater-like experience.
Dynamic head tracking is also available, which makes music, TV, and even Group FaceTime calls more engaging. Spatial audio algorithms and directional audio filters adjust the frequencies that each ear receives, allowing AirPods to produce sound all around the user.
Spatial audio works with Apple Music and the Apple TV app, but it is also compatible with many third-party apps. The second-generation AirPods do not offer spatial audio, so you will have to get the third-generation model to have this experience.
The standard AirPods feature an all-new skin-detect sensor to more accurately discern if AirPods are in the ear to pause playback. The new skin-detect sensor works by detecting water content in the wearer’s skin, which ensures that it does not mistake pockets, tables, or other surfaces for skin.
Instead of skin-detect sensors in each earbud, the second-generation AirPods use dual optical sensors to detect if they are in a user’s ear. While they effectively perform the same function, the optical sensors can simply tell when they are against a surface or covered up, rather than specifically against skin. This means that if you put an AirPod in a pocket or on a surface, it could accidentally resume playback.
The second-generation AirPods can be controlled by tapping on the stems, and users can double-tap to play, skip forward, or answer a phone call.
The third-generation AirPods feature force sensor controls like the AirPods Pro, allowing users to press once to play, pause, or answer a phone call, press twice to skip forward, press three times to skip back, and press and hold for Siri.
The force sensor controls allow for a wider range of commands to be issued, but some users may accidentally dislodge an AirPod when using them. On the other hand, the second-generation AirPods tap-based controls are very sensitive and may be accidentally triggered. It is ultimately a matter of personal preference which input mechanism you prefer.
Both sets of AirPods have a charging case with a Lightning port to store and charge the earbuds, but the charging case of the third-generation AirPods also features wireless charging and MagSafe. This enables users to charge the AirPods using any standard Qi wireless charging pad or MagSafe charger for easy magnetic alignment.
The second-generation AirPods can deliver up to five hours of listening time with a single charge, while the third-generation AirPods add an extra hour of battery life. When spatial audio is enabled on the third-generation AirPods, the battery life reduces to five hours.
The charging case of the second-generation AirPods can deliver more than 24 hours of listening time, while the third-generation AirPods offer up to 30 hours of listening time. Since there is only an iterative improvement between the two models when it comes to battery life, it is likely not worth getting the third-generation AirPods simply on the basis of its battery life.
If you are looking for AirPods, but want Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), an in-ear design, or other high-end features, there are the AirPods Pro, which start at $249. These have all of the same features as the third-generation AirPods, but have silicone tips to fit inside the ear canal and offer ANC, Transparency mode to let noise from the outside world in, and a range of other capabilities like Precision Finding.
If you have problems getting standard earbuds to stay in your ears or simply prefer an in-ear design, the AirPods Pro will be a better choice if you can afford them. Likewise, the AirPods Pro will be more suitable for use in noisy environments thanks to ANC. It is also worth buying AirPods Pro if you could make good use of Apple’s Conversation Boost accessibility feature or its other features.
For a higher-fidelity audio experience, there are the AirPods Max, which are priced at $549. These are over-ear headphones that take the listening experience to the next level with improved sound quality, better Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), and up to 20 hours of listening from one charge.
Providing you can afford the extra $50, it will be worthwhile getting the third-generation AirPods over the second-generation model. The third-generation AirPods add a raft of meaningful features and improvements over its predecessor, including improved design and sound quality, spatial audio, Adaptive EQ, sweat and water resistance, and MagSafe charging. The second-generation model is also now fairly old.
Whether you are looking for AirPods that are suitable for workouts or use in the rain, a more immersive experience with music and movies, compatibility with an existing MagSafe charger, or simply a more subtle appearance, the third-generation AirPods are a much better choice. If you already have the second-generation AirPods, it may worth upgrading to the third-generation model if you are attracted to any of the new features or are looking for a range of overall improvements.
The second-generation AirPods are still a good introduction to the AirPods experience with seamless pairing, automatic device switching, and Hey Siri functionality, but if possible you should get the third-generation model due to its large number of improvements. AirPods frequently see substantial discounts through Amazon and other third-party retailers, so stepping up to the third-generation version may be more worth it if you can take advantage of one of those deals.
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