How Apple’s new AirPods compare to the older models for travelers

Nov 1, 2021

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Apple’s AirPods lineup is growing just in time for the holiday season, making it even harder to determine which pair is right for you.

Last week, the tech giant released the third-generation AirPods, joining the Pro and the legacy second-generation AirPods as the company’s three flagship in-ear headphone products.

At $179, the third-generation model packs some pro-level features, including a much-improved audio experience and better durability, in a completely redesigned package.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

To date, I’ve almost exclusively used the AirPods Pro throughout my travels and while at home in New York City. The high-quality sound, active noise cancellation and incredible portability make them a staple in my carry-on bag.

So, after a week of putting the new third-generation buds to the test, how do they fit in Apple’s in-ear headphone lineup?

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An immersive audio experience

Perhaps the biggest improvement with the new AirPods is the sound quality. The audio output left me feeling like I was at a concert or watching a movie in a theater.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In this respect, the third-generation AirPods are much more like the Pro version than the legacy models. If you’re upgrading from one of the older models, it’s a night-and-day difference from the moment you put them on.

While listening to music is perhaps the most common use of headphones, I’ve long enjoyed using my AirPods for phone calls, too. With the new AirPods, Apple claims that your voice will sound much clearer on the other end of a call, thanks to a mesh covering that protects the microphone and minimizes background wind noise.

The Pros have a similar acoustic mesh, too, and my sister confirmed that the improved call quality on the new AirPods matched that of the Pros, especially when I was walking in loud, open and windy spaces, like the Williamsburg Bridge pictured above.

Despite the noticeable audio improvements, the AirPods are missing one key feature that you’ll find in the Pros: active noise cancellation. Though I didn’t have the opportunity to travel with the new AirPods, the lack of noise cancellation would likely be a deal-breaker for me in making these my everyday headphones.

A pro-level redesign

At first glance, the new earbuds and charging case look nearly identical to the AirPods Pro. Other than the missing silicone ear tips, it’s hard to tell the two models apart.

When compared side-by-side, the stem on the new AirPods is slightly longer, though the charging case isn’t quite as hefty as the one that houses the Pros.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In the ear, the third-generation AirPods feel quite comfortable, too. It’s not nearly as tight of a fit as you’d get with the AirPods Pro, but the lightweight design was noticeably more snug than the legacy AirPods.

Of course, everyone’s individual fit will vary based on ear shape, but Apple has performed thousands of ear scans and measurements to make them a more or less one-size-fits-all device.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

In addition to the redesigned bud, the stem of the third-generation AirPods now has the same control button as you’ll find on the Pros: the force sensor. Using your finger, you can control your music and make a request with Siri.

Related: Guide to the best over-ear noise-canceling headphones

Improved durability

The third-generation AirPods offer the best protection against the elements across Apple’s entire headphone lineup — both the buds and charging case are sweat- and water-resistant at the IPX4 standard, meaning that the entire package is safe from water splashes (but not submersion).

If you’re using your AirPods while exercising or while working outdoors at the mercy of Mother Nature, the new AirPods would be your best bet.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Though that might sound great on paper, especially as someone who lives an active lifestyle, it could still make sense to stick with the higher-end AirPods Pro  — the buds of the Pros have the same level of resistance as the third-generation AirPods; it’s just the Pro charging case that’s missing the sweat and water protection.

Notably, the legacy AirPods don’t feature any sweat or water resistance.

A battery boost

The new AirPods also feature impressive battery life.

With the latest model, Apple claims that you can get up to six hours of listening or up to four hours of phone calls — an additional hour for each activity compared to the previous generation. Plus, the charging case adds even more capacity than you’ll find in the legacy models or the Pros.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

During my week of tests, the new AirPods outlasted my Pros by at least an hour, a noticeable boost that was appreciated during long walks and days spent away from my desk.

Bottom line

Thanks to a dramatically improved audio experience, better durability and longer battery life, Apple’s new third-generation AirPods are poised to be a big hit this holiday season.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

They offer a compelling upgrade compared to the second-generation model that remains available for a lower price of $129. If you’re using AirPods throughout the day, the audio quality alone would likely be worth the $50 upcharge, especially once you compare the two models side-by-side. (First-time and other infrequent users could do just fine with the legacy AirPods.)

For those who are always on the road or navigating noisy environments, it could still make sense to splurge for the AirPods Pro. The Pro model shares many of the features you’ll find in the third-generation AirPods, and adds active noise cancellation. Better yet, with a $70 price difference between the two models — and even lower during sales — it might not even be a significant splurge.

For nearly everyone else, Apple’s new third-generation AirPods are some of the best headphones your money can buy.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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