The wait is over. Apple’s latest AirPods are here and you can buy them for $179. But should you? If you thought that a new model of AirPods was going to make your buying decision easier, there’s some bad news: It’s actually tougher now.

And that’s before you take into consideration that we’re about to go into the Black Friday sales season. And that’s more important than ever in 2021 due to global shipping constraints, which could mean that Black Friday may well be your last chance to order in time for the holidays. And that’s before you even take Black Friday pricing into consideration.

All that said, tough decisions are a whole lot easier when you break them down, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Here’s how to decide which AirPods you should buy in 2021.

New but familiar

Let’s start by going over the full AirPods lineup:

And here’s how they stack up for features:

AirPods 2 AirPods 3 AirPods Pro AirPods Max
Price $129 $179 $249 $549
Battery life per earbud 5 hours 6 hours 4.5-5 hours N/A
Battery life (total) 24 hours 30 hours 24 hours 20 hours
Apple H1 chip Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hands-free Siri Yes Yes Yes Yes
Wireless charging No Yes Yes No
Active Noise Cancellation No No Yes Yes
Transparency mode No No Yes Yes
Head-tracking spatial audio No Yes Yes Yes
Sweat/water resistance No Yes Yes No
Adaptive EQ No Yes Yes Yes
Wear sensors Yes Yes Yes Yes
Conversation boost No No Yes No

A new baseline for budget AirPods

The Apple AirPods 2 in someone's hands.

Before the release of the AirPods 3, Apple only had two models of true wireless earbuds. As such, it priced the regular AirPods 2 at $149 and gave them a $50 wireless charging option that brought the price up to $199 — incredibly expensive for what these basic buds offered compared to the AirPods Pro and virtually all other true wireless models you could buy.

It was high time for a rationalization. And in October 2021, Apple yanked the wireless charging option and dropped the price of the standard AirPods 2 by $20. If you’re determined to have wireless charging, Apple will happily sell you a wireless charging case for an additional $79. And while $129 is still arguably too much to pay for a set of earbuds that don’t have ANC, transparency, or wireless charging, their price is a truer reflection of where they sit in Apple’s lineup. These are the AirPods for folks on a budget.

Need less noise?

Airpods Pro

Though many had hoped that the AirPods 3 would offer ANC, Apple has kept that feature (and its companion feature, transparency mode) for its two most expensive products, the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max. These features work beautifully on both headphones, but if you want the ultimate in portability and convenience, the AirPods Pro are the AirPods you should buy if you need to keep a lid on all of the external sounds that threaten to distract you or ruin your tunes.

Want to get lost in your music?

Apple AirPods Max
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The AirPods Pro sound great, but when it comes to the competition, they’re outclassed by the likes of Sony’s WF-1000XM4, Master & Dynamic’s MW08, and the Jabra Elite 7 Pro. The same is not true of the pricey AirPods Max, which despite a few minor flaws like the lack of a completely lossless audio connection, are absolutely stunning to listen to.

Whether its good ol’ stereo or Dolby Atmos Music from Apple Music, the AirPods Max offer brilliant sound quality and superb ANC and transparency mode. We’d argue they’re still overpriced, but if you want the best audio Apple has to offer, the AirPods Max are the AirPods for you.

What about the AirPods 3?

Woman running while wearing the new Airpods 3rd Gen.

Apple’s newest AirPods have us a bit perplexed. On the one hand, with features like sweat and water resistance, adaptive EQ, wireless charging, and support for Apple’s head-tracking spatial audio, they certainly bring more to the table than the AirPods 2. But on the other hand, they lack ANC and transparency, and even though we have yet to try them, it’s a good bet that they won’t sound as good as the AirPods Pro.

Wireless charging, an IPX4 rating, and an extra hour of earbud battery life are handy features that most of us will use daily, but the same can’t be said for the AirPods 3 signature upgrade, head-tracking spatial audio. Keep in mind, any set of headphones, including the AirPods 2, can let you listen to spatial audio on Apple Music. It’s the head-tracking part that’s unique to the AirPods 3, Pro, and Max.

And as cool as head-tracking can be — we were impressed by how it brings a heightened sense of realism to movies — it’s a bit like 3D movies: Fun for the first few minutes, but the effect quickly fades as your brain adapts to the new input. On its own, it’s not a reason to buy the AirPods 3.

So for now, consider the AirPods 3 a small upgrade from the AirPods 2. For $30 more than what Apple used to charge for the regular AirPods 2, you now get a few useful features and a more compact design that won’t give you the clogged-ear feeling that has kept some folks away from the AirPods Pro.

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