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Once synonymous with the flimsy EarPods you got in the box with an iPhone, Apple has become a true contender in the audio tech space with its AirPods range of true wireless earbuds and over-ear headphones.
But which Apple headphones are right for you? That’s why we’ve created this guide, to tell you more about Apple’s AirPods, the different models on offer, and how they stack up against the competition.
There are actually only three AirPods models to choose from: the 2019 AirPods, the AirPods Pro, and the AirPods Max. That doesn’t leave you with much choice, so you’ll find some Beats headphones that we rate in this guide as well – that’s because Apple acquired Beats back in 2014, expanding its audio portfolio to include running earbuds and on-ear headphones.
Not sure about Apple headphones at all? We’ve also included a few AirPods-alternatives to consider at the end of this page.
The best AirPods
The AirPods Pro is the best AirPods you can buy in 2021 bringing active noise cancellation, a snug fit, and an improved design to the company’s previous true wireless earbuds.
They’re not quite the best true wireless earbuds out there (that honor goes to the Sony WF-1000XM4), and at $249 / £249 / AU$399, they aren’t cheap, either.
That said, if you’re an iPhone user looking for some well-fitting earbuds with strong sound quality, you could do a lot worse than the latest AirPods – the redesign means they’re far less likely to fall out, and the additional microphones provide strong noise-canceling (particularly when commuting), as well as a useful Transparency mode, which really does let the outside world in.
The sound quality of the AirPods Pro has certainly improved since the previous iteration – there’s a notable emphasis on vocals and bass, meaning these earbuds are better for pop fans than those who enjoy a more natural presentation that lends itself to classical music or more orchestral sounds.
Apparently, there’s a new AirPods model on the horizon to join the original buds and the newer Pros. The AirPods Pro 2 is rumored to be a new, cheaper variant of the company’s popular truly wireless earbuds, and they could be released this year.
The Apple AirPods Max were some of the most highly-anticipated headphones ever. Rumors and speculation about what they’ll look like and sound like have been swirling for years. So do they live up to the hype? Well, yes and no.
When we finally got our hands on the AirPod Max we found that, as you might expect, the audio quality was nothing short of extraordinary. The design and build was also solid and unmistakably Apple and they were comfortable too. We also appreciate the use of physical controls as opposed to the voguish swipe controls that most wireless headphones seem to favor these days.
We particularly liked the reprisal of the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, which allows you to precisely adjust the volume and easily control your music playback. What’s more, they have the brilliant quality of life features for those already devoted to the Apple ecosystem.
But it isn’t all good news. The most obvious drawback is the price. Apple has always created luxury tech with a higher-than-average price tag, but these are $549 / £549 / AU$899. In our review, we didn’t think the performance (although great) matched the sky-high price.
They also come with a case that preserves the battery while the headphones are in use. This sounds good, in theory. But it doesn’t offer any protection. Instead, the Smart Case leaves the headband of the AirPods Max totally exposed.
The second-generation Apple AirPods, the AirPods (2019), aren’t a huge improvement on their predecessors, but they still sport some cool features, that may make them worth buying if you’re an iPhone user in particular.
They still feature the iconic design of the original AirPods, and sound quality hasn’t changed at all – it’s lively, but not on par with the best true wireless earbuds of 2020. The bulk of the upgrade comes from the new H1 headphone chip, which improves connectivity and battery life, and allows for a new ‘Hey Siri’ voice activation feature.
The AirPods (2019) also come with an optional wireless charging case means you can use a Qi-compatible charging mat to power the case, rather than sticking a cable into the Lightning charging port in the bottom of the case.
Like their predecessors, they are super easy to pair, but they are very much optimized for using with iPhones. The best true wireless earbuds give you more flexibility when it comes to your device of choice, and can offer superior sound quality – as well as sleeker designs.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that these are an expensive pair of headphones, and for that kind of money we think that you can find better products elsewhere – especially if you’re looking to pair with anything other than an iPhone.
The best Beats headphones
Apple headphones aren’t just limited to AirPods – Beats headphones are worth checking out, as well. These days there are lots of different Beats headphones to choose from, including in-ear headphones for sports, truly wireless earbuds that give the AirPods Pro a run for their money, and comfortable pairs of on-ear headphones that make your music shine.
Bringing top-notch adaptive noise canceling to its on-ear offering for the first time, Beats Solo Pro is a marked step up from its previous iterations – particularly when it comes to building quality.
Sturdier than the Beats Solo 3 and sporting a cool matte finish in each color, the Beats Solo Pro feels like the biggest step up in quality the series has seen in some time for its larger line of headphones. Like the 2019 AirPods and AirPods Pro, they come with the H1 chip which allows for fast pairing and hands-free Siri integration.
The Beats Studio Buds are rock-solid true wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation and support for Apple’s Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos format. They sound great, with a lively sound quality that elevates the highs and lows of your music, and feel supremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
They’re not without some drawbacks, though. Chief among them is their lackluster call quality and lack of an H1 Wireless Chip. Battery life with either ANC or Transparency mode turned on is a little short at only five hours (15 hours with the case), and their noise cancellation isn’t exactly class-leading, either.
Saying that, they’re cheaper than the AirPods Pro and their predecessors, the Powerbeats Pro, making them a more budget-friendly option if you want to buy a pair of Beats earbuds.
The PowerBeats Pro true wireless earbuds are something special – they’re supremely comfortable, sound decent, and seem to never, ever fall out.
They might not be the best true wireless earbuds in Apple’s audio arsenal now that the AirPods Pro are here, but they are Apple’s most premium play into the world of running headphones and are the buds we’d recommend to most workout enthusiasts.
That’s thanks to features like the pressure-reducing micro-laser barometric venting hole, their long onboard battery life, and good sound quality. If we had to choose between wearing these and the original AirPods around the house or office, these are what we’d wear.
With an over-ear, closed-back design, the Studio 3 are among the best noise-canceling headphones Beats has ever made.
The battery has massively improved since previous models too, so you can enjoy music for up to 22 hours, or 40 with the active noise cancellation turned off – just like the Beats Solo Pro.
However, there are sound issues you just don’t hear in other good headphones at the price. It’s not boomy bass but a tire of blubber sitting between the bass and mids that makes the Beats Studio 3 Wireless less articulate and open-sounding than most alternatives.
The latest Beats Powerbeats (the PowerBeats 4) are a significant upgrade on the company’s wireless workout earbuds, offering a sound quality that’s just as good as the Beats Powerbeats Pro. They also boast an IPX4 rating and Apple’s H1 Wireless Chip, which can summon Siri with the sound of your voice.
They’re supposed to last 15 hours per charge – six hours more than the Powerbeats Pro and three more than their predecessors, the Powerbeats 3 – and can be paired to multiple devices and share songs wirelessly with another pair of Beats headphones.
They’re not quite as good as the Apple AirPods Pro – especially in terms of the way they fit and sit in your ears, but they have a lot of the same technology and specs to make them a decent cheaper alternative.
Apple’s AirPods are popular, but neither the 2019 AirPods nor the AirPods Pro is the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today. Here are a few AirPods-alternatives that are worth considering, too.
Sony is largely responsible for the rude health of the active noise-canceling earbuds market, and with the WF-1000XM4, the company has combined performance, ergonomics, and build quality more effectively than ever before.
While other true wireless earbuds surpass the Sony WF-1000XM4 in particular areas – noise cancellation, for example – no other model comes close to offering such excellent quality across the board. That’s why the Sony WF-1000XM4 is hands-down the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today.
Read more: Sony WF-1000XM4 review
The nurture are perhaps the most personalized wireless earbuds you can buy today – and they’re among the best-sounding, too.
They offer unbeaten levels of customization that allow the earbuds to be tuned to your ears exactly. The accompanying app even analyzes how well the buds fit into your ears.
The end result is an outstanding audio performance that reveals superb levels of detail in your music, and a wide soundstage that enables every instrument to sing.
Cambridge Audio may be best known for its high-end audio equipment, but the past couple of years has seen the British company branch out into the world of truly wireless earbuds.
While the design of the Melomania 1 Plus hasn’t deviated too far from its predecessors, there’s a clear step up in terms of audio performance, with levels of detail and clarity that could rival some of the best over-ear headphones.
A helpful app, easy controls, and excellent connectivity just make us love them even more. The only downside is that there’s no active noise cancellation. However, when these earbuds sound this good, we doubt you’ll miss it much.
The audio quality of the CX True Wireless is exactly what you’d expect from the German audio giant, with a wide soundstage, clear mids, detailed trebles, and powerful bass frequencies. Nevertheless, we were still surprised by how good these earbuds sound for the price.
The controls and accompanying app are very easy to use, and Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity ensures a stable connection with your device. Hi-res audio support is included, too, for those who want to eke out every last bit of detail from their music.
Our only real bugbear is the CX True Wireless’ design, which we found far too bulky for our ears. We’re hesitant to judge Sennheiser too harshly for this since most users will probably be able to use them without issue.
How much do AirPods cost?
Are Apple headphones worth buying?
Can I work out with Apple headphones?
Can AirPods connect to Android phones?