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    The best AirPods 2021: which Apple headphones are right for you?

    Thinking of buying some AirPods, but not sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place.

    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 fourAirPods models to choose from: the 2019 AirPods, AirPods (3rd generation), 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

    (Image credit: Apple)

    The best AirPods you can buy today

    Specifications

    Weight: 5.4g

    Drivers: Dynamic

    Battery life : 24 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Good noise cancellation+Better fit than AirPods (2019)

    Reasons to avoid

    More expensive than better rivalsUSB-C charging cable in box

    The AirPods Pro are 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-cancelling (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 are rumored to be a new, cheaper variant of the company’s popular true wireless earbuds, and they could be released this year.

    Read more: Apple AirPods Pro review

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    the AirPods Max in silver and white

    The best AirPods for sound quality

    Specifications

    Weight: 350g

    Drivers: 40mm dynamic

    Battery life: 24 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Unbelievable audio performance+Fantastic user experience+Brilliant extra features for iOS+Great noise cancellation

    Reasons to avoid

    Very expensive compared to rivalsNo 3.5mm audio portLimited features for AndroidIneffective carrying case

    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 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. 

    Read more: Apple AirPods Max review

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    (Image credit: techradar)

    the apple airpods 3rd generation

    (Image credit: Apple)

    A huge improvement on the AirPods 2

    Specifications

    Weight: 4.28g

    Drivers: N/A

    Battery life: 6 hours (earbuds) 24 hours (charging case)

    Reasons to buy

    +Impressive spatial audio+Easy to use

    Reasons to avoid

    No active noise cancellationNo interchangeable eartips

    The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) represent a big step up from their predecessors in terms of audio performance, connectivity, and design.

    Features like Spatial Audio support and Adaptive EQ set these buds apart from the competition, while a new, more subtle design brings force capacitive sensors to the true wireless earbuds.

    The AirPods 3 are unsurprisingly optimized for use within the wider Apple ecosystem, so Android users miss out on a lot of the extra features that set them apart from other true wireless earbuds on the market, and the lack of noise cancellation means they aren’t the most high-spec earbuds at this price.

    Read more: Apple AirPods (3rd generation) review

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    (Image credit: techradar)

    the apple airpods and their charging case

    (Image credit: Apple)

    The most popular AirPods are still worth considering

    Specifications

    Weight: 4g (38g with case)

    Drivers: Dynamic

    Battery life: 24 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Faster pairing+Wireless charging

    Reasons to avoid

    Wireless charging case costs extraAudio hasn’t improved since originals

    The second generation Apple AirPods may have been usurped by the AirPods 3, but they still sport some cool features that may make them worth buying if you’re an iPhone user in particular. 

    They’ve also been given a permanent price cut, making them the cheapest AirPods you can buy.

    A lively soundstage and the inclusion of Apple’s H1 headphone chip means that the AirPods 2 work really well as a pair of earbuds for casual music listening or making phone calls – just don’t expect audiophile sound. 

    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. 

    Read more Apple AirPods (2019) review

    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, true wireless earbuds that give the AirPods Pro a run for their money, and comfortable pairs of on-ear headphones that make your music shine.

    the beats solo pro headphones in red

    (Image credit: Apple)

    The best Beats for active noise-cancelling

    Specifications

    Weight: 267g

    Drivers: 40mm

    Battery life: 40 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Great noise cancellation+40-hour battery life

    Reasons to avoid

    Lightning port onlyLacks 3.5mm Aux port

    Bringing top-notch adaptive noise cancelling 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 build quality.

    Sturdier than the Beats Solo 3 and sporting a cool matte finish in each color, the Beats Solo Pro feel 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.

    Read more: Beats Solo Pro review

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    the beats studio buds in red

    (Image credit: Beats)

    The best-sounding Beats earbuds… with a few caveats

    Specifications

    Weight: 5g

    Drivers: N/A

    Battery life : 24 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Great sound quality+Comfortable to wear

    Reasons to avoid

    ANC could be strongerLackluster call quality

    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. 

    Read more: Beats Studio Buds review

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    the beats powerbeats pro in dark blue

    (Image credit: Beats)

    Super-comfortable workout ‘buds from Beats

    Specifications

    Acoustic design: Closed

    Drivers: N/A

    Battery life (on-board): 25 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Easy pairing with iOS+Immaculate fit

    Reasons to avoid

    Case is fairly bulkyLimited noise isolation

    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 on-board 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.   

    Read more: Beats PowerBeats Pro review

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    The Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones in black with gold logo

    The best Beats headphones for noise-cancelling

    Specifications

    Weight: 260g

    Drivers: 40mm

    Battery life : 40 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Excellent noise-cancelling+40-hour battery life

    Reasons to avoid

    Soggy midsWeak sub bass

    With an over-ear, closed back design, the Studio 3 are among the best noise-cancelling 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.

    Read more: Beats Studio 3 review

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    The powerbeats 4 in red

    (Image credit: Apple / WinFuture)

    A cheap alternative to the Powerbeats Pro

    Specifications

    Weight: 26.3g

    Drivers: 12mm

    Battery life: 15 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Improved sound quality+Hands-free Siri+15-hour battery life

    Reasons to avoid

    Difficult fitThe wire isn’t idealNo noise reduction

    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.

    Read more: Beats PowerBeats 4 review

    Best AirPods-alternatives

    Apple’s AirPods are popular, but neither the 2019 AirPods nor the AirPods Pro are the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today. Here are a few AirPods-alternatives that are worth considering, too.

    The best true wireless earbuds of 2021, the sony wf-1000xm4 in black with rose gold accents

    (Image credit: Sony)

    1. Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earbuds

    The best true wireless earbuds you can buy today

    Specifications

    Acoustic design: Closed

    Weight: 7.3g

    Frequency response: 20-40,000Hz

    Drivers: 6mm

    Battery life : 8 hours (earbuds) 16 hours (charging case)

    Reasons to buy

    +Rapid, full-bodied and eloquent sound+Truly useful features+Impressive call quality

    Reasons to avoid

    Unremarkable battery lifeNo aptX support

    Sony is largely responsible for the rude health of the active noise-cancelling 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 are hands-down the best true wireless earbuds you can buy today.

    Read more: Sony WF-1000XM4 review

    The Nuratrue true wireless earbuds in black wth a white logo

    (Image credit: Nura)

    The most customizable wireless earbuds you can buy

    Specifications

    Acoustic design: Closed

    Weight : 7.4g (each bud)

    Frequency Response: N/A

    Drivers: N/A

    Battery life (onboard) : 6 hours

    Reasons to buy

    +Excellent sound+Highly personalized+Noise cancellation

    Reasons to avoid

    Doesn’t use latest Bluetooth versionBattery life could be better

    The NuraTrue 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 outstanding audio performance that reveals superb levels of detail in your music, and a wide soundstage that enables every instrument to sing. 

    Read more: NuraTrue review


    The cambridge audio melomania 1 plus true wireless earbuds, with the earbuds on the left and the charging case on the right

    (Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

    3. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus

    Mind-blowing sound without the wires

    Specifications

    Acoustic design: Closed

    Weight: 9.2g

    Frequency response: 20-20,000Hz

    Drivers: 5.8mm

    Battery life (on-board): 9 hours (earbuds) 41 hours (charging case)

    Reasons to buy

    +Stunning audio performance+Great app+Easy controls

    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 true 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 makes 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. 

    Read more: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review

    The Sennheiser CX true wireless earbuds in their charging case

    (Image credit: Sennheiser)

    4. Sennheiser CX True Wireless

    Excellent audio performance and battery life for a great price

    Specifications

    Acoustic design: Closed

    Weight: 6g (single earbud) 37g (charging case)

    Frequency response: 5 hz – 21,000 Hz

    Drivers: TrueResponse Transducer Sennheiser 7mm dynamic driver

    Battery life : 9 hours (earbuds) 18 hours (charging case)

    Reasons to buy

    +Rich bass lines+Improved battery life+Upgraded connectivity

    Reasons to avoid

    Uncomfortable for smaller earsNo noise cancellationBulky case

    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.

    Read more: Sennheiser CX True Wireless review

    FAQs

    How much do AirPods cost?

    The regular AirPods cost $159 / £159 / AU$249, which jumps up to $199 / £199 / AU$319 when you opt for a wireless charging case. The AirPods Pro are more expensive at $249 / £249 / AU$399, though both models are regularly discounted – read our guide to the best AirPods deals for the latest price cuts.

    Are Apple headphones worth buying?

    It depends on what you’re looking for – if you want easy pairing with your iPhone, you can’t go wrong with Apple or Beats headphones. Looking for pure audio fidelity? You’re better off looking at competitors like Sony and Bose, though the AirPods Max sound very good indeed.

    Can I work out with Apple headphones?

    Yes. The best Apple headphones for working out at the Powerbeats Pro, thanks to their earhook design and sweatproof IPX4 rating. Other models, like the AirPods Pro have no such rating, though Apple says that they’re water and sweat-resistant.

    Can AirPods connect to Android phones?

    Yes, they can. You might find they’re marginally slower to pair than they would be with an iPhone, but the difference is negligible. However, if you are using AirPods with an Android, you’ll miss out on features like auto-pause or the ability to customize noise cancellation.

    Apple headphones: what’s coming next?

    Now that the Apple AirPods 3 have been announced, what’s next in the world of Apple headphones?

    Well, we’re hoping to see the AirPods Pro 2 next year. Industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has speculated that a new AirPods Pro model will arrive in 2022(via AppleInsider). 

    They will reportedly be an entry-level version of the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro, which suggest the rumored wireless earbuds might be cheaper than the most expensive Apple earbuds currently on the market. 

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