With the holiday shopping season already in full swing, one of the most popular gifts this year will undoubtedly be AirPods and AirPods Pro. With four different variations to choose from, making the buying decision could be tricky. Read on as we compare the AirPods 2, AirPods 3, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max, plus offer tips on the best accessories to complement your gifts this year.

AirPods 2

The AirPods 2 are the most affordable way to enter the AirPods ecosystem. These AirPods offer what Apple describes as a “universal fit” in which each AirPod rests on the inside of your ear (but not inside the ear canal). Because of this design, you don’t get any sort of noise cancellation technology.

Furthermore, the design is not customizable at all. When Apple says that AirPods feature a “universal” design, what it really means is that they are “one-size-fits-all.” If the AirPods don’t comfortably fit in a person’s ears, they are out of luck — apart from certain after-market ear hook accessories.

The AirPods 2 are powered by Apple’s H1 chip, which gives you access to always-on Hey Siri support, as well as support for automatic device switching with iOS 14 and macOS 11 Big Sur. Other features of the H1 chip include Audio Sharing and Announce Messages:

  • Voice-activated Siri uses the H1 chip to enable hands-free “Hey Siri” to play a song, increase the volume, make a call or get directions.
  • Audio Sharing makes it easy to listen to the same song or watch the same movie with a friend by simply bringing a second pair of AirPods close to iPhone or iPad.
  • Announce Messages automatically and conveniently speaks incoming messages as soon as they arrive, and when on a phone call or sharing media via Audio Sharing, Siri knows not to interrupt.
  • Automatic device switching allows your AirPods to switch between your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, and Apple Watch paired to the same iCloud account.
AirPods 2 battery sheet

AirPods feature up to 4.5 hours of battery life, while the accompanying charging case brings the total to more than 24 hours of battery life. The charging case can only be recharged via Lightning connectivity. To control playback using AirPods, you can tap on the sides of the earbuds or use Siri.

AirPods feature support for Apple Music Spatial Audio, but not support for dynamic head tracking or Spatial Audio for video content.

The standard AirPods retail for $129, but you can often find them on sale at much lower prices from various retailers. Be sure to keep an eye on 9to5Toys for details on the best AirPods sales through the holiday season.

AirPods 3

Next up are AirPods 3, the newest members of the AirPods family. Announced last month, AirPods 3 feature a “universal” design without customizable ear tips, but the overall form factor is similar to AirPods Pro. This means they are not “in-ear” headphones, but instead, they rest on the outer edges of your ears.

Apple says AirPods 3 include a new “skin-detect” sensor to help your connected devices know when AirPods are in your ears. They are also sweat and water resistant up to IPX4 rating. AirPods 3 feature a “Force Sensor” that lets you perform common tasks by pressing on the side of the earbuds:

  • Press once to play, pause, or answer a phone call
  • Press twice to skip forward
  • Press three times to skip back

AirPods 3 are also powered by the H1 chip, giving you access to features like Audio Sharing, Hey Siri, automatic device switch, fast pairing, and more. Notably, AirPods 3 also include support for spatial audio and dynamic head tracking, unlike AirPods 2.

In terms of battery life and charging, AirPods 3 offer up to six hours of listening time per charge. They also include a MagSafe Charging Case, which offers up to 30 hours of total listening time

AirPods Pro

Finally, we have AirPods Pro at the high-end of the AirPods earbuds lineup. The biggest differentiator here is the design, with AirPods Pro featuring a “customizable” in-ear design. Apple includes three separate ear tip sizes in the box with AirPods Pro, giving users more control over how they fit in their ears.

Apple also touts that AirPods Pro are certified for IPX4 water and sweat resistance, just like AirPods 3 and unlike AirPods 2.

In addition to the design, AirPods Pro also feature Active Noise Cancellation support. Apple says that AirPods Pro use a combination of software and two microphones to block out outside noise for users, something that’s not available on the standard AirPods.

AirPods Pro ear tips

AirPods Pro also support Transparency mode, which allows users to simultaneously listen to music while still hearing the environment around them. AirPods Pro use outward- and inward-facing microphones “to undo the sound-isolating effect of the silicone tips so things sound and feel natural.”

AirPods Pro are powered by the same H1 chip as the standard AirPods, giving you features including Hey Siri support, automatic device sharing, audio sharing, and announce messages with Siri. AirPods Pro also support spatial audio with dynamic head tracking, just like AirPods 3.

Similar to AirPods 3, AirPods Pro feature a “Force Sensor” that lets you perform common tasks by pressing on the side of the earbuds.

AirPods Pro feature up to five hours of battery life, with the accompanying charging case adding more than 24 hours of additional battery life. The battery case can be recharged via Lightning connectivity or via Qi wireless charging, including Apple’s MagSafe Charger and the upcoming MagSafe Duo Charger.

Finally, in terms of sound quality, the in-ear design of the AirPods Pro inherently gives them a leg up on the standard AirPods. For many people, however, sound quality is objective, and even AirPods Pro won’t compare to more expensive over-ear headphones for most people.

All of these added features, however, come at a cost. AirPods Pro retail for $249, though deals are common this time of the year. If you can score AirPods Pro at their common sale price of $199, they become much easier to justify over the standard AirPods.

AirPods Max

And finally, for someone you truly care about this holiday season, we have AirPods Max. These aren’t truly wireless earbuds, but rather over-ear full-size headphones that are priced at $549. Apple touts that AirPods Max combine the “perfect balance of exhilarating high-fidelity audio and the effortless magic of AirPods.”

AirPods Max include a beautiful industrial design with stainless steel accents and a mesh headband. The over-ear design lends itself well to support for features such as Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode as well.

On the side of the AirPods Max are two buttons, one for switching between listening modes and a Digital Crown similar what you’d find on the Apple Watch for adjusting volume and other playback controls.

And if you’re looking AirPods that are available in any color but white, AirPods Max have you covered. AirPods Max are available in white, space gray, blue, pink, and green.

Best AirPods accessories

Aira Base Station Pro

If you’re looking to complement your AirPods with an accessory, or you’re shopping, there are several notable categories of AirPods accessories. Here are some of our recommendations.

Qi chargers

A great complement to the AirPods with Wireless Charging Case or the AirPods Pro is a Qi wireless charger. Not that AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro include MagSafe magnets inside the charging case, though all AirPods with wireless charging can technically charge via a MagSafe puck.

One of my personal favorite recommendations here is pricey but a great option. The Nomad Base Station Pro features a 3-in-1 wireless charging surface that uses FreePower technology to power up devices no matter where they’re placed.

The Nomad Base Station Pro retails for $199.95, though it’s currently on sale for $159.95. A more affordable option is the standard Nomad Base Station, which retails for $99.95 and can charge two devices at once with two coils.

Read our full review of the Nomad Base Station Pro right here.

AirPods cases

One popular way to personalize your AirPods is with a case for the charging case. Here are some options for the AirPods 2, AirPods 3, and AirPods 3, which can make excellent stocking stuffers.

AirPods 2 cases

AirPods cases

AirPods Pro cases

Wrap-up: AirPods vs. AirPods Pro holiday gift guide

If you’re going to jump beyond the entry-level AirPods, however, the AirPods Pro offer a complete feature set with noise cancellation, a more customizable design, and spatial audio for video and head tracking. This is especially a good value when you can get them on sale for less than $200.

What do you think of the AirPods vs AirPods Pro decision? Are you planning to buy AirPods for anyone this holiday season? Let us know down in the comments!

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About the Author

Chance Miller

Chance is an editor for the entire 9to5 network and covers the latest Apple news for 9to5Mac.

Tips, questions, typos to chance@9to5mac.com