On September 7, 2016, Apple bewildered the world’s tech press with the unveiling of the 10th generation iPhone – the iPhone 7. Once it hit the market, this sentiment soon transitioned into pure, unadulterated frustration among end-users, not for its static home button, revised antenna bands or internal system-on-chip upgrades, but over the absence of the 3.5mm headphone port.
Apple would package the iPhone 7 with a set of revised headphones, sporting a Lightning jack that was insertable into the charging port, but since charging and listening to music at the same time would not be possible, they simply wouldn’t do.
In typical style, Apple remedied this self-made problem with a new product, the AirPods, and with them dragged the world kicking and screaming into the next era of audio consumption – the dawn of the wireless earphones had arrived.
Six years later, AirPods are now Apple’s best-selling accessory, with three editions currently available – second generation, third generation and AirPods Pro. This range, however, creates its own problem – if you’re looking to pick up a new set today, which should you buy? Here’s a quick breakdown of their features to help you out.
As of 2019, the entirety of Apple’s wireless earphone range, including the over-ear AirPods Max, uses the H1 chip. It offers Bluetooth 5.0 support and hands-free commands with Siri, with 30 per cent lower latency than the previously used W1 chip.
The third-generation AirPods introduced spatial audio with dynamic head tracking – now available on the Pro AirPods, too. Using a number of sensors and gyroscopes, the earphones create a three-dimensional audio space around the ear, simulating a surround sound effect.
This really elevates the listening experience to the next level, but the Pros take things even further with active noise cancellation and transparency mode. The former uses an outward-facing microphone which can detect external sounds and then counter them with ‘anti-noise’. This feature then eliminates the external sound so that you only pick up what is playing through the headphones.
Transparency mode allows enough external noise through so as not to completely shut you off from the outside world – great for alerting you to potentially important noises.
Both of these features are game-changers in the audio experience and are only available on AirPods Pro.
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When it comes to wireless headphones, few things matter more than battery life. No one wants to be caught out with a set of unusable headphones on the go, so this is where the models differ: for the AirPods Pro, running the extra tech onboard comes at the cost of battery life, with only 4.5 hours of listening time available on one charge – 25% less than the third-generation AirPods and 10% less than the second generation.
However, the portable charging case included with AirPods can extend their listening time dramatically. With the charging case fully charged, the listening time of the AirPods Pro and the second generation AirPods extends to more than 24 hours, while the listening time of the third generation AirPods extends to 30 hours.
The third-generation AirPods and the Pro versions are also available with Apple’s revolutionary MagSafe charging port – goodbye wired charging.
AirPods have always been a pretty pricey entry in any wireless earphone range, with the original set retailing around £130. Over the years they've steadily climbed up in price, now with wide gaps between the different models.
A new pair of AirPods Pro will cost you £239, while the third generation AirPods will set you back £169 and the second generation £119. These are serious sums of money for very easily losable items, so if you’re looking to pick up a set of earbuds on a budget, you make want to check out some other, cheaper offerings on the market.
All AirPods are quality products, making the perfect accompaniment to a new smartphone for effortless audio consumption from an increasingly inconspicuous design. Over the years, the profile of AirPods has been getting smaller - the latest generation of Pro and regular just 1.22 inches tall.
However, if the shape of your ears is such that regular earphones are uncomfortable or prone to falling out, the silicone ear tips of the Pros would best suit your needs. Not only do they help with the noise cancellation process, but they're also more comfortable and secure within the ear, and available in different sizes to suit your needs.
AirPods have been a huge hit for Apple and it’s easy to see why. They’re small, light but powerful headphones with great practical potential – from waiting at the bus stop to lying in bed without even noticing they’re there.
Between the second and third-generation editions, the latter would make the best choice. There may be a £50 price difference, but the upgraded tech included in the third generation - from spatial audio to the MagSafe charging case - certainly warrants the dearer tag and is well worth holding out for.
However, choosing between the Pro AirPods and the third generation should largely come down to your lifestyle and where the earphones will be used. If you often find yourself in busy, loud environments while using headphones – in the street, on public transport etc – then the noise-cancelling capabilities of the Pros would be worth investing in.
If you only intend to use them around the house, at work or on walks through the countryside, with most of the technology found in the Pros featuring anyway and with longer battery life, the third-generation AirPods would make the best choice.
Either way, you're in for some great listening experience - just try not to lose them.