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Apple AirPods Pro vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation): Sealed or unsealed?

The AirPods (3rd generation) have more in common with the AirPods Pro than ever, so which should you buy?
September 18, 2022
Apple AirPods Pro VS Apple AirPods 3rd generation hero image
Lily Katz / Android Authority

Apple’s released a lot of AirPods, and while the AirPods Pro were the go-to option compared to the generations before. Then the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) came with a somewhat different shape and a few new features. How do they compare to Apple’s first sealed wireless earbuds?

This Apple AirPods Pro vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation) article comes from the audio experts at our sister site SoundGuys. Check out their in-depth take on Apple AirPods Pro vs Apple AirPods (3rd generation).

Do the AirPods Pro fit more securely than the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

Apple AirPods Pro 12
Sam Smart / Android Authority

When the Apple AirPods Pro came out, the benefits over the AirPods (2019) were obvious. Both are well-made and sturdy, with good touch controls and strong magnets to keep them in their cases. But the superior audio performance of the AirPods Pro made them an obvious winner. That was still true with the Apple AirPods (3rd generation).

This time around, Apple changed the shape of this AirPods model so it fits more comfortably in more ears. The AirPods (3rd generation) feature a rounder shape with a new speaker array and software to reduce the amount of bass lost from their unsealed fit.

However, even if these are more comfortable than before, they still can’t beat the isolation and security that the silicone tips on the first AirPods Pro have. They fit better in more ears, and have all the same controls as the AirPods (3rd generation). Even more, the AirPods Pro have active noise-cancelling (ANC), which fills in the gaps that isolation leaves.

Do the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have different features from the Apple AirPods Pro?

AirPods 3rd Generation in the case.
Sam Smart / Android Authority

The AirPods (3rd generation) marked the next Apple audio product to include Apple’s Spatial Audio technology, and their launch was accompanied by iOS 15.1, which revamped the features a bit. Now your iOS device can try to spatialize audio that isn’t specifically mixed for Dolby Atmos, and it works well, though it’s not perfect. This updated version of Spatial Audio also released for the AirPods Pro at the same time, and works the same with them.

The AirPods (3rd generation) also have the same stemmed control design as the AirPods Pro. Each earbud has an indent on the stem that recognizes taps and squeezes as controls. The two models have the same controls, except the AirPods Pro allow you to hold the stem to toggle between ANC, transparency, or disable Noise Control.

Any AirPods Pro purchased after the release of the AirPods (3rd generation) will also support MagSafe and Lightning charging.

The AirPods (3rd generation) case charges via Lightning cable, but also debuted with Apple’s reintroduction of MagSafe charging. This allows for Qi wireless charging on a magnetic mat to keep it in place while charging. Any AirPods Pro purchased after the release of the AirPods (3rd generation) will also support MagSafe and Lightning charging, so there’s no real difference there.

If you tend to lose your earbuds a lot, Find My AirPods is enabled with both the AirPods Pro and AirPods (3rd generation). Just be sure to not wait too long to find them, since the small batteries tend to run out quickly.

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Apple AirPods Pro feature a virtually identical software experience

One third-generation AirPod inside an ear.
Sam Smart / Android Authority

The iOS and iPadOS Settings apps are where you control all settings for both the AirPods Pro and AirPods (3rd generation), so only Apple users can access things like firmware updates, hands-free Siri, and Spatial Audio. Both models use the same app and thus have basically the same experience.

If you go into Bluetooth settings and press the little “i” next to your device, you can name your AirPods, change controls, and toggle automatic ear detection. You can also set which earbud is the default microphone, in case you only want to wear one. The only real difference is that you can control noise-cancelling settings for the AirPods Pro.

How do you connect the Apple AirPods Pro and the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

AirPods Pro Connecting

Like every other device with an H1 chip, connecting your AirPods Pro or AirPods (3rd generation) to iOS is super easy. Once you open the case near the phone, a pop-up card should appear on your screen allowing for quick connection.

Since these are Apple-oriented earbuds, they only support the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs. Both use Bluetooth 5.0, so neither will be able to support the LC3 codec in the future. Even if they did have Bluetooth 5.2, chances are you’d still use AAC on Apple devices.

On Android, the experience is more barebones. You don’t get access to any software features, and you have to connect by holding the pairing button on the case and pair them using your device’s Bluetooth menu, like you would any other Bluetooth device. You can still use the AAC codec, but SBC is likely to be more consistent across non-Apple devices.

Do the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) have better battery life than the AirPods Pro?

AirPods 3rd Gen in its case.
Sam Smart / Android Authority

If there’s one place the AirPods (3rd generation) improve on their predecessors and the AirPods Pro, it’s battery life. At a consistent output of 75dB(SPL), the AirPods (3rd generation) last six hours, 21 minutes on a single charge. The previous generation barely lasts four hours, so that’s a major improvement. The AirPods Pro last five hours, six minutes under the same conditions, though that’s with ANC turned on.

The AirPods (3rd generation) charging case also has expanded capacity compared to the Pro model. The case holds enough power for four extra charge cycles, putting total listening time at over 30 hours. The AirPods Pro case holds enough power to increase overall listening time to about 24 hours, which is still not bad at all.

How much more noise do the AirPods Pro block out compared to AirPods (3rd generation)?

AirPods 3rd Gen being worn.
Sam Smart / Android Authority

Usually in an article like this, noise-cancelling or isolation performance is a big point of competition between the products we’re comparing. It’s important here, but more to demonstrate that there’s no competition, and that’s intentional.

The Apple AirPods Pro have vastly superior isolation performance. They have ANC, but even if they didn’t, they would still be better than the AirPods (3rd generation) due to their silicone ear tips. The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) don’t block out much of anything, since it doesn’t seal to the ear canal or have ANC. It features a new array of speakers to mitigate the loss of audio in an unsealed environment, but that doesn’t help much with auditory masking.

Related: The best noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds

Which sound better, the Apple AirPods Pro or the Apple AirPods (3rd generation)?

Apple AirPods Pro vs AirPods 3rd Generation frequency response comparison chart.
Sam Smart / Android Authority

Good isolation is necessary for good sound, and we know the AirPods (3rd generation) are lacking in the isolation department. A bad seal means bad bass response and a high likelihood of auditory masking, which leads people to increase the volume to potentially unsafe levels.

Compared to SoundGuys’ consumer curve, the AirPods Pro (yellow dashed line) outputs great audio across the frequency spectrum, though with a bit of an under-emphasis in the highs. In comparison, the bass range of the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) (cyan line) looks pretty bad, but it could be worse. With an unsealed ear, some level of bass leaking is expected, but the fact that it’s mostly contained to the sub-bass range is impressive. There aren’t as many sounds in that super-low range under 50Hz in music, so you might not notice it at all.

A bad seal means bad bass response and a high likelihood of auditory masking. This leads people to increase the volume to potentially unsafe levels.

The thing is, both of these measurements were taken in ideal conditions. While isolation and ANC performance in the AirPods Pro will reduce the level of noise you experience when you leave the house, the same can’t be said of the AirPods (3rd generation). As good as they might sound, you will hear pretty much every noise that comes your way from the outside. The only thing that helps with auditory masking when your earbuds don’t seal is increasing the volume, which you shouldn’t do, since noise-induced hearing loss is easier to cause than you might think, and no song is worth that risk at all.

Does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone sound as good as the AirPods Pro?

An AirPod (3rd generation) being held by a hand.
Sam Smart / Android Authority

The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone can sound great, depending on what device you use it with. If you’re connecting to an Apple device, you’re in for some really good mic audio for true wireless earbuds. The same is true with the AirPods Pro, but the newer device is a clear step up.

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone demo:

Apple AirPods Pro microphone demo:

Apple AirPods (3rd generation) vs Apple AirPods Pro: Which should you buy?

Airpods Pro Battery Indicator

For the most part, it shouldn’t be too complicated to figure out whether to buy the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or the Apple AirPods Pro. Do you like a secure fit and consistently clear audio? Buy the AirPods Pro. Sure, they’re $70 more expensive, but that added expense is worth it for the headaches it’ll save you from.

Apple AirPods Pro
Grab the ultimate pair of Apple headphones and enjoy the added power of the Pro name. With an improved charging case and silicone ear tips, you can listen all day with ease and comfort.

The question of which to get for exercise is a little harder. Both earbuds are IPX4 rated for sweat and splash protection, and the noise-cancelling of the AirPods Pro makes them an easier choice if you don’t want to find great true wireless earbuds for working out. But if you’re a runner, the unsealed fit of the AirPods (3rd generation) may be appealing. That is, depending on how secure a fit you can get. The hard plastic design doesn’t leave much room for adjustment, so you should try them out before buying.

Apple AirPods third generation
Apple AirPods (3rd Gen)
The third generation of Apple's true wireless earbuds.
A new design brings water resistance, spatial audio, and longer battery life to the world's most popular earbuds.

What are the best Apple AirPods alternatives?

sony wf 1000xm4 review glam
Chris Thomas / Android Authority

If neither of the AirPods options appeal to you, there are plenty of worthwhile options. The most obvious are the second-generation Apple AirPods Pro ($239), also made by Apple. These got pretty of upgrades over the predecessor, including a new H2 chip, better sound, improved battery, and improved ANC. The case also has a speaker, which can help find the unit when lost.

On that note, Android users should look at other products, since AirPods will always offer you a sub-par experience. People who don’t care too much about ANC should consider something like the Sennheiser CX True Wireless ($80), which have good sound, isolation, battery life, and support for AAC and aptX audio codecs. If you’re looking for great ANC, the Sony WF-1000XM4 ($278) and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 ($299) are among the best of their class.

Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 review stock photo 11
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority
By design, true wireless earbuds have a short lifespan, so don't expect more than two years out of these.

However, if you’re more environmentally conscious, not getting true wireless earbuds might be the right move. By design, true wireless earbuds have a short lifespan, so don’t expect more than two years out of these. Given the long way we have to go before battery recycling is really effective. That means a lot of scarce resources go to waste regularly. Consider a pair of over-ear headphones that will last longer, or even better, wired headphones or earbuds.