The best AirPods in 2024: How to pick which ones are right for you

With a carefully curated selection of earbuds and headphones, Apple makes sure you won't err when you AirPod. And this guide makes it even easier to decide what to pick.
The best AirPods

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AirPods have come a long way since the first generation of Apple’s true wireless earbuds were released in 2016. Industry research firm Canalys found that TWS sales may have decreased in 2023, but Apple’s AirPods Pro remain dominant. The company’s success has contributed greatly to popularizing TWS earbuds and features like active noise cancellation, which was previously only available in over- and on-ear headphones but is now mainstream on earbuds. It’s also raised the bar for connectivity, ease of use, battery life, and, of course, sound quality. While the term “AirPods” was synonymous with in-ears, the company launched the AirPods Max, its first pair of over-ear headphones, in 2020. The company has continually updated its lineup to introduce models with additional features or design changes. The best AirPods will allow you to enjoy your favorite music on-the-go while ditching wires completely.

How we chose the best AirPods for you

Our AirPods recommendations come from a mix of research and hands-on testing. When possible, we compared AirPods to different current-generation headphones in their respective categories. We also considered the style of headphones listeners preferred, the performance of features like active noise cancellation, battery life, and price. The good news is there’s no bad choice in the bunch; it’s just a matter of finding a set that best fits your needs.

The best AirPods: Reviews & Recommendations

The best AirPods will allow you to appreciate your music more than a typical budget pair of headphones because of their audio quality, while still fitting comfortably in a pocket or bag. They should fit your budget, and work just as well with your Android and Windows devices as your Apple gear.

Best overall: AirPods Pro (2nd generation) with MagSafe Charging Case (USB‑C)

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Specs

  • Headphone style: Earbuds
  • Battery Life: Up to 6 hours listening time per charge
  • ANC: Yes
  • Connector: USB-C
  • Price: $249.99

Pros

  • Adaptive Audio (EQ) support
  • Personalized Spatial Audio support w/ dynamic head tracking
  • Comfortable to wear

Cons

  • Less software customization than come competing brands
  • Some features require the latest and greatest Apple hardware and an Apple Music subscription
  • Not the most secure option for activity

The 2nd-generation AirPods with MagSafe Charging Case add small but consequential updates to what was already a fantastic flagship. As we declared in our full review of the AirPods Pro 2, these earbuds are “a highly noticeable improvement over their predecessors” thanks to a new low-distortion, high-excursion 11mm driver plus a custom amplifier. The augmented dynamics are richer, rounder, with textures splashier, crashier, crispier. And that’s before you add in any of the bells and whistles, like Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio, Adaptive EQ, active noise cancellation, and transparency, which combine to narrow the gap between you and your music while widening the soundstage you experience it in. (And, if you happen to have the Apple Vision Pro headset, the H2 chip with Bluetooth 5.3 in the AirPods Pro 2allows you to get 20-bit/48 kHz lossless audio streaming with your spatial computing.)

In terms of build improvements, the latest AirPods Pro earbuds are IP54 for better sweat and dust resistance, with multiple sizes of silicone eartips that anchor in your ear canals and create a tight seal for optimized bass performance. Simultaneously, a vent system improves pressure equalization for comfort. Skin-detect sensors tell the earbuds when to pause and play music if you take the earbuds out and put them back in. Touch controls are more responsive. The beamforming microphones do a great job isolating your voice on calls. Perhaps the greatest quality-of-living change is that the case supports both wireless and USB-C charging, so you can put that last Lightning cable away.

All these factors contribute to our naming the AirPods Pro 2 the best overall earbuds for most people. If you have a newer-generation iPhone, iPad, MacBook, etc., an insatiable love of music, and the budget (these are often on sale for $179-$199), the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds are a splurge that justifies itself immediately.

Best value: AirPods (3rd generation) with Lightning Charging Case

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Specs

  • Headphone style: Earbuds
  • Battery Life: Up to 6 hours listening time per charge
  • ANC: Yes
  • Connector: Lightning
  • Price: $169.99

Pros

  • Adaptive Audio support
  • Spatial audio support
  • Comfortable to wear

Cons

  • Uses a proprietary connector

While the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds are our default suggestion for anyone looking for AirPods, we understand that some folks don’t want to spend that much or still have an older iPhone and would prefer not to replace their Lightning cable(s) until they must. In that case, the AirPods (3rd generation) with Lightning Charging Case is your choice, and it’s not a bad choice by any means. It has a lot of the same audio features as the AirPods Pro 2, including the custom high-excursion driver and high dynamic range amplifier, Adaptive EQ, and Personalized Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking. So, if you liked the sound of the sound in the AirPods Pro 2 description above, you’ll like how it sounds here. What you don’t get, however, does come into play when you hit play. The AirPods (3rd generation) have a hardshell design, no interchangeable tips, so it can be harder to get a tight seal (and therefore harder to get lower bass). Also, there’s no noise cancellation, so the world might intrude more on your tunes (and you might be tempted to turn up the volume more but please do not or you’ll need to buy these). The chipset is an H1 with Bluetooth 5.0, so these will become obsolete faster than the Pro 2. And you must click, not swipe, for certain controls. Still, these AirPods have the same battery life and IP durability rating as the AirPods Pro, plus a case with a Lightning jack for charging (or one that charges wirelessly if you’re inclined to spend a little more). You get the AirPods experience in a pair of earbuds that’s routinely discounted to $140-$150, and you may not miss active noise cancellation if you work from home or in quiet environments.

Best over-ear: AirPods Max

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Specs

  • Headphone style: Over-ear
  • Battery Life: Up to 20 hours listening time per charge
  • ANC: Yes
  • Connector: Lightning
  • Price: $549

Pros

  • Better ANC than earbuds
  • Solid battery life
  • Comfortable to wear

Cons

  • Cost

The AirPods Max are the only pair of over-ear headphones made by Apple, so they’re your sole option in this category. Apple brought over many of the same features that helped make its earbuds popular: instant pairing with Apple devices, support for Spatial Audio and quick access to Siri, active noise cancelation, a well-balanced sound profile, and a design that’s focused on comfort. They’re also available in four colors, while Apple’s earbuds are only available in white.

At $549 (though often on sale as low as $479), the AirPods Max are a lot more expensive than comparable flagship models from Sony and Bose, and those headphones have better battery life and noise cancellation performance. Headphones from those companies also feature a USB-C port rather than Lightning for charging. A big part of the AirPods Max’s appeal is the signature aesthetics and integration with the Apple ecosystem. Anodized aluminum and mesh textile aren’t materials we’re used to seeing in the headphone world, and they’re undeniably luxe. Aluminum is heavier than the plastic used by other headphone companies, so the AirPods Max will weigh more heavily on your head if you’re jumping from another over-ear pair (though that breathable headband distributes weight well).

On a technical level, the AirPods Max were cutting-edge when they were released, but have started to cede some ground to the competition in the past couple of years. They support Spatial Audio with head tracking, which makes music and movies with a Dolby Atmos mix sound more immersive and more like listening to audio on a pair of high-end speakers, but it’s not lossless audio. Their 20-hour battery life is way higher than what you’d get from a pair of AirPods Pro, but that’s to be expected when comparing over-ear headphones to earbuds. However, the AirPods Max’s battery life is so-so compared to other over-ear headphones.

Still, if you care about aesthetics and comfort and want the AirPods experience from a bigger set of cans, the AirPods Max headphones are your only choice.

Best budget: AirPods (2nd generation)

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Specs

  • Headphone style: Earbuds
  • Battery Life: Up to 5 hours listening time per charge
  • ANC: No
  • Connector: Lightning
  • Price: $129.99

Pros

  • They pair easily with an iPhone
  • They play music
  • Compact design
  • Price

Cons

  • No special audio-processing/convenience features

If you want the classic Apple aesthetic without the expense, these are the AirPods for you. These are the long-stemmed earbuds that established the ubiquity of AirPods. They play nice with iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS devices, as well as Siri—no picky pairing or fussy settings, unlike competitors’ earbuds. They play music and can let you take calls. However, you’re not getting any of the advanced features that come with even the AirPods 3. There’s no custom, Adaptive, Personalized, active anything. But if you want the most affordable entry to portable personal Apple audio, this is it.

What to consider when shopping for the best AirPods for you

Picking a pair of AirPods is pretty simple because Apple doesn’t offer many models, and all of them are pretty good. The company has done an admirable job trickling certain features between its earbuds, including battery life, durability, and technical features. Unless you opt for the budget pick, your decision will come down to how much you’re willing to spend, whether you prefer earbuds or over-ear headphones, and if you care about USB-C charging.

Headphone style

While AirPods are synonymous with earbuds, Apple has branched out into offering an over-ear pair of headphones called the AirPods Max. Earbuds will always be more convenient to use because they can fit in your pocket comfortably with their charging case, whereas over-ear headphones need to be kept on your head, around your neck, or in a larger bag. The tradeoff is that over-ear headphones have larger drivers for better, louder sound, and a longer-lasting battery.

Connector

Once upon a time, all AirPods had a Lightning charging port. Apple developed the proprietary connector and featured it on the iPhone from 2012 until 2023, when it was replaced with a USB-C port. Now, most of Apple’s audio has a Lightning port, but the latest AirPods Pro (2nd generation) now comes with a USB-C charging port, and we expect this will become standard on all AirPods models in the next couple of years.

Battery life

All of Apple’s earbuds have the same six hour battery life, which is solid for this style of headphone. The amount you actually get will depend on whether you leave active noise cancellation enabled and your preferred listening volume. AirPods Max get up to 20 hours of usage per charge, which is more than enough to get you through a transatlantic flight with plenty of power to spare.

Active noise cancellation

Apple’s top AirPods—both earphones and headphones—have active noise cancellation, a feature wherein microphones analyze and algorithms neutralize outsound sounds before they reach your ears. Apple was one of the first companies to add credible active noise cancellation to the earbud world, and it’s only improved its performance in the second-generation AirPods Pro.

FAQs

Q: Which is the latest AirPods?

The AirPods Pro (2nd generation) with MagSafe Charging Case (USB‑C) is the latest pair of AirPods.

Q: Which AirPods stay in ear better?

AirPods Pro have gummy ear tips, which create a seal inside your ear to prevent them from popping out. This makes them stay in the ear better than non-pro AirPods.

Q: Which AirPods last the longest?

The AirPods Max have the longest battery life at 20 hours.

Q: Which AirPods are waterproof?

The third-generation AirPods and all AirPods Pro models have the same IP5 waterproof rating, which means they can be splashed without the risk of damage.

Q: Which AirPods are better for noise canceling?

The AirPods Pro (2nd generation) with MagSafe Charging Case earbuds offer the most advanced noise cancellation in an Apple product. However, the AirPods Max might offer the most overall noise cancellation thanks to a combination of active cancellation and passive isolation.

Q: Do AirPods work with Windows PCs and Android devices?

Yes. AirPods can connect to non-Apple hardware over the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codec. Both are lossy, but AAC is superior (hence, it’s the default on Apple devices).

Q: Do AirPods support lossless audio?

No, and yes. AirPods cannot wirelessly play back lossless audio without compression … unless you’re pairing the AirPods Pro (2nd generation with the $3,499 Apple Vision Pro “spatial computer,” which takes advantage of the H2 chip in both to allow 20-bit/48kHz lossless audio, but only if you have a source that can supply it.

Q: How much do AirPods cost?

AirPods start at $129.99 and go up to $549.99, depending on the model.

Final thoughts on the best AirPods

AirPods have forever changed the world of earphones and made headway into headphones. And Apple’s continued pursuit of bringing technical improvements to a mass audience is laudable. It’s safe to say true wireless earbuds wouldn’t be as popular, and active noise cancellation would have been a lower priority for other headphone makers, if Apple hadn’t stepped up its game. With its latest generation of AirPods, Apple has shown there’s no better time to invest in easily pocketable portable audio accessories than now.

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Popular Science started writing about technology more than 150 years ago. There was no such thing as “gadget writing” when we published our first issue in 1872, but if there was, our mission to demystify the world of innovation for everyday readers means we would have been all over it. Here in the present, PopSci is fully committed to helping readers navigate the increasingly intimidating array of devices on the market right now.

Our writers and editors have combined decades of experience covering and reviewing consumer electronics. We each have our own obsessive specialties—from high-end audio to video games to cameras and beyond—but when we’re reviewing devices outside of our immediate wheelhouses, we do our best to seek out trustworthy voices and opinions to help guide people to the very best recommendations. We know we don’t know everything, but we’re excited to live through the analysis paralysis that internet shopping can spur so readers don’t have to.

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Brandt Ranj

Staff Writer, Commerce

Brandt Ranj is a commerce reporter at Popular Science. He writes about the latest and greatest gadgets, from headphones and TVs to chargers and cables. He splits his time between New York City, Long Island, and Croatia, carting test gear around the U.S. and the globe.

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