March 9, 2021

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AirPods buying guide: Which AirPods are best for you?

6 min read
(CNN) —  

Apple’s AirPods have gone from a single pair of industry-leading earbuds to an entire product family in just a few short years. There have never been more options when it comes to getting a high quality pair of Apple headphones in or around your ears — to the point where you might be unsure which version of AirPods you should actually buy.

Fortunately, we’re here to help. We’ve broken down every version of the AirPods you can currently pick up, from the standard $159 AirPods all the way to the ultra-premium $549 AirPods Max. Here’s a quick look at how they all stack up on price:

  • AirPods with Charging Case ($128, originally $159: amazon.com)
  • AirPods with Wireless Charging Case ($159, originally $199: amazon.com)
  • AirPods Pro ($219, originally $249; amazon.com)
  • AirPods Max ($549; amazon.com)

Whether you’re looking for affordable wireless earbuds or a high-end set of over-ear headphones with immersive noise cancellation, there’s an AirPods option for you. Here’s a guide to Apple’s wildly popular headphone line to help you figure out which model is most worth your cash.

AirPods: The entry level

The original AirPods have become a ubiquitous part of popular culture ever since they launched in 2016, and remain some of the best wireless earbuds you can buy. These stem-shaped buds pair effortlessly with your iPhone, iPad or Mac, work just fine with Android and Windows and sound great for just about any genre of music.

And while they’re not exactly dirt cheap, the standard AirPods are the most affordable member of Apple’s audio family — especially since they’re frequently on sale. You will have to make an important decision before you buy, though: do you care about wireless charging, or would you rather save a little cash?

The standard AirPods actually come in two variations: the starting model with a wired charging case ($159), and a more expensive version with a wireless charging case ($199). The only difference between the two is right there in the name. While the AirPods with Wired Charging Case have to be charged via a Lightning cable, the AirPods with Wireless Charging Case can be juiced up using wireless charging pads such as Apple’s own $39 Magsafe Wireless Charger and Mophie’s $29 Fabric charging mat.

If you prefer the convenience of being able to charge your AirPods case by simply plopping them down on a mat, you might want to spring for the wireless charging model (especially since they’re frequently on sale for the same retail price as the wired version). But no matter which variation you choose, you’ll be getting a great pair of wireless earbuds for less than $200.

AirPods Pro: The best overall earbuds

The standard AirPods are excellent, but there’s a reason that the AirPods Pro continue to sit at the top of our best true wireless earbuds list. These are some of the best-sounding buds you can buy, and, more importantly, offer impressive active noise cancellation that makes it easy to block out the outside world when you need to.

The AirPods Pro differ from the standard AirPods in several key ways. They feature a more customizable (and arguably more attractive) design, with shorter stems and three swappable silicone ear tips. This gives them a more secure fit that’s also better for working out, especially since the AirPods Pro also carry a IPX4 rating for water resistance. Apple’s high-end earbuds deliver slightly better sound, thanks to an Adaptive EQ that can automatically tune music to your ear shape in order to make your favorite tracks sound as clear and full as possible.

But the real reason to spring for the AirPods Pro is the active noise-cancellation (ANC). Apple’s premium buds are just about the best we’ve tested when it comes to blocking unwanted background sounds such as chatty bystanders and noisy vents. And when you want to stay aware of your surroundings, the AirPods Pro’s Transparency mode does a great job letting in outside sounds (such as nearby cars and trains) via the onboard microphones. As a nice bonus, the AirPods Pro also feature Spatial Audio support, which allows for immersive 360-degree sound in supported movies and shows.

AirPods Max: For serious spenders only

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

If you have a huge stack of cash you’re looking to burn and strongly prefer over-ear headphones to earbuds, the new AirPods Max are worth considering. These premium cans are wildly expensive at $549, but you do get superb sound and functionality for the high price.

The AirPods Max’s stainless steel design and plush ear cushions make for one of the most comfortable sets of headphones we’ve tested, and you can even pop the earcups off if you need to clean or replace them. However, while the AirPods and AirPods Pro come with convenient charging cases, the AirPods Max include a strange (and often-memed) carrying case that only covers up the earcups while leaving the headband exposed.

We found the AirPods Max to deliver excellent sound quality, with deep bass, crisp high tones and a balanced mix that makes it easy to hear every detail of your favorite songs. You’ll get the same Adaptive EQ smarts and Spatial Audio capabilities as the AirPods Pro, as well as excellent active noise cancellation that holds its own against heavy hitters such as the Sony WH-1000XM4. The AirPods Max also feature the same Transparency mode as their earbud siblings, making it easy to let the real world in while you’re jamming out.

One major reason to spring for the AirPods Max is battery life — whereas the AirPods and AirPods Pro will tap out after four and a half to five hours on a charge, the AirPods Max can survive for roughly 20 hours before needing to be plugged in. And for the style-conscious, it’s worth noting that the AirPods Max are the only AirPods that come in multiple color options, including Pink, Sky Blue, Silver and Space Gray.

AirPods alternatives worth considering

PHOTO: Michael Andronico/CNN

Apple’s AirPods family comprises some of the best earbuds and headphones you can buy, but it’s also worth considering some great alternatives.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live give the standard AirPods a run for their money, with a comfortable and stylish bean-shaped design as well as some light ANC capabilities. They retail for $169, but are often on sale for much less than that.

If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to the AirPods Pro, the $199 Galaxy Buds Pro are well worth considering. These earbuds sound great and deliver solid ANC, plus an especially handy Ambient Noise mode that gives you more options than Apple’s Transparency mode does. The Buds Pro are a no-brainer if you’re on Android, though many of their software features can’t be accessed on iPhone.

Finally, if you want a high-quality pair of ANC headphones without paying the AirPods Max’s exorbitant price, the $349 Sony WH-1000XM4 are an obvious choice. Our pick for the best over-ear headphones, these premium cans pump out high-resolution audio, deliver 30 hours of battery life and offer superb ANC — all for $200 less than the AirPods Max.

Bottom line

PHOTO: Apple

There’s an AirPods model for just about everybody at this point, whether you’re seeking advanced active noise-cancellation or just want to fit in with the millions of people wearing Apple’s signature earbuds on the street every day.

The standard AirPods are still fantastic for the price, especially since you can get the wireless charging model at a steep discount these days. The AirPods Pro are the absolute best in their class if you want great-sounding earbuds with active noise-cancellation. And while we have a harder time fully recommending the AirPods Max, you will get some truly excellent sound, features and ANC capabilities for that steep $549 price tag. Just don’t forget to check out the many worthwhile alternatives out there before you make the plunge.

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