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18 Nov 2021

New Apple AirPods tested: is the previous-generation model the better deal?

Are the all-new Apple AirPods worth the extra money, or just more of the same? Our experts give the definitive verdict
Apple AirPods (2021) third-generation truly wirele

Apple's given its immensely popular AirPods another refresh. But with the previous-generation AirPods still available - and with a price cut - which ones should you go for?

Of course, there are also plenty of alternatives to Apple's AirPods, and we've tested models that include more features, despite being much cheaper. Some also look uncannily similar AirPods.

Read on to find out what sets them apart, then check out our reviews to see which ones manage to scoop a Which? Best Buy award.

Alternatively, jump straight to our Apple AirPods (2021) review.

Best Black Friday AirPods and headphone deals 2021 - the big week of Black Friday deals has begun. Find out which are the best deals right now, updated daily by our pricing experts right up to Black Friday. See our round up for the best Apple Black Friday deals.

Apple AirPods (2021): key new features

Apple AirPods (2021) third generation

The iconic design of Apple's AirPods has undergone something of a refresh, with this third-generation model taking its cues from the Apple AirPods Pro.

The stems of the earpieces are now 1cm shorter, and the earpieces slightly angled towards your inner ear.

Apple also trumpets what it calls 'spatial audio' - a feature that, when enabled, is designed to simulate a surround-sound experience.

Battery life has also been improved. Apple claims this third-generation model adds an extra hour of listening, meaning you should now be able to listen for six hours straight before needing to charge them from the case - enough to last even the longest Spotify sessions.

Wireless charging is also now standard; with the previous-generation pair you need to pay more for the version with the wireless charging case.

Alongside the usual Qi wireless charging method (compatible with many modern smartphones), the new AirPods also support Apple's own MagSafe standard. MagSafe chargers use magnets to ensure the device is optimally-positioned, helping to speed up charging.

3rd Gen AirPods vs 2nd Gen AirPods

Apple AirPods (3rd Gen)Apple AirPods (2nd Gen)
RRP£169£119 (standard, not wireless, charging case)
Claimed battery life (earpieces)Up to 6 hours of listening timeUp to 5 hours of listening time
Claimed battery life (earpieces with charging case)Up to 30 hours of listening timeMore than 24 hours of listening time
Earpiece stem length3.1cm4.1cm
Case size in cm (HxWxD)4.6 x 5.4 x 2.15.4 x 4.4 x 2.1
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0Bluetooth 5.0
Splash resistant (IPX4) earpiecesYesNo

Both these AirPods are compatible with Apple and Android devices, although owners of Apple devices get extra features, such as the ability to check the battery level of the AirPods and automatic pausing when you take them out of your ears.

It's also worth noting that, unlike the Apple AirPods Pro and some cheaper rivals (see below), neither pair feature active noise cancelling to reduce background sounds, such as traffic noise.

Find out how the latest AirPods performed in our Apple AirPods (2021) review, then compare them to the previous-generation model our Apple AirPods (2019) review.

When can I get the new Apple AirPods?

The third-generation Apple AirPods are now available to buy and widely stocked at major retailers - see our Apple AirPods (2021) where to buy page. For the second-generation AirPods, see our Apple AirPods (2019) where to buy page.

Apple AirPods alternatives

Apple's AirPods are so high-profile it's easy to forget there are alternatives, but there are plenty to choose from. Check out the three we've featured below, clicking through to the reviews to see how well they performed in our professional tests.

Huawei Freebuds 4i, £50

The Huawei Freebuds 4i look uncannily similar to the Apple AirPods, with the main difference being the oval-shaped charging case.

They're designed for Android users, with the accompanying Huawei AI Life app, which lets you adjust settings, being available only for Android devices (although the Freebuds can be used on Apple devices if you're happy to stick to the default settings).

They're available in white, black or bright red, with Huawei promising ten hours of continuous playback.

Impressively, they include active noise cancelling, which helps block out unwanted background sounds and means they're competing against the pricey Apple AirPods Pro (£199).

Are these buds are remarkable bargain, or is there a catch? Find out in our Huawei Freebuds 4i review and also check out the surprisingly similar Honor Earbuds 2 Lite.

Sony WF-1000XM3, £119

Sony certainly struck a chord with the popular Sony WF-1000XM3, which continue to be popular despite being a few years old now. They include a noise cancelling feature, with Sony claiming that you'll hear 'only music, nothing else', and are fully compatible with Apple iOS and Android devices.

Are these a wiser buy compared to the new AirPods? Our professional listening panel delivers the definitive verdict in our Sony WF-1000XM3 review.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, £179

Apple's fierce smartphone rival Samsung also has its own line of truly wireless headphones. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro is their top-of-the-range pair, adding active noise-cancelling for only £10 more than the RRP of the new Apple AirPods.

They're designed for Samsung and other Android devices - the accompanying Samsung Galaxy Wearable app isn't available for Apple devices.

The Galaxy Buds Pro have a sleek compact design and Samsung promises high-quality 'studio sound' tweaked by audio specialists AKG.

Find out if Samsung's pair tops the pack in our Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review.