AirPods 3 vs. AirPods Pro: The upgrades we expect from today’s Apple

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The AirPods 3 could have a new design that resembles the AirPods Pro.


Angela Lang/CNET

This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple.

Apple’s big September event is today, and it will probably be all about the iPhone 13, but there’s a chance we might also see the debut of the AirPods 3. A refreshed version of Apple’s classic AirPods (yes, the ones with the longer stems) are expected to launch in 2021, and Apple’s annual mobile product launch event seems like the ideal time to do it. (Here’s what we hope to see Apple include in the AirPods 3.)

If the rumors prove true, the new AirPods will be a lot more like the high-end AirPods Pro. Likely to be called the AirPods 3, Apple’s next true wireless earbuds could feature a new design with shorter stems, interchangeable ear tips, a new Apple chip and a smaller charging case.

That could make deciding between the standard AirPods and AirPods Pro all the more difficult. There’s no way to truly know what to expect from the AirPods 3 until Apple unveils them. And we also don’t know whether they’ll be priced the same as the current entry-level AirPods. But here’s a look at how they could compare to the AirPods Pro based on the reports, leaks and rumors so far.

AirPods 3 (rumored) vs. AirPods Pro

AirPods 3 (rumored) AirPods Pro
Launch price (US) $159 $249
Processor Next-gen Apple chip Apple H1
Fit Customizable Customizable
Active noise cancellation No Yes
Water resistance No Yes

Design: The AirPods 3 could look like the AirPods Pro, but with some slight differences

Among the biggest changes reportedly coming to the AirPods 3 is a revamped design that more closely resembles that of the AirPods Pro. Last year, Bloomberg and analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via MacRumors) have both reported that Apple’s entry-level AirPods will gain a new look with shorter stems and replaceable ear tips. Since then, we’ve also seen a couple of leaks indicating the same. 

Chinese audio blog 52 Audio posted a photo in February claiming to show what the AirPods 3 look like. Twitter account Leaks Apple Pro also posted a photo in March that many have speculated could be the AirPods 3.

In both photos, you’ll notice that the earbuds have significantly shorter stems much like the AirPods Pro. Although they look a lot more like the Pros, the photos suggest there will still be some visual differences between both models. 

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This image from 52audio claims to show what the AirPods 3 look like.


52audio

The stems may still be slightly longer on the AirPods 3 compared to the Pros, and the earbuds themselves also don’t look as narrow as the Pros. None of the photos show the ear tips that the AirPods 3 are expected to ship with either. The supposed case for the AirPods 3 shown in the photos also looks like a slightly taller version of the AirPods Pro charging case.

The AirPods 3 are also expected to come with changeable ear tips for a more customizable fit, according to Bloomberg. If that’s true, then we can likely expect Apple to include three ear tip sizes in the box and an ear tip fit test during the setup process, just like the AirPods Pro. 

Kuo provided another clue indicating that the AirPods 3 will have an AirPods Pro-like design. In a research note reported by Apple Insider, he mentioned the AirPods 3 will use the same system-in-package design as the AirPods Pro, which Apple says contributes to the earbuds’ size and performance. That could mean Apple is trying to squeeze the AirPods 3’s components into a sleeker build like the Pro. But we haven’t heard whether the AirPods 3 will gain water resistance like the Pros.

All told, the AirPods 3 appear to be a cross between the second-generation standard AirPods and the AirPods Pro in terms of design.

Read more: Apple’s AirPods 3 could be coming soon, and there are a few upgrades I’m hoping for

Audio: Active noise cancellation will still likely be exclusive to the AirPods Pro

Yes, the AirPods 3 will look a lot more like the AirPods Pro. But will they sound more like them? That answer is less clear, but what seems certain is that the AirPods 3 won’t include active noise cancellation, according to Bloomberg. 

However, the 52 Audio report does hint that another premium audio feature might trickle down to the AirPods 3: spatial audio. This feature creates a surround sound effect that tracks the movement of your head when watching supported movies and TV shows, but it’s only currently available on the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. 

Otherwise, we haven’t heard much about whether the AirPods 3 will get any meaningful audio upgrades that bring them closer to the AirPods Pro. But if their new design results in a better fit, it’s reasonable to expect that the AirPods 3 will sound better too.

Performance: The AirPods 3 may have a newer chip and longer battery life compared with the AirPods Pro

Apple is expected to introduce a new version of its wireless chip in the AirPods 3, according to Bloomberg. Apple’s next-generation AirPods Pro will also reportedly have this chip, but Bloomberg doesn’t specify when the new high-end earbuds would launch. That means we’ll probably see the chip in the AirPods 3 first since Apple is expected to unveil them in September alongside the iPhone 13.

There aren’t any details about the types of upgrades this chip could bring. But if the jump between Apple’s W1 and H1 chip is any indication, we may see faster connection speeds. The H1 chip also introduced hands-free Siri support to Apple’s second-generation AirPods, so there’s a chance we’ll see other new features in the AirPods 3 as well.

The AirPods 3 may also get some battery life improvements, possibly putting them ahead of the AirPods Pro. Bloomberg’s report mentions that Apple is “looking to improve” battery life with the AirPods 3, although it didn’t share any additional details. But it’s possible that the AirPods 3’s new chip could lead to better efficiency overall, resulting in longer battery life.

The current AirPods and AirPods Pro offer similar battery life. Both are estimated to provide up to five hours of listening time according to Apple, but using active noise cancellation and transparency mode will likely bring the Pro’s battery life down to 4.5 hours. 

Price: The AirPods 3 will probably still be cheaper than the AirPods Pro

Since the AirPods 3 are meant to succeed Apple’s standard AirPods, it’s almost certain that they’ll be cheaper than the AirPods Pro. Apple sells its second-generation AirPods for $159, although you can find them for just below $120 on Amazon. Similarly, the AirPods Pro cost $249 through Apple and sell for $190 on Amazon.

The bigger question is whether the AirPods 3 will cost more than the second-generation AirPods. We won’t know until Apple makes the announcement, but it’s a possibility if the AirPods 3 have an updated design and faster chip. 

Overall, the AirPods 3 seem like they’ll bring Apple’s earbuds up to speed in two areas that matter most: comfort and performance. But you’ll still likely still have to splurge on the AirPods Pro to get better audio quality and active noise cancellation. We’re expecting to learn more during Apple’s big Sept. 14 event.

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