Not too long ago, the words ‘Apple headphones’ would conjure up images of those wired EarPods you’d find in the box of a new iPhone – which were fine for casual use but were sub-standard compared to the best headphones around. But these days the tech giant is well and truly on its way to becoming a credible audio brand that can stand up to the likes of Sony and Bose in its own right.
The reason why Apple has started to excel when it comes to audio tech is partly down to its acquisition of Dr Dre’s Beats headphones in 2014, which expanded Apple’s portfolio to include colorful, fashion-forward on-ear headphones, wireless over-ear headphones, and slick running earbuds.
Apple’s first true wireless earbuds, the Apple AirPods were launched in 2016. Then, in 2019 came the upgraded Apple AirPods, complete with Apple’s own H1 chip. This advanced chip allows for many cool features, like the ability to summon Siri hands-free, super-fast pairing with iPhones, and increased battery life when it comes to taking calls. The H1 chip now comes with all new Apple headphones, from the AirPods Pro to the Beats Powerbeats Pro, and beyond.
In 2020 things changed again when Apple released its highly-anticipated over-ear headphones without Beats branding. The Apple AirPods Max offer noise-cancelling, exceptional audio performance and a slick design that’s as comfortable as it is stylish. However, at an eye-watering price of $549 / £549 / AU$899 they might not have the mainstream appeal that the AirPods do.
Choosing between headphones that share many of the same specs can be tricky, which is why we’ve put this handy guide together. Before we dive into our top picks however, we’ve answered some common questions about Apple headphones to make your buying decision even easier:
The best Apple headphones: FAQ
Are Apple headphones worth buying? It depends on what you’re looking for – if you want easy pairing with your iPhone, you can’t go wrong with Apple or Beats headphones. Looking for pure audio fidelity? You’re better off looking at competitors like Sony and Bose, though more Apple headphones like the AirPods Pro sound very good indeed.
How much are Apple headphones? Prices vary, but Apple headphones tend to sit at the pricier end of the mid-range. For example, the Beats Powerbeats 3 cost $199.95 / £169.95 / AU$259.95 at launch, while the AirPods Pro cost $249 / £249 / AU$399. Meanwhile, the new AirPods Max over-ear headphones cost an eye-watering $549 / £549 / AU$899.
Can I work out with Apple headphones? Yes. The best Apple headphones for working out at the Powerbeats Pro, thanks to their earhook design and sweatproof IPX4 rating. Other models, like the AirPods Pro have no such rating, though Apple says that they’re water and sweat-resistant.
Are AirPods noise-cancelling? The only noise-cancelling AirPods are the AirPods Pro and over-ear AirPods Max. Otherwise you’ll have to look to Beats headphones like the Studio 3 Wireless and the Solo Pro to block out environmental sound.
Can AirPods connect to Android phones? Yes, they can. You might find they’re marginally slower to pair than they would be with an iPhone, but the difference is negligible. However, if you are using AirPods with an Android, you’ll miss out on features like auto-pause or the ability to customize noise cancelation.
Do Beats work better with Apple? Again, Apple headphones – and therefore Beats headphones – are designed to work seamlessly with Apple’s ecosystem. That doesn’t mean you can’t use Beats headphones with other operating systems, but you may miss out on some features if you do.
The best Apple headphones of 2021
Apple’s best headphones of 2021, the AirPods Pro, bring active noise cancellation, a much better fit, and an improved design to the company’s previous true wireless earbuds.
They’re not quite the best true wireless earbuds out there (that honor goes to the Sony WF-1000XM3), and at $249 / £249 / AU$399 they aren’t cheap, either.
That said, if you’re an iPhone user looking for some well-fitting earbuds with strong sound quality, you could do a lot worse than the latest AirPods – the redesign means they’re far less likely to fall out, and the additional microphones provide strong noise-cancelling (particularly when commuting), as well as a useful Transparency mode, which really does let the outside world in.
The sound quality of the AirPods Pro has certainly improved since the previous iteration – there’s a notable emphasis on vocals and bass, meaning these earbuds are better for pop fans than those who enjoy a more natural presentation that lends itself to classical music or more orchestral sounds.
Apparently, there’s a new AirPods model on the horizon to join the original buds and the newer Pros. The AirPods Pro Lite are rumored to be a new, cheaper variant of the company’s popular true wireless earbuds, and they could be released this year.
Read more: Apple AirPods Pro review
The Apple AirPods Max were some of the most highly-anticipated headphones ever. Rumors and speculation about what they’ll look like and sound like have been swirling for years. So do they live up to the hype? Well, yes and no.
When we finally got our hands on the AirPod Max we found that, as you might expect, the audio quality was nothing short of extraordinary. The design and build was also solid and unmistakably Apple and they were comfortable too. We also appreciate the use of physical controls as opposed to the voguish swipe controls that most wireless headphones seem to favor these days. We particularly liked the reprisal of the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, which allows you to precisely adjust the volume and easily control your music playback. What’s more, they have brilliant quality of life features for those already devoted to the Apple ecosystem.
But it isn’t all good news. The most obvious drawback is the price. Apple has always created luxury tech with a higher-than-average price tag, but these are $549 / £549 / AU$899. In our review, we didn’t think the performance (although great) matched the sky-high price.
They also come with a case that preserves the battery while the headphones are in use. This sounds good, in theory. But it doesn’t offer any protection. Instead, the Smart Case leaves the headband of the AirPods Max totally exposed.
Read more: Apple AirPods Max review
Bringing top-notch adaptive noise cancelling to its on-ear offering for the first time, Beats Solo Pro is a marked step up from its previous iterations – particularly when it comes to build quality.
Sturdier than the Beats Solo 3 and sporting a cool matte finish in each color, the Beats Solo Pro feel like the biggest step up in quality the series has seen in some time for its larger line of headphones. Like the 2019 AirPods and AirPods Pro, they come with the H1 chip which allows for fast pairing and hands-free Siri integration.
Priced at $299.95 (£269.95 / AU$429.95 / NZ$499.95), the Solo Pro will likely appeal most to users who want a great pair of Beats cans without committing to Apple’s bulkier, pricier over-ear option, the Beats Studio 3 Wireless.
The active noise-cancelation brings Apple’s Beats somewhat closer to the best offerings from Sony and Bose, although those two are still ahead by some distance – the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are our top two picks in this field.
We do like the simple-one button access to the transparency mode here, though. This optional feature allows some outside noise to come through, which can be handy in an office if you want to be aware of someone calling your name or making sure you’re aware of traffic around you when walking or cycling.
Read more: Beats Solo Pro review
The PowerBeats Pro true wireless earbuds are something special – they’re supremely comfortable, sound decent and seem to never, ever fall out.
They might not be the best true wireless earbuds in Apple’s audio arsenal now that the AirPods Pro are here, but they are Apple’s most premium play into the world of running headphones, and are the buds we’d recommend to most workout enthusiasts.
That’s thanks to features like the pressure-reducing micro-laser barometric venting hole, their long on-board battery life and good sound quality. If we had to choose between wearing these and the original AirPods around the house or office, these are what we’d wear.
Read more: Beats PowerBeats Pro review
With an over-ear, closed back design, the Studio 3 are among the best noise-cancelling headphones Beats has ever made.
The battery has massively improved since previous models too, so you can enjoy music for up to 22 hours, or 40 with the active noise cancellation turned off – just like the Beats Solo Pro.
However, there are sound issues you just don’t hear in other good headphones at the price. It’s not boomy bass but a tire of blubber sitting between the bass and mids that makes the Beats Studio 3 Wireless less articulate and open-sounding than most alternatives.
Still, they’re a good match for iPhones missing 3.5mm jacks – in fact, you can pair them with any smartphone thanks to the Bluetooth technology. The Studio 3s are available in multiple colors too, including red, matte black, white, porcelain rose, blue and shadow grey.
Read more: Beats Studio 3 review
The second generation Apple AirPods, the AirPods (2019), aren’t a huge improvement on their predecessors, but they still sport some cool features, that may make them worth buying if you’re an iPhone user in particular.
They still feature the iconic design of the original AirPods, and sound quality hasn’t changed at all – it’s lively, but not on par with the best true wireless earbuds of 2020. The bulk of the upgrade comes from the new H1 headphone chip, which improves connectivity and battery life, and allows for a new ‘Hey Siri’ voice activation feature.
The AirPods (2019) also come with an optional wireless charging case means you can use a Qi-compatible charging mat to power the case, rather than sticking a cable into the Lightning charging port in the bottom of the case.
Like their predecessors, they are super easy to pair, but they are very much optimized for using with iPhones. The best true wireless earbuds give you more flexibility when it comes to your device of choice, and can offer superior sound quality – as well as sleeker designs.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that these are an expensive pair of headphones, and for that kind of money we think that you can find better products elsewhere – especially if you’re looking to pair with anything other than an iPhone.
Read more Apple AirPods (2019) review
The PowerBeats 3 running headphones are yet another pair of Beats headphones that aim to keep your tunes pumping while you keep your legs pumping. They may come with the high price that is a signature of the Beats and Apple brands, but they offer a lot for runners, and especially for Apple users.
With a 12-hour battery life and a quick charge function that can add an hour of battery life in a few minutes, the PowerBeats 3 should rarely run out of juice in the middle of anything short of an insane ultra-marathon. They’re also ready for all the sweat from your brow, and can even handle a run in the rain.
The Beats Powerbeats 4 could be coming soon, too – and they could make perfect running headphones. After some digging around in iOS 13, a new icon for the upcoming buds was discovered, which shows they’ll sport the same workout-friendly design as the true wireless Powerbeats Pro.
Read more: Beats PowerBeats 3 review
The best Apple headphones, at a glance
- Apple AirPods Pro
- Apple AirPods Max
- Beats Solo Pro
- Beats Powerbeats Pro
- Beats Studio 3 Wireless
- Apple AirPods (2019)
- Beats PowerBeats 3
Apple headphones: what’s coming next?
Now that the Apple AirPods Max have been announced, what’s next in the world of Apple headphones?
According to 9to5Mac, the prolific Apple analyst believes that Apple “will continue to sell second-generation AirPods through this year’s holiday season”, replacing the popular true wireless earbuds with the AirPods 3 “in the first half of 2021”. That release date has recently been backed up by a Bloomberg report, which cites “people familiar with the plans”.
The new ‘Pods will apparently take their design cues from the AirPods Pro, which ditched the rigid plastic tips and super long ear stems of the 2019 Apple AirPods, in favor of silicone eartips and a sleeker look. Whether that means they’ll come with noise cancellation as well remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the AirPods Pro 2 will reportedly be an entry-level version of the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro, which suggest the rumored wireless earbuds might be cheaper than the most expensive Apple earbuds currently on the market.
Rumors have been circling since mid-February, after a report from DigiTimes claimed that the new true wireless earbuds will launch in the first half of 2020. Of course, they never materialized, and everything’s pointing to a 2021 release at the earliest.
Lastly, the Powerbeats 3 could be getting a follow-up in the form of the hotly-anticipated Powerbeats 4 wireless earbuds, though rumors are thin on the ground.