AirPods vs. Beats: which are the best earbuds for you?

Making the choice of Apple AirPods vs Beats? If you’re looking for a pair of stylish but high-performing earbuds, you’ve got a bit of a task ahead, because both brands have some excellent options with which to tempt you. We’ve put together this quick versus guide to help you sort which are the best headphones (opens in new tab) for you and deserve your cash.

We’ve picked out mid-range options for each brand, as these are going to be the best choice for the majority of users. In the Apple corner, we have the latest generation of standard AirPods – the AirPods 3, announced in September 2022. Slotting beneath the high-end AirPods Pro, these earbuds deliver an impressive audio quality upgrade compared to the previous generation, which debuted in 2019. But is it enough of an upgrade?

It may not be, because in the Beats corner we have something a bit special – the Beats Studio Buds. First released and reviewed by us in 2021, these high-quality buds have a more understated design than many Beats ‘phones in the past, and deliver excellent sound quality with optional Active Noise Canceling. And while they may not integrate with other Apple devices quite as smoothly as AirPods will, they are a little cheaper, both in RRP and in actual street price. If you're a fan of Beats, why not check out our Beats vs Bose (opens in new tab) piece as well. 

So, which should you choose? AirPods vs Beats? There’s only one way to find out – let’s dive in and compare the two.

AirPods vs Beats: Design

Apple AirPods 3rd gen earbuds product shot on white background

(Image credit: Apple)

You may think that one pair of AirPods looks much like another, but the AirPods 3 have been refreshed in a few welcome ways. The housings have been redesigned for improved comfort, and the shorter stems now include touch capacitive force sensors – meaning they can be squeezed to control playback, accept calls, etc. The earbuds having IPX4 water-resistance is welcome, and should protect the buds from errant sweat while you’re working out, or from a sudden downpour.

The Beats Studio Buds, meanwhile, stand out with an immediately striking ovoid form factor. They may seem odd at first glance, but once you slip them into your ear the shape makes sense – the bulbous body is comfortable but secure, and they simply stay where they are, even if you’re exercising. There are raised ridges on the sides that display the Beats logo, and also house physical control buttons, allowing you to play/pause, skip tracks and switch noise-canceling mode. While we dinged the Beats a little for not offering a volume control option in the physical buttons, this has been added in a subsequent firmware update. So no complaints here!

Verdict: Tie

Beats Studio Buds

The Beats Studio Buds on our reviewer. (Image credit: Future)

AirPods vs Beats: Performance and sound quality

If you’ve tried Beats before, the Studio Buds are a revelation. There’s none of that all-dominating bass heard out of previous Beats headphones. The bass in the Studio Buds is punchy, yes, but it sits sensibly in the mix and doesn’t overpower everything else. When we put them to the test across the rest of the audio range, we were consistently impressed. The dense opening medley of Steely Dan’s ‘Do It Again’, for instance, came out clear as a bell, with no individual elements getting lost in the shuffle. The overall sound profile is just beautifully balanced, and really impressive for a pair of buds at this price. 

The Beats’ Active Noise Canceling is also top-notch. Spookily good sometimes, the way noise canceling can be – it’s entirely possible that something loud might be happening right next to you and you won’t notice. In case you’re in a situation where that would be a problem, the Beats also offer a ‘Transparency’ mode, which uses the built-in exterior mics to feed outside sounds in. Useful if you’re listening out for an alarm, or otherwise need to have your wits about you. 

Audio performance of the AirPods’ third generation, meanwhile, has been kicked up a notch and is generally excellent. The included Spatial Audio technology lets you fully immerse yourself in your tracks, especially if they’ve been recorded in Dolby Atmos. It’s well-balanced and offers superb fidelity, whether you’re listening to music or watching films. 

Ultimately, we think the Beats offer a slightly better listening experience – especially given the fact that the Studio Buds have Active Noise Canceling. There’s not a lot in it though, and it may just come down to personal preference.

Verdict: Beats

Beats Studio Buds

We love the sound quality offered by these unusually shaped little earbuds.  (Image credit: Future)

AirPods vs Beats: Battery life

This is a close fight, as both the AirPods 3 and the Beats Studio Buds offer a pretty similar proposition in the battery life department. Both sets of buds come with their own charging case – and the wireless case is now standard on the AirPods 3 (it was a pricey optional extra on the previous generation).

Neither set of buds exactly excels in this department, but overall the AirPods do come out ahead. Apple promises about six hours of playtime, with four extra charges available in the case – so that’s a theoretical 30 hours of listening time before you need to intervene with a power supply. 

The Beats, meanwhile, can theoretically do up to eight hours of playtime on one charge, though this drops down to five if you’re using Active Noise Canceling – which a lot of the time you probably are. The charging case will only deliver two full charges, so that’s a theoretical maximum of 24 hours listening time. Still trailing the AirPods, even if you never touch the ANC.

Winner: AirPods

AirPods vs Beats: Connectivity

Apple AirPods 3rd gen with iPhone on white background

(Image credit: Apple)

We’re going to make an assumption here. Namely, that if you’re researching AirPods vs Beats, you’re already somewhat invested in the Apple ecosystem. (If you’re an Android user and somehow got this far, we can save you some time: stop reading and get the Beats. You’ll get much better value for money.)

For Apple users, the question is a little less cut and dried. The AirPods offer quite a lot, connectivity-wise. Hooking them up to your iPhone or other Apple device is as delightfully smooth a process as you’d expect, requiring you to simply open the case and tap the screen once. You also get a healthy load of connected features, such as Announce Notifications (which reads you out important updates), Group Facetime with Spatial Audio, and Audio Sharing.

Of course, the fact that Apple owns the Beats brand means that the Beats Studio Buds will do the majority of this as well. You can activate the Beats Studio Buds with ‘Hey Siri’, share your audio with a friend, get the Beats to announce your notifications and a whole lot more. iPhone users are spoiled for choice, frankly.

Winner: Tie, assuming you’re an Apple user. Beats if not.

AirPods vs Beats: Value

A lot of these categories have been quite close-fought – however there is an out-and-out winner for this one, in our opinion. It’s the Beats Studio Buds, which come at a lower RRP of $149, compared to $179 for the AirPods, and are commonly discounted to much lower prices – it’s not uncommon to see them at $99 or so at Amazon, Wal-mart or Best Buy. Discounts on the latest AirPods, meanwhile, are still in short supply as the earbuds are so new.

Then there’s also the fact that the Beats Studio Buds pack in Active Noise Cancelation, which AirPods users have to fork out for the even pricier AirPods Pro in order to get. 

Winner: Beats

Should you buy AirPods or Beats?

This has been a close-run competition – ultimately you have no bad options here. The latest-generation AirPods offer a superlative listening experience thanks to Spatial Audio, and integrate swimmingly with all your iOS devices. The Beats Studio Buds, meanwhile, pair a striking ergonomic design with a beautifully balanced listening experience, and throw that uncanny Active Noise Canceling tech into the mix. 

If you’re going to make us choose – and we’re guessing you are – then ultimately we’re giving it to the Beats Studio buds. These excellent earbuds simply offer better value for money, especially when you factor in real-world prices. We love the audio mix we get with the Beats Studio Buds, and while the bold-colour design may not be for everyone, you can’t argue with how comfortable and secure they feel. 

Jon Stapley

Jon Stapley is an NCTJ-qualified journalist that has contributed to a plethora of sites, including Shortlist, The Skinny, The Guardian, Digital Camera World and more. He covers photography and technology, covering news on the latest gadgets and sourcing fantastic deals on great tech products.