Apple takes the smash-hit AirPods and improves fit, comfort, and sound quality while adding a decent active noise reduction system and great transparency mode. But at this price, they should probably sound just a little better.
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Apple is at its best when it takes something that people find fiddly or annoying and then makes it effortless. And the new AirPods Pro are a perfect example.
They’re not the first wireless earbuds with noise cancelling, and they’re not the best-sounding wireless earbuds you can buy, but they do sound quite good and they’re just so easy that it’s just hard to go back to anything else.
The original AirPods have been a smash success, and it’s not because Apple invented the first truly wireless earbuds. Nor is it because they sound better than anything else in their price range.
AirPods made wireless effortless. While next to your iPhone, AirPods pair with your device just by opening its case. The connection is rock solid. They turn on and connect when you take them out of the case and turn off when you put them back. They know when you’ve taken one out of your ear and pause the music automatically.
The AirPods case is tiny enough to fit in any pocket, it opens and closes with a satisfying magnetic snap, and the earbuds drop right into their carefully-fitted slots.
With AirPods, Apple took the annoying rough spots around using wireless earbuds and made them simple and delightful.
So what does Apple do for an encore?
It tweaks the design, improves sound quality, adds active noise cancelling, and calls them the AirPods Pro.
AirPods Pro are absolutely peak Apple. Just as with the original AirPods, they are not a new invention. They don’t outperform the best wireless headphones in the price range. But AirPods Pro are so thoughtfully designed, so effortless and easy, that it’s kind of annoying to go back to using other wireless earbuds.
A design that’s hard to beat
Let’s start with the case. It’s a shorter, wider version of the case for the regular AirPods, and includes wireless charging—there’s no way to buy a non-wireless charging case. It’s just slightly bigger overall, and just as easy to slip into any pocket. Beyond that, it’s just like the AirPods case, and that’s a good thing. It snaps open and shut with that same satisfying magnetic latch, and the earbuds drop right into the fitted slots.
Why haven’t Apple’s competitors been able to replicate this experience? Ever since the release of the AirPods, Apple’s cases are still smaller, easier to pocket, easier to get your earbuds in and out of, just easier to use than everyone else’s. Good on Apple for updating AirPods with noise cancelling and silicone tips without sacrificing the ultra-compact and easy-to-use nature of the case.
The earbuds themselves look familiar, just tweaked a bit. They’re still visibly AirPods, and for better or worse they only come in glossy white. As much as I would love matte black, or Product(RED), or space grey, Apple seems to have decided that Apple headphones are glossy white. Period.
The stems are shorter now, which I really appreciate. They don’t look quite so goofy and the shorter stem makes for better balance that helps keep them in place in your ear.
The most obvious difference is the silicone tips on the front. Anyone who has used a bunch of different earbuds will tell you: rubberized or foam tips create a seal in your ear canal that helps improve bass response and blocks outside noise.
Apple gives you three pairs of tips—small, medium, and large—and there’s even a little “fit test” feature in Settings to help make sure you have a good seal. I had no problem passing that test with both the medium and small tips, but the small ones are a lot more comfortable. You should try out the different sizes.
Regular AirPods aren’t uncomfortable, but they don’t stay put very well. When moving around a lot, they need to be re-adjusted. When working out, they’re likely to fall out. AirPods Pro solves both problems—they’re light and supremely comfortable, and they stay in their proper place even when running or working out. Just pop them in and forget about them, with no feeling of pressure or discomfort, and no need to frequently re-adjust their placement. There aren’t many earbuds I could say that about.
The AirPods Pro also have new controls on the earbuds themselves. Instead of tapping them like on the old AirPods, there’s a pressure-sensitive area on the stem. To use it, you have to sort of “pinch” the stem—one pinch to play or pause, two to skip forward, three to skip back, or a long squeeze to toggle noise cancelling and transparency mode.
If you want, you can change the long squeeze to trigger Siri instead, and you can even have different settings for the left and right earbuds.
The squeezing thing is a little weird. It’s not a button, nothing moves at all. But Apple made it feel like a button by making the speakers emit a little “click” sound in just the earbud you’re squeezing. So it kind of feels like clicking a button, even though there’s no button. It’s totally gratuitous and totally Apple.
It took a little getting used to, but now I find the pinch to be easier than tapping on regular AirPods. It doesn’t make the earbuds fall out of my ears like the tapping sometimes does, and I can do it when I’m working in the yard with work gloves on.
Better sound, but not quite enough
Apple talks a big game about the improved sound quality of the AirPods Pro, and it definitely is better, but it’s still far from “Pro” quality.
These are definitely not the best-sounding wireless earbuds I’ve heard. They don’t hold a candle to something like the MW07s from Master & Dynamic. These are “Pro” earbuds only in the sense that they’re the best version that Apple offers—actual audio professionals would never use these for real production work.
Still, they sound good enough, and quite a bit better than regular AirPods. With silicone tips to block outside noise and create better bass, Apple doesn’t have to overload the sound spectrum to overcompensate for the loose, open-ear design of the original AirPods. AirPods Pro aren’t so “mid-heavy” and don’t muddy up the high-frequency sounds so much.
Whether it was hip hop, R&B, classical, rock, pop, or podcasts, everything sounded appropriately balanced. I never felt like I needed to break out an equalizer to make the music sound as it should.
Most users would not be disappointed with the AirPods Pro sound quality, especially if you’re used to regular AirPods. But at $250, the AirPods Pro should probably sound just a little bit better. The bass isn’t quite as punchy as I’d like, and the highs don’t have that sharp crisp sound that makes cymbals sound great.
Active noise cancelling for the masses
Then there’s the big-ticket item, the active noise cancelling. Apple is not the first to do this in wireless earbuds—Sony has a couple different models that do it—but the popularity of AirPods means that these are likely to be the first wireless earbuds—maybe the first headphones of any kind—with which many people experience noise cancelling.
Fortunately, Apple’s implementation isn’t half bad. The AirPods Pro do an excellent job at eliminating the noises that most active noise cancelling systems excel at: mid-to-low frequency continuous noise like air conditioners, dishwashers, trains, traffic, and airplane noise. They struggles a little bit on less regular, higher-frequency sounds like kids screaming or certain kinds of power tools.
A good pair of over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones from Bose or Sony will almost certainly do a better job of eliminating background sounds, but for in-ear wireless earbuds, Apple has done a fairly impressive job.
While most noise-cancelling headphones give you some control over the strength of the feature, Apple instead relies on an automatic adjustment feature that continuously adjusts the sound up to 200 times a second. I was worried about this auto-adjusting thing, but in practice it really works great. Moving around between environments, the noise cancelling always sounds even and natural. And the feature just makes that much easier to use. Audiophiles want precise control over the level and nature of the noise cancelling, but average users just want to put their earbuds in and go.
In any case, between the silicone tips and the noise cancelling, most background noise will be dramatically reduced, if not completely eliminated.
This means you don’t have to crank your music way up in order to hear it clearly. When using these at my desk or walking around my neighborhood in the suburbs, they isolate me so well that I just sort of drift off into my own little world, focused entirely on the music. If you’ve never used a good pair of noise cancelling headphones before, the feeling is really sort of magical.
The best transparency mode around
Of course, eliminating all that background noise can be dangerous in some situations, and that’s where transparency mode comes in. All modern noise-cancelling headphones have something like this, albeit with different names. There’s a mode where they leave noise-cancelling on, but use the microphones to pipe in some outside noise, focusing on the frequency ranges you most need to hear like cars and human voices.
Apple’s transparency mode is one of the best I’ve ever used. With other headphones, this feature tends to make everything sound distant and fake, while your own voice is loud and inside your head. It’s a bit like you’re hearing the world over a phone line.
On the AirPods Pro it sounds really natural and makes it really easy to hold a conversation with someone. It’s not at all annoying to leave it enabled when you go for a walk or a bike ride, and that’s not something that can be said about most noise cancelling headphones.
Apple gives you a lot of ways to toggle between noise cancelling on, transparency mode, and noise cancelling off. You can go to Bluetooth settings, or use the volume control in control center, or your Apple Watch, or even just ask Siri. And yes, these work with Siri totally hands-free, just like the second-generation AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro.
The most comfortable earbuds ever
The real genius of the AirPods Pro, the reason you’re going to want these over some other wireless earbuds that might sound better or have better noise cancelling, is that they’re just so damn comfortable.
They’re so light, and fit so well, and stay in place so well, that it’s easy to forget you have them in at all. Regular AirPods are jostled out of place too easily, so even when they don’t fall out, I find myself occasionally adjusting their placement. It’s not a problem, per se, but it means that I’m thinking about my AirPods.
These stay put even when going for a run in a way that would make regular AirPods fall out of alignment, or out of my ear entirely. The better balance from the shorter stem and the silicone tips keep everything in place. I never find myself thinking about the AirPods Pro, until someone is waving their arms at me trying to get my attention because I’m off in my own little musical world and they’re trying to talk to me.
The best earbuds are not the best earbuds
Just like regular AirPods, the AirPods Pro are easier to set up than any other wireless headphones, and have a super small case that’s delightful to use. They maintain a rock-solid connection, pause automatically when you take them out of your ears, and turn off automatically when you put them in their case. They’re simply the easiest wireless headphones an iPhone user can get.
AirPods Pro are everything you like about AirPods, but better. They’re more comfortable. They stay put in your ears better. They sound better, and have pretty good active noise cancelling with an excellent transparency mode.
The only thing Apple didn’t improve is battery life, which is still just O.K. You get around five hours without noise cancelling, and four and a half with noise cancelling. The case holds 24 hours worth of charge time and can recharge the earbuds pretty quickly.
The AirPods Pro are not the best-sounding earbuds. They don’t offer the best noise cancelling performance. They don’t have the longest battery life. They’re not “the best,” and yet, they are hands-down the best wireless earbuds an iPhone user can get. They perform well enough, and are so comfortable and convenient and reliable, that I find myself constantly annoyed by the minor drawbacks of competing earbuds.
At $249, they cost $50 more than regular AirPods with the Wireless Charging Case, or $90 more with the regular charging case. The improvements here more than justify the price difference, even though I think the sound quality should be just a little better for the price.
There’s basically no reason anyone should buy regular AirPods anymore, unless you just want a less expensive thing you can quickly pop into your ear to take phone calls.
AirPods Pro are a perfect example of what Apple does best. They take cutting-edge technology and make something that may not quite outperform its rivals, but still performs quite well, while being much easier and more delightful to use.
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I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life - over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.