AirPods Pro first impressions: Off in my own little world

If I had to sum up my first day with the new AirPods Pro in one word, it would be 'effortless'

airpods pro hero
Jason Cross/IDG

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At a Glance

Apple is at its best when it takes fancy technology and makes it disappear: when features seem to just happen, or "just work"—without consequence and without intervention. You simply use something in the way that it feels like you should, and it does what you think it should do (and does it well).

This was the magic behind the original AirPods. They weren’t the first true wireless headphones, yet they elevated the platform not by doing more, but by requiring less from us. Easier pairing. Easy battery readout. Easy charging. Smaller and more portable. Turn on and off automatically.

My first day with the AirPods Pro left me feeling that same “magic” again. I’ve used lots of true wireless earbuds since the AirPods debuted and several good pairs of noise-cancelling headphones. But something about these new AirPods Pro just has that effortless touch.

Effortless fit

The shorter stems center the weight in your ears, and the silicone ear tips help hold the earbuds in place while blocking outside noise and providing for better bass response. I went for a five-minute jog that would have jostled regular AirPods loose, and the Pros didn’t budge.

Most earbuds with silicone tips give me that “plugged up” feeling, but even after a couple hours of solid use, I never felt that with the AirPods Pro. The ventilation system Apple designed really works.

airpods pro compare3 Jason Cross/IDG

Shorter stems and a silicone ear tips make AirPods Pro stay in your ears better.

All of which is to say that these may be the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever used. I love the “fit test” for the ear tips in the iPhone Bluetooth settings, too. (Mine told me I had a good fit with both the medium and small eartips, though I felt the small were more comfortable.)

To me, that’s part of what and “effortless” fit is all about—easy to put in your ears, a good fit, and comfort that makes you quickly forget they’re even there.

airpods pro tips Jason Cross/IDG

Apple provides three sizes of ear tips and a USB-C to Lightning cable.

It also means a case that effortlessly fits into any pocket. The Wireless Charging Case for the AirPods Pro is barely bigger than that for the original AirPods—just shorter and wider. It’ll fit in those skinny jeans pockets just fine. It still has that satisfying “snap” on the lid and the earbuds fall neatly into place with a magnetic tug.

One annoyance so far: The glossy finish is a bit slippery and makes the curved dome top of the earbuds hard to grab and pull out of the case. Well, harder than it should be, anyway. I found the key is to put my finger behind them—toward the hinge of the lid—and press forward. Then they pop right out into my fingers.

Effortless sound

Is the sound quality better? Yeah, these sound a lot better than regular AirPods. I would expect any premium earbuds with a rubberized tip that create a seal in your ear to sound better than the relatively open design of the AirPods.

Even so, I’m impressed with the overall sound balance of the AirPods Pro. Tracks with lots of kick have lots of kick, and tracks that shouldn’t sound suitably nuanced. A recording like OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” is often a good litmus test: Does the booming bass sound overwhelming and muddied along with all the other noise, or is everything clear and distinct? The AirPods Pro passed with flying colors.

airpods pro compare1 Jason Cross/IDG

The case is shorter and wider than that of the original AirPods, but every bit as pocket-able.

Put another way, the sound of the AirPods Pro is...effortless. I wasn’t “wowed” by them on a regular basis, but I never felt like I was wearing the wrong kind of earbuds for the music I was listening to. Everything sounded just like it’s supposed to, and I never wished I could reach for an equalizer to correct it.

With the comfortable fit and noise cancelling enabled, my music just takes me off into my own little world. It’s almost disorienting how easy it is to become lost in what you’re listening to when you don’t feel your earbuds falling out, or feel pressure from them sticking in your ears, or hear noises from the outside world.

Total comfort + noise cancelling + great sound quality = total escape.

Effortless noise cancellation

I’d be lying if I said the AirPods Pro feature the best noise cancellation I’ve ever heard, but they sure do an impressive job for a pair of wireless earbuds! The hum of my dishwasher disappears. The neighbor’s leaf blower outside fades away. Taking my dog for a half-hour walk, traffic becomes a distant whirr. I didn’t even notice a Cal Fire plane coming in low overhead until a kid at the park pointed up at it.

The true test will be a ride on the screeching, howling, rumbling BART. If a pair of noise-cancelling headphones can tame the Bay Area commuter train, then it can make any long trip on a commercial airliner enjoyable.

Hands-free Siri works great, and in addition to all the stuff you can always do with Siri, it can switch between noise cancellation modes. Just say, “Hey Siri, turn on/off noise cancelling” or “Turn on/off transparency mode.”

airpods pro settings IDG

Apple gives you several ways to enable noise cancelling or transparency mode, and even includes a neat ear tip fit test.

Transparency mode, as with the Beats Solo Pro, is a little more natural-sounding than the similar feature found in most other noise cancelling headphones. It makes it possible to carry on a conversation or hear a PA announcement without your own voice sounding loud and “in your own head.”

It’s noise cancelling you don’t have to think about. And if you want to turn it off (or enable transparency mode), there are several ways to do it. You can use Siri, long-press the new force-sensitive touch pad on the stem, toggle it in Control Center, or in Bluetooth settings. Apple even added the ability to change noise cancelling modes in Shortcuts in iOS 13.2, so you can create some fancy automations that change modes.

More testing is still needed

I still need to do a lot more testing. Battery life is a big concern, of course. Apple promises about the same battery life as the regular AirPods: 4.5 hours (with noise cancelling) for the buds and 24 hours of charging in the Wireless Charging Case. I need to verify that.

After an hour and a half at my desk and an half hour walking around the neighborhood with my dog, most of the time with noise cancellation enabled, the battery dropped from full to 56%.

I also need to test a lot more listening to music and video, games, and phone calls. I need to wear them for longer periods, and put myself in a wider variety of settings to see how the noise cancellation handles them.

All of which is to say that I’m not ready to pass judgement on them. My initial impression is that people who loved the AirPods will almost certainly love these much more. Apple likely has a huge hit on its hands.

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At a Glance
  • 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.

    Pros

    • Excellent fit and comfort
    • Compact wireless charging case
    • Good active noise reduction

    Cons

    • Sound quality is a little bland for the price
    • Battery life is just okay
  
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