Earlier this week, Apple made a surprise announcement: The AirPods Pro, featuring active noise cancellation, enhanced sound quality, and grippy silicone tips designed for a more comfortable fit, would be an upgraded version of the company’s wireless earbuds. For the last 24 hours, I’ve been testing the new buds, which hit stores today. My first impression? The AirPods Pro deliver impressive sound for their size and fine (but not stellar) noise cancellation for their price.
There’s a lot to complain about when it comes to the original version of Apple’s AirPods. The battery (five hours per bud) doesn’t last a day on a single charge. They don’t offer noise cancellation. The hard plastic, one-size-fits-all design isn’t great for fit, comfort, or sound. They’re susceptible to being lost, dropped, and swallowed. And yet, AirPods are the best-selling headphones in the world. In the world!
For many, the AirPods’ strengths outweigh their many flaws. The ear sticks are unmatched in how easily they pair with Apple devices, their portability, and consistent, reliable connection (which many other Bluetooth-enabled headphones struggle with). The AirPods have also taken their place in culture as a status symbol and bona fide meme. Their ubiquity — and stark white cyborg design — are impossible to ignore. It’s ~cool~ to own them.
But because previous models of the AirPods left a lot to be desired on the sound front, my expectations for the AirPods Pro were very high.
Also high: the price. The Pros cost $249, about $100 more than the last version of the AirPods cost, without the wireless charging case that retails for an extra $79. At that price, the buds have a lot to live up to.
The new AirPods Pro undoubtedly produce better sound than the old AirPods. I actually felt the bass in the Knife’s “Heartbeats.” I heard the details in Darkside’s “Paper Trails” more clearly. My editor, John Paczkowski, a metalhead, said Yob’s "Our Raw Heart" sounded a little muddy, but the AirPod Pros handled Beastie Boys’ "Shake Your Rump" well (“even the low, low notes,” he said).
The highs and lows seem dialed up, similar to most Beats headphones. Pop, hip-hop, and electronic music sound great: punchy, crisp, detailed. Stuff that’s not made for today’s radio doesn’t sound as exciting (Chopin and un-remastered Grateful Dead, for example). It makes sense. The new AirPods are crafted for what’s popular on Apple Music.
The improved audio is the result of upgraded hardware innards, like a new “high-excursion” driver that can pump out better tones — but mostly, a better fit on the user. Apple engineers scanned thousands of people’s ears and built heat maps to understand where the original AirPods design was applying pressure. I, too, have felt ear pain after wearing a pair of AirPods for a long time.
The resulting design is a bigger, more bulbous bud with a soft silicone tip that partially wedges in your ear canal. Downside: It immediately attracts ear filth (the white color is not helpful). Upside: It creates a seal that blocks out external noise. The silicone ear tip isn’t standard (it’s more oval-shaped than typical earpieces) and costs $4 to replace.
Below, the ear gunk already on the bud tip. Click at your own risk!!!
A head shake test and a short run confirm that the AirPods Pro won’t easily fall out of my ears. The shorter stem also makes the new AirPods less susceptible to catching on long hair and sweaters in the process of being removed. The Pros are also water-resistant (the originals are not), so they can now survive light rain and sweaty workouts.
In Bluetooth settings, you can perform an “Ear Tip Fit Test.” An internal microphone inside of the AirPods Pro senses how audio resonates in your ear chambers. The test tells you whether the silicone tips are sealed well. The earbuds come with three different tip sizes, which is common for most in-ear earbud offerings.
The noise cancellation on the AirPods Pro was decent but less impressive. In the office, with noise cancellation on and music playing, I could still hear a colleague typing two desks away and another colleague playing with a plastic toy.
The AirPods Pro fared better on the train, where the Caltrain car screeches were muted, but the conductor’s voice over the loudspeaker could be heard clearly. In a coffee shop’s outdoor patio, with noise cancellation on and no music playing, the AirPods Pro quieted a surrounding street but didn’t drown out a conversation between two friends a few tables over, or the crying baby with them.
While the earbuds are adept at suppressing environmental noise, they seemed generally less proficient at covering up talking. I would wear the AirPods Pro on my bus commute but prefer my over-ear Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones in the office, where people chat and make phone calls.
The AirPods Pro don’t offer the same kind of isolating audio cocoon that I’m used to with my Bose QC 35s. That said, the new AirPods are better than my over-ear pair in many ways: They’re more portable and more comfortable over a long period of time. I wear glasses and often big earrings, and the Bose’s foam ear cups put pressure on them.
Siri's speed and performance haven't changed between the Pros and AirPods. There are two new commands, however. You can now ask Siri to "turn on" Transparency Mode or Noise Cancellation.
Generally, the AirPods Pro are pleasant to wear, compared to other in-ear earbuds. Apple designed a vent system to allow air to flow in and out of the AirPods to prevent the ear pressure weirdness some people feel when they wear silicone tipped earbuds. I still felt some of the weirdness when speaking or eating with the AirPods in, but less so than others. The silicone tips are very supple, which is partly why they’re so comfortable. But they may be too supple — whenever I take them out of my ears, the tip flaps fold back, which I worry may cause wear over time.
Transparency Mode allows you to hear outside sound through the silicone tip seal by activating the AirPods’ inward-facing and external microphones. A long press on the touch button on either earbuds’ stem switches between transparency and noise cancellation. You can also toggle between the options in the Control Center on your iPhone. (I did find a weird bug that wouldn’t let me switch until I disconnected and reconnected the AirPods.) Both Transparency Mode and Active Noise Cancellation drain the AirPods’ battery faster. On your iPhone, you can also set the buds to “off,” which takes advantage of the silicone tip’s seal to block noise but doesn’t totally silence sounds from your surroundings.
A nitpicky criticism: The new AirPods Pro case is wider and squatter, making it a bit harder to flip open. The original AirPods case is about the size of a box of dental floss.
The AirPods Pro come with a USB-C Lightning charging cable, which assumes that you have a USB-C charging brick. If you don’t, that’s $249 for the new headphones, plus $29 (minimum) for an 18-watt USB-C adapter from Apple or $19 for a Lightning to USB-A cable to use with your current charging set up.
An Apple spokesperson said that USB-C and regular USB power adapters will charge the AirPods at the same rate.
One concern I have about AirPods' form factor in general is their longevity. The AirPods’ lithium-ion battery, like all lithium-ion batteries, decays over time. The battery life of a new pair of AirPods isn’t much: 4.5 hours of listening time with noise cancellation on and 3.5 hours of talk time on a single charge. After 18 months, that battery life will begin to dwindle. Apple Insider tested a two-year-old pair of AirPods that only lasted two hours. When the battery is worn, your AirPods can’t be repaired, because the parts are glued shut. Apple will, instead, recycle and replace them for $49 for each new bud, and $49 for the charging case. In total, that’s $145, nearly the cost of a new set of AirPods.
All chargeable headphones have the same issue. The battery in the Bose QC 35’s ($230) can’t be replaced either — but its 20 hours of listening time out of the box will carry you further. (The battery in Bose headphones retain 80% of their charge after 500 charging cycles.)
All in all, the AirPods Pro sounded great, and offered decent, but not stellar noise cancellation.
The biggest point of hesitation was the hefty $250 price tag. Amazon’s Echo Buds are bulkier and don’t have the same special iOS and Mac pairing integration as AirPods, but they are competitively priced at $129. If Apple’s original AirPods fit you well, and you use them for running or other activities where you don’t need noise-canceling, I don’t see a reason to upgrade.
The Pros pack a lot of features into a very, very small design, so if portability is your biggest concern, then the AirPods Pro are a fantastic premium option for people with Apple devices, use headphones for short, ~4-hour sessions (versus all day-wear), and have $250 to spend. But there are better options for noise-canceling headphones with better battery life.