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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Active Noise Cancellation is excellent
The fit is good, maybe more secure than old AirPods
The Wireless charging case offers a fast recharge
Audio quality is really good for tiny, in-ear Bluetooth buds
New Force sensor control is not as easy as tap
Apple’s AirPods Pro have the dual benefit of Active Nosie Cancellation that rivals over-the-ear headphones but with in-ear comfort. Sound quality is very good and they do stay put no matter what I do, even when I do have to touch them. Plus, they let me kill the ambient noise when I want, but easily let outside noise and voices in when I need to. $249 is a $50 price bump from AirPods 2 with the wireless charging case, but it’s also on-par with most other in-ear ANC units. In other words, you won’t feel like you’re paying an Apple premium for the benefit of good sound.
I’ve got the hottest technology product on the planet in my ears.
Believe me, I’m as surprised as you that Apple’s most buzzworthy product is a pair of Bluetooth earbuds. You know them better as AirPods Pro, the spiffy, redesigned, noise-cancelling, and more expensive follow-up to Apple’s breakout consumer electronics hit: AirPods.
The risk with updating such a closely followed product is that there’s ample opportunity for missteps or outright disaster.
AirPods Pros though, deftly sidestep any such miscues. They’re aesthetically connected to the original AirPods and case design, while carrying the Bluetooth earbud technology far enough forward to justify the $50 higher price tag.
The tighter design and new silicon tips may also finally convince the “never AirPods” crowd there’s a model that will finally fit their AirPod-averse ears.
For $249, you get the Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) Bluetooth earbuds, a total of three sets of silicon tips (small, medium, and large), the Qi-based wirelessly-charging case (which also has a Lighting port for charging), and a USB-C-to-Lightning cable. You won’t find a USB-C charging brick, though, which is a shame considering the price.
The AirPods Pro themselves look at little like the original AirPods in the way that Luke Hemsworth looks like his much bigger brother Chris. There’s clearly a resemblance, but also some distinct differences.
To start, the AirPods Pro have taken the iconic and also pilloried long stem and chopped much of it off. There’s still a centimeter-or-so of stem but, at least for the way I seated the AirPods Pros in my ears, it no longer dangles down like misplaced earrings. Now, the short stem points toward my mouth, almost like it’s urging me to make a phone call or Siri request, which is kind of ironic since the stems no longer includes a microphone hole, just a pair of charging contacts.
The AirPods Pro’s main bodies are, as I noted, larger, with bigger cutouts for the three microphones. Each of the black micro mesh grills is now essentially flush with the white plastic bodies.
The other major change is, obviously, the new silicon tips. They snap onto the head of each Bluetooth earphone, but unlike similar silicon-tipped listening devices, there’s no hard plastic or metal under the soft rubber. Instead, the tips have a thin, hard ring that snaps securely onto the face of each AirPods Pro. It’s a neat trick and accounts for how comfortable AirPods Pros feel even as you stick the silicon inside your ear canal.
To get that fit right, Apple studied legacy ear scans it gathered during the creation of the original Ear Pods (yup, I said, “Ear Pods”). Then they gathered more from around the world. Ultimately, Apple found out which part of the ears they could and could not touch to create a feeling of in-ear comfort.
To Apple’s credit, while I wore AirPods Pro for hours at time, no part of either ear felt pressure or chafing. I could certainly feel the silicon in my ear canal, but it was hard to identify exactly which part of my ear the AirPods Pro were resting on (if they were). I want to be clear, the fit here is comfortable, but not tight like, say, Samsung Galaxy Buds.
Perhaps part of the reason the AirPods Pros felt so good and comfortable during my tests is that, during setup, the AirPods Pros run a quick audio test to ensure that the fit will enable the best-possible Active Noise Cancellation seal. The test comes right after a dead-simple setup in which I opened the new AirPods Pro case, my iPhone 11 Pro (updated to iOS 13.2) recognized them, and then walked me through a few explanatory screens. For the test, I was prompted to play a very brief bit of music, which the AirPods ear-facing microphones then compared to what the music should sound like. If it sounded off, the setup might’ve suggested that I adjust the AirPods Pro a bit in my ears or use a different size silicon tip. In my case, the fit and sound were good, so I moved on.
That silicon also helps keep my audio in my ears. I tuned up my music volume to about 75%, then stood near a coworker and asked if she could hear my music. She shook her head no. When I turned it up to about 85%, she said she could pick up the beat and properly identified it as a Jackson 5 song.
Of course, keeping your music to yourself and overall comfort are part of why that silicon is there.
Apple’s been making in-ear audio devices for almost 20 years, but this is its first foray into what might be considered high-end audio performance, because you really can’t promise high quality audio unless you cut out all that awful ambient noise. As you might expect, Apple’s poured a lot of engineering into making what I consider shockingly good noise cancellation for earbuds of this size and fit.
First of all, the AirPods Pro include a vent system to avoid the pressurized feeling you sometimes get from wearing noise-cancelling headgear. Somehow, those vents do not undermine the AirPods Pro’s ability to maintain ANC. However, they may help on the other side, when you switch to Transparency Mode, which opens your ears to un-amplified ambient noise.
When I switched between ANC and Transparency, either by using the Control Center on my iPhone or by pressing and holding one of the AirPods Pro’s haptic “Force Sensors,” the change was astonishing. I grew so accustomed to listening to ANC-filtered music in loud environments like a subway platform and a busy Manhattan street, that I was honestly shocked when I switched to Transparency mode and all those outside noises came rushing in.
Unlike passive noise cancellation, which might use just the pretty-decent seal on the AirPods Pro, ANC is fighting noise with noise, creating an equal and opposite sound that cancels out the ambient noise and leaves what I want to listen to alone. That’s the work the outside microphone is doing. The inside mic essentially does cleanup with any ambient noise that somehow does make it to your ear canal.
In theory, the AirPods Pro microphone is even tailoring ANC to my specific ear structure, which I guess means that your noise cancellation may not sound like mine.
As for pure audio quality, it's very, very good. When I compared it with my original AirPods, I quickly noticed the sharper highs on symbols and high hats. Plus, all bass and deeper notes get a real boost from that sealed audio experience. The fact I’m not an audiophile and I still noticed the sonic difference is saying something.
Powering all these audio acrobatics is the same H1 chip that you’ll find in the previous AirPods. However, Apple has basically opened up all the thrusters (they call them audio cores), to make all that audio and ANC magic happen.
If you take nothing else away from this deep tech dive, know this: these are very effective Active Noise Cancelling Bluetooth headphones for their size.
If you loved tapping your AirPods to start and stop music, pick up the phone, and access Siri, you will be disappointed. Apple’s replaced the tap with touch and press. In addition to using the Force sensor to turn ANC on and off with a long press, you press once to stop and start audio, twice to skip a song and three times to go back. Under your phone’s Bluetooth settings, you’ll find options for customizing the controls, in case you want to use one or both your AirPod Pros to access Siri.
This is probably my least favorite thing about the new AirPods Pro. Every time I touched the AirPods to turn off ANC or skip a song, I worried I was going to jostle one of them free of my ear. This never happened, but I believe the reason I never lost an original AirPod is because I was not always touching them while they were in my ears.
In the case of Siri, I could use my voice to access it, though it struggled to hear me as I was walking up 7th Ave in Manhattan. In my office, I was able to speak at a normal volume and Siri responded appropriately.
My favorite new Siri feature is its ability to read me my text messages as they come in. First, I hear a little tone and then Siri says the name of the contact and reads the message. It then asks me if I want to respond, which, naturally, I can do with my voice.
I did, by the way, try making some calls with the new AirPods Pro. Audio quality was fine and clear for both me and the person on the other side of the call. For me, the call was vastly improved by ANC, which cut out all office ambient noise. On the other end, some callers reported being able to hear my background noises.
AirPods Pro are now IPX4 rated, which means they can handle repeated splashes of water. In other words, a rain shower or your sweat should not impede performance. I didn’t sweat while using them but did walk in the rain and splash some water on them. As you would expect, they were fine.
AirPods Pro are rated for five hours of continuous use, which drops to 4.5 hours with ANC turned on. This syncs up with my tests. I wore the AirPods Pro throughout the day with ANC on at least 80% of the time. Finally, after almost five hours, they made that sad little “battery exhausted” sound and stopped working.
The redesigned charging case, which is a lot like the old AirPods case but with its orientation rotated 90-degrees, can extend your usage by up to 24 hours. However, I was told that a five-minute charge could provide an hour of extra playtime. So, I popped the AirPods Pro into their case and waited 12 minutes (because I forgot to check at 5). When I removed them, I was shocked to see they had already charged to 50%, which would be over two hours of playback.
I’ve long been a fan of the original AirPods and as someone who enjoys music but could never pass for an audiophile, I never thought much about noise cancellation, unless I was on an airplane. I find it impossible to listen to music and video while in-flight without over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones I usually travel with, Samsung Level On Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones. However, after a few hours of wear, the outsides of my ears are usually quite sore.
Apple’s AirPods Pro have the dual benefit of Active Noise Cancellation that rivals over-the-ear headphones but with in-ear comfort. They do stay put no matter what I do, even when I do have to touch them, and they let me kill the ambient noise when I want, but easily let outside noise and voices in when I need to hear them.
$249 is a $50 price bump from AirPods 2 with the wireless charging case, but it’s also on-par with most other in-ear ANC units. In other words, you won’t feel like you’re paying an Apple premium for the benefit of good sound. If your beloved AirPods are lost or no longer holding a charge, I think these may be the upgrade for you.