AirPods Pro Review: They’re Great (and Expensive)
Comfortable noise cancellation and decent sound quality elevate these beyond the first two generations of AirPods
With little fanfare, Apple announced AirPods Pro this week, a $249 iteration on the ubiquitous wireless earbuds that feature a new in-ear design and active noise cancellation. Whether the “pro” moniker is appropriate here is up for debate, but these new earbuds do bring a few significant upgrades to the lineup. Even if you snagged the half-step-forward, second-generation AirPods that came out back in March, you might decide that these are worth your cash.
I’ve used the original AirPods as my daily driver for the past three years — during my commute, in the gym, and around the office. What they lack in sound quality, they make up for in portability and wireless range. They’re so great at taking calls that I’ve let myself miss a few because I couldn’t find them, even though I was holding my phone. I don’t use them when I’m traveling or working in a busy café though — I’ve found that excessive background noise renders them useless.
Enter AirPods Pro, which are the first wireless earbuds from Apple that include both passive and active noise cancellation. Compared to the original one-size-fits-all design, these include silicone ear tips in three sizes for a tighter seal. Like other noise-canceling earbuds, an external microphone picks up background noise that is then counterbalanced by an internal speaker creating inverse signals. Apple’s implementation dynamically adjusts this process 200 times per second for optimal sound.
It’s effective... for the most part. The monotonous drone of my office’s air conditioning and street noise vanished. But my coworkers’ chatter turned higher-pitched and tinnier, not softer. The AirPods Pro won’t give you near-silence like the best over-ear options — Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM3 or the Bose 700 — but they also avoid that uncomfortable pressure inside your head. Apple says they’ve designed a vent system to equalize the pressure in your ears, a common gripe with noise-canceling tech. Whether the increased comfort can be attributed to these vents or lighter noise cancellation is hard to say, but these new AirPods certainly feel easier to wear for longer stretches of time than their competition.
They also sit much better in my ears. The larger earpiece and shorter stem shift their center of gravity deeper into the ear for greater stability. An impromptu head shake test sent my old AirPods flying, but barely nudged the Pros. If the originals didn’t fit your ears or you were afraid of losing them on a jog, you’ll likely be happy with these. There’s even a nifty ear tip sizing sound test that determines if you have a good seal.
Sound quality is much improved, though still shy of excellent. I won’t be doing any critical listening with these, which is understandable for wireless earbuds, but it’s tough to swallow given their price point. Compared to the older AirPods, the sound is more balanced, clearer, and tighter. Bass is finally present and booming, but not overwhelming. Each element on Bon Iver’s i, i — vocals, horns, guitars, pianos, and synths — is more textured. There’s a stronger feeling of musicality here, something I felt was previously absent with AirPods. Apple boasts that their new “Adaptive EQ” automagically tunes the low and mid-frequencies of your music to the geometry of your ears. I’ll have to take their word for it, but so far I like what I’ve been hearing.
A tap on my shoulder shakes me out of my jam. Instead of removing an earbud, I press and hold the force sensor on its stem to enable Transparency mode. Transparency uses the Pro’s external microphone to amplify outside sounds. I was impressed by how well this worked, though the subtle hearing-aid effect takes some getting used to. It’s easy to imagine a weird future where people awkwardly converse with earbuds on.
One pleasant surprise is that AirPods Pro include a USB-C to Lightning cable in the box, compared to the USB-A one that ships with the rest of the lineup. This is a welcome change, but for a company that doesn’t even offer laptops with USB-A ports anymore, it’s baffling that this isn’t the standard.
Overall, $249 is steep and treads into the territory of high-end noise canceling headphones that offer superior sound quality and battery life. Google’s updated Pixel Buds and Amazon’s Echo Buds are similar offerings coming in for less, at $179 and $130 respectively. But for Apple users, it’s hard to deny the simplicity of AirPods Pro and their “it just works” ease of use. Whether or not that magic is worth the premium is debatable. As for me, I haven’t taken them out since I started writing this piece, through conversations and all.