There’s one thing everybody agrees on about AirPods: they sound all right, but they’re not great knock-your-socks-off. The AirPods Pro from Apple ticks off the final checkbox.
Read more: AirPods 1 vs. AirPods 2
For AirPods Pro, I’ve been listening to music for a day— more than long enough to pass judgment— and they’re amazing. Apple’s textbook is the $249 true wireless buds: not the first one with active noise cancellation (ANC), but the best one.
The updated AirPods have it all except for a few minor bugs: excellent noise cancelation, a natural-sounding ambient listening mode, smaller stems with physical playback controls, and a lightweight charging case that offers 24 hours battery life like standard AirPods.
Even smaller now
— Two things immediately caught my attention: the stems are shorter and the black, pill-shaped vents are bigger and more noticeable. You will either dig the feel, stems and everything or not, like standard AirPods. To my ears, they look fine. As for the black vents, they’re more useful than decorative — Apple claims they’re so prominent because they let in air to help “equalize pressure, mitigating the discomfort typical in other in-ear models.” I’m not an engineer, so I don’t have a way to check whether the buds are reducing pressure, but I can verify that they’re very comfortable with continuous wear.
AirPods Pro comes in white only and that’s perfect. But if they came in different colors (and preferably with a matte finish) that suited the gold, space gray, and Midnight Black of the iPhone 11 Pro, it would have been even better.
Snugger fit and better controls
— Standard AirPods fit perfectly in my ears, but the AirPods Pro ear tips enable them to sit deeper and smoother in my ear canals, as well as seal in sound. In all directions, I shook my head violently and the AirPods Pro remained firmly in place. Even though I haven’t been able to run with the AirPods Pro, I’m sure that the headphones will not fall out of my ears with their ear tips even when my ears are sweat. You are sweat-resistant and water-resistant when it comes to light splashes (not swimming or showering with them).
It can be tricky to find the right size ear tips for earbuds in the ear (how do you know the best size for each ear?). AirPods Pro has an “Ear Tip Compatibility Check” (accessed in the Bluetooth settings of your iOS device within the I icon for your AirPods Pro) and after listening to a short track, it will tell you whether or not the tip of the ear is a “healthy fit.” If the test is negative, you should change one or both of them and redo it for a different size. I conducted the test with all three pairs of tips included, and they were all a good seal. I think my ears are pretty spacious.
AirPods Pro does not feel weightier despite being 0.4 grams heavier than standard AirPods. For many other wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation like Sony’s WF-1000XM3 (8.5 grams) and similar noise reduction technology like Amazon’s Echo Buds (7.8 grams), each earbud is tiny at 5.4 grams.
Easily the capacitive controls on each stem are the best thing about their smaller model. Pressing and holding (either stem transitions between active noise cancellation and transparency (ambient) modes are more like pinching or squeezing with two fingers. A single pinch controls play / pause, a double pinch skips to the next song and a triple pinch returns to the previous track. These are much more natural controls than those on the Echo Buds. There are no volume controls on AirPods Pro, however, like those buds. You will have to do this on your connected device or use Siri to adjust the volume.
– Apple with AirPods Pros blasted sound out of the field. They’re arguably the best-sounding true wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested with active noise cancellation priced $250 (or below).
Apple needed out hard in my briefing for AirPods Pros about all the technologies that is packed inside the earbuds to achieve such a joyful sound. From the flush ear tip model to the three microphones on each earbud (two that constantly change 200 times per second to eliminate the ambient noise in real-time and one to pick up your voice), to a “made high-excursion low-distortion motor”, the earbuds are filled with engineering jargon that you will never need to decipher.
The AirPods Pro created a very hot soundstage with audibly more transparent mids and highs in my ears with active noise cancellation turned on. Although listening to classical songs like “Für Elise” by Beethoven or “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” by using AirPods with all their noise bleeding is a real disservice, I can distinguish the different intensities of the notes in each score.
It’s a tough call if the noise cancelation of AirPods Pro is stronger than on the WF-1000XM3 of Sony. Music on AirPods Pros sounds louder, but Sony’s buds block a smidge more distortion. I switched the speaker on my TV to 75% volume and was able to hear it a little more with AirPods Pro compared to the WF-1000XM3. Like the Sony buds, AirPods Pro does an outstanding job of blocking out external noise at a level of about 50 percent or higher, but any lower, and you’ll hear the surroundings.
The ambient listening mode is just as good as the noise cancellation, or “transparency mode” as Apple calls it. You can hear both your music and your environment in Transparency mode— beneficial to make sure you don’t get hit by bikes or cars— and it’s the most natural-sounding ambient mode I’ve tried on any real wireless earbuds. Generally, ambient styles compromise the audio. Either the volume of music is reduced and the ambient noise is amplified (and often even distorted) or the music and ambient sound are combined in a beautiful blend. Not so with Transparency — noise cancellation is turned off, and music volume remains audible and ambient sound is filtered in at just the right level not to disrupt it.
I ran into a few bugs with my review unit for AirPods Pro. The new feature “Announce Messages with Siri” that allows your messages to be dictated by the assistant did not work at first. And after a few hours, the buds remained in noise cancelation mode and wouldn’t switch to Transparency mode or off mode; neither the stem buttons nor the control software operated within the Control Center. However, a hard reset fixed both issues.
Same stable battery life
— on a single charge, AirPods get up to 5 hours of battery life. With active noise cancellation turned off, AirPods Pro get the same battery life. But with the feature turned on, the battery life on a single charge drops to 4.5 hours. It’s not a big hit and you still get up to 19.5 hours of power with the charging case.
By the way, the case is squatter than the standard case of AirPods. I don’t love it — it’s more challenging to open with one hand — but I understand it’s barely more massive than the non-Pro case when it’s turned on its side.
Worth the premium price
– for the entire package, regular AirPods are reasonably priced. You get wireless earbuds that sound great for $159, come with a super lightweight load case, link with Apple devices quickly, and give you street credits.
AirPods Pros cost $90 extra at $249, if you’ve been waiting for Apple to deliver excellent audio, they’re worth the money. The $229 WF-1000XM3 from Sony was the best wireless earbuds with noise cancellation. Still, Apple just dunked on them with comparable (if not better) sound quality inside smaller and lighter buds that fit into a tinier charge case. AirPods Pro is worth the extra $20 over Sony’s buds for the entire package.