It’s been rumored for a while, but the AirPods Pro are finally here. They have a new design, new features, and a new price tag, but they’re still unmistakably AirPods. While the original model caught a lot of (deserved) flak for not sealing the ear canal, the Apple AirPods Pro not only seal the ear, but they also provide active noise canceling. On paper, these are light-years ahead of the old ones simply by this fact alone. But are they worth $250?
Editor’s note: this review was updated December 23rd, 2019 to address a problem introduced by new firmware update 2B588.
Who should buy the Apple AirPods Pro?
- Apple iPhone users who want true wireless earbuds will get the most out of the AirPods Pro, and for them: these are the best true wireless earbuds for the latest generation of iPhones.
- True wireless enthusiasts will like them, mostly because the options for active noise canceling in this type of gadget is fairly rare unless you pick up Beats, Sony, or Huawei models.
- Gym rats and cardio monsters will appreciate that actually, y’know, stay in your ears. The sweat-resistance is a big plus here too.
How do you use the AirPods Pro?
When you first start using the AirPods Pro, you’ll want to find the right size eartip to use, because the rest of your experience hinges on it. If the eartips are too big, they’ll be painful, and if they’re too small, they’ll likely fall out.
Once you’ve installed the correct ear tip size, they’ll fit securely in your ear canal. After you pair with your phone, you should be able to jump right into music listening without futzing with too many settings. Like any other Apple product, the product’s ethos is to be something that “just works.”
To that end, there are a few features that the AirPods Pro adopted to make them more useful than your garden variety true wireless earbuds. For example, transparency mode allows you to pump in surrounding sounds so you don’t miss your stop, or you can join in a conversation without skipping a beat. You can easily enter transparency mode by long-pressing the stem which is now actually functional instead of unsightly (though still a little ugly, let’s be honest). A single squeeze on the stem will pause or play music, a double squeeze will skip to the next song, and a triple squeeze will skip to the next song.
Additionally, there’s even an ear tip fit test that you can do to ensure that they’re in your ear correctly. To do this you have to go into Bluetooth settings, and then tap on the small “i” icon next to the AirPods. From there, get a few more options if you’re on iOS such as the ability to rename them, control whether you want ANC on or off, customize the function of tap and hold on each earbud, and do the ear tip fit test. This will test whether you should use a different set of ear tips or whether the active noise cancelling is working properly. Given how poorly the original AirPods fit in our testing, this is a great improvement and kudos where they’d do because Apple actually listened to user complaints in this instance.
While we’re on the topic of the ear tips, these have been redesigned as well. Unlike basically every other pair of earbuds that pretty much universally use the same ear tips, these are designed specifically for the AirPods Pro. Around the speaker driver of each earbud is a small section where the ear tip clicks into nicely and securely stays put. No more pinching the silicon ear tip in order to squeeze them around the nozzle, though to be fair these don’t have a nozzle.
How do you connect on iOS?
Connecting to the AirPods Pro is as simple as ever on an iOS device, though you will need to update to iOS 13.2 in order to connect. Thankfully, if you aren’t up-to-date the first thing that pops up on your device will be a prompt telling you to update. Once that’s done, connecting is just like pairing with any other Apple audio product thanks to the H1 chip. A small card pops up from the bottom and then all you have to do is press “Connect.”
After you do that, they will be paired with every other device on your iCloud account as well. The card that pops up will give you some helpful information like battery life on the charging case and both earbuds. One cool feature is that if you place only one AirPod back in the case, you’ll see a small red “x” where battery life should be. I’m sure if you lost one you’ll know that by the time you try to put them back in the case, but it’s still pretty cool.
How do you connect on Android?
If you’re on Android or using a Windows PC then the process is a little different, though it remains unchanged from the previous AirPods. Just long-press the button on the back of the charging case to enter Bluetooth pairing mode, and then search for it in the Bluetooth settings of your device. Once paired, you should be good to go. It’s worth noting that you won’t get certain features if you’re using them with Android. Specifically, the auto-pause detection when you remove one earbud from your ear won’t work and obviously saying “Hey Siri” won’t work either. Thankfully, active noise cancelling and transparency mode work just fine as it’s controlled by a hard press of the stem.
NB: A number of AirPods Pro users have noted that they have had connection issues even after updating the firmware of the earbuds. If you’re reading this review looking for a fix: you won’t find one here. You need to contact Apple tech support and potentially arrange for a new pair. True wireless earphones are notorious for skips, stutters, and other connection issues, and it seems that the AirPods Pro are no different. Be sure to update the firmware as soon as it becomes available, and to practice good battery habits for best results. We cannot guarantee that this will help, but it will give you the most ammo when you take your product back to the Genius Bar for replacement.
How are the AirPods Pro different than the original AirPods?
If you’re wondering why Apple fans are clamoring to pick up the latest model AirPods, it’s because they fix the most egregious issue with the old model: an unsealed ear canal. That may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an improvement that you’ll notice immediately—something we’ve harped on endlessly at SoundGuys.
So why is getting rid of noise important? The answer is twofold.
First, by providing a sealed ear canal, the AirPods Pro can prevent other sounds around you from drowning out your tunes, and preserve the sound quality without the interference of auditory masking. In short, auditory masking is the phenomenon of outside sounds that are similar in loudness “deleting” other sounds you hear in your brain. With the original AirPods, this issue was rampant because the earbuds didn’t prevent really any noise from reaching your ears.
Second, you no longer have to crank your music just to hear your music. When you’re fighting outside noise, the only way to hear your tunes is to crank up the volume—which can lead to noise induced hearing loss if you’re not careful. Though the original AirPods capped total loudness at a rather low level, it’s still possible to impact your hearing long-term if you listen at max volume all the time. By sealing the ear canal (and adding noise canceling on top of it), less than 1/8th the sound pressure level reaches your eardrums, so you can even turn down your music and it’ll still sound better than anything the AirPods could pump out on your commute.
But that’s not all: the AirPods Pro also pack new features, like automatic equalization of your music to fit your unique ear canals, three sizes of eartip, larger microphone with wind screen, and beefier internal components. These may all seem like window-dressing, but they’re noticeably convenient if you’re swapping from music to calls often.
Finally, these are AirPods you can actually take to the gym. With an IPX4 certification (and the fact that they are actually capable of staying in your ears), they can block out sweat, and reap the rewards of working out with music. As far as the charging case goes, it’s relatively unchanged. It’s slightly beefier than the previous version, but not by much and if you take the old case and turn it sideways, that should give you a rough idea at how big it is. If you want to go further in-depth, we cover that in a head-to-head with both versions of AirPods.
What do the AirPods Pro sound like?
This is always the toughest part to address with any review because everyone’s anatomy is slightly different. However, Apple’s attempts to make the Pro version a little more special led them to add in a feature that attempts to equalize your music based on the shape of your own ear (read more: What is a DSP?). Because of this, all AirPods Pro will sound a lot more similar from person to person than they would with other headphones. Additionally, with actual noise attenuation, they sound much better than their predecessors by virtue of the fact that your music isn’t competing with bus engines, the airplane cabin, or noisy street.
Because of the ear tips and relatively good isolation, these sound obviously better than the previous version. The low end of these still isn’t going to be on par with the PowerBeats Pro by any means, but they’re significantly more powerful than the AirPods 2. The fact that you can actually hear the bass with these highlights that it’s fairly tight and controlled with just a slight bit of emphasis to give the tiny drivers inside a little help. The low end in Callaita by Bad Bunny punched made its presence felt without sounding forced or fake, which is a trap that earbuds tend to fall into to make the low end heard. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still going to be missing out on some of your favorite sub-bass synths, but drum kicks and deep voices come through fine.
Speaking of voices, the AirPods Pro do a good job at reproducing vocals as well, with a neutral frequency response all throughout the mids. This means that no one note in the mid-range will be made to sound louder than any other just because of the headphones. That said, you can see that this is exactly the case in the highs where notes around 11kHz and above have some (green) peaks of extra emphasis. This can be a bit of an issue when listening to songs like Songbird by Cory Chisel where I feel the strumming and guitar squeaks approach the point of harshness instead of clarity. Still, it isn’t an issue in most songs and I’ll take this over the previous AirPods frequency response any day of the week.
One use case that can’t be ignored when it comes to AirPods is the microphone. I see more people talking on the phone via their AirPods than their phones nowadays. Luckily, the Pro still has a really good microphone for picking up the human voice. Most of the important frequencies in the human voice lie between 100Hz and 3000Hz, and the AirPods Pro does a good job at not over-emphasizing or de-emphasizing any one part of that frequency range. They’re not perfectly neutral though, so you will find some variations here and there but for the most part, you shouldn’t have any issues talking on the phone with these.
How good is the noise cancelling?
The most important feature of the new version is without a doubt the active noise cancelling, and these are some of the best noise cancelling true wireless earbuds on the market. While they’re not going to completely rid you of the low rumble of planes and trains, they do a great job of removing ambient noise around you like passing cars and the chatter of crowds. Are they mind-blowingly amazing? Absolutely not, and something like the Sony WF-1000XM3 still do a better job in this aspect, but the AirPods Pro is no joke either and will get the job done for most people.
The AirPods Pro have two tiny microphones both on the inside and on the outside, and they work in the same way that all active noise cancelling headphones do. Apple claims that the inward-facing microphones are measuring sound 200 times per second in order to ensure that it’s producing the correct sound to counteract it which, is all but impossible to test on our end. Still, the end result isn’t bad.
Can updating the firmware make the ANC weaker?
A number of users report worse ANC performance after updating to firmware build 2B588. However, I should point out that there’s a trend among ANC headsets with update over Bluetooth to fail an update, and then have trouble after the fact. If you find that your AirPods Pro have worse ANC than they started with, then you should do the following:
- Place your AirPods Pro back in their carrying case
- Factory data reset your AirPods Pro by holding the setup button for 15 seconds, or until the light flashes amber three times, then turns white
- Re-charge the carrying case, and then re-attempt the firmware update
- If the problem persists, contact Apple support
Unfortunately this is a common problem with Bose, Sony, and other Bluetooth headsets requiring updates over Bluetooth—not just Apple. Hopefully one day these can be applied over a physical wire, because it seems that Bluetooth just isn’t cutting it for some people.
How long does the battery last?
In our testing we managed to get 5 hours and 6 minutes of constant playback with ANC turned on (connected to an iOS device), which is just above average for most true wireless models. It’s worth mentioning that Apple claims you’ll get about 4.5 hours of constant playback with active noise cancelling turned on and the volume turned to about 50%. The charging case will give you enough charges to last you 24 hours of total listening time, and what’s better is that the case is fully compatible with any Qi wireless charger.
One issue that I have is that the charging case still requires a lightning cable because, well, reasons. The cable that’s included in the box is now USB-C on one side and lightning on the other, which is mind-numbingly annoying as now you’ll need to bring this specific with you wherever you go. Of course, it isn’t a big deal if you already own the newer iPhone 11 as it also comes with this same cable, but if you haven’t upgraded yet (or don’t plan to) this is an annoying inconvenience that you’re just going to have to deal with.
Should you buy the Apple AirPods Pro?
If you want AirPods—or have an iPhone—the AirPods Pro are the only AirPods we’d recommend picking up for several reasons. Not only will they sound significantly better than the original ones, but they offer more in the way of features too. Sure, they’re $50 more than the latest AirPods with wireless charging, but you get a lot for that extra cash.
While these true wireless earbuds mark a serious upgrade over the original AirPods, there are plenty of other models like the Beats Powerbeats Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3 that offer competitive performance for a competitive price. Additionally, they suffer all the drawbacks of true wireless earbuds—like batteries that won’t last beyond a couple years tops. If you’re looking to make a wise investment in your audio, I’d caution you to look at something like the Beats Solo Pro before picking these up. Not only will the batteries in on or over-ears last much longer than the tiny cells in true wireless earbuds, but they’ll also be much more durable and long-lasting.
However, if you’re an iPhone user, you’ve probably already made up your mind about staying in the Apple ecosystem. If that’s the case, then you can forge on ahead with the knowledge that yes, these are the AirPods you should get.
- Apple AirPods Pro vs. Beats Powerbeats Pro
- Apple AirPods Pro vs. Apple AirPods
- Apple AirPods Pro vs. Sony WF-1000XM3
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