The illustrious Apple AirPods Pro seems to one-up the AirPods (2019) in every way including a better fit, active noise-cancelling, improved battery, and more. While it may seem like an effortless win for the AirPods Pro, there is one thing holding consumers back: the $249 pr
ice. Let’s find out if the AirPods Pro is better than the AirPods.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on February 28, 2021, to address an FAQ about one AirPod being louder than the other.
Do the AirPods or AirPods Pro have a better fit?
We’re going to address the biggest difference between the two AirPods models first: fit.
The new AirPods Pro sport dedicated nozzles, which is exactly what we’ve been begging for since the original AirPods release. Sure, the wireless earpods still look funky, but we promise, the redesign dramatically improves sound quality. The AirPods (2019) don’t seal to the ear. While this can be beneficial in moments when you need to hear your surroundings, it severely degrades audio quality. External noise drowns out the detail in music because our brains have limited bandwidth for processing stimuli (see: auditory masking).
This same updated design enables another new feature: active noise cancelling. The Apple AirPods Pro can actively cancel noise, something we haven’t yet seen from previous Apple earbuds. This is a huge leap forward for Apple as it keeps listeners safe by protecting their hearing. How? Well, you’re less likely to increase the loudness of your music because the ANC technology is doing plenty of heavy lifting to hush your surroundings. When using non-noise cancelling earbuds you’re more inclined to drown out background noise by increasing music loudness. Exposing your ears to 85dB or louder for long periods of time puts you at risk for noise-induced hearing loss.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro vs AirPods: Which are better workout earbuds?
Yes, the AirPods Pro are more durable than their predecessors and received an IPX4 water-resistant rating. Although plenty of gym-goers use older AirPods to workout, water damage isn’t covered by the warranty. If you happen to short-circuit the old AirPods due to sweat, you’re out of luck, which isn’t the case with the Pro version. The new fit also helps when exercising because the ‘buds are more likely to remain secure in your ears, something we had difficulty maintaining with the original design of Apple’s true wireless earbuds.
Related: Best true wireless workout earbuds
Both earbuds feature onboard controls but operation is slightly different. The old AirPods use touch controls that require you to tap the outside of either housing, and the AirPods Pro feature an indentation on either stem. The latter uses force sensors to register short and long squeezes against the stem. No matter which AirPods you have, functionality can be customized by entering your iPhone’s Bluetooth settings and selecting the “i” icon next to the desired device. From there, follow the appropriate prompts to control what each tap or press commands.
Both AirPods models support automatic ear detection whereby removing one automatically pauses playback; reinserting the AirPods resumes playback. This function isn’t supported by Android phones, however, and can be toggled off via an iOS device’s settings.
The AirPods Pro charging case is wireless by default
Unlike the AirPods (2019) which has a two-tiered purchasing option, a standard or Qi wireless charging case, the Apple AirPods Pro includes a Qi wireless-compatible charging case from the get-go. While this could be seen as a nuisance by listeners who don’t want or need wireless charging capabilities, it falls more in line with the company’s prioritization of simplicity. What’s more, we’re happy to see Apple combine the wireless charging case with the AirPods Pro, rather than up charging customers for it like what happened with the AirPods (2019).
While the AirPods are cheaper, we strongly feel that the redesigned Apple AirPods Pro are worth saving for when it comes to build and fit.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
The AirPods (2019) has excellent microphone quality and outperforms most of its competitors, thanks to the sensors and accelerometers packed into the housings. Apple further improved this technology and the microphones’ frequency response with the AirPods Pro.
Apple AirPods Pro microphone demo:
Apple AirPods microphone demo:
Voice reproduction follows a slightly more neutral frequency response which bodes well for low voices in particular. A speech-detecting accelerometer works in tandem with the beam-forming microphones to attenuate background noise and hone in on relaying your voice to the person on the other end of the call. Both microphone arrays are great, but when push comes to shove, the AirPods Pro have a leg up on the AirPods, barely.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Connection quality and Bluetooth codec support
Now, let’s look at Bluetooth codec support. Since both are Apple products, both support high-quality streaming over the AAC codec and have an integrated H1 chip, which facilitates hands-free Siri access, streamlined autoconnect and usage across iOS devices, as well as energy efficiency. H1 chip benefits are only afforded to those with iOS devices; Android users still reap the perks of Bluetooth 5.0 from either pair of wireless earbuds, though.
Connection stability within the Apple ecosystem is unparalleled. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said when using the AirPods or AirPods Pro with an Android device. Android has yet to figure out a universal way of handling AAC streaming across devices, making its performance dubious at best. This means Android users are knocked down to streaming over the default SBC codec. Although this is a bummer, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker as SBC has come a long way since its inception.
Even with ANC, the AirPods Pro have better battery life
This one’s pretty easy to measure. We subjected each pair of earbuds to a constant 75dB(SPL) output via an iOS device and compared the results. The AirPods (2019) afford 4.125 hours of playback, while the AirPods Pro afford 5.1125 hours of playback with noise cancelling on. We ensured that both Bluetooth headsets streamed over the AAC codec. We were initially skeptical of the Pro’s battery life, but it exceeds that of the Sony WF-1000XM3, a direct ANC competitor.
No matter which pair of earbuds you buy, the charging case allows for 24 hours of combined playback and charges via Lightning cable. Both AirPods units support quick charging. The older model supplies three hours of playback from 15 minutes of charging, while the AirPods Pro supplies one hour of playback from 5 minutes of charging. This is the same; Apple just decided to change its wording on the official specifications page.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Which earbuds have better sound quality?
Now that we’ve broken down the glaring differences between the two AirPods models, let’s dig into sound quality. Although the 2019 version’s price reduction makes it more appealing than ever, both the AirPods and AirPods Pro remain expensive even for true wireless earbuds. As long as you’re paying a premium, you should get something that sounds good.
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The charts above depict the frequency responses of both pairs of earbuds, illustrating how much emphasis is placed on a certain frequency range. The AirPods Pro have a more neutral-leaning bass response, which is a direct result of the new fit: emphasizing the low-end in order to hear the bass is unnecessary since the new AirPods Pro create a solid seal, filtering out external noise. The AirPods (2019) have the objectively more exaggerated low-end, but this was measured in a controlled setting. The moment you step onto a train platform, bass notes become masked by louder external noises, making it harder to perceive.
The Apple AirPods Pro easily outperform the AirPods (2019) when it comes to both sound quality and noise cancelling.
High notes (1100Hz and above) sound twice as loud with the AirPods Pro compared to the AirPods. This treble emphasis makes it easier to hear harmonic resonances, so our brains perceive this as greater detail in music playback. It’s by no means an accurate representation of an original audio file, but it does follow a generally accepted consumer-friendly sound signature.
Apple AirPods Pro vs AirPods: Noise cancelling and isolation
The first and second-generation AirPods’ isolation properties are hardly measurable because of the lacking seal. However, the AirPods Pro noise cancelling earbuds are a completely different story. These effectively attenuate low and high-frequency sounds, making it easier to enjoy your music without distraction.
In the chart above, the higher up the line, the more attenuated a certain frequency is. For example, when listening with noise cancelling turned on, low-pitched sounds (e.g. air conditioner units) are about half as loud they would be without ANC. High-frequency noises (e.g. a boiling kettle) are rendered even quieter. You can toggle between three listening modes: noise cancelling, off, and transparency by squeezing the stems. Transparency mode lets outside noise in, so you can respond to a train ticketer or temporarily be aware of your surroundings.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Both have great software features, the AirPods Pro have more
The iOS 14 update improved both the AirPods and the AirPods Pro by including multiple new features. Automatic device switching was improved in the new update by allowing users to switch seamlessly between devices attached to the same iCloud account. This can be as simple as pausing music on your iPhone to then play music on a different application on your MacBook. iOS 14 also includes accessibility settings for the AirPods and AirPods Pro, and these include a customizable audio profile, audio profile presets, volume safety monitoring, and more. Battery status notifications are now available with both the AirPods and AirPods Pro as well as a new battery optimization feature. The battery optimization feature works by learning your daily charging routine and refraining from charging past 80% until necessary. This helps preserve the long-term health of your true wireless earbuds’ battery. The AirPods Pro also has spatial audio, which mimics the effects of surround sound, but this is not available for the AirPods.
Winner: Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro vs Apple AirPods: What should you get?
In case you haven’t been keeping score, the Apple AirPods Pro wins this head-to-head. If you’re an iPhone user, it’s well worth it to save up for the AirPods Pro as opposed to settling for the AirPods to save a buck. The AirPods Pro make it extremely easy to pair with an iOS devices, and if you have an Android phone, the process is easy enough still. Subjective preference matters, too, and if you think noise cancelling is a frivolity, there are plenty of true wireless AirPods alternatives, including the Beats Powerbeats Pro.
What about the Apple AirPods Max?
What happens if you take the AirPods Pro and transform them into a pair of on-ear headphones? You get the Apple AirPods Max. In typical Apple fashion, these headphones feature a bold new design, including a mesh knit canopy headband, stainless steel frame, and ear cups that are essentially inspired by the design of the Apple Watch. This aesthetic certainly is unconventional, but Apple claims that the AirPods Max was designed this way to balance comfort with acoustic performance.
The highlight feature of the AirPods Max is its active noise cancellation, which employs a similar hybrid noise cancelling system found on the AirPods Pro. Three outward-facing microphones work to attenuate ambient noise, while one inward-facing mic is used to combat inner-ear resonances. While we can’t currently gauge the performance of the AirPods Max, its technology rivals other well-established noise cancelling headphones, including the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
The AirPods Max also offer several features previously introduced with the AirPods Pro, including Transparency Mode, Adaptive EQ, and Spatial Audio. The headphones also boast a 20-hour battery life, and can provide 1.5 hours of playtime after just 5 minutes of charging.
The AirPods Max is slated for release mid-December of this year. However, if you want to get your hands on these headphones, you’ll need to pay a premium—$549 USD to be exact.
How do the AirPods and AirPods Pro compare to the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live?
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live have active noise cancellation, pitting them against the AirPods Pro, but they don’t seal to the ear, making them similar to the AirPods. Due to the absence of ear tips that create a seal in your ear canal, the active noise cancelling of the Galaxy Buds Live yields inconsistent results. Apple’s AirPods Pro, on the other hand, have pretty decent and consistent ANC due to creating a seal. If you like the Apple AirPods because they allow you to listen to ambient noise, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are a great alternative. The Buds Live have a much more stable fit than the AirPods. In addition, the Buds Live have a consumer-friendly frequency response similar to that of the AirPods.
Ultimately, if you have a Samsung smartphone, you should go with the Buds Live because of the Samsung Scalable Codec, but if you have an iPhone you should go with the AirPods or AirPods Pro because of the AAC codec and H1 chip integration. If you have a non-Samsung Android device, none of these earbuds will have specifically better or worse performance when it comes to codecs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Make sure you clean your AirPods first to make sure there isn't a debris buildup causing the volume difference. After this, if you're still experiencing issues, test out other pairs of headphones to make sure the volume difference is caused by the AirPods and not a result of hearing damage or a faulty source device. If the problem is definitely with the AirPods, we would recommend either contacting Apple customer support for a replacement. If you don't feel like going through the trouble of contacting customer support, try going into your source device's accessibility settings and setting the volume slider more to the side of the AirPod that is quieter. This should balance out the relative proportions of volume coming through each earbud.
Yes! The Apple AirPods are on sale for $129 on Amazon.