Apple’s AirPods are the most popular headphones in the world. Go outside, take a look around, and it’s very likely you’ll see someone with white plastic stems coming out of their ears. Once ridiculed, we’ve come to shrug and accept this signature look as normal. AirPods weren’t the first true wireless earbuds, but they quickly came to dominate the category because of their sublime ease of use and small-enough-to-take-anywhere carrying case. The second-generation AirPods added wireless charging and a few other minor enhancements but left the design and sound quality unchanged.
This week, in a rapid evolution from rumor to shipping product, Apple introduced the $249 AirPods Pro. And a lot has changed, from the slightly bigger case that now opens on the longer side on down to the Lightning to USB-C cable that comes in the box. They’re only $50 more than the regular AirPods with wireless charging, but the AirPods Pro feel like a major next-generation leap.
The big obvious change is the new design, which switches to an in-ear construction with silicone tips. This is a significant upgrade that will instantly appeal to many people. The first two models of AirPods were hard plastic earbuds that sat in your ears, just like Apple’s iconic iPod headphones. This design did the AirPods well — as evidenced by their massive success. But the one-size-fits-most approach always leaves some of us in the cold. It never worked for me. I could get AirPods in my ear, but any sudden movements or even a quick turn of my head, and they’d go tumbling to the ground. Exercise? Out of the question.
If you’re like me and your ears have never been a good match for AirPods, the Pros — yes, I’ll pluralize them however I want, thank you — will finally let you experience the so-called “magic” that others have come to love since late 2016. On top of that, the AirPods Pro also include active noise cancellation to help mute your surroundings when you want little distraction from your music.
To mitigate the downsides of in-ear headphones, such as a clogged, pressure feeling, there’s a vent on the outside of each earbud. So whereas many earbuds can make you feel closed in — you hear your own voice too loudly and almost feel like you’re underwater — that phenomenon doesn’t really exist on the AirPods Pro. As a result, they’re exceptionally comfortable to wear. The vent system also reduces wind noise when you’re on a voice call, according to Apple.
Finding a good seal with in-ear earbuds is crucial to getting the best sound from them. For the Pros, Apple includes multiple sizes of silicone tips: small, medium, and large. In an effort to take any guesswork out of finding the right size, the company added a software-based fit test to the AirPods settings, which can be found in the Bluetooth section of the iPhone’s Settings app. You put the AirPods Pro in, and the test plays a small snippet of music. An inside-facing microphone listens for how things sound in your ears. If a tip is loose, you’re told to try a bigger size. It works! But all the test checks for is a seal, so you might see a good result for more than one size. So picking comes down to comfort and how well they stay in your ears. You might find that a different size in each ear works best.
With the shift in design, Apple has also changed how you control the new AirPods. Instead of tapping a touch sensor built into the sides of each earbud, there’s now an indented “force sensor” on the smaller-than-before stems of both AirPods that you squeeze to do things. There’s no actual button, but you hear a very quiet click in the earbuds when the sensor is pressed.
- Quick squeeze: play / pause / answer calls
- Double squeeze: skip to the next track
- Triple squeeze: go back to the previous track
- Squeeze and hold: Switch between noise-canceling and transparency modes
Using the force sensor takes intentional effort. It’s not as simple of an interaction as the side taps were — you’ve got to use two fingers — but I prefer the new method. I’m curious whether Apple might adjust how firmly you need to squeeze in future firmware updates, as some people seem to be struggling with the transition. It’d be nice to have a choice between the two methods, and this also could’ve opened the door for more physical controls (like volume) with taps doing some functions and the force sensor handling others.
For now, the only customizing you can do is picking what happens when you squeeze and hold the sensor on each earbud: both toggle between noise cancellation and transparency modes by default, but you can also have one invoke Siri if you find hands-free “Hey Siri” commands aren’t dependable enough. And if you want a long squeeze to include an off mode for both noise cancellation and transparency, you’ve got to add that in settings.
Mercifully, Apple also makes it easy to control noise cancellation from Control Center on an iPhone or iPad (just hold down the volume slider) or with Siri voice commands, so you don’t always need to squeeze.
As I mentioned, the other headline feature of the AirPods Pro is noise cancellation. Apple’s system uses two microphones, with the external one analyzing outside sounds and trying to cancel them with anti-noise (an inverted-phase waveform). The inside mic listens for anything that gets through and tries to hush that, too. According to Apple’s claims, its active noise cancellation software can adapt the sound signal 200 times per second — a feat made possible by the H1 chip, apparently. It’s impossible to verify something like that, but I can tell you that the noise canceling works very well for this form factor. It’s not miraculous; there’s no beating Bose or Sony over-ear headphones on a plane. But on the day to day, the Pros do a great job of quieting your commute, city streets, train rides, and the coffee shop. I think they’re neck and neck with Sony’s WF1000X earbuds in terms of effectiveness.
Apple’s take on a passthrough sound mode, which it calls transparency, is also among the best I’ve heard on earbuds so far. You can tell outside noise is being amplified, but it sounds surprisingly natural. You can use transparency mode in short bursts (to hear an airport announcement, order a coffee, etc.) or leave it active indefinitely. So if you like the sense of awareness that the open design of regular AirPods offer — when running outside, for instance — you can replicate that on the Pros.
As for sound quality, the Pros are a noticeable step up from the standard AirPods. That seal from the ear tips makes all the difference in improving bass performance, which hits a real sweet spot on these earbuds. It’s tight and direct but not rumbling. Even if noise cancellation is turned off, you won’t have to crank the volume on these to overcome the clangor of a subway car or the general loudness of a busy street. But if you want to turn it up, the AirPods Pro are up for the challenge. They’re extremely well-balanced and faithful to the music being played.
Another reason the AirPods Pro sound better is because of a feature Apple called Adaptive EQ. Like noise cancellation, Adaptive EQ also puts that inward-facing microphone to use and adjusts the lows and mids based on your specific ear shape, similar to how the HomePod’s microphones are used to tune its output to the layout of your room. If you turn off noise cancellation, Adaptive EQ shuts off with it, and you can tell a subtle difference. It makes the AirPods Pro feel a little more full and better suited for a wide mix of music styles.
It’s easy to toss around cliche sound quality terms, but this is something that’s extremely subjective for everyone. If you like how AirPods sound already, expect even better from these. If you demand head-pounding bass, maybe stick with the Powerbeats Pro (and their marathon nine-hour battery life) or the less-expensive Amazon Echo Buds. Other earbuds like the Sennheiser True Momentums offer higher fidelity, but the Pros nail a consistent, pleasurable listening experience.
The case still supports wireless charging, and all of the usual AirPods tricks (instant pairing with a nearby iPhone, fast-switching between Apple devices, auto-pause when one is removed, etc.) are here. iOS 13 also introduced audio sharing, letting you and someone else with AirPods or newer Beats headphones listen to the same music or watch videos together.
The AirPods Pro are IPX4 water and sweat resistant, which means they’ll endure rain and your hardest workouts, but not submersion. Unfortunately, you’re still limited to connecting to one device at a time, so you have to go through Control Center or the Bluetooth menu to switch the Pros from your iPhone to an iPad or Apple Watch.
AGREE TO CONTINUE: APPLE AIRPODS 3
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.
So the total tally is no mandatory agreements, but two or more optional ones if you want to put every feature to use.
The Pros remain an excellent choice for voice calls, in particular. AirPods have always had a strong reputation for voice quality since their stems push the mic closer to your mouth. Apple shrank the stem on these, but everyone I called could still hear me loud and clear with minimal background interference. And you can still use either AirPod individually if you want. (This scenario doesn’t support noise cancellation by default, but you can enable it in accessibility settings.)
Battery life is rated at 4.5 hours for noise cancellation and transparency modes. If you keep both off, you get the same five hours as regular AirPods. These numbers are respectable but no longer class-leading; Sony’s noise-canceling WH-1000X M3 earbuds can last for eight hours of straight listening. As always, the AirPods case contains enough juice for 24 hours of overall battery time.
But that battery life won’t last forever. If you use your AirPods heavily, they’ll start dying much faster within a couple of years, making them much more “disposable” than wired headphones. This is a problem for the entire category of true wireless earbuds; none of them are particularly repairable. Apple insists that it tries to recycle as much of each AirPod as possible, and it encourages customers to bring theirs in when the time comes to get rid of them responsibly. But it’s not possible to easily replace the batteries in any AirPods, so when they wear out, you’re most likely going to have to get rid of them. Maybe you’re okay with spending $250 on earbuds that have a limited lifespan, but it’s something to consider.
Another thing worth mentioning is that much like iOS 13, the AirPods Pro are a little buggy. I’ve had the force sensor just stop responding briefly from time to time. Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel has also been testing a set, and he’s had noise cancellation stop working until a hard reset.
If you’ve got an iPhone and have never bought AirPods before — likely because they weren’t a match for your ears — the Pros are going to be much better for you. It’s just unfortunate that if your ears don’t work with the original, you’ll have to pay an extra $50 to $90 to get AirPods that fit, even if you get a bunch of other upgrades in the process.
The AirPods Pro do come close to perfecting the original AirPods concept, though: the in-ear design will fit more ears, the noise cancellation outperforms what you’d expect from tiny earbuds, and they sound better than ever (and the old ones already sounded good enough for millions of people).
But their appeal is still inherently tied to the Apple ecosystem. The AirPods Pro still work okay with Android phones (noise cancellation and all), but you lose out on all of the nice software touches that really make the AirPods so effortless to use. But for everyone carrying an iPhone in their pocket, it’s hard to point you in any other direction than the AirPods Pro — if you’re comfortable spending so much on them, that is.
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