AirPods Pro owners complain of worse noise cancellation after firmware updates

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Some AirPods Pro owners have been complaining about degraded noise cancellation in recent weeks, claiming that Apple’s latest earbuds suddenly got less effective at silencing ambient noise after receiving a firmware update. Rtings.com retested the AirPods Pro and found their noise canceling capabilities to be worse after firmware update 2C54. But affected customers say the trouble began even earlier with firmware version 2B588, which rolled out in November. (Apple later pulled firmware 2C54 for unknown reasons.)

This phenomenon — the perception that a software update has “ruined” noise cancellation — has also been reported by owners of Bose and Sony headphones. Bose has faced a months-long controversy over its QuietComfort 35 II headphones, with some customers insisting that an update drastically worsened the level of noise cancellation from the cans compared to their original out-of-the-box performance. There are a lot of people who say they’ve experienced this issue, and it’s escalated to the point where Bose is now visiting customers at home to get a handle on whatever’s going on. Sony also dealt with similar complaints about its 1000XM3 headphones.

Are companies really screwing up this badly, or are customers imagining a problem where one doesn’t exist? The Rtings tests suggest something changed; the site found that Apple has also been slightly tweaking the sound profile of the AirPods Pro with these updates. A few editors at The Verge think they’ve noticed a difference, and others haven’t, but that’s by no means scientific.

Since the original AirPods, Apple has chosen to make the firmware update process completely invisible to customers. The entire process happens in the background without so much as a single notification. You can’t reject AirPods software updates, nor is there any direct way to force the update process on demand; you plug a charging cable into your AirPods case, put them near your iPhone, and wait. Once a firmware update is installed, you’ll notice the new version in settings.

(To check, open Settings, then pick General, then About. Whenever your AirPods are connected to your iPhone or iPad, you’ll see a section for them beneath the “EID” row.)

This everything-happens-in-the-background approach means there’s no way to downgrade or revert an AirPods Pro update back to a previous one if you encounter a problem. Some AirPods Pro owners are convinced noise cancellation took a downturn right after that first 2B588 update, and they were left without any method of going back.

Unlike other earbud makers including Sony and even Amazon, Apple doesn’t let you adjust the intensity of noise cancellation from the settings menu. The AirPods Pro are designed to dynamically adjust how much noise cancellation is applied on the fly based on your environment.

But to the end user, the feature is either on or off, and that’s not what I’d call ideal. Some people always want the maximum amount — especially on a plane or during a noisy commute — but others can feel a slight discomfort from the noise cancellation technology (or in some cases even get a little dizzy) when it’s fully cranked up.

It’s possible that Apple decided to turn the maximum noise canceling knob down ever so slightly without telling anyone to avoid any ill effects, but I really hope not. Letting customers choose from multiple levels of noise cancellation would make the AirPods Pro a hair more complicated to use, but might solve this situation for everyone. People who want their cocoon of silence (and have no issues when noise cancellation is dialed up to 11) can have it, and everyone else can find whatever level offers the best balance of comfort and NC.

The Verge has reached out to Apple for comment on the situation, and I’ll update this story should the company respond.

Comments

Definitely noticed this. I tried them when they first came out and they worked surprisingly well at canceling out office noise. I picked up another pair (long story) to see if they would work for me, and the noise canceling on the new ones is significantly worse. It definitely cancels out low frequencies like the hum of my work building, but does not cancel out any of the keyboard noise from myself or my neighbors, or voices of people around me talking. Something is definitely up when non noise canceling Galaxy Buds I also have are able to cancel out more ambient noise than the Pros.

Obviously the noise canceling fades over time thus requiring you to upgrade after a few years. #appleconspiracy

It’s in order to protect the battery. Of course this isn’t communicated to the customers though.

(Jokes)

I thought this too. I use mine in the office and I never used to hear the cleaner hoovering in the afternoon. Recently I can hear it more.

Not sure if I’m just getting used to the noise cancellation, paranoid or they are actually getting worse…

Same here

It still works great but, as the original report points out, the noise cancelling is weakened in more bass-y frequencies, so I would argue that "ruined’ is wildly misleading.

However I would also argue that it seems exceedingly likely the firmware was pulled because of this issue, because people have been running it this whole time without reporting any other issue.

It still works great but, as the original report points out, the noise cancelling is weakened in more bass-y frequencies, so I would argue that "ruined’ is wildly misleading.

I mean, when non noise canceling headphones do a better job of canceling out noise than the Pros do, its pretty bad.

People noticed different NC performance with the previous firmware update, which was never pulled.

That’s the one the pair I have has, and yep, its not as good as it was with the launch firmware. Wonder why it seems the companies have so much trouble with software updates and issues with noise canceling efficacy.

Well they did pull the firmware update for a reason.

They didn’t pull the first one that caused it, only the most recent one that made it even worse.

I noticed this as well before the reports – when I first got them I couldn’t hear the hum of the vents above my workspace, and subway noise was substantially reduced. My estimate is probably a 40% reduction in active noise cancellation, which is very disappointing and absolutely impacts my enjoyment of using them.

If this was an intentional call by Apple (complaints about eardrum suck, headaches etc), they should have implemented a noise cancellation strength "slider", instead of ruining the ANC across the board. I hope this is fixed soon – I do feel like I am not being provided with the product I initially purchased.

I’m sure Apple has their reasons for doing this but transparency would be nice.

But then there’s NO noise cancelation!

Why are you giving such leniency to a trillion $ company? It’s not acceptable.

Oh yes the big bad Apple must be held accountable at once!…

I never said they’re bad. But there’s no reason to not hold them accountable.

Love mine, but the noise cancellation on my Bose QC20 are still noticeably better.

Thought it was just me. I have a very routine life so I’d like to think that the increase in what I hear outside didnt change.

Give us maximum cancellation when activated! Whats wrong about that, when other companies do even better cancellation? For those folks who don’t want that, they still can go with the non Pro version….

Here we go again. See Sony WH-1000XM3.
Yet, in the case of the WH-1000XM3, people who actually compared two units — one upgraded, one not — "side-by-side", reported no difference.

Rtings conducted a retest compared to the original firmware and there are substantial differences:
https://www.rtings.com/headphones/reviews/apple/airpods-pro-truly-wireless#page-test-results

It’s not just a figment of people’s imaginations.

Apple pulled the 2C54 firmware only days after its release, so it is presumably working on the issues described.

This affects the prior update too, not just the one they pulled

While there were reports of people claiming worse performance, it might have been anecdotal.

If you click through to the Rtings review page linked in the article, they have 2 updates to the original review regarding noise isolation. With the previous one, they state that they retested the headphones after receiving these complaints, but there was negligible difference noted. The last update (2C54) is the one they say had a noticeable difference.

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