I’ve never loved the AirPods. That’s mainly because I’m one of the few people whose ears just don’t fit with the mostly universal design. But they wouldn’t be so popular if they weren’t great earbuds. So when Apple announced the AirPods Pro with different fit options and a flurry of new features, I thought it must be time for me to be a fanatic. I’ve been using them for a week, and I love them. I also don’t think they’re for everyone.
The AirPods Pro look immediately familiar and yet uncanny at the same time. The iconic white-earbud-on-a-stem design is still there, but it’s also compressed into a tighter package, one that includes a silicone tip on the end of the earbud. This tip is what was missing on the AirPods, although I realize not everyone loves a super tight seal when wearing earbuds. Apple actually says that “with vents helping equalize pressure” the AirPod Pros aren’t supposed to be airtight at all. So I wasn’t surprised that the AirPods Pro silicone tips didn’t squeeze into my ear canal as much as they nestled neatly on its edges.
This is an improvement over the traditional AirPods which, for me, dangle dangerously. When wearing the AirPods Pro around town, at the gym, or even sitting in my lazy chair, it often felt like I wasn’t wearing anything at all. Although I did miss the airtight seal I get with some other earbuds, I never felt like they were going to go flying off my head and onto the subway tracks. That said, the AirPods Pro don’t fit nearly as securely the no-way-they’re-going-anywhere PowerBeats Pro. The AirPods Pro are also water and sweat resistant, which makes them exercise-friendly in a way their predecessors were not. And while the AirPods Pro’s easy-going fit felt fine, I did feel like a lot of outside noise was sneaking in. That’s not the case with the snug fit of the Jabra Elite 65t, my go-to wireless earbuds.
This is where the AirPods Pro’s marquee feature, active noise canceling, comes into play. There are two microphones on each earbud: one on the outside registers sound that’s catching noise coming in and one on the inside that’s watching your ear geometry and adjusting the audio accordingly. That’s the sales pitch, at least. In practice, the noise canceling on the AirPods Pro isn’t powerful enough to neutralize the roar of a jet engine, but it does make a big difference when it comes to sound quality. Still, the noise-canceling on the AirPods Pro still falls short of what you’ll find on the latest Sony WF-1000XM3, which are the best noise-canceling wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested. The AirPods Pro are also about half the size of the Sony buds.
Let’s talk more about sound quality, though. The AirPods Pro sound quite good! They feature a new custom-designed, low distortion driver that’s different than what’s on the regular AirPods, and it’s also obvious from the first time you hit play that the AirPods are operating on a different playing field in terms of depth and detail. I’d argue that a lot of these sound quality improvements can be linked to the active noise canceling, and the AirPods Pro are using the inside-facing microphones to adapt music to the listeners’ ears. Whatever’s doing it, the level of detail is remarkably better than what I’ve heard on the regular AirPods. The AirPods Pro don’t sound quite as good as Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless or the Master & Dynamics MW07. But still, they sound pretty good!
So far I’ve mentioned three big upgrades that define the AirPods Pro. There’s the new design, which is probably my favorite thing. There’s also the noise canceling, which is not industry-leading but still impressive. And there’s the sound quality, also impressive.
If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll love how Apple has integrated the AirPods Pro into iOS. The new earbuds offer a host of useful settings options without requiring you to download a new app. In the Bluetooth settings for the AirPods on iOS, for instance, you can not only connect the earbuds but also adjust the noise canceling settings and even run a test to see if they’re fitting properly. This isn’t happening in a separate app. It’s right there in Bluetooth settings, which is something Apple or any other headphone-maker has never done before. Bear in mind, these things only apply to iOS users, but for those folks, they’re super handy.
What I haven’t focused on nearly enough is how the AirPods Pro let me down. Battery life is a big one. The AirPods Pro claim 4.5 hours of listening time, and in reality, that feels quick. It was a surprise the first time I walked my dog with the AirPods and realized one of the buds was dead. In the Bluetooth 5 era, most new wireless earbuds get over 5 hours of battery life. The AirPods Pro offer 24 hours of battery life with the charging case, but you’d better use that charging case, which is slightly bigger than the original AirPods charging case.
The other thing that bugs me isn’t exclusive to the new AirPods. The touch controls make me sad. They are, I will admit, better than what’s on the original AirPods. Whereas those had a single, programmable tap surface, the new AirPods Pro have a grab-and-squeeze way of controlling your music which sounds about as handy as it is. If you’re running around town and need to pause your shit, you’ve got to grab and squeeze the end of the AirPod to make that happen. It’s not much more effort than using a regular button, but it is different. In principle, I actually like the grab-and-squeeze concept. It just didn’t make a lot of sense, for me, in the real world.
But don’t let me seem negative. I would, very sincerely, tell all of my friends to buy the AirPods Pro. They’re a great choice for most people. I am a picky, ornery, detail-oriented motherfucker, and I would be happy to own these earbuds. I’m just not sure they’re the best value. You could say that about every Apple product, but it seems especially descriptive here. Jabra just released the Elite 75t wireless earbuds for $180, which is $70 less than the AirPods Pro. I’ve tested those, and they’re just about as good. I’ve also spent time with the $230 Sony WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling earbuds, and they’re just about as good, too.
I ought not be vague about this, though. Apple made some good earbuds. They’re $250. You’ll like them. They’re $250.
- Sound quality is dramatically better than the regular AirPods
- Fit is surprisingly secure without being too heavy or tight
- Noise canceling helps improve sound quality but doesn’t silence the outside world
- Price is about as high as you’d expect for a new Apple product