The over-arching theme of Apple’s recent “Far Out” event, where it debuted its second generation AirPods Pro, was “don’t rock the boat.” The company opted to think a little less different this year, with several upgraded Apple Watches and iPhones that were nearly indistinguishable from last year’s offerings. The same can be said for the new AirPods Pro, which don’t seem all that different from the originals until you pop them in your ears. Do you need to run out and upgrade right away? No. Will you be happy if you did? Yes.
The original AirPods Pro had a relatively quiet debut back in 2019, announced through a press release on Apple’s website, rather than a main stage debut at an Apple event. They were Apple’s first wireless earbuds with silicon ear tips and active noise cancellation, and they came in a package not much larger than the standard AirPods. However, it wasn’t the best implementation of earbuds ANC (active noise cancelling) available at the time, and three years later, the original AirPods Pro now rank quite low in terms of their ability to block noise. The new AirPods Pro 2nd Gen fix that, and unless you’re on a very tight budget, those ANC upgrades now make these the wireless earbuds to beat for anyone with an iPhone.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had this problem before when reviewing an updated version of an existing device, but while comparing the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen to the originals, I frequently found myself mixing up the earbuds and having to refer to photos on Apple’s website to tell them apart.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? In this case, I don’t think so. I found the original AirPods Pro to be some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever used, and for the past three years, they’ve been the earbuds I reach for most often for calls, video chats, or even while I’m mowing the lawn. Did they outperform the competition feature for feature? No, but they worked flawlessly with my iPhone and MacBooks: a feature that’s often overlooked in wireless earbuds, and a unique advantage that Apple’s smart to leverage. But more on that later.
Are the old and new AirPods Pro identical? No. On the 2nd Gens, Apple has relocated and changed the size of some of the vents and mics on the buds themselves, but they feel no different in the ear.
That being said, the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen might actually feel more comfortable for users who struggled finding a perfect fit with the originals, because Apple now includes four different sizes of silicone ear tips with them, including an extra small pair for smaller ear canals.
Even the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen charging case is identical in size and shape to the original, although it’s easier to differentiate thanks to the inclusion of a lanyard loop on the side (Apple doesn’t actually include one, but promotes third-party options instead) and holes on the bottom for an added speaker that allows the case itself to make sounds should you misplace it while wearing the earbuds.
The case will also make a reassuring beep when it’s being charged, which might be one of my favorite new features, as I’ll often plonk it down on a Qi pad that’s not MagSafe compatible and the sound lets me know the charging coils are properly aligned and working. I also like that the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen’s charging case is now compatible with the Apple Watch charger, as it makes that proprietary cable I have to bring on every trip more useful.
The bump in battery life is nice, too, with the case now promising up to 30 hours of listening time through several top-offs. You’ll get about six hours on the buds alone, by the way. That’s not industry-leading by any stretch of the imagination, but at this point we’ve all learned to live with and manage the battery life limitations that come with using wireless earbuds.
The AirPods Pro 2nd Gen maintain the familiar protruding stem design of the AirPods line, which, among other things, is used as a physical interface for playback control.
To date, this has been limited to simply squeezing the stem to activate it, but for the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen, Apple has updated its stem with touch controls, which finally allows you to adjust the volume by simply sliding a finger up and down said stem.
It’s a welcome upgrade, but unfortunately one that I found a little finicky to make work. It occasionally required a couple of swipes before anything happened.
As someone who generally hates having to touch my earbuds while I’m wearing them (it inevitably dislodges them a little) I will probably continue to stick to using Siri voice commands for volume adjustments or track skipping (the one thing Siri does very well). I can only hope that all earbud makers eventually copy what Sony did with its LinkBuds and allow their devices to detect skin taps around the ears as shortcut gestures.
With three years between major updates, it’s no surprise that the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen sound better than their predecessors, but there’s not a huge difference between the two, and if you’re willing to spend a little more money, you can definitely find wireless earbuds that offer a more premium sound experience. But the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen still sound fantastic, and the most notable difference my ears can detect is better tuning across all volume levels.
Cranking the volume on Martin Solveig and Dragonette’s Hello leaves the drums and claps at the top of the track over-powering on the original AirPods Pro. But the 2nd Gen offers a better overall balance, so during those times when you need your music louder (like when you’re in noisy environments), your ears aren’t going to suffer when you turn up the volume. If all you care about is listening to music and you never leave your home, there’s really no reason to upgrade. But if you listen to music while out and about and wish the world around you would shush, the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen will take care of that for you.
If you’ve been struggling to justify the upgrade from your tried-and-true AirPods Pro to the 2nd Gens, the improvements made to their active noise cancellation are more than enough reason to just do it already. The difference between the two is almost laughable, and I can best sum up my experience with the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen with a story.
The other morning, I removed the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen after several hours of listening and was shocked to discover my neighbors across the street were having a tree removed, with a professional-grade and very loud wood chipper parked at the end of my driveway chewing through the trunk. I didn’t hear it at all with the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen in my ears, and I was left suitably impressed.
Are the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen the new reigning champ when it comes to ANC on a pair of wireless earbuds? I’d say they come close, and do an amazing job of absolutely gutting the deep rumbles from vehicles like subways or buses, but I still think the Sony WF-1000XM4s from last year slightly outperform them. Part of that excellent ANC performance comes from using the memory foam-type tips that Sony now includes with many of its wireless earbud offerings, which create a very tight seal when worn.
However, the Sony WF-1000XM4s are monstrous compared to the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen, and as amazing as they are, I just never reach for them as a result. They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and I think the best wireless earbuds are the ones you actually want to wear.
There are cheaper wireless earbuds out there with better sound than the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen, better battery life, better ANC performance. So why would I recommend the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen to iPhone users? For the simple fact they just work flawlessly with Apple’s other hardware: a huge advantage that can’t be ignored.
Bluetooth has gotten a lot better over the years, and will continue to improve, but the reality is it’s a wireless protocol that has been shoe-horned into wireless headphones, which can still suffer from connectivity issues, random disconnects, and a host of other annoying technical issues as a result. With the original W1 chip, and now the H2 in the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen, connectivity between these and the iPhone is rock solid. Switching between devices, like a MacBook, is also automatic, and even sharing music to a friend’s AirPods is dead easy.
It also doesn’t matter what company made your wireless earbuds, how big or small they are, or how much you paid for them— they’re devices that are incredibly easy to misplace and lose. The inclusion of the U1 chip in the AirPods Pro 2nd Gen charging case also now means the odds of finding a lost pair are greatly increased, whether they’re miles away, or trapped behind a couch cushion. That’s about as close as you can get to buying insurance for your buds without actually buying any.
If there’s one specific feature you get really hung up on when it comes to wireless earbuds, or you don’t want to be yet another person walking around with white buds in their ears, you’ll probably be more happy with a competitor’s product. But if you want a great sounding pair of buds, with some of the best ANC we’ve ever experienced from a pair of wireless earbuds, that work effortlessly and flawlessly with your iPhone, you should just spend the $249 for the new AirPods Pro. They’re the best example of why the Apple eco-system is worth buying into.