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Divisive though the original AirPods were, they have certainly been a hit. In fact, Apple claims the standard AirPods are the most popular headphones in the world.
But, despite their abundance and the rather magical user experience they offer (for Apple fans especially), the AirPods have their flaws. The second-gen model brought with it a boost in sound quality, which the AirPods 3 then took further once again, but they’re still a fair way from delivering the sonic satisfaction of the very best wireless earbuds at their price point.
The fit is a bigger issue: one-size-fits-all might be the approach, but for some people the AirPods simply don’t fit at all. And while some appreciate the non-invasive fit, the complete lack of noise isolation makes them ill-suited to certain scenarios.
These are all issues that Apple has sought to address with the AirPods Pro, which sit above the standard AirPods and have now evolved into the recently-announced AirPods Pro 2 – with improved features – that will be available 23rd September 2022.
By combining the magic of the original AirPods with active noise-cancelling, Apple has designed the AirPods Pro as a best-of-all-worlds device and, while not the best-sounding noise-cancelling earbuds for the money, they are still an utter joy to own and use.
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While there’s no denying the familial similarities between the AirPods 3 and AirPods Pro – the glossy white finish, protruding stem and bulbous body – there are clear differences, too. Most obvious is the silicone tip of the Pro model, which is shorter in length than on many in-ear headphones and elliptical rather than round.
That main body is chunkier, too – presumably to accommodate the extra components. The Pro’s stem was shorter than the original AirPods’ one when they arrived, making them less conspicuous when worn, but now the AirPods 3 has mimicked that shorter-stem design.
Where the original AirPods responded to taps to the body, the AirPods Pro’s controls are located in the stems, which now contain force sensors (a design trait the new AirPods have also copied). A quick squeeze on either stem pauses or resumes a track (or answers an incoming call), a double-squeeze skips forward, a triple-squeeze skips back and a long squeeze switches between noise-cancelling modes.
However, we’re not completely convinced by this approach. The squeezes are fiddly to perform, particularly when running or cycling, which you may well do with the AirPods Pros thanks to their sweat- and water-resistance. They’re not as sports-focused as rivals such as the Bose Sport Earbuds and Beats Fit Pro, but running in the rain is all good.
The AirPods Pro generally stay in the ears well when running. They are so light (5.4g each) and comfortable that they can give the impression of not being secure, but they refuse to budge in action. Some people may manage to shake them loose, but they are much more secure in place than the original AirPods. Third-party fins/hooks (opens in new tab) that make the fit even more secure are also now fairly widely available and have been tried and liked by members of the review team.
Apple supplies just three pairs of tips, with two of those hidden beneath a flap at the bottom of the box. The message here is that the pre-attached, medium-sized pair should fit most, and you should only dabble with the others if there’s an issue.
You don’t even have to identify an issue yourself – click on the AirPods Pros in the Bluetooth menu of your iPhone and you’ll find, among other options, an ‘Ear Tip Fit Test’ that, when tapped, plays five seconds of music that’s analysed in order to identify any sound leakage. Get a green ‘Good Seal’ result and you’re ready to go, but if the Pros identify an issue you’ll be prompted to try a bigger or smaller tip.
This is an impressive feature, largely because the Pros don’t feel like most in-ear headphones in that they burrow into the ear canal significantly less and generally exert a lot less pressure. In short, they’re more comfortable, but that comfort can initially be mistaken for looseness.
Also contributing to the ‘barely there’ feel of the AirPods Pros is a series of vents that allows air to flow between your ear and the outside world. That might sound odd, but it reduces that pressurised feeling that you often get from noise-cancelling buds.
The biggest change here is, of course, noise-cancelling, and Apple’s implementation is typically techie. Each Pro has two microphones: one on the outside to detect incoming noise that can be cancelled out by anti-noise, and one on the inside that detects any noise that makes it through the seal and also analyses how your music is responding to the individual geometry of your ear.
What’s most impressive is that the noise-cancelling is continuously adjusted 200 times per second. Apple claimed at launch that these were the only headphones to take this approach, but at the very least it’s now been repeated by Apple’s own AirPods Max on-ears.
The good news is that the noise-cancelling is effective. Predictable, constant noises such as a train are more or less eradicated, while less predictable sounds such as office chatter are reduced to a whisper. And, as promised, there’s no sense of the air being sucked out of your ears when you engage the noise-cancelling.
Apple has ignored the trend for user-selectable noise-cancelling modes. Instead, noise-cancelling is either on or off. The exception is the ‘Transparency’ mode, which actively allows sound in from the outside world.
This is another extremely impressive feature. Many noise-cancelling headphones have a similar feature, but it often comes across as unnatural and synthetic, with some sounds amplified louder than others and the blend between external noise and your music seemingly not quite right.
Use Transparency on the AirPods Pro, though, and it’s remarkably similar to using a pair of completely non-isolating headphones. This is again down to the vents and continuous processing, according to Apple. There seems to be a slight enhancement to midrange sounds, which helps you hear voices, but it’s done subtly enough that it never feels anything other than completely natural.
Powering the whole experience is the same H1 chip that’s built into the second- and third-gen AirPods. This is already renowned for enabling a flawless wireless performance and supremely quick pairing. We’ve been living with the AirPods for years now and have experienced no drop-outs and have found the automatic pairing, which instantly connects to your phone when you insert an earphone, to be predictably brilliant. This feature was made even better towards the end of 2020 when Apple released a software update that allows the AirPods Pro to automatically switch between your Apple devices.
That same update brought with it support for Apple’s spatial audio technology, which adds virtualisation of Dolby Digital 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos soundtracks in a bid to make them more immersive. Via the AirPods Pro, this feature doesn’t hit the same, surprisingly cinematic heights as it does via the AirPods Max, and app support is patchy (Apple TV and Disney+ do, but Netflix and Amazon Prime Video do not), but it’s still very impressive indeed with the right content (try the opening of Gravity if you want to give it a go). It’s worth Apple Music subscribers checking out spatial audio tracks, too.
The H1 chip also allows Apple’s voice assistant to be invoked by the ‘Hey Siri’ command, although it can also be activated by a pinch of one of the stems. One disappointment is that Siri is the only method for adjusting volume without reaching into your pocket for your phone’s controls. Other brands, including the H1 chip-toting Beats Fit Pro, have managed to squeeze physical volume controls into their true wireless earphones and we wish Apple would do the same.
Battery life is a claimed five hours for the earphones with another 19 hours from the charging case and, in our time living with the AirPods Pro, those figures have proved to be, if anything, conservative. The case itself is wider than that of the standard AirPods but also squatter, resulting in a package that’s actually not much larger in terms of volume. If the earphones run out of charge, five minutes back in the case will give you another hour of listening.
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Sonically, Apple has taken the same approach with the Pro as with its other products, favouring clarity and a neutral tonal balance rather than lots of weighty bass.
That said, the performance does alter slightly when noise-cancelling is switched on. Playing R.E.M.’s Belong via Tidal and switching between noise-cancelling modes, we notice that ‘Off’ produces a slightly tonally richer and rhythmically crisper performance. There’s an extra warmth to Michael Stipe’s unusually deep, spoken vocals, a little more texture to that bubbling bassline, a more engaging punch to notes and greater overall cohesion.
Even here, though, the AirPods Pro aren’t quite able to match the sound quality of the Sony WF-1000XM3 (which in turn means they don’t reach the heights of the newer, even better-sounding WF-1000XM4). The Sony rival is that bit more dynamic and attacking, but the Pro do counter with a more easygoing nature that ensures nothing sticks out unpleasantly. Even the lowest quality Spotify streams sound acceptable.
The Pro also achieve something that few other in-ears do: they combine the directness inherent in the design with an open airiness that’s far harder to achieve. That feeling of the sound being pumped directly into your brain is far less intense here and, while you’re not quite fooled into thinking you’re listening out loud, there is a spaciousness that allows instruments to breathe.
There isn’t a ton of bass here, but that’s not to say that the AirPods sound lightweight – bass is just more balanced and considered. The midrange is where the AirPods Pro really shine, though, with vocals reproduced with plenty of texture and detail. There’s good sparkle to treble, too, but with no hint of brightness sneaking in.
But switch on Noise Cancellation or Transparency (which sound broadly the same except for added outside noise) and there is a small step down in sound quality. Here, there’s a touch of sibilance audible in the vocals of some tracks and a slight comparative lack of tonal warmth that’s most noticeable in the bass. More significantly, timing takes a bit of a hit, which manifests itself in tracks losing a bit of overall impact, possibly down to all of that on-the-fly processing when noise-cancellation is enabled.
None of this is a huge issue and shouldn’t put you off using noise cancellation when you need to escape the noise of a plane, train or crowded office, or Transparency mode when you want to reduce the possibility of being run over when out for a walk. We would recommend switching both modes off when they’re not strictly necessary, though.
The AirPods Pro can’t quite match the best-in-class true wireless noise-cancelling earbuds for sound quality, but the user experience and unprecedented levels of comfort still make them a very strong option in the category.
By combining that excellent noise-cancelling with a transparency mode that feels almost as natural as wearing non-isolating earphones, Apple has created a pair of earbuds as well suited to a long-haul flight as they are to a run around the block. For many people, the Pro model could be the only pair of headphones they ever need. And we can only hope the new Pro 2 make an even better case for that.
- Sound 4
- Comfort 5
- Build 5
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