Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

Support this Site

Become a Six Colors member and get access to an exclusive weekly podcast, community, newsletter and more.

By Jason Snell

AirPods Pro Review: Hearing is still believing

The original AirPods were a revelation, even for a person like me, who had written off Apple’s ability to create good headphones years before. The combination of being truly wireless, sounding pretty good, and being easy to use turned the AirPods into a hit product. I know a lot of Apple nerds, and a surprising number of them think the AirPods are the best product Apple has made in the last few years.

Now here come the $249 AirPods Pro, an even more cutting edge, even higher priced pair of wireless headphones that go beyond AirPods with an in-ear-canal design, customizable silicon tips, less obvious stems, a refined control scheme, and active noise cancellation. The result is a pretty incredible product that will be the perfect fit for some people, while others will find the original AirPods design to be a better value.

It’s in your ear

It was surprising that the original AirPods fit as well as they did. A lot of people (myself included) tried EarPods, their wired predecessors, and didn’t like them. They felt funny in my ears. They fell out too easily. I had a pair of wired headphones that sounded better, anyway, so I stuck with them.

But the AirPods added that entirely-wireless dimension, and the absence of wires pulling on their ends helped them stay in my ears, and before too long I found that I was using AirPods most of the time. The only situations they didn’t replace were ones in which I needed to hear audio more clearly (on airplanes or while mowing the lawn), or where zero latency or a lack of audio leakage were paramount (recording and editing podcasts).

The AirPods Pro narrow this use case even more. They are designed as canalphones, meaning they push into the holes in your ears, separating you from the outside world. This is the most basic form of noise reduction a set of headphones can offer—the blocking out of noises from the outside world. (My custom headphones, which are designed to fit the inside of my ear canal perfectly, do such a great job of blocking out the world that I sometimes use them as earplugs at rock concerts.)

airpods-pro-transparency

Apple has added active noise cancellation to the basic noise-blocking on the AirPods Pro. Two microphones—one pointing inside your ear, the other aimed at the outside world—detect the sounds of your audio environment, and then the speakers on the AirPods Pro cancel those sounds. The result is not as thorough as the noise cancellation on my Sony over-ear noise cancelling headphones (which cost $100 more than the AirPods Pro), but it’s still pretty good. The AirPods Pro passed the test of allowing me to listen to podcasts while mowing my lawn, something that the original AirPods absolutely couldn’t manage. The mower sounded like a fan running very far away—still audible, but extremely faint.

In general, I’d describe ambient noises when using the AirPods Pro in noise-cancellation mode as if someone grabbed the volume dial on the world and just turned it way down. While walking on a sidewalk, a passing car was audible as it passed me, but not until it was very close. The quieter background hum of everyday life in suburban California faded away completely.

If you’re uncomfortable about walking on a sidewalk and not hearing that car until it’s right next to you, AirPods Pro lets you turn off noise cancellation. Even better, Apple has built in an augmented audio mode called Transparency that uses the microphones on the AirPods Pro earbuds to channel ambient sound into your ears along with whatever you’re listening to. It’s a great feature that’s much easier to access than the equivalent feature on my Sony headphones. On the Sonys it’s a multi-step toggle with a long delay and I have given up even trying to use correctly; on the AirPods Pro you squeeze the flat side of one AirPods Pro stem until you hear a chime. Squeeze again, and noise cancellation comes back.

I should say that as cool as Transparency is, it’s not a cure-all. For it to really be effective, you need to turn down your audio to a relatively low volume, or you’ll still miss everything. In fact, I found myself wishing for a way to make the Transparency shortcut also reduce my playback volume, since I inevitably found myself reducing volume every time I turned on Transparency, and increasing it when I turned noise cancellation back on. No such luck.

Transparency is made more useful because the in-ear design of the AirPods Pro means it’s a little bit more awkward to pop the earbuds in and out. As a result, I’ve found that I am much less likely to pull out an earbud when someone is approaching me while I’m walking my dog on a local path. Instead, I find myself just pausing my audio and letting Transparency pass through any potential conversation.

You can toggle between all three of the noise modes (cancellation, Transparency, and entirely off) on AirPods Pro by tapping and holding on the volume slider in Control Center, which is my cue to say that AirPods Pro requires iOS 13.2, watchOS 6.1 (you can also toggle modes from the Now Playing screen), and macOS Catalina 10.15.1. Sorry, Catalina holdouts. (My daughter had to update macOS on her MacBook when I got her a set of second-generation AirPods when she went off to college. The struggle is real.)

You’d think that noise cancellation would be a battery killer, but it’s not as bad as I expected. Apple says normal AirPods offer five hours of listening time; the company quotes the same number for AirPods Pro with noise cancellation turned off, and four and a half hours with it turned on. I am very rarely using AirPods for five hours without a break, so this seems like a distinction without much of a difference. It’s still a 10 percent battery hit, but if you take a break and pop these AirPods in their case, they’ll charge back up relatively quickly. And if you’re desperately trying to extend battery life, just turn off noise cancellation altogether.

A new option takes shape

Speaking of the AirPods Pro case, I should mention that since Apple has completely redesigned the AirPods Pro buds, the AirPods Pro case isn’t like the one used for the original AirPods. The eartips don’t slide perfectly into the case like AirPods do, because the AirPods Pro’s silicone tips come in three sizes, so the case needs to fit all of them.

AirPods Pro come with medium-size tips installed; a pair of both small and large tips come in the box and pop on and off with a satisfying click; replacements can be purchased from Apple for $4. Apple has built a clever “fit test” that tries to detect if the tips are properly sealing your ears from the outside world. It seems to work, though I was able to get multiple sizes of tips to be declared fit-worthy, leading me to spend more time with different sizes until I figured out the ones that were best for my comfort.

Unlike the original AirPods, which were based on Apple’s design for the EarPods wired headphones it still includes in the box with every iPhone, AirPods Pro are shaped differently—and according to Apple, it’s a design based on new research, including scanning the ears of a much wider range of people all around the world than it did when it made EarPods. The result won’t be a perfect fit for everyone—if there is such a thing—but it’s possible that the AirPods Pro will fit all sorts of people that Apple’s previous headphones didn’t, on account of Apple broadening its horizons and realizing that perhaps its conception of ear shape was not broad enough to match Apple’s global reach.

It’s hard to compare the fit of AirPods Pro to original AirPods, because they’re entirely different classes of headphones. The original AirPods are earbuds, tucking somewhat loosely into the space outside your ear canal. AirPods Pro must be inserted into your ear canal, and stay inserted by exerting pressure on the inside of that canal. It’s an entirely different sensation, and some people will hate it. (I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and actually prefer the feel now.) While wearing AirPods for a long time would make the curves at the bottom of my ears sore from holding the weight of the earbuds, a long session of AirPods Pro use makes my ear canals feel a little stretched and achy. (Even my custom-made silicone inserts, which are exactly the shape of my ear canal, will cause me to get irritated after a while.)

What I’m saying is, I think AirPods Pro are pretty great in terms of fit, but other people will find them repellant. And if you’ve never used canalphones before, the feel may take some getting used to. If you’re like me, you may come to love it.

You won’t go undetected while wearing AirPods Pro out in the world, but they are a bit less obvious than AirPods, mostly because the stems aren’t as long. Since Apple has chosen to make the stems the control surface for these headphones, I’m left to wonder what the endgame will be here, but for now, there’s enough space for me to reach up with my thumb and index finger and give the control surface a squeeze. (Beyond the squeeze-and-hold to toggle noise cancelling and Transparency, the control surface functions just like an old-school headphone clicker would—one click for play/pause, two clicks for forward, and three clicks for back. It’s like riding a bike.)

But how do they sound?

What I said in my original AirPods review goes for the AirPods Pro, too: “They sound good.” The world is full of people who will tell you all sorts of things about audio quality of headphones and speakers, some of which is legitimate and some of which is complete snake oil. All I can say is that I can listen to favorite songs on AirPods Pro and they sound good. Do they sound as good as my expensive custom in-ear monitors? No… but they’re way more convenient. And the active noise cancellation basically equals the additional sound dampening of the custom inserts.

AirPods Pro are almost certainly not the best-sounding earbuds on the planet, but they may be the most convenient. Is that a trade you’re willing to make? I already made it with the original AirPods—and AirPods Pro sounds even better.

And if you’ve never used AirPods because they didn’t fit your ears, you may also discover just how great it is to use truly wireless earbuds. I used to snag my headphone cords in my kitchen all the time, and those days are over.

I’m glad Apple is keeping the second-generation AirPods around. Not everyone wants or needs noise cancelling, and the canalphone fit isn’t for everyone. On top of all that, AirPods Pro cost $90 more than AirPods. For a lot of people, AirPods will be more than enough to do the job.

I was certainly happy with my AirPods. But between flying and mowing the lawn, I’ve had to use other headphones to fill in for use cases where AirPods just don’t work well enough. The AirPods Pro are perilously close to becoming the only headphones I use when I’m away from my desk. They’re a great product, worthy of the AirPods name, albeit with a price worthy of the “Pro” tag.

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]