By Dan Moren
November 8, 2019 9:00 AM PT
Dan vs. the AirPods Pro
I badly want to love AirPods Pro.
Put simply, Apple’s new wireless earbuds are chock full of amazing features: they’re lightweight, they have impressive noise cancellation, and they make switching between devices easy. There’s just one small problem: at the end of the day they’re still in-ear headphones.1
Look, I’m not being snobbish about this. It’s not a matter of sound quality, something that people often ding earbuds for. I’ve tried to be an in-ear headphone person. Over the years, I’ve bought more than a few pairs, just in case my experiences with them have been less a trend and more a series of flukes. I hoped the AirPods Pro, with their innovative vent design, swappable silicone tips, and Ear Tip Fit Test, might finally be the models that defeat my inborn prejudice.
Alas, it’s not to be. I haven’t yet decided if I will return my AirPods Pro, but the battle rages on. Here’s why I’m on the fence.
I did not buy the original AirPods, mainly because I’d never had any success with their predecessors, the EarPods. I didn’t like the way that they fit—or more accurately, didn’t fit—in my ears, ready to pop loose at the most minute of head shakes. (For that matter, I haven’t particularly cared for the headphones that Apple has included with any of its products, all the way back to the original iPod.)
But having spent a week with the AirPods Pro, I do have an understanding of why Apple’s wireless earbuds are so beloved, why I seem to see them jutting forth from people’s ears no matter where I go: put simply, they’re sawed-off technological marvels.
The headphones I usually wear while walking around town are the wireless version of the Koss Porta Pro, which replaced the wired version I had previously used for many years. They’re lightweight over-the-ear headphones, not too dissimilar from the kind that you might have used with a Sony Walkman twenty or thirty years ago, but they deliver surprisingly great sound, and they’re pretty comfortable.
The AirPods Pro are surprisingly comparable in the sound department. I definitely get more bass out of the Porta Pros, and the mids are a little less muddy to my ears, but I’m no audiophile. (In terms of sound quality, they both handily defeat the many $20-$30 pairs of Bluetooth headphones I’ve bought over the years, so my ears can at least discern that much.)
Where the AirPods Pro beat the pants off my Porta Pros are in design, compatibility, and performance. Despite the Porta Pros’s ability to be folded up, I always end up thinking twice before I take them with me someplace where I’d have to stow them in a pocket—it’s fine if I’m wearing, say, a jacket, but in the summer, in just a t-shirt and shorts, they were still a bit too bulky to easily carry around. By comparison, the AirPods Pro charging case is small enough that I can throw it in a pocket no matter what I’m wearing.
All of the headphones I use these days2, with the exception of the Sony MDR-7506 monitors I podcast with, are Bluetooth. When it comes to dealing with pairing and reception, the experience varies widely: the best of the bunch are probably the Bose QC-35s, which not only rarely lose their connection with my devices, but also let you pair with two devices at a time as well as manage your device connections within Bose’s iOS app.
The AirPods Pro put even that experience to shame. Apple’s skill at creating seamless integration across its product lines is one of its greatest strengths, and being able to simply switch to your AirPods Pro on any Apple device without ever having to do the Bluetooth pairing dance is a godsend.
Likewise, Apple’s ability to integrate Siri support puts it well ahead of the competition. I do use Siri on my other headphones, where I generally have to hold or double-click a button on the headphone remote, wait for a beep, speak my query, and then wait for the response. The Hey Siri feature on the AirPods Pro, meanwhile, requires no button-pressing and no waiting for acknowledgement. The first few times I used it, the lack of audio feedback for the wake word had me unsure that it was even working—but then Siri immediately spoke up and handled my request like a champ. I’ve only had it fail to hear me a couple of times, and that was while walking into some pretty strong wind; repeating my request worked fine.
Add to that the new Announce Messages feature, which will duck the music and read a recently arrived message, as well as making it easy to reply. It feels seamless to me, and I think presages a bit how Apple envisions the future of its virtual assistant. If I have one complaint, it’s that adjusting the volume of the Siri response—which on my AirPods Pro is very quiet—is opaque. I tried turning up the volume while Siri was talking, which works when I have the same problem in CarPlay, but just ended up blasting out my eardrums when the music came back.
Finally, the AirPods noise-canceling and Transparency modes are fascinating and very well designed. I would say the noise-canceling isn’t quite as good as the QC-35s, but it’s very close. I’ve taken to switching to Transparency mode every once in a while, just for the comparison, and in a noisy environment like a coffee shop, it is night and day. Even sitting on the couch next to my wife while she watches something on the Apple TV with the speakers on, I can sit and comfortably watch my own show on my iPad.
As Jason pointed out in his own thorough review, Transparency isn’t perfect: it’d be nice if it ducked the volume of the audio a bit as well, since it’s often still too loud to hear outside noises. In those cases, I’ve generally ended up taking out one AirPod, which pauses the music. (Usually, anyway. I’ve had problems with that from time to time, and more than once, I’ve removed an AirPod and then accidentally clicked it, which starts the audio playing again.)
Though I never had the original AirPods to compare with, I quite like the force control on the AirPods Pro. It’s easy to use and provides just the right level of satisfying feedback, Ã la the Magic Trackpad’s fake click.
Overall, my interactions with the AirPods Pro have generally been a delight and you may be wondering, given my glowing review so far, what the heck is holding me back from embracing them as my one true pair of headphones?
Unfortunately, the problem lies in their essential, intrinsic nature.
It’s not the AirPods Pro’s fault. As the timeless saying goes, it’s not them—it’s me. I have problems with in-ear headphones, and not even the AirPods Pro can find their way to get around it. Let me run down the two biggest impediments for me.
First, my ears are weird. I know Apple supposedly spent a lot of time studying people’s ears to design these new models, and the truth is they hit on something that probably works for 80 to 90 percent of people, making me an outlier.
While I can get AirPods Pro to sit reasonably comfortably in my ears, I can never get quite the same fit on both of them. I’ve managed to use the Ear Tip Fit Test to confirm a good seal on both the small and medium tips that are included with the AirPods Pro, but it often requires a degree of wacky adjustment, and even then one of them—generally my right ear—will loosen over time, to the point where I no longer have a good seal. Which is not only irritating, but also, with the noise canceling feature on, provides a weird feeling of imbalance. So a lot of times, I’ll end up having to continuously readjust my right earbud as I go, which is annoying.
If that were it, I would probably be able to live with it. The real challenge comes back to that intrinsic nature of earbuds. The feeling/sound I experience when I have them in is just…disconcerting for me. Most noticeably, when I’m walking outside with them on, the vibrations of my feet against the pavement seem to reverberate all the way into my skull, to the point that they sound like a bass drum in my head. And god forbid I try to eat something while wearing my AirPods Pro; I might as well be inside a trash compactor.
When I’m wearing them while sitting at home or in a coffee shop, this issue doesn’t really bother me. But walking around town, which is one of the prime places I use headphones, I find myself constantly distracted by how loud those echoing noises are. I don’t know if other people have figured out how to filter them out, don’t hear them as loudly I do, or maybe just walk with lighter feet, but for me it’s fingernails on a chalkboard.
As I said, I can’t really ding AirPods Pro for this. For one thing, it’s a problem shared by every pair of silicone-tipped earphones I’ve ever used. For another, it’s more of a problem with me than it is with the product themselves. It’s one reason I’ve stuck with over-ear headphones for so long. And, to their credit, the AirPods Pro seem better in this regard than most of the other in-ear headphones I’ve tried: I don’t know if it’s something to do with that venting system, the noise-canceling making it easier to hear the music over those vibrations, or some combination thereof.
In the end, it’s a scorpion and the frog situation: I shouldn’t have expected a fundamentally different result here. Maybe some innovative third party or Apple itself will eventually invent a material that mitigates this issue, but until then, I fear it’s a problem I’ll have with all earbuds of this type. I’d love for Apple to make a lightweight pair of wireless headphones with the same H1 chip and sauce as the AirPods Pro—and before you ask, I find the Beats offerings too bulky in that department—but I’m not holding my breath. To them, the AirPods Pro are clearly the best solution, and given their success, I can’t exactly argue that point. Do you design for the 80 percent, or the 20 percent? The choice seems pretty obvious to me.
All of which is to say it’s a shame, because as I said up top, I want to love the AirPods Pro. They have so many of the qualities that I look for in headphones: portability, seamless integration with the devices I use most, pretty darn good sound, especially for something so small. Frankly, I could almost use them to replace most of my other headphones3.
So, am I going to return the AirPods Pro? I’m not sure. I’ve got a week left in my trial period, and I’m planning on making the most of it. Will my one objection be enough to outweigh all of those other advantages? I guess we’ll have to wait and…hear.
- Literally, at the exact moment I typed this sentence, someone walked into the coffee shop wearing the first pair of AirPods Pro—besides my own—that I’ve seen in the wild. Serendipity! ↩
- And I have many. I may have a bit of a headphone problem. ↩
- Though they probably wouldn’t replace the cheapo Bluetooth behind-the-head set I use at the gym, because a) I do not trust them to not fall out while I’m running and b) if you think the vibrations sound annoying when you’re walking, hoo boy, running starts to sound like you’re dodging mortars. ↩
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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