Somewhat suddenly, there are new AirPods: the AirPods Pro. Divisive though the original AirPods may be, they’ve certainly been a hit. In fact, Apple claims they’re now the most popular headphones in the world. Certainly, walk down any high street or board any bus or train and you’ll likely see multiple pairs protruding like glossy white jewellery from the ears of your fellow citizens.
But, despite their abundance and the rather magical user experience they offer, the AirPods have their flaws. The second generation model brought with it a boost in sound quality, but they’re still a long way from delivering the sonic satisfaction of the very best wireless earbuds.
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 noninvasive 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 don’t replace but rather sit above the existing AirPods.
By combining the borderline magic of the original AirPods with active noise-cancelling, Apple will certainly be hoping it’s got another mega-hit on its hands. But has it? It’s too soon to be sure, but we’ve certainly been impressed by the AirPods Pro earbuds in the time we’ve had with them so far.
And if it’s the original versions you’re after, you can take advantage of one of the AirPods deals we’ve found while scouring the web.
While there’s no denying the familial similarities between the 2nd-gen AirPods and the AirPods Pro – the glossy white finish, protruding stem and bulbous body – there are clear differences, too. Most obvious is the silicone tip of the new AirPods, which looks at first glance like any such tip on any number of in-ear headphones but upon closer inspection is revealed to be much shorter in length and elliptical rather than simply round.
That main body is chunkier, too – presumably it needs to be to accommodate the extra components – but the stem is shorter, actually making the AirPods Pros slightly less conspicuous when worn.
Where the existing AirPods respond to taps to the body, the AirPods Pros’ controls have been moved to the stems, which now contain force sensors. 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.
Truth be told, this is one area of the AirPods Pros’ approach by which we’re not yet convinced, with the squeezes proving a bit fiddly to perform, even when more or less stationary. When walking they can be a pain, and we can only imagine (for the time being) that it’s a nightmare to skip tracks when you’re running or cycling.
And you may well want to run or cycle with the AirPods Pro earbuds as they are sweat- and water-resistant, albeit to a lesser degree than some more sports-focused rivals, such as the Jaybird Vistas. Running in the rain is all good, but wearing them in the pool most certainly is not.
Will the AirPods Pros stay seated in your ears if you wear them while running? We don’t yet know for sure but will find out. What we do already know is that the Pros are so light (5.4g each) and comfortable that they can give the impression of not being secure, but they refuse to budge when treated to a vigorous shake or impromptu head-bang. That gives us high hopes for their running credentials.
On the subject of fit, Apple supplies just three pairs of tips in the box, with two of those rather hidden beneath a flap at the bottom of the box. The message here is that the pre-attached, medium-sized pair should be perfect for most people, and you should only dabble with the others if there’s an issue.
You don’t even have to identify a fit 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 already seems like a really useful 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 of fit, at least in our experience so far.
Also contributing to the ‘barely there’ feel of the AirPods Pros is a series of vents that allows air to flow between ear and the outside world. That might sound odd, but it reduces that pressurised feeling that you often get from burrowing, noise-cancelling earphones.
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’s then 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 claims these are the only headphones to take such an approach.
Apple AirPods Pro tech specs
(Image credit: Future)
Type True wireless in-ears
Battery life 5 hours + 19 hours from charging case
Weight 5.4g per AirPods Pro
While our time with the AirPods Pros has so far been fairly limited, it’s already clear that the noise-cancelling is strong. Predictable, constant noises such as the thrum of a train are more or less completely eradicated, while less predictable sounds such as office chatter and a clattering jackhammer are reduced to a whisper.
What’s more, there’s no pause in sound as you switch noise-cancelling on or off, and no change in sonic character. And, as promised, there’s no sense of the air being sucked out of your noggin that you get from other, similar systems.
Apple has ignored the trend for user-selectable noise-cancelling modes. Instead, noise-cancelling is more or less simply on or off. The exception is the ‘Transparency’ mode, which actively allows sound in from the outside world.
While it’s still early days, we’re extremely impressed with this feature so far. 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 Pros, though, and it’s remarkably similar to using a pair of completely non-isolating headphones, such as the original AirPods. This is once again down to the vents and continuous processing, according to Apple.
What we know for sure is that if you’re after a single pair of headphones that can at one moment be used to cancel almost all outside noise and the next can perform like a non-isolating pair for use while running or cycling, the AirPods Pros already seem like an excellent choice.
Powering the whole experience is the same H1 chip built into the second-generation AirPods. This is already renowned for enabling a flawless wireless performance and supremely quick pairing. In our time with the Pros so far, we’ve certainly experienced no drop out whatsoever and have found the automatic pairing (insert an earphone and it instantly connects to your phone) to be predictably brilliant.
The H1 chip also enables the Pros to be always listening for the “hey Siri” command that invokes Apple’s voice assistant, although you can also customise the controls so that Siri can be activated by a pinch.
Battery life is a claimed five hours for the earphones, with another 19 hours added by the charging case. The case itself is far wider than that of the standard AirPods but also significantly 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.
It’s unfortunately still too early for us to deliver a final verdict on the sound quality of the AirPods Pros as they need a good deal of running-in and back-to-back comparisons with the best noise-cancelling true wireless headphones currently available – the Sony WF-1000XM3. First impressions, though, are good.
They certainly seem to be taking the same sonic approach as other Apple products, favouring clarity and tonal neutrality over lots of weighty bass. Not that they sound lightweight – bass is just more balanced and considered, and we like that.
There’s good directness to the delivery, too, but also an airiness that’s rare from a pair of burrowing, in-ear headphones. We suspect that, when directly compared to the Sonys, the AirPods Pros might be found lacking a little crispness and punch, but we’ll need to do that comparison to be sure.
We’ve not yet had the opportunity to test the AirPods Pros for long enough to deliver a final verdict, but we are so far impressed, particularly with the levels of comfort and noise-cancelling that they offer.
By combining excellent noise-cancelling with a transparency mode that feels as natural as wearing non-isolating earphones, Apple looks to have created a pair of headphones that’s as well suited to a long-haul flight as it is to a run around. At best, they could be the only pair of in-ear headphones you ever need.
But will they stay in your ears as you sprint for the bus? And do they sound as good as the excellent Sony WF-1000XM3s? We’ll be answering those questions and delivering our final verdict in just a few short days.