Apple is at its best when it takes a new technology, refines it and makes it effortless. It’s something the company has done plenty of times before, with the AirPods Pro being a prime example.
They’re not the first wireless earbuds with noise cancelling, and they’re not the best-sounding wireless earbuds you can buy, but they perform really well and they’re just so easy to use that it’ll be a challenge to go back to anything else.
A design that’s hard to beat
As it’s the first thing you look at when you get the AirPods Pro out of the box, let’s start with the case. It’s a shorter, wider version of the case for the regular AirPods, and includes wireless charging as standard – no need to pay extra like with the standard AirPods. It’s slightly bigger overall, but just as easy to slip into any pocket. Beyond that, it’s just like the AirPods case, and that’s not a bad thing. It snaps open and shut with that same satisfying magnetic latch, and the earbuds drop right into the fitted slots with ease.
The real question is, why haven’t Apple’s competitors been able to replicate this experience? Despite the tsunami of true wireless earbuds we’ve seen released in the past few years, Apple’s cases are still smaller, easier to pocket, easier to get your earbuds in and out of and simply easier to use than everyone else’s.
The earbuds themselves look vaguely familiar, just tweaked a bit. They’re stilly visibly AirPods, and for better or worse they only come in glossy white – no matte black or Product (RED) options here, which would’ve been nice. Apple seems to have decided that Apple headphones are glossy white, and that’s that.
The stems are shorter now, which I really appreciate. They don’t look quite so goofy and the shorter stem makes for better balance that helps keep them in place in your ear. This also means they’re less noticeable than the originals, with less meme potential too!
The most obvious difference is the silicone tips on the front, one of the most requested features of the standard AirPods. Anyone who has used a bunch of different earbuds will tell you: rubberised or foam tips create a seal in your ear canal that helps improve bass response and blocks outside noise, and that’s certainly true here.
Apple gives you three pairs of tips – small, medium, and large – and there’s even a little “fit test” feature in Settings to help make sure you have a good seal, although the accuracy of the test leaves much to be desired – I tried an obviously ill-fitting size and the test still said I had an optimal fit, so common sense is still needed when getting the fit right.
Regular AirPods aren’t uncomfortable, but they don’t stay put very well. When moving around a lot, they need to be re-adjusted, and let’s not talk about trying to run with standard AirPods. The good news is that AirPods Pro solves both problems – they’re light and supremely comfortable, and they stay in their proper place even when running or working out.
Just pop them in and forget about them, with no feeling of pressure or discomfort, and no need to frequently re-adjust their placement. There aren’t many earbuds, fitness-focused or otherwise, I could say that about.
A new way to interact with your AirPods Pro
The AirPods Pro also have new controls on the earbuds themselves, and it’s a huge step forward compared to the tap controls of the AirPods. Instead of tapping, there’s a pressure-sensitive area on the stem of the AirPods Pro, indicated by a flat panel on two sides. To use it, you have to sort of “pinch” the stem – one pinch to play or pause, two to skip forward, three to skip back, or a long squeeze to toggle noise-cancelling and transparency mode.
If you want, you can change the long squeeze to trigger Siri instead, and you can even have different settings for the left and right earbuds, but it’s worth pointing out that you can access Apple’s virtual assistant hands-free by simply saying “Hey Siri”.
The squeezing thing is a little weird to get used to. It’s not a button, nothing moves at all. But Apple made it feel like a button by making the speakers emit a little “click” sound in just the earbud you’re squeezing. So it kind of feels like clicking a button, even though there’s no button. It’s totally gratuitous and totally Apple.
After adjusting to the input method, I find the pinch to be easier than tapping on regular AirPods. It doesn’t make the earbuds fall out of my ears like the tapping sometimes does, and I can do it when I’m working in the garden with gloves on.
Better sound, but not quite enough
Apple talks a big game about the improved sound quality of the AirPods Pro, and it definitely is better, but is it “Pro” quality? Not quite.
These are definitely not the best-sounding wireless earbuds I’ve heard, paling in comparison to something like the MW07s from Master & Dynamic. These are “Pro” earbuds only in the sense that they’re the best version that Apple offers – unlike creatives that make use of Apple’s Pro iPads and Macs, actual audio professionals would never use these for real production work.
Still, they sound good enough for everyday use, and they’re noticeably better than regular AirPods. That’s partly thanks to the silicone tips which block outside noise and create better bass, and as such, Apple doesn’t have to overload the sound spectrum to overcompensate for the loose, open-ear design of the original AirPods. AirPods Pro aren’t so “mid-heavy” and don’t muddy up the high-frequency sounds so much.
Whether it was hip hop, R&B, classical, rock, pop or podcasts, everything sounded appropriately balanced. I never felt like I needed to break out an equaliser to make the music sound as it should – you can even further customise the audio output to your ears by using Headphone Accommodations in iOS 14, a feature exclusive to Apple buds.
You’ve also got the option of enabling spatial audio when using the AirPods Pro in iOS 14, bringing a cinema-esque surround sound experience when watching compatible TV shows and movies on your iPhone. It’s not available with music, but if you watch movies on the go, it’s a real treat.
Frankly, most users won’t be disappointed with the AirPods Pro sound quality, especially if you’re used to regular AirPods. But at £250/$250 (remember to shop around for deals), the AirPods Pro should probably sound just a little bit better. The bass isn’t quite as punchy as I’d like, and the highs don’t have that sharp crisp sound that makes cymbals sound great.
ANC & Transparency modes enhance the experience
Apple is not the first to include Active Noise Cancellation in wireless earbuds – Sony has a couple of different models that do it – but the popularity of AirPods means that these are likely to be the first wireless earbuds with which many people experience noise cancelling.
Fortunately, Apple’s implementation isn’t half bad. The AirPods Pro do an excellent job at eliminating the noises that most active noise cancelling systems excel at: mid-to-low frequency continuous noise like air conditioners, dishwashers, trains, traffic and plane noise.
There’s a noticeable drop in background noise when enabling ANC – certainly more noticeable than most other ANC-enabled wireless earbuds available now, anyway. They did struggle a little on less regular, higher-frequency sounds like kids screaming or certain kinds of power tools, but that’s to be expected from such small buds.
It should go without saying that a good pair of over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones from Bose or Sony will almost certainly do a better job of eliminating background sounds, but for in-ear wireless earbuds, Apple is yet to be beat.
While most noise-cancelling headphones give you some control over the strength of the feature, Apple instead relies on an automatic adjustment feature that continuously adjusts the sound up to 200 times a second. While anything automatic in audio should be a cause for concern, in practice, it really works great. Moving around between environments, the noise-cancelling always sounds even and natural.
The auto adjustment feature makes ANC much easier to use – audiophiles may want precise control over the level and nature of the noise cancelling, but average users just want to put their earbuds in and go.
Of course, eliminating all that background noise can be dangerous in some situations, and that’s where transparency mode comes in. For those unaware, it’s a specific mode where some of the noise picked up from the on-board microphones are funnelled through to give you better situational awareness.
Simply put, Apple’s transparency mode is one of the best I’ve ever used. With other headphones, this feature tends to make everything sound distant and fake, while your own voice is loud and inside your head. It’s a bit like you’re hearing the world over a phone line.
It sounds really natural on the AirPods Pro, making it really easy to hold a conversation with someone without removing an earbud. It’s not at all annoying to leave it enabled when you go for a walk or a bike ride, and that’s not something that can be said about most noise-cancelling headphones and buds on the market right now.
Price and availability
The AirPods Pro cost £249/$249, making them the most expensive wireless earbuds Apple makes, but considering the standard AirPods with wireless charging case costs £199/$199, the £50/$50 price difference makes the Pro option a little more tempting – especially when you consider the advanced features like ANC and transparency mode, and the improved earbud design too.
Yes, the AirPods Pro are expensive, but I think there’s enough here to tempt Apple fans.
If you are interested, you can buy the AirPods Pro directly from Apple, along with third-party retailers like Amazon in the UK and US where the buds are usually a little cheaper.
For related advice, take a look at our guide to the best wireless earbuds.
The AirPods Pro are easier to set up than any other wireless headphones, and have a super small case that’s delightful to use. They offer a seemingly unbreakable Bluetooth connection, pause automatically when you take them out of your ears, and turn off automatically when you put them in their case. They’re simply the easiest wireless headphones an iPhone user can get. But you get all that with the regular AirPods too.
That said, AirPods Pro are everything you like about AirPods, but enhanced. They’re more comfortable this time around. They stay put in your ears better. They sound better, and have decent active noise cancelling with an excellent transparency mode.
Don’t get me wrong – the AirPods Pro aren’t the best-sounding earbuds and the battery life could be improved, but yet, they are hands-down the best wireless earbuds an iPhone user can get right now. They perform well enough, and are so comfortable and convenient and reliable, that I find myself constantly annoyed by the minor drawbacks of competing earbuds.