AirPods Pro – Worthy Upgrade from AirPods 2?

AirPods2 vs AirPodsPro
AirPods 2 on the left, AirPods Pro on the right

I was a big fan of the original AirPods and I moved up to AirPods 2 when they were available too. There wasn’t much of a difference between the two models, but I was super excited about having wireless charging on the AirPods case. You may remember that we bought the Ampere tri-fold wireless charger around the same time, which had a nice charging pad for the AirPods case.

I have a confession to make. I haven’t used the Ampere charger in ages. We unplugged it and threw it in a drawer. It turns out that laying the AirPods or even a phone down on the Ampere wasn’t the carefree experience we’d expected. We had to fiddle around a lot to get our phones and the AirPods lined up just right to actually get a charge. Turned out to be way easier to plug in a Lightning cable.

The good news is that the Ampere came with a fantastic 60W charger for very little money, and I use that charger all the time. I’m still in absolute love with the OmniCharge battery pack with USB-C and USB-A charging, and when I’m on the road, I use the Ampere 60W charger to recharge it. Half the time I plug the OmniCharge into power and then use it to charge my MacBook Pro, my iPad Pro and my phone and watch.

I tell you all of that to explain that the “upgrade” to the 2nd generation AirPods was probably not that big, other than getting fresh, new batteries.

This week Apple announced availability and shipped the rumored AirPods Pro so I bought a pair and I thought it would be interesting to compare this upgrade vs the previous one.

Fit

Unlike the previous changes, the AirPods Pro are significantly different from the previous generation AirPods. I’m one of the lucky people with the right ear hole shape to wear all of the headphones Apple has ever sold. They go in, they stay in comfortably and don’t fall out. I live with someone whose ear holes are wrong, at least according to Apple. I thought Steve was just being difficult on the subject until I saw him try to use a pair of EarPods years ago to take a phone call and they would simply fall right out.

I figure that we must talk about the fit first, because if they don’t stay in your ears or are not comfortable, then there’s no point in reading or listening any further.

The new AirPods Pro are a significantly different design, with most notably a rubbery insert thingy to hold them in even difficult ear holes. I’m sure Apple has a fancy name for the rubbery insert thingy but I’m going to use my own terminology. The rubbery insert thingy was the medium size by default, and both Steve and I simply could not get them into our ears at all.

I swapped it out for the small size, which was a real trick. It was an easy matter to pop the small size off of the little piece of cardboard that was holding them, but removing the medium rubbery insert thingy from the AirPods Pro was more problematic. One popped off pretty quickly but it took a lot of prying and swearing to get the second one off. We were hesitant to just yank on it for fear of tearing the rubber. You can see two little dark areas that invite a thumbnail but it wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped. In any case, we eventually conquered this task.

The good news is that with the small rubbery insert thingy in place, the AirPods Pro fit in my ears comfortably and they even stayed in Steve’s ears, at least through a quick jog down the street. This is a monumental improvement from “can’t wear them” to “might work for me” for Steve and others with wrong ear holes.

Feel + Audio

While the AirPods Pro fit in my ears and held in place, I instantly disliked them. They felt like earplugs, blocking me out from my surroundings. I guess that’s the point of noise-canceling headphones. This is where things get really interesting.

AirPods Pro have three modes. Off, which is like hearing through regular headphones that are plugging up your ears. Then there’s Noise Cancellation which actively counters the sound coming in from the outside and gives you clearer audio coming through the headphones. Then there’s Transparency mode. This third mode allows some kinds of audio to come through and I believe it is specifically tailored for human voice. Picture you’re on an airplane and you don’t want to hear the sound of the plane, but you do want to hear the lovely flight attendant offering you a cocktail. Transparency mode is designed for this.

Transparency mode could also be a lot safer if you wear your AirPods Pro while walking or running in the real world. When I first got my Bose in-ear noise-canceling headphones, I tried them with the active noise cancellation turned on while on my normal walk around the neighborhood with Tesla. I have to say it was terrifying. I couldn’t hear anything, and especially I could not hear cars! I know, soon they’ll all be silent like my Tesla (car) but it was truly unsettling and felt quite dangerous.

Of course, I did a lot of experiments with AirPods Pro in different environments testing the three modes, and my review is mixed. The best way I can explain Transparency mode is that it seems to change the audio to a higher frequency as it lets the sound through to your ears.

For example, sitting at my Mac, my fans run fairly often because of the load I put on my Mac (and because applications often misbehave.) With AirPods Pro in either the Off mode or full Noise Cancellation mode, I don’t notice the fans very much. But as soon as I switch to Transparency mode, the sound of the fans becomes quite shrill in my ears.

I tested talking to my good friend Pat Dengler with both of us using AirPods Pro to chat. In Noise Cancellation mode, her voice was rich and full and sounded all like she was in the room with me. But when I tried Transparency mode, her voice became very tinny and didn’t sound at all like her normal dulcet tones.

I did a third test, standing outside by a busy street. I was surprised to discover that the full noise cancellation mode still did allow me to hear cars, unlike the Bose. They were somewhat muted but I could definitely hear even their tires on the road. With Transparency mode, the sound of the car was more obvious and again at a much higher frequency.

I noticed a very odd effect of Transparency mode. I walked down the carpeted stairs in bare feet, and I could actually hear the crunch of the carpet under my podfeet. I think they’re amplifying all external audio and then upping the frequency. If you’ve lost high-frequency hearing, this might mean you won’t hear anything at all with Transparency mode. I am gifted with continued good high-frequency hearing, and actually to an absurd level that I wish would actually roll off a bit sometimes.

I mentioned early on that the fit felt odd to me because I felt that my ears were plugged up, even with them off. But while on my morning run I found that the full Noise Cancellation mode was quite pleasing.

Controlling AirPods Pro

Control of AirPods Pro is significantly different than previous models. While versions 1 and 2 of AirPods had no buttons whatsoever, AirPods Pro each have a force-sensitive area (not a button) with which you can control the devices. I had read online about these three modes I’ve been discussing and learned that you can flip through the three modes by squeezing this non-button area.

But on my AirPods Pro, I was only able to toggle between what I assumed was Transparency and Noise Cancellation. I was pretty sure I never experienced the Off mode.

Control center AirPods Pro
Control Center shows AirPods Pro on volume

On my run, I just happened to be listening to MacBreak Weekly where Mikah Sargent explained that there was a special Control Center area for controlling AirPods Pro. I stopped the audio (and stopped running) to check it out. In Control Center where you can normally see the volume control, you’ll now see a pair of AirPods Pro on top of the volume slider graph thingy.

I think that’s a really good way to indicate that holding on it will bring you more options and I wish they had indicators on all of the Control Center icons so people realized they could press for more options. For example, did you know that finally under the WiFi symbol you can actually change networks???

Control AirPods Pro
Three Mode Options

Anyway, after you hold on the AirPods Pro icon, you get the full-sized volume slider and three buttons for Noise Cancellation, Off, and Transparency modes. I was able to control the modes with these three buttons and I was able to confirm that pressing the fake button on the AirPods Pro was only toggling between Noise Cancellation and Transparency.

This method made me remember that there is a way to control the behavior of AirPods of all flavors. On regular AirPods you can tap, double-tap, and even triple-tap anywhere on them to get them to do your bidding and also to fall out of your ears. But to control what happens on the tapping or squeezing of any flavor of AirPod, there’s a trick.

On the iPhone, open Settings and then Bluetooth. If you have your AirPods on and connected, you can see a little “i” in a blue circle to the right of the AirPods’s name. In here you can disconnect or forget the device and also change the name, but you’ll also find the controls for what happens with tapping and squeezing.

We’ll focus on squeezing AirPods Pro today. The official wording is “Press and hold AirPods” and there’s a control for left and right separately. By default, both left and right were set to Noise Control. Tapping through for each ear, you can choose to keep Noise Control or you can change one or both to Siri.

Fit test
Fit Test – Need to Adjust

I looked at the Noise Control settings and by default, both ears were set to only toggle between Noise Cancellation and Transparency, skipping right over the mode called Off. I toggled the Off option back on and I was now able to flip between the three options. Not sure why they disabled that mode.

As a side note, when you flip between the modes, they each make a different sound. I can’t quite describe it but it’s pretty easy to tell which one is which. In this same Setting section, you can change the Noise Control mode, and the only thing I can figure is that it is setting the default for when you put them in.

In this same area to control the behavior of the squeezer, there’s an option to do an Ear Tip Fit Test. The on-screen instructions tell you to put in your AirPods Pro and it will play an audio test that will confirm whether you have the right fit. The first time I ran it, it said my left AirPod was well-fitting, but on the right it said I should either swap out the tip or adjust the AirPod and try again. I wiggled the AirPod a bit in my left ear and made it a bit more comfortable and the test then said I passed the Ear Tip Fit Test.

Bottom Line

I’m not an audiophile, so I can’t actually tell you whether Apple’s claim that their continuous adjustment of noise cancellation at 200 times per second (which isn’t continuously by the way) has an effect on the quality of what I can hear.

If you’ve had trouble getting other Apple headphones to stick in your ears, Apple’s new AirPods Pro might finally allow you to join the cool kids. For $250. If that sounds like an outrageous price to pay, consider that the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear Noise-Cancelling headphones are also $250 and they’re not even Bluetooth.

If you’re on the fence about paying $250 for a pair of headphones that could break in a year or have a bad battery in a year and a half or get dropped into a toilet two days after you buy them, there’s good news. For $29 you can get AppleCare+ on AirPods Pro. This covers normal hardware problems and two incidents of accidental damage for a service fee of $29 for each incident.

Without AppleCare, you get one year of hardware repair coverage, no accidental damage coverage, and 90 days of tech support. I believe in the EU and possibly other places you get a two-year warranty by default so check your local coverage before shelling out the extra money. Personally I buy AppleCare on everything from Apple and I use the daylights out of it!

So far I like the AirPods Pro and I’ll keep wearing them, but I’m not sure they’re as comfortable as regular AirPods for me. I still think they’re a significant upgrade and will make a lot of people with wrong earholes happy.


Breaking News Update

Steve here with an update on how the the AirPods Pro fit in my hard-to-fit ear canals. Allison mentioned that I tried them on earlier for a brief, half-block jog but it wasn’t a sufficient test to really see if they would stay in my ears during a full run. So today I tried wearing Allison’s AirPods Pro for my full 5-mile run at the beach. I have to say I’m impressed! AirPods Pro are the first earbuds I’ve worn that have stayed in my ears throughout an entire workout. I didn’t even have to make an adjustment part-way though my run to ensure they stayed in my ears. I did have to get used to the pause/play and skip forward/backward presses on the AirPods Pro stem (I don’t like using Siri on my run) but that didn’t take but a few attempts before I got it down. Even though I used the full Noise Cancellation feature during my run, I could still hear enough exterior noise to avoid other runners and bikers coming up from behind to feel safe.

Allison and I also did a quick sound quality comparison between the AirPods Pro and the PowerBeats Pro. We paired my iPhone with both the AirPods Pro and PowerBeats Pro at the same time. Then we both put one AirPods Pro earbud and one PowerBeats Pro earbud in each of our ears. I was able to individually lower and raise the volume of each set to compare the sound quality that each offered in our left and right ears while we listened to the same song. The bottom line is that although the PowerBeats Pro deliver great sound quality, the AirPods Pro was slightly better – a little richer in sound.

I have to give it to Apple. I think they actually listened to those people with hard-to-fit ears and made a product that solved our problem, albeit for a relatively steep price.

1 thought on “AirPods Pro – Worthy Upgrade from AirPods 2?

  1. Kenny Lee - November 3, 2019

    Excellent review. If anything, you reinforced my decision NOT to purchase a pair. I’m quite happy with my second pair of AirPods. The first set still works, but the battery (after 3 years) is starting to go south, and I don’t get anything close to five hours on them anymore. The sound quality is good enough. I use them mostly to listen to podcasts while exercising, so I don’t need an audiophile experience and since exercise usually means being in the streets, I don’t want to be oblivious to my surroundings. I think $250 seems expensive for something that has a limited shelf life and cannot be repaired. But to each their own, and I’m sure there will be a market for these new AirPods pros. Not for this cowboy, though.

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