Forget iPhones, AirPods are Apple’s best hardware in years. And having tweaked the design with the AirPods Gen 2 in March, now Apple is back with AirPods Pro, a complete overhaul of this obscenely popular product. Should you upgrade to the AirPods Pro? Yes. And this is why.
Note: Apple calls its second-generation model ‘AirPods’ but, to avoid confusion, I will refer to them as ‘AirPods 2’ in this guide. The original AirPods are no longer on sale.
Design And Features – Less Polarising, More Useful
AirPods 2 stuck with the love/hate design of the original AirPods, but AirPods Pro shake things up and it’s all for the better.
Shortened stems mean the electric toothbrush-look of previous AirPods has gone and new silicon tips (3 sizes are bundled) provide a more comfortable and secure fit. Apple may not advertise them as gym headphones (officially, Powerbeats Pro take that moniker) though new sweat and water-resistance (IPX4-certified) means they can do the job.
As for the headline change: Apple has integrated active noise cancellation to block out environmental sound (there’s a Transparency mode when you want to let the world in). The shortened stems pack in a pressure sensor so a quick squeeze is all that’s needed to switch modes and, remarkably, Apple has achieved this without a significant size or weight penalty:
- AirPods / AirPods 2 – 40.5 x 16.5 x 18 mm (1.59 x 0.65 x 0.71-inches), 4 g (0.14 oz)
- Charging Case – 44.3 x 21.3 x 53.5 mm (1.74 x 0.84 x 2.11-inches), 38 g (1.34 oz)
- AirPods Pro – 30.9 x 21.8 x 24.0 mm (1.22 x 0.86 x 0.94-inches), 5.4 g (0.19 oz)
- Charging Case – 45.2 x 21.7 x 60.6 mm (1.78 x 0.85 x 2.39-inches), 45.6 g (1.61 oz)
The AirPods Pro are not the first active noise cancellation earphones, but they are certainly the smallest and lightest. Also winning favour is Apple’s decision to make the AirPods Pro case compatible with wireless charging when it was an optional extra on both AirPods 1 and 2.
But AirPods Pro are not perfect. There’s no volume control from the AirPods Pro themselves so you’ll need to reach for your smartphone or ask Siri to turn them up or down. Wired charging is also still by Lightning, frustrating when even iPhones are moving to USB-C. This could be a dealbreaker for Android phone owners, in particular, but existing iPhone users are likely to look past it.
Performance – A Big Step Up, But Cancellation Required
So do the AirPods Pro sound better? Yes, and no. When using Active Noise Cancellation, the AirPods Pro are a big step-up from both the AirPods and AirPods 2. Music is clearer, richer and more rewarding across highs, mids and lows but switch to Transparency Mode and the differences are less obvious.
That said, you’ll want to use noise cancellation by default because Apple has done a top-notch job. Apple has equipped the AirPods Pro with a pair of microphones (one outward-facing and one inward-facing) and they measure and adapt to environmental noise 200 times per second. Sony’s WF-1000XM3 still have the edge, but they’re a lot larger.
As for connectivity, the AirPods Pro use the same ‘H1’ chip as the AirPods 2 (which replaced the W1 chip in the original AirPods). H1 is all about efficiency: with faster pairing, 30% lower latency and device switching is twice as fast.
The H1 chip also brings voice activation so you only need to say “Hey, Siri” to make calls, switch songs, adjust the volume, provide directions, answer questions and more. With the W1 chip in the original AirPods activating Siri required a double-tap on an earphone. Now the only issue is having the confidence to use voice activation in public in the first place.
Battery Life – An Acceptable Compromise
- AirPods Pro – Up to 4.5 hours of listening time with noise cancellation active (on one charge), Up to 5 hours without noise cancellation deactivated
- AirPods / AirPods 2 – Up to 5 hours of listening time (on one charge)
- All models – More than 24 hours of listening time (with Wireless Charging Case)
Yes, AirPods Pro have lost 30 minutes of listening time compared to AirPods when you use noise cancellation but, considering their size, it’s impressive Apple has kept this loss so small. Given the far superior sound quality in this mode, the hit is worth it.
As for charging, five minutes in the case provides drained AirPods Pro with approximately one hour of talk or listening time. Wireless charging the case is a joy, but the choice of a Lightning port for wired feels shortsighted.
Price – The Pro Premium
At first sight, AirPods Pro look expensive but that outlook changes once you factor in its wireless charging case.
- AirPods Pro (incl. Wireless Charging case) – $249.00 (£249)
- AirPods 2 + Wired Charging Case – $159 (£159)
- AirPods 2 + Wireless Charging Case – $199 (£199)
At $50 more, opting for the AirPods Pro is a no-brainer (and Black Friday savings are currently available). The only consideration is for those disinterested in wireless charging as the $90 difference may prove harder to swallow. That said, I’d suggest it’s still worth it – particularly for iPhone owners.
AirPods Pro do everything well and this makes for a superbly well-rounded product. Interestingly, I wouldn’t say AirPods Pro win any one category (Sound quality, noise cancellation – Sony WF-1000XM3; Design, fit, battery life, durability – PowerBeats Pro; Value – Samsung Galaxy Buds) but every rival that beats them has at least one major drawback (Bulk – WF-1000XM3; Ridiculous case – PowerBeats Pro; lack of active noise cancellation – Galaxy Buds).
As such, AirPods Pro combine a series of highly placed finishes to take the top spot overall. AirPods may have polarised users, but their success is undeniable and with AirPods Pro Apple has raised the bar again.
Follow Gordon on Facebook
More On Forbes