AirPods Pro Review: Insanely Great but not Insanely Simple
The best truly wireless buds. Period.
Some say there are two kinds of earphone users in the world – those who hate true wireless earphones and those who have used the AirPods. About three years ago, Apple changed the way many of us listened to audio from our devices by introducing “truly wireless earphones,” the AirPods. Although they divided experts (in best Apple tradition), with some calling them brilliant and others bull***t, they were a big hit with consumers, selling by the millions and by some estimates being the Apple product that was out of stock more often than not. Apple refreshed them mildly in early 2019, adding wireless charging to the mix and a few minor audio tweaks but largely steered clear of tampering with such a winning formula.
No such caution was exercised with the AirPods Pro, though.
The first AirPods with the Pro tag are very very unlike their predecessors. Which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how much you liked those worthies.
AirPods Pro Review: NOT EarPods Wireless
The fact that these AirPods are a different kettle of audio fish becomes evident from the moment you see them. They no longer can be called “EarPods without the wires” as their predecessors were labeled. They are smaller and have a curved stem as compared to the straight ones on earlier AirPods, with a tiny touch panel on the outside of each bud (“force sensor” in Applespeak). They look and feel premium enough, although their smaller size (1.22 inches each as against 1.59 inches) means they will not attract the sort of attention previous AirPods did (again, that’s good or bad, depending on your inclination to publicize what’s in your ear). There is no discernible change in weight (5.4 grams as against 4), and although the charging case has become wider, and has lost that “floss case” feel, at 45.6 grams, it is still light enough. It is a little lumpier in the pocket but is still very portable. And before you ask, you can have them in any color, as long as it is white.
And, praise be, they finally come with adjustable ear tips and dust and water resistance (they have an IPX4 rating and are suitable for “non-water sports and exercise). The AirPods Pro come with the middle size ear tips installed out of the box, and there are two other sizes available as well, which means that we finally have a pair of AirPods that will not fall out our ears easily (we wore them during a few workouts and they stayed put). And just to make sure that you have got the right tips on, there’s a snazzy ear tip fit test, which will tell you if the ear tips you have chosen, fit your ears for optimal sound. Ours fit right away, but we know at least one colleague who was told to wear the large size in one ear and a medium one in another. Evidently, this magic is done by a pair of microphones in the AirPods Pro, which point inwards into your ears. There are a pair of them that point outwards too. Which of course, takes us to the little matter of noise cancellation.
There is a minus point to the ear tips though. As they go right into your ear canal, they often come out with just a hint of earwax on them. And if you transfer them straight to their case (as most of us do), this gets on the pristine white case as well. The solution is to keep cleaning the earbuds every time you take them out of your ear and before you place them in the case, something which was not needed in previous versions, as they did not go that deep in our ears.
AirPods Pro: Enter ANC, with Transparency Mode as Well
In terms of sheer hardware, the biggest change in the AirPods Pro is the presence of active noise cancellation or ANC. In simple terms, this basically means that the earbuds comes with a set of microphones that transmit waves that cancel out the noise that gets past them, allowing you to hear only the audio that comes through the earbuds. Apple has, however, put a spin on this, and has two sets of microphones, one for canceling noise from outside, and one which it claims also cancels noise that is inside your ear – it is this second pair of microphones that helps in figuring out whether you have the right fit of ear tips on. Noise cancellation is evidently continuously adjusted “200 times per second” to ensure that you get a truly immersive experience – just some of the heavy lifting being done by the H1 chip.
And well, it works. When it comes to keeping noise at bay, we have to say that the AirPods Pro are the best earbuds we have used, wired or otherwise (there, we said it). The snug-fitting buds anyway keep a lot of external noise out, but putting the AirPods Pro on for the first time is a bit like almost hearing noise vanish in a decently crowded area (we tried them at Starbucks). We have used them in a Metro and in a bus and in general, the quality of noise cancellation is very good and close to what we get from over-ear headphones from the likes of Sony and Bose.
There is another side to ANC on the AirPods, though – the transparency mode (which we discussed earlier). While most earphones with ANC simply have the option to switch ANC on and off, the AirPods Pro have a middle ground called Transparency mode, where the external microphones are switched off, but the internal ones remain on, allowing you to hear external sounds more clearly than you otherwise would by merely switching off ANC altogether. It is a neat touch, and it actually works – we found ourselves being able to hear external sounds much better in Transparency mode, and we think it is a very good tool for those times when you want to hear someone in a crowded area. We actually switched to it to listen to commentary in a football match being shown on a television in a cafe and were surprised at how we were able to hear much better than we would have without the AirPods on!
AirPods Pro: Sound gets better, the battery stays the same, but calling takes a hit
The audio quality of the AirPods has been rather underestimated. They have never been audiophile-level earphones, but neither have they been as mediocre as some have made them out to be. The AirPods Pro continue this tradition, even though the overall sound quality gets a very significant boost. Their audio is remarkable for its sheer clarity and the volume is very good as well. The sound is generally well-balanced, although a bit on the warmer (bass-friendly) side, so those seeking exaggerated highs or lows are going to feel a little disappointed – you are not going to get rumbling bass or tinkling trebles here. Apple claims that the AirPods Pro try to equalize the audio they deliver based on the shape of the users’ ears – Adaptive Equalizer, to use Apple’s term for it. Judging by what we have heard from our colleagues, everyone seems to have had a broadly similar experience – something which is generally not the case.
These are earphones that have a much more balanced signature sound, and we think that makes them great for casual music listening. The effective ANC also means that you do not need to crank up the volume as high you needed to in their predecessors, as ambient noise gets very effectively killed. All in all, sound quality is a clear level above its predecessors and the difference is much greater than the one between the first and second-generation AirPods. No, we are not going to give up listening on our bigger headphones (such as the Bose QC 35 or even the more budget-friendly Sennheiser HD 4.5) just because of these, but suffice to say, we will not be reaching out for them quite as often.
The battery life of the AirPods Pro is very much on par with what we saw in earlier additions – about four hours if you keep the volume maxed out (please do not – even 75 percent is loud enough, really) and five hours at relatively lower ones. The case supports wireless charging (and there is no other option), although you would have to invest in a wireless charger for the same. Apple claims battery life with ANC is about four and a half hours and well, at about 75 percent volume, we did keep coming close to that point. The case is enough to provide you about 24 hours of battery life, and while this is kind of difficult to figure out (you keep placing the AirPods back in the case, which is also a carrying case, so you cannot really figure out how much has been charged), but by and large we found we could get through a week by charging the case about once or at the most twice if we really went into hectic listening sessions. It still charges off a lightning port and five minutes of charging will give you about an hour’s listening time. All of which is very decent for truly wireless earphones, where any battery life in the region of five hours is considered respectable.
However, call quality in itself is a casualty. Is it because of the shorter stems with no microphones at the tips? We can only speculate, but what we can say for sure is that a number of people felt that we sounded a lot clearer on their phones when calling through the earlier AirPods than their Pro avatars. No, it is not as if call quality on the AirPods Pro is bad. We actually think it is amongst the best in truly wireless earphones, but it seems a notch below those that came before it.
AirPods Pro: Losing that simple feeling
It is not very often that one says this about an Apple product, but we are going to say it – the AirPods Pro are slightly complicated to use. One of the greatest strengths of the original AirPods was just how easy they were to use. Pairing with an iPhone was as easy as popping the lid open and pressing the button on the case, and taking and receiving calls, or pausing, resuming and skipping tracks was as easy as tapping on the buds. Well, the pairing process remains as easy as ever. But beyond that things get a little complex.
And in our opinion, this is because now instead of simply tapping a bud, you now have to press the tiny Force Sensor touch panel for the same functions (and a long press to switch between ANC and transparency mode and vice versa). A tiny click (heard only on the buds) lets you know when you have pressed the panel. It is sounds simples enough on paper, but using it is way more complicated than just tapping on the buds in the past. What was essentially a single finger tap has now been transformed into a two-finger move, with one finger supporting the back of the stem and the other pressing the Force Sensor. It is not exactly as intuitive as tapping and is a more elaborate gesture that does not come to one as effortlessly as the good old tapping does. What’s more, it took us a bit of time to get used to finding the Force Sensor on the buds. Yes, we ultimately got the hang of it, but wait, an Apple product with a “get used to it” effect?
AirPods Pro Review: A big step forward – feature and price wise!
The AirPods Pro represent the first really big upgrade in the history of the AirPods. The Pro avatars attempted to address the shortcomings of their predecessors and with the introduction of features like ANC, tips, sweat resistance, and a neat few touches, we can safely say they have managed to do so.
However, these changes have not come without their casualties, and perhaps the greatest of these is the simplicity and utter ease of use that had put the AirPods in a league of their own. We have been using the AirPods Pro for a month now, and yet when it comes to taking a call, we must confess that we still reach out for the older AirPods – they just seem much easier to use. That said, what cannot be denied is that the new AirPods open the door to being used for some serious music listening – the sound quality is very good and reasonably balanced – and thanks to the better stability provided by the ear tips, they are now much more reliable strolling and working out companions. One can say, the Pros are more music-oriented than function-oriented.
They are also more expensive – the AirPods Pro come with a price tag of Rs 24,990, as compared to the Rs 18,990 that the AirPods with wireless charging case command right now, and the Rs 14,990 that they cost with the standard case. Some would say that it puts them right at the top of the true wireless earbuds price charts, and even within striking range of high-end headphones from Bose and Sony. But then, that is not the audience the AirPods Pro is targeted at. The AirPods have always been about convenience – sheer ease of use. Their Pro edition does compromise on this feature, but the addition of ANC and the considerable improvement in audio quality makes them an option for those who want better sound quality without wires.
With the earlier edition of the AirPods, we often found ourselves reaching out for our more mainstream, heavy listening audio equipment when we wanted a more immersive experience. The AirPods, on the other hand, were our all day, everyday companions for more “regular” tasks like calls and casual listening. You could put them in your ears and forget them. But with the introduction of ANC and considerably improved sound quality, the AirPods Pro comfortably hit a middle ground where one can use for either purpose.
No, they are not good enough to make you give up your Bose QC 35 series or the Sony WH-1000 series altogether, but they are good enough for you not to miss those worthies as much. You can slip these into your pocket and be assured of a very good audio experience, which definitely does tick the one box that the earlier AirPods missed out on. Audiophiles will turn their noses up at the idea, but most casual listeners will appreciate the boost in audio quality, as well as the addition of ear tips and sweat resistance.
And well, when you consider that two of its closest rivals, the Bose SoundSport Free (Rs 18,990) and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless (24,990) also come with premium price tags and no ANC or wireless charging, the AirPods Pro do not seem THAT crazy a proposition. Sony’s WF-1000X truly wireless earbuds did offer noise canceling at a lower price (Rs 14,990) but they had their own issues, and at the time of writing, do not seem to be available in many stores. What’s more, the interfaces of most of the competition are STILL nowhere as good as the ones on the AirPods Pro (even when it has got more complex). Yes, there has been an influx of relatively low priced truly wireless earbuds of late, meaning you can get on the truly wireless buds bus for as little as Rs 3,000, but the gulf in quality between them and their higher-end counterparts, especially in terms of build and sound quality, is rather big at the moment. We would, in fact, consider the AirPods to be the biggest rivals of the AirPods Pro (especially if you have a pair of headphones for more “serious” listening), providing better call quality and ease of use, although losing out on the snug fit and ANC.
But if you are looking for the best audio experience in a truly wireless earbud world, then the AirPods Pro are easily your best option. Sure, they are expensive and more complex than before, but they just work. And now they sound very good as well. And heck, they do not fall out of ears.
- More snug fit, thanks to eartips
- Very good ANC (transparency mode is a bonus)
- Improved sound quality
- Slightly more complicated interface
- Call quality not as good as on earlier AirPods
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They represent the biggest overhaul in terms of design and functionality that the AirPods have gone through. But they have got a Pro moniker too. But can the AirPods Pro recreate - and even enhance - the magic of the original AirPods?