(Pocket-lint) - Whether you agree with the polarising design or not, Apple's AirPods became an overnight phenomenon back in 2017. Since then those in-ear wireless buds have gone on to become the number one sellers in the world – and you only have to head to any city street to see how many people are wearing a pair.
Following the launch of a tweaked second-gen AirPods earlier in 2019, Apple has deemed the headphone popular enough to expand the range with the AirPods Pro. But this isn't just about offering tweaks; no, it's a completely redesigned experience, adding active noise-cancellation (ANC) and more.
But with so many in-ear headphone choices on the market, do the AirPods Pro offer a decent package or are you better off going with Bose, Sony, or a myriad of other options? We've be wearing them since launch.
A pro design
- Each bud: Measures 30.9 x 21.8 x 24mm maximum / Weighs 5.4g
- Wireless charging case included (45.2 x 60.6 21.7mm / 45.6g)
There are two elements to the AirPods Pro that you need to worry about: in the ear and in the pocket.
The carry case, which doubles as the charging case, is shorter in height but wider in design than the one you'll find with the original AirPods. It's still very much just as pocketable, in fact one of the most pocketable in-ear headphones cases on the market, and comes in a gloss white finish. It's also included as standard.
The AirPods Pro headphones slot into the case and instantly drawn in by magnets and start charging immediately. Charging can be done via a Lightning cable or by putting the case on a wireless charging pad, even the newer MagSafe charging pucks.
The Pro design is considerably different to the AirPods. The most noticeable difference is the inclusion of silicone tips to improve the fit or 'seal', while the thin rod that hangs out of your ear isn't especially long. This short length will certainly appeal to those who thought the originals' design just looked odd.
Finding your fit
- Three silicone tip sizes; small, medium, large
- Vent system for pressure equalization
- Ear Tip Fit test via iOS 13.2
- Uses Apple H1 chip
Connecting the AirPods Pro for the first time is incredibly simple. You simply open the case near your iPhone (running iOS 13.2) and press 'connect' on the screen. It's as simple as that thanks to the use of Apple H1 chip – as also found in the AirPods and Beats Powerbeats Pro.
Unlike AirPods, the Pro requires a secondary step, which involves running an Ear Tip Fit Test. Using both the internal and external microphones within the headphones, iOS 13.2 analyses the sound and tweaks its profile to sound better for you.
The process, which involves playing some music, takes about five seconds. It's during this time that it will determine whether you've got a good fit, and if not recommend you change the silicone tip to another size – there is a small, medium, and large options included. For us the medium worked perfectly and we were up and running with a minute.
The silicone tips feel a little tight in the ear – more so than the standard AirPods, but not that they're uncomfortable – so Apple has included air vents to try and reduce potential pressure and isolation build up. It calls this a "vent system for pressure equalization", and in all the time we've been wearing them they've been fine. It doesn't hurt wearing them for a long period of time, and if you have concerns over whether or not they would be as easy to put in and out as the standard AirPods, they aren't.
Active Noise Cancelling (ANC)
- Internal and external microphones actively listen for noise changes
- Adaptive EQ and Transparency Mode
One of the main features of the AirPod Pro is ANC, or active noise-cancelling technology. This uses the in-built microphones to check the ambient noise around you over 200 times a second and react accordingly, dumbing down external sound. This is the same process as other noise-cancelling headphones, designed to negate wind tear and other real-time sounds around you as best as possible.
You can also dial-down the feature if you want to hear more around you – a feature called Transparency – which allows you to hear people talking, given the frequency cut-off. This is all controlled via a squeeze of the AirPods Pro, via your iPhone volume control settings, or using the Apple Watch.
We've used them on the London Underground, the train, by the sea side, cutting the grass, and on a plane, and in all cases the Pro earbuds cut out the majority of the noise. Classical music fans will no doubt love the Pros, as will those that want to really immerse themselves in the music.
Switching between the two modes with that squeeze will take a little getting used to, as there's a specific indented area where you need to squeeze. Precision is key; as is speed: do it too quickly and you'll stop the track. It's yet another new control mechanism that you've got to learn. Overtime it has become second nature.
Another interesting side effect is wearing the AirPods Pro while talking. Because of the microphones both internally and externally that are trying to cancel the noise, your own voice is amplified when in Transparency mode. The best way to describe it is akin to speaking into a microphone while wearing headphones to hear yourself. You don't get that experience when you're on a call with ANC on, although the silence is somewhat alien if you're used to hearing lots of noise around you all the time when on a call, and if the environment you are in is loud, we've found your voice is cancelled out, according to the person at the other end. Our advice is not to use ANC when talking to people on the phone.
Music sounds better with you
- 5 hours battery life / 4.5 hours with ANC enabled
- Custom high dynamic range amplifier
- Custom high-excursion Apple driver
We've tested the new AirPods Pro with a range of music, from dance tracks from Ministry of Sound, to the Interstellar soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, and everything inbetween from Pink Floyd to Billie Eilish.
What is clear is that the AirPods Pro are considerably better than the standard AirPods and certainly hold their own compared to the competition.
The originals focus of the AirPods was on ease of use rather than amazing sound quality, whereas the AirPods Pro address that latter point espeically when you factor in support for Apple's Spatial Audio technology that's now rolled out on Apple Music and is available on both the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max and will be coming to more apps and services later this year with iOS 15.
Following the launch we've been listening to a number of tracks in Spatial Audio. Some tracks are clearly enhanced by the new experience, while others are barely noticeable. When you do notice it though, the results are amazing. The best way we can describe it, is that It's a bit like 4K on your TV. Some can see the changes instantly and refuse to watch anything else, while others will be more than happy with the HD footage and wonder what the fuss is about. Apple has big plans for Spatial Audio bringing it to everything from FaceTime calls to games. All that's left is to see whether the industry embraces it and then runs with it. That's where things will really start to get interesting.
The Spatial Audio feature also works with movies and that really sings when connected to an iPad or iPhone, especially when it's been recorded in Dolby Atmos.
But you don't need Spatial Audio to enjoy the AirPods Pros. They work perfect well in standard stereo whether that's listening to music, watching a movie or TV show, or taking a voice call. Sure, the Pro doesn't come as bass-focused as the PowerBeats Pro, for example, but still certainly delivers a decent sound for what they are. For many they will be more than good enough for commuting, especially once you factor in the ANC performance and when available Spatial Audio.
We are incredibly impressed with the ease of setup and quality of sound that the AirPods Pro deliver. Active noise-cancellation makes a huge difference to ambient noise, making these in-ears far more capable than the originals, and Spatial Audio enhances the music experience to the "next level".
The Pro is more comfortable to wear and better sounding than we were expecting from Apple, too, given the previous AirPods experience.
But with Beats offering the Powerbeats Pro for a smidgen less cash, the AirPods Pro isn't the only H1 chip-touting in-ear wireless headphones in town. They will be better if you want to be more "active" or are worried that the AirPods Pro will fall out - they shouldn't but we also know that some people's ears just aren't suited to this type of headphone.
And falling out, or should we say taking out, is one of the big advantages here. Popping them in and out of our ears for the last two years has been easy, and if you make a lot of calls, that's almost worth it on its own.
The ease of use and great sound, make this a great buy.
This article was originally published on 29 October 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status
Beats Powerbeats Pro
Like the sound of active noise-cancellation but want more bass and bigger sound? That's where Beats comes into play, if you're willing to pay the extra for the improved quality.