Apple's AirPods have been a wild success story – they've been one of the hottest Christmas gifts for a few years running, and you see them in people's ears all down any busy street – but the world of true wireless earbuds has moved on, and it's time for a follow-up. Welcome to our Apple AirPods Pro review.
What does it mean for these to be "Pro" – Apple's favourite buzz word – compared to the originals? The headline news is that in most ways the AirPods Pro are much better specced than the more basic – and, to be fair, £100/$100 cheaper – AirPods. The Pros give you a proper in-ear fit, gym-friendly sweat and water resistance (IPX4), and a wireless charging case as standard. They are also full-on noise-cancelling headphones, taking on a small band of in-ear rivals such as Sony's chunkier WF-1000XM3
There are also clever additions such as a test to see if the AirPods Pro are fitted properly in your ears; adaptive sound that optimises audio based on your ears' construction; and a new touch-based control system, replacing the taps you had to use on the original. There's also all the usual Apple (and Beats by Dre) iPhone-specific features, such as ultra-quick pairing and hands-free Siri access.
Among all these very pleasing features, one fundamental of the original AirPods has been lost. Because of the way they go deeper into your ears, these Pro buds are less easy to just leave in your lugs and still interact with people and the world at large. However, a Transparency Mode does allow you to let sound get through, so perhaps die-hard, all-day AirPods users won't be put off…
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AirPods Pro review: price and release date
AirPods Pro cost £249/$249, which is a notable premium over the £159/$159 you'll pay for the cheapest set of basic AirPods, but isn't a big leap from the £199/$199 AirPods with wireless charging case, given all the extra features.
The AirPods Pro, as noted, come with wireless charging as standard, so to get all the extra features for just £50 seems like a no-brainer to us.
Like the regular AirPods, the AirPods Pro only come in white. More colours – said to match the new iPhone 11 Pro colours – were rumoured, and we'd really like to see people have the chance to choose something that's more their style, but for now it's any colour you like, so long as it's white.
Apple AirPods Pro review: battery life
With noise cancelling on, the AirPods Pro are rated for a slightly lower battery life than standard AirPods, at 4.5 hours per charge compared to 5 hours per charge. Turn the noise cancelling off and Apple says you should get 5 hours again.
Depending on how you look at it, that means either the ANC is impressively efficient, or the benefit of turning it off is weirdly negligible. Beats by Dr Dre's recent Solo Pro, by contrast, gains an extra 10 hours of life if you turn the noise cancelling off.
We come down on the side of turning it off being kinda pointless – even if you want to hear outside noises, the Transparency Mode is a clearer option than turning NC off, which just tends to mean you get some unclear muddy background sounds creeping in.
In our experience, listening with NC comes reliably close to that 4.5-hour claim. Charging is rapid from the case – the ability to get an hour of use from 5 minutes in the case is really handy, though not unusual for other true wireless headphones.
The charging case is rated to give you 24 hours of total use time, as with regular AirPods. It comes with a wired Lightning-to-USB-C cable for charging, as well as wireless support.
We found that on one of our wireless chargers, it needed to be positioned slightly unintuitively to get any juice, in a way we haven't experienced with other devices on there. It was fine with all other chargers, but if you have similar issues, just give its positioning a fiddle.
Apple AirPods Pro review: fit, design and features
The case for the AirPods Pro is chunkier than the original, so they won't slip in absolutely any pocket quite so easily, but the difference is less than you might expect, and it's still thinner than lots of its rivals' cases, crucially, so there's less of a bulge.
Part of the size difference is down to the AirPods Pro having tips that go properly into your ears, unlike the earlier version, which just sat on the edge of the ear canal. This gives the AirPods Pro an even more secure fit, and we've been unable to dislodge them in anything resembling normal use, including various forms of exercise.
More importantly, this improved fit also creates a much better sound seal – the classic AirPods let in a lot of outside sound.
For those who value audio quality, this is great news. For the many casual users of AirPods, it does lose the ability to wear them for prolonged periods without being cut off from the world. However, for these people, there is a high-tech workaround in the form of Transparency Mode, which allows you to pass through sounds around you via the AirPods Pro's microphones.
Multiple tips are provided, but Apple makes it easier than usual to figure out which you need to go for: you can take an 'ear fit test', which play sound over the drivers, and again uses the built in mics to detect whether there's any leakage – which would mean you don't have a good fit. You can then change the tip size to see what works best. It just gives you a tick for each ear, to say whether you're good to go, or not.
Apple says its silicon tips have been specially designed to be extra comfortable for wearing without feeling like there's something weighing on your ear. They are really, really comfortable, but not a revolution in this sense. You can definitely wear them for a long time, but that's true of lots of other great headphones.
They are a little fiddlier to get into place with the right seal though – not harder than other headphones that focus on a proper fit, but there's just a tad more work needed than regular AirPods. You get used to it very quickly.
Apple's also shortened the length of the arms that poke out of your ear, so they look less ostentatious. We've already spoken to a lot of people who wouldn't touch the original, but who feel swayed by these.
Apple uses an air vent to equalise pressure in your ear with the outside world, which makes a bit of a difference – you don't get as much of the sense of your voice feeling weirdly boomy as you do with other headphones.
Pairing with an iOS device is as rapid and pain-free as you’d expect. Siri works as well as Siri, uh, usually works – it had a bit of trouble picking "Hey Siri" properly when we were standing by a busy road and trying to say it kinda subtly, but if we spoke up, it worked, and had no problems understanding our requests.
In less noisy environments, we had no problems at all with it responding to our summons.
The 'Announce Messages' feature is an interesting addition that's also available on second-generation basic AirPods (ie, if you bought a pair since March). It means that when you get a text, it will lower your music and Siri will pipe up, saying who you have a message from, which it will then read.
It reads pretty quick – in some ways, it's not perfectly suited to the casual way people chat in text, because if there's not enough punctuation, it will just barrel on through the words at a hell of a pace. But we've left the feature on – it's useful for shorter text especially, and Siri will keep listening after reading the text, so you can tell it how to respond.
You can specify whether Announce Messages should work for all your texts that come in, or just those from Favourites, which stops it interrupting you too often if you're super-popular.
One small thing: this feature didn't work for us at first, for no obvious reason. Then, after a short time, it was working perfectly. We're not sure what changed.
All told, AirPods Pro are well designed and feature-packed, as you’d expect from Apple.
Apple AirPods Pro review: sound quality
If you've tried Apple AirPods, you'll know the kind of sound profile to expect: very well balanced, but absolutely not skimping on the bass. They have a pretty neutral presentation all things considered, and that's possibly helped by the adaptive EQ (see below).
However, that's not to say to the sound is the same as original AirPods – there's a distinct step up here. Original AirPods sound great in a quiet room when you're not moving, but finer detail is easily overpowered by external sounds due to their loose fit. Here, you really get the full effect, thanks to both better noise isolation – due to the fit – as well as the electronic active noise cancellation.
As on Apple's HomePod speakers, a 'high-excursion' driver is used. This vibrates further and shifts more air than your average driver of the same size, for bigger impact.
Similar to more recent Beats headphones, the result is plenty of bottom end, but without being obnoxiously bass-heavy. Certainly if you're used to the buds that came with your phone, or even the original AirPods, the AirPods Pro will sound very full and rich indeed – like 'proper' headphones should. It's not like stepping up to a super-high-end set of cans, but it is every bit as good enough to justify the AirPods Pro's price.
Apple has placed a mic on the inside of the AirPods to detect how the shape of your ear canal affects the music, and adapt the sound so you should hear something that's more true to the original sounds. It calls this 'adaptive EQ'. There's no way to say how big a difference this makes, really although certainly, everything sounds impressively detailed.
The AirPods Pro do a really impressive job of letting every part of a track break through. That's especially true when you have noise cancelling on, as it makes everything feel brighter, since it's not competing with background sound.
High-end, mids and bass don't blur into each other, and every instrument feels like it is presented clearly. It's not a hi-fi revelation in terms of quality, but it's right up there with the best in this price range.
Apple AirPods Pro review: noise cancelling
As well as noise isolation from the ear tips, AirPods Pro has active noise cancellation as well. The further good news is that Apple's ANC is really good; it cuts back city-centre traffic to barely a murmur in the background, and the rumble of being on the Tube is almost gone, with a just few higher-pitched noises slipping though (as is often the case with active noise cancellation).
It's not as good as the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM3 or Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, but that is to be expected. The Sony in particular has the magical (well, maybe it's scientific) ability to cancel out even major roadworks more or less totally, but passing roadworks with the AirPods Pro lets a bit more noise in.
AirPods Pro still turn that din from overwhelming to just a quiet disturbance you wouldn't notice, and they cut almost everything out in an office environment. Sony's noise-cancelling true wireless buds – WF-100XM3 – do a similarly good job on the ground, but struggle with aeroplane noise, and we suspect AirPods Pro will prove to be the same (we've not flown with them yet). In short, the only headphones that beat AirPods Pro for noise cancelling are over ears – more expensive and far more bulky.
Most noise-cancelling headphones these days will come with a transparency mode, to let in outside noise. The AirPods Pro are no different, and you can switch between Noise Cancellation mode and Transparency Mode by squeezing one of the AirPods Pro's protruding arms for a moment. You can also use this squeeze to pause or skip tracks, and can make it invoke Siri by changing an option in your iPhone's settings.
The squeezing is a bit odd – it took us a few goes to get the knack – but works pretty well and doesn't disturb the fit, importantly. It even works through gloves. You don't need to squeeze hard – it's just a gentle pinch. You'll hear a small click sound to indicate that it's worked.
You can also turn on (or off) Transparency Mode via the iOS Control Panel – tap and hold on the volume control to see a switch, including the ability to turn all noise cancellation modes off (you can also set the squeeze to turn all noise cancellation off if you prefer).
The Transparency Mode it self is very effective at letting through voice and similar noises – like on other devices, it actually amplifies them, so they can cut through your music, even with the volume up. If you want to hear someone talk, it actually makes things clearer than if you just turn noise-cancelling off.
We actually find it a little too transparent at times. The likes of the Sony WH-1000XM3 have different transparent modes for different situations, so an office mode focuses only on voices, while city mode lets through a wider range of traffic sounds. Other devices just let you move a slider to decide how transparent you want it to be.
There's only one setting here, and our only complaint about the whole noise cancellation system is that we'd like to be able to adjust that. It seems a little unnecessary to be able to hear someone's chair click as it reclines in an office, even if you do get the advantage of the air con and distant chat being drowned out.
We know that a lot of people actually like that classic AirPods let in outside sound, because it means they can have them in all the time but not be cut off. Transparency Mode is obviously a good option for them to do something similar, but because it makes a point of emphasising the noises, it's not quite a 1:1 replacement if you used the original AirPods that way.
Apple AirPods Pro review: verdict
AirPods are hugely popular, but with the AirPods Pro, Apple's made something that is very similar in terms of design and ease of use, but way better when it comes to sound quality. AirPods Pro fix a lot of the issues that put more 'serious' music listeners off regular AirPods, such as the leaky sound, out-of-ear fit and 'iconic' protruding arms. It's then thrown in better drivers and noise cancelling, and the result sounds just fantastic.
One negative note to strike is that, while AirPods Pro work fine with Android, there's no doubt the experience is better on iOS, with a fuller range of features. But then what did you expect?
We also slightly wonder if some users of original AirPods will be put off by the way these seal out the outside world. Transparency Mode does address this to an extent though.
That aside, if you want brilliant-sounding headphones with the slickest possible experience on your iPhone, AirPods Pro are a slam dunk. With their improved fit and sweat-proofing, they're even proficient headphones for workouts.
You can definitely find buds that do individual things better than AirPods Pro, but as an all-rounder that doesn't compromise in any area, they're fantastic.