Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds: loud and clear (review)

Doubling-down on noise cancellation, yet smart enough to let you hear what’s important, the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds change your relationship with the world around you.  

Active noise cancellation was once reserved for bulky over-ear headphones, designed to protect your sanity on long-haul flights, but it has gained mainstream appeal over the last few years. At first its appearance in tiny earbuds seemed a gimmick, but they’ve improved in quality and proven their worth in everyday noisy environments – especially over the last few years as we’ve moved between working at home, in the office and on the road.

One benefit of active noise cancellation in earbuds is that you don’t need to crank up your music as loud to block out the distractions of the world around you. This is certainly better for your hearing and means you’re more likely to hear those important sounds.

The Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds offer a dramatic improvement on both fronts, in part thanks to Apple’s new H2 chip. While outclassing the original Apple AirPods Pro when it comes to active noise cancellation, they also overhaul Transparency mode for those times when you need to hear what’s going on around you.

Review: Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation)

Australian website here
Price $399 RRP
Warranty 1 year
OtherYou can read other GadgetGuy Apple news and reviews here

First impressions

Before you even take the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) out of their charge case, you’ll see a few subtle improvements on their design of their predecessors.

The charge case is a fraction thicker, wider and heavier, but not enough that you’d notice. What you will notice is a tiny lanyard loop, so you’re less likely to lose the case.

Should you still manage to misplace it, the case now features several tiny speaker holes, so it can emit a handy beep when you search for it using Apple’s Find My app. Plus, each earbud can individually play a sound when lost. The U1 chip used in AirTags is now built into the case, although it’s a shame Apple can’t build that handy lanyard loop into its AirTags.

Apple has stuck with the Lightning charge port on the charge case, even as the pressure builds to fully embrace USB-C. The case also works with MagSafe and Apple Watch chargers, as well as Qi wireless charging. The speaker emits a reassuring chime when the case begins charging.

As for the earbuds themselves, the stems are a fraction longer, but again not so much that you’d notice. What is noticeable is the extra black sensor strip on the side of each earbud, which improves its ability to detect when they’re in your ears.

Active noise cancellation isn’t just about software, it still relies on a good fit in your ear. With this in mind, Apple now includes an extra small set of eartips alongside the small, medium (pre-installed) and large eartips. During the set-up you can also test to ensure you’ve got a nice tight seal when they’re in your ears.

Set-up supposedly only requires you to flip open the case alongside your iGadget, with the AirPods inside, at which point your iGadget will automatically recognise them and begin the set-up routine. As with previous AirPods, I’ve found this is still temperamental and it can take a few tries before your Apple device acknowledges the presence of the AirPods. Once it does, you’re good to go.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) specs

Earbud dimensions   each 30.9 × 21.8 × 24.0 mm (H×W×D)
Earbud weight   each 5.3 grams
Case dimensions 45.2 × 60.6 × 21.7 mm (H×W×D)
Case Weight     50.8 grams
Connectivity   Bluetooth 5.3
Music  AAC and SBC
Speech Full-HD AAC-ELD
Battery life  Up to 6 hours of listening time with a single charge (up to 5.5 hours with Spatial Audio and Head Tracking enabled)
Up to 4.5 hours of talk time with a single charge
Battery life with case Up to 30 hours of listening time
Up to 24 hours of talk time7
5 minutes in the case provides around 1 hour of listening or talk time
Charging  Lighting, MagSafe, Apple Watch, Qi wireless
Ruggedness  IPX4 Sweat and water-resistant (earbuds and case)

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) features

While the original AirPods Pro were already pretty slick, Apple has made quite a few improvements which make the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) a worthy successor.

Firstly, the onboard processing from the new H2 chip improves active noise cancellation – Apple claims it’s doubled the effectiveness. The H2 chips also introduces Adaptive Transparency mode which can intelligently adjust the volume of different noises. Apple says it samples audio 48,000 times per second, reducing the volume of harsh noise like siren down to around 85 dB.

The new AirPods Pro also allow you to personalise spatial audio, using your device’s camera to scan your ears. Spatial audio allows artists to mix their music so the sound appears to come from all around, including from above.

As with previous Apple audio gear, spatial audio also supports dynamic head tracking, so the sound shifts as you turn your head to make it appear if it is always coming from the same direction.

This sounds like a gimmick but it’s actually quite effective at creating more immersive audio and a wider soundstage. Apple throws in an Apple Music trial, hoping that you’ll consider spatial audio one reason to stick with it over a rival streaming music service. Apple Music also supports lossless audio, but these Apple earbuds don’t.

When it comes to controlling the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation), you’ll find a new dedicated menu which appears at the top of the Settings menu when they’re connected to your device. Unfortunately this isn’t extended to the previous generation.

Apple has also enhanced the earbuds’ built-in touch-sensitive controls. Now you can stroke your finger up and down the front of either stem to adjust the volume. If this doesn’t suit you, thankfully there’s the option to disable it in the Accessibility menus.

Accessibility features

Speaking of accessibility, the new Apple AirPods Pro inherit enhanced audio features available for people with less than perfect hearing. You need to dip into the menus to enable and adjust them.

Unfortunately, jumping between the various AirPod Pro 2 and Accessibility menus quickly becomes confusing and frustrating – with some options only appearing once you enable options in other menus. Apple really needs to make it all a lot more straightforward for people looking to make the most of the AirPod accessibility features.

Conversation Boost makes it easier to hear voices directly in front of you in a loud environment, while Headphone Accommodations can amplify the frequencies that you struggle with. Live Listen works with an iPhone to pick up sound at a distance, which is handy when listening to a lecturer in a packed auditorium.

From a health and fitness perspective, Apple didn’t deliver on rumours that it would add heart rate and body temperature sensors. This is perhaps to ensure that the Apple faithful still strap an Apple Watch to their wrist.

Quality – Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode

Apple isn’t exaggerating, the active noise cancellation improvement over the 1st gen AirPods Pro is striking. Standing next to a loud exhaust fan on high, the originals significantly reduce the sound of the motor, while the 2nd gen eliminate the sound completely – all you can hear is the sound of rushing air.

It’s a similar improvement when it comes to less predictable background sounds. The originals do a good job of muffling music playing in the room, but the 2nd gen strips out a lot more of the low end so that ambient music also sounds a lot thinner and softer.

The effect on voices is interesting. Even as you crank up the exhaust fan and the active noise cancellation is forced to work harder, the volume of someone talking to you barely changes as the AirPods Pro adjust to the environment.

This isn’t Adaptive Transparency at play, although you can dip into Headphone Accommodations in the Accessibility settings to adjust how much of the background noise gets through and the quality of voices in Transparency mode. This is handy if you want to use the earbuds to combat “pub deafness” so you can hear conversations more clearly in a noisy room. 

Of course, if you want to hear someone clearly, you can also squeeze the tip of an earbud to pause your music. Or squeeze and hold to switch from active noise cancellation to  Transparency mode, which takes advantage of the earbuds’ external microphones to let in the sounds from around you.

Apple has enhanced Transparency mode, so it’s now far less obvious that what you’re hearing has been amplified through the earbuds. What you hear is barely distinguishable from real-world sound, especially if you’re still listening to music. If it’s spatial audio, in Transparency mode you’d swear the music was playing in the room and everyone can hear it.

Adaptive Transparency’s main job is to curb noises which are so loud they could damage your ears. I couldn’t get it to kick in using a hairdryer or a car horn, but standing too close to a Sonos speaker blasting out Nirvana’s Breed at full volume did the trick.

With Kurt Cobain screaming in my face, Adaptive Transparency was enough to take the edge off the volume of the music so it was more comfortable, without impacting too much on sound quality. This could be great if you struggle with the volume at concerts and movies but don’t want to use basic earplugs which ruin the sound. If this sounds like you, another alternative is the impressive passive noise cancellation capability of $50 Loop Earbuds, which also tone down loud noises without muffling the sound quality.

Quality – Audio

When it comes to music quality, the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) follow in the footsteps of the AirPods 3 in significantly beefing up the low end while still delivering crisp, clean sound. It’s a striking improvement, you don’t need to be a music snob to hear the difference.  

For some listeners, the more full-bodied sound will come as a much-welcome improvement over Apple’s traditional balanced yet flat sound. You’ll really appreciate the improvement if your taste in music leans towards tracks with crashy drums and a a fat bass line, but even more nuanced music like jazz gains more depth.

It’s worth mentioning that the new AirPods Pro (2nd generation) use an always-enabled Adaptive EQ feature to constantly optimise the sound based on your ears and what’s happening in the world around you. You can choose from a range of EQ presets in the iOS menus, but you can’t manually tweak the EQ unless it’s in a third-party audio app like Spotify.

When it comes to voice calls, it seems the new AirPods Pro feature the same Full-HD AAC-ELD speech codec introduced with the AirPods 3, delivering a subtle improvement. This was reportedly also to the original AirPods Pros in a software update.

GadgetGuy’s take

With the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation), Apple has taken what was already a slick product and improved it in almost every way.

If you just care about music quality then you’ll appreciate the improved low-end, but much of the new earbuds’ strengths are thanks to the improved processing which goes into features like Transparency mode and the Accessibility options. If you want immersive music wherever you go, but need a little help when it comes to hearing everything else, you’ll love the sound of Apple’s latest AirPods Pro.

Would I buy it?

Yes, if I was sure I would benefit from the active noise cancellation.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds: loud and clear (review)
Dialing up noise cancellation, but making it easier to hear what's important, the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds charge your relationship with the world around you.  
Value for money
Ease of use
Improved active noise cancelling
Improved bass
Onboard volume controls
Enhanced accessibility features
Sticks with Lightning connector
Can't manually adjust the EQ
No Lossless Audio support