Apple’s AirPods have been a runaway success and it’s not uncommon nowadays to spot the familiar white ‘sticks’ hanging out of many a commuter’s ears. According to Apple, the AirPods hold the number one position for wireless earbuds in the market.
Recently, brands including Huawei, Bose and Sony have joined the ‘completely wireless’ noise cancelling earbud bandwagon, however Apple didn’t have a solution, until now. (You can read about Apple’s most recent AirPods with charging case here.)
The new AirPods Pro buds, however, come with Apple’s own flavour of Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) technology, along with several other features and a revamped design.
A bit about Active Noise Cancelling (ANC)
Active Noise Cancelling was made popular with full sized headphones, thanks to the likes of Bose’s QuiteComfort range. With earbuds, especially completely wireless ones, there were a few technical challenges to overcome including battery life, miniaturisation and ergonomics. The technology has finally matured where we can enjoy an amazingly immersive audio experience in a tiny, wire-free and lightweight device.
For Active Noise Cancelling, the AirPod Pros feature two microphones – one on for the inside of your ear, and one for the outside. The outer microphone monitors ambient noise so the ANC system can create ‘anti-noise’ waveforms. This effectively ‘cancels’ out sounds such as airplane engines, air-conditioning fan droning and the like.
The second internal mic monitors what you are hearing and provides another level of noise cancelling to reduce any other unwanted sounds.
The entire system monitors and adjusts itself 200 times a second, so it can keep pace with the changing audio landscape and optimise sound quality.
Then there’s ‘passive’ noise cancelling, which is created by the physical seal the earbuds create by blocking your ear canal from outside sounds.
No longer one size fits all
The AirPods Pro are unlike older AirPods in that they use a flexible silicon rubber tip to seal your ear, rather than a one-size-fits-all plastic bud.
There are three different sizes to choose from. Apple has 3D modelled thousands of inner ears to come up with an optimised shape for the ear tips. There’s also a clever ‘fit test’ that will recommend which sized ear-tip you should use for the best experience. This is nice as it’s sometimes not all that easy to tell how well an earbud fits into your ear, and the noise cancelling can be impacted by a poor fit.
The fit test is as simple as putting the buds in your ears and then listening to a short audio sample. The system will tell you if your left and right buds pass or fail the test. Separate scans for each ear also determine if you need different sized tips for each ear.
Changing tips is straight forward. Just fold the silicon backwards and detach the tip with a firm click. Swap to a new tip and press it back into place. The anchoring is sturdy too so there shouldn’t be any issue of the tips falling off.
AirPod Pros Transparency mode
While Noise Cancelling technology is a great way to immerse yourself in music and audio, it’s not always that beneficial in terms of your situational awareness. You could, for example, step into danger because you didn’t hear an approaching car or miss an important announcement at a train station or airport. When training, you might miss your coach barking instructions at you while to groove away to your favourite tracks.
Apple’s Transparency mode lets you stay aware of the sounds around you by creating a mix of ambient noise and your internal audio, or even a phone call. The effect is quite impressive, and it even makes it easier to focus on voices and sounds in noisy environments than you might without your earbuds.
Transparency mode uses the external mics to pipe sounds into your ear that would otherwise be muffled by the silicon tips. There are also a series of vents that help balance the air pressure inside and outside your ear. Active Noise Cancellation is still enabled, which helps keep the world sounding natural, such as your own voice. Otherwise, when having a conversation with someone, your voice would sound like your fingers are stuck in your ears.
This is an excellent and useful feature, and it can be enabled by either pressing a button on the stalks of either earbud, asking Siri to “enable transparency mode” or selecting it via your iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch.
While it’s a little tricky to see, there are two control buttons, one on each of the AirPods Pro’s stalks. These use a capacitive force sensor so you sort of ‘squeeze’ them to operate. Once pressed, you hear a ‘click’ sound. A single press will play, pause or answer a call. Press twice to skip ahead, press three times to go back. Press and hold to switch between Active Noise Cancelling and Transparency mode.
In use, it takes a few tries to familiarise yourself with the location of the buttons. Thankfully they are recessed so you can feel where they are fairly easily.
Otherwise, the AirPods Pro can be controlled with Siri or via the Control Centre on your iPhone or iPad. Simply ask Siri to play a song, skip a track, call someone, get directions, etc. Open your iPhone’s control centre and press and hold the Volume slider to access to your sound mode settings. It’s all so nicely integrated.
Also, as per the original AirPods, setting up for the first time is incredibly easy on iOS devices. Just hold the case close to your device, open it up, and follow the instructions. Pairing is ultra-fast too.
The AirPod Pros can work with other non-Apple phones and other Bluetooth enabled equipment. Since you can change noise cancelling modes with the capacitive buttons, there’s no need to rely on software or apps to make it all work. Simply press and hold the sync button on the AirPods case and find it via your device’s Bluetooth settings.
Using the AirPods Pro for phone calls is excellent. The ANC embeds you in the conversation and reduces distracting ambient noses. When testing, the overhead AC was quite loud, but this was all but eliminated and I felt like I was transported to a silent room for my call. The mic clarity was sharp and detailed, and there’s now an expanded mesh microphone port that improves call clarity in windy situations.
Music and audio fidelity
At the heart of the AirPods Pro is Apple’s own H1 chip. This also features in the standard AirPods as well as some of the Apple-owned Beats models. The benefits are an extremely low latency and stable wireless connection, along with advanced sound processing, advanced battery management and ‘Hey Siri’ capability.
For audio performance, the H1 chip includes 10 audio cores. Added to this is an Apple designed high-excursion, low distortion driver for bigger bass pushes and detailed mid and high frequency sounds. The custom high-dynamic range amp helps with clarity and the adaptive equaliser tunes the low and mid frequencies to match the shape of your inner ear.
The net result is excellent audio reproduction and bass response. During our limited tests, we experienced a meaty low-end bass punch without any noticeable distortion. Mids and high frequencies are clear and bright, with a warm feel and clearly discernible audio separation for the left and right channels. Audio performance is elevated by the ANC, which adds another dimension of immersion without any noticeable downsides, so you’ll probably want to leave this on all the time.
Something to keep in mind, however, that Apple doesn’t offer ways to fine-tune the sound setup to your liking via a custom equaliser setting, unlike some noise cancelling headphones.
Like the AirPods, the Pros come with a battery-equipped charging chase, which in turn can be powered up wirelessly with a Qi-compatible charge pad, or by Lighting cable.
Charge time includes 5 hours without ANC, 4.5 hours with ANC and 3.5 hours of talk time. When using the case to top them up, the AirPods Pro buds can work for more than 24 hours (according to Apple) when on the go. Also, a 5 minute top up in the case will give the buds about an hour of listening time.
Other features include Audio Sharing, so you can connect to another set of AirPods or AirPods Pros and stream the same music. Just hold the second pair of AirPods next to your phone to get started. Volume can be controlled individually, which is a handy option.
The new ‘Announce Messages with Siri’ feature will have Siri read out your messages through the AirPods Pros. Siri can read messages as soon as they arrive, or after you’ve finished a call.
For sporty types, Apple’s latest buds are sweat and water resistant to the IPX4 standard. Keep in mind that this rating does not include water sports, nor would your buds be OK if you immersed them completely in water. However, for the occasional rain shower or an intense, sweaty workout, they’ll be just fine.
The AirPods Pro takes what is great about Apple’s original AirPods and builds on it. The Noise Cancelling and Transparency modes are invaluable to those who rely on their earbuds for commuting, long-haul travel or spend a lot of time making hands-free calls. Audio and ANC quality is very good too.
The AirPods Pro also addresses previous fit issues, are comfortable, and the shorter stalk looks better in our opinion. The price may seem steep at $399 however they’re on par with the likes of Sony’s WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones, while being better integrated with Apple’s devices.
For more details and specifications, please visit Apple’s AirPods Pro page here.
Value for money
Ease of Use
Active Noise cancellation and a Transparency mode
Solid audio quality including calls
Wireless charging case, sweat and water resistance
Not a lot of control over EQ settings