Redesigned inside but not out, the new AirPods Pro are destined to be another hit — even if the magic is waning
There are two main reactions to Apple’s second-generation AirPods Pro, which will be available September 23rd for the same $249 as the original pair released in 2019.
The first is “that’s it?” Apple has left the overall design and in-ear fit practically unchanged. The new AirPods Pro look identical to their predecessors. Despite arriving nearly three years after the first model, there’s been no major revamp. No shortened or eliminated stems. No new color choices. From a side view of your head, these are the same AirPods Pro as ever. It’s easy to be underwhelmed.
Rather than reinvent its wireless earbuds, Apple focused on improving everything about the formula that’s already proven massively successful. The second-gen AirPods Pro sound better. Their active noise cancellation is noticeably improved. You can now adjust the volume directly from the earbuds. And the charging case has gained a built-in speaker and pinpoint location tracking that makes it easier to find. Battery life is also slightly longer than before. For legions of loyal Apple customers, these changes are exciting — even if the outer design is old hat. So the second reaction has been along the lines of “these are what I’ve been waiting for.”
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But the second-generation AirPods Pro are contending with fiercer competition than ever before. Over the last few months alone, we’ve seen excellent earbuds released by Samsung and Google. Sony’s still in the mix with the WF-1000XM4s and newer products like the LinkBuds S. Sennheiser’s recent Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds demonstrate superb sound quality. To some extent, Apple’s rivals have managed to successfully replicate what felt so “magical” about the AirPods several years ago.
Features like one-tap pairing, spatial audio with head tracking, and hands-free voice controls are now common across the industry. And right out of the gate, Apple’s improved noise cancellation performance has already been surpassed by Bose, which announced its QuietComfort Earbuds II on the very same day as Apple’s September event. If that’s not a sign of how contentious this market has become, I don’t know what is. The takeaway is that Apple doesn’t have it nearly as easy this time around as it did in 2019, when many tech players were (somehow) still finding their footing with true wireless earbuds.
These new AirPods Pro don’t add any major software tricks to Apple’s repertoire. Again, the priority was to improve on what was already there: the transparency mode now automatically dampens loud noises like emergency sirens or a screeching subway car. And personalized spatial audio (not exclusive to these AirPods, mind you) can fine-tune the audio profile based on your own unique ear shape for a more immersive experience.
But rumors about Apple making a leap to lossless or high-resolution wireless audio were unfounded. The AirPods Pro stick to the tried and true AAC codec over standard Bluetooth 5.3. I doubt many buyers will care about that aspect. If Apple does have higher-quality audio in the works, it makes sense to introduce such a luxury with the next AirPods Max.
There are a few outward differences between the first- and second-generation AirPods Pro, but they’re very subtle. Some of the mics and sensors have been repositioned, and one of the microphone inlets is now concave. Without the case at hand, that little indented grille is the only telltale sign that you’re holding the 2022 earbuds. The AirPods Pro also now feature the same skin detection sensor as the third-gen AirPods, allowing for more accurate auto-pause when you remove a bud from either ear.
Apple includes four sets of ear tips in the box this time: the new fourth option is an extra-small size. I’m a large tips person myself, but a friend who modeled the AirPods Pro for my photos mentioned that the XS tips did feel more comfortable than the small size from the previous Pros that she uses. Extra tips aside, everything about the way these AirPods Pro fit in your ears is the same as before, so you know what you’re in for. If you liked the original Pros, these will be no different. If not, maybe you’d be better off with the open-ear regular AirPods. The AirPods Pro still include ventilation to reduce any stuffy ear pressure buildup.
The ear tips between the two models are largely identical, though the ear gunk filters on the new ones are slightly different. I’m here to give you those nerdy details, friends. Does it make any difference? Who knows, but Apple seemingly doesn’t consider the ear tips cross-compatible. Even though first-gen tips latch onto the newer AirPods Pro without issue, second-gen replacement tips are sold separately. But if you purchased aftermarket foam tips for the original earbuds, they should work well enough on the new ones.
Let’s dig right into sound quality. Apple completely redesigned the amplifier and driver in the AirPods Pro, and while those drivers are the same 11-millimeter size as what’s in the third-gen AirPods, they sound superior and deliver the cleanest, most dynamic output of any AirPods to date.
It’s never been more obvious that Apple’s audio tuning philosophy is to land on the most pleasing sound profile it can find that provides consistency across genres and audio formats (music, podcasts, movies, etc.). When you’re aiming for such a universal solution, everything ends up sounding pretty good — but nothing I’d consider great or exemplary. The new AirPods Pro reach further into high and low frequencies than their predecessors, but it’s not a dramatic shift. The prior earbuds weren’t skull rattlers with their bass response, and neither are these. But overall clarity is better, and Apple is getting more out of the drivers. I’m still not a big believer in spatial audio, but going through the sometimes tedious personalization process in iOS 16 can make the effect more convincing since Apple is now scanning your ear and playing to its unique acoustic characteristics. I’m glad AirPods now have their own dedicated section in the settings menu: it makes exploring all these settings more intuitive. All the usual bonus features like audio sharing, automatic device switching, and hands-free Siri are also present on the new AirPods Pro.
Listening to Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” the AirPods Pro present smooth vocals, well-separated harmonies, and distinctly layered string instruments. Big Thief’s latest album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, comes through with warmth and an extra layer of low-end presence that’s missing on the original AirPods Pro. But ultimately, these still sound like AirPods Pro with an added bit of refinement. Apple isn’t straying too far from what people have come to expect from the world’s most popular earbuds.
That means that the AirPods Pro are still outclassed in sound fidelity by the likes of Sennheiser, and some people will prefer Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 Pro — though iPhone owners are unlikely to be cross-shopping the two. More practical alternatives include Sony’s WF-1000XM4 and Bose’s latest earbuds, and the AirPods Pro still don’t match the bass bump of those buds. If you do intend to use the AirPods Pro with Android, be aware there’s currently a significant bug where playback cuts out after 20 seconds or so. I’ve asked Apple about the issue but haven’t heard back.
But Apple has made substantial gains with its active noise cancellation. The company says, on average, the new implementation is “up to” two times as effective as the original AirPods Pro. And while I lack any scientific measurement tools, that claim doesn’t seem unrealistic. At our office, I recently moved desks and now sit near an air vent that emits a persistent whir. The original AirPods Pro leave a trace of that in noise-canceling mode, but it’s completely hushed and imperceptible with the second-gen pair. I can still hear chatting co-workers if they walk directly next to my desk, but at most times, the AirPods Pro grant me plenty of serenity. I’ve also observed legitimate improvements when commuting on the subway, and less overall street noise makes its way through when traversing Brooklyn day to day.
However, I can’t tell you that Apple is leading the pack. Bose managed to take the noise-cancellation crown with its $300 QuietComfort Earbuds II, which do better at combating human voices and higher-pitched everyday disturbances. Still, Apple is undoubtedly in a better spot than it was previously, and it’s possible that firmware updates could lessen the gap as the company taps into the H2 chip that serves as the brains of the new AirPods Pro. This ANC is on par (maybe a smidge better) than Sony’s WF-1000XM4s, but those use bulky foam ear tips that not everyone finds comfortable.
Transparency mode is just as natural and lifelike as before but now comes with some built-in hearing protection of sorts. If the AirPods Pro detect loud noises when in transparency mode, they’ll automatically (and very quickly) scale down the volume of those harsh, ear-splitting sounds — without you having to switch back to noise-canceling mode or take any action yourself. Best as I can tell, this “adaptive” transparency mode doesn’t listen for specific noises or frequencies: anything above a certain decibel level seems to trigger the adjustments in real time. In my testing, that’s included sirens, obnoxiously loud motorcycles, and so on. Apple’s website claims this on-device processing happens 48,000 times per second, something that’s, frankly, impossible to verify. (Bonus tip: you can always adjust how much sound comes through transparency mode through the accessibility settings in iOS.)
The biggest new change to the AirPods Pro hardware is the addition of onboard volume controls. You can increase or decrease volume by sliding a finger up or down the capacitive “force sensor” section of the stem that you’d normally press for music controls. This works on either earbud, and you’ll hear a little click sound in that ear as you adjust volume. Strangely the feedback click is always one persistent volume and doesn’t preview what level you’re at. You hear a different beep at maximum volume and a bloop at zero, but that’s all. This new volume control works so well that I wish Apple had offered it on the original AirPods Pros. I’ve yet to accidentally pause or skip a track when changing volume, which routinely happens with gesture controls on other headphones and earbuds. No more having to reach for my phone or ask Siri to make volume adjustments? I’m in.
Then there’s the carrying case, which now has a built-in lanyard loop on the right side. Apple doesn’t include a lanyard in the box, nor is it manufacturing one itself; I guess the company assumes not everyone will bother. Instead, Apple’s selling a $12 Incase Lanyard that I’ve used for a few days. It serves the purpose, but should probably be $6 cheaper: you can’t even tighten it to your wrist, but there’s an integrated method for looping it onto a bag or backpack. The case never opened unexpectedly when hanging like that, but I ended up switching to a Peak Design Anchor and tucking it into one of my backpack’s pockets for more security.
Speaking of security, the AirPods Pro case now contains the same U1 chip as an AirTag for precise location tracking. From the Find My app, you get the same augmented reality interface with arrows pointing the way to your misplaced case when it’s nearby. Apple has also added a speaker to the case’s bottom. The speaker makes little chimes when you plug it in for charging, when the battery’s running low, or whenever you reseat the AirPods and close the lid. More useful, the speaker can emit a sound when lost so you can track the case down in the couch cushions or wherever else it may be. Assuming they’re all within Bluetooth range, you can now locate the case and each earbud individually.
If you lose your AirPods away from home (ideally still in the case), you can activate the Find My network and be notified if other Apple devices cross their path. AirPods are linked to your Apple ID account — a clever anti-theft measure that can’t be undone by a stranger — and it’s nice to see Apple continuing to improve the ease of locating them. I’ve also noticed that the battery levels for both earbuds and the case remain present in my iPhone’s battery widget much longer than they previously did. Normally, they’d vanish after being in the case for a bit. But now, you’ll have a better sense of when to recharge.
Both the AirPods Pro and wireless charging case are rated IPX4 for water / sweat resistance, and you can now juice up the case with an Apple Watch charger in addition to MagSafe and traditional Qi charging pads. Battery life has climbed to six hours of listening with ANC enabled; this drops to 5.5 hours if you’re using head-tracking spatial audio, and Apple estimates 4.5 hours of continuous talk time on calls. Including case recharges, you get an estimated 30 hours of overall listening time, up six hours from the first-gen Pros.
Voice call performance seems marginally improved from the original AirPods Pro. Apple hasn’t made any big claims in this department, but my colleague Becca Farsace and I both noticed that the second-gen model is a step up: stay tuned for various mic tests in the upcoming video review.
Apple didn’t make any surprising or wildly ambitious moves with the second-generation AirPods Pro. Instead, the company tried to evolve and perfect a hit product that millions of people already know so well. With its second try, Apple managed to improve sound quality reasonably and boost noise cancellation considerably. Those improvements, along with a more helpful case and even better transparency passthrough, will be enough for many to upgrade.
Even so, the AirPods Pro aren’t necessarily the standout they once were, now flanked by serious contenders from Apple’s tech foes. On day one, they’re not the best-sounding wireless earbuds you can buy, nor are they class-leading in ANC thanks to Bose. But neither of those facts are likely to dissuade iPhone owners from considering the second-gen AirPods Pro above most options based on their reliable performance and Apple’s seamless ecosystem benefits.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge