Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
My dad was an audiophile back before being an audiophile was cool. He had a huge record collection, knew his way around a high-quality turntable, and had music playing in our house during all waking hours. I distinctly remember the first time he put on a pair of decent over-the-ear headphones and was amazed by how these cups could provide such an immersive audio experience while the rest of the world around him was silent.
My dad passed away 10 years ago, but when I put the new AirPods Pro in for the first time last week, he was the first person I thought about. I wish he could have experienced what it’s like to wear these tiny little earbuds that, while a tenth the size of those original headphones, provide an even clearer and more immersive listening experience. He would have been blown away.
I’m a huge music fan, thanks to my dad, and listen to a wide swath of artists every day. I’ve also been lucky to test every new release of AirPods to date, and can say that the second generation of the AirPods Pro have arrived at a pretty astounding point. The music is so full and rich that it’s hard to imagine where Apple will go from here. I’m listening to them as I write, and the music is so clear and enjoyable that I literally feel giddy.
According to Apple, the updated sound stems from a mix of factors, including the power of their new H2 chip, plus a custom-built driver and amplifier that allow for even crisper highs matched with deep and rich bass across all audio levels. There’s also the spatial audio technology, which I was able to understand with help from a member of Apple’s AirPods team.
Simply put, spatial audio creates a surround-sound listening experience so it feels like the music is coming at you from all angles, just like in a high-quality movie theater or in a great concert venue. The original AirPods Pro have it, but this second generation maps your ear and head with your iPhone, so that spatial audio is customized specifically to you. I did the mapping, which only takes a minute, and didn’t note a giant leap in surround-sound quality, but I did feel more immersed and engrossed in the music than when wearing the original AirPods Pro.
Improved Noise Cancellation
Match the upgraded sound quality with noise cancellation that’s been improved by a factor of two, and it can sometimes feel like you’ve been transported to a completely different space. Sitting in my office for the past week, even with my door open to barking dogs and loud kids, only the loudest noises occasionally got through.
Listening to music on a plane ride, I was able to completely drown out the ambient noise and immerse myself in a book so deeply that I only looked up when the plane bounced on the runway during landing. It’s true that this was mostly possible with the first generation of AirPods Pro, but the added noise cancellation and increased audio quality make these experiences noticeably better and more flawless.
The Noise app on my Apple Watch allows me to see in real time how much the headphones reduce noise in decibels. With normal ambient noise, my watch reads somewhere around a 25 decibel reduction. But if I clap or shout, that goes up to 60 decibels. I don’t understand audio technology fully, but I do know that noise is reduced by 20 decibels when wearing over-the-ear headphones at the shooting range to make sure my rifle doesn’t leave me with hearing loss, so there’s no doubt the Apple headphones filter out a lot.
Longer Battery Life, Better Fit, and Easier Controls
Those of us who love to travel will also be glad that the battery life gets a bump. Apple says the new AirPods Pro have a 33-percent better battery life than the first version, and will last six hours with noise cancellation on (plenty for a cross-country flight). While they don’t specify exactly how much longer the battery will last with noise cancellation off, Apple does claim it will deliver more time, which means I’ll be able to listen to music (and take calls if I have to) during an 80-mile gravel ride or a 15-mile trail run and not worry about the headphones crapping out.
Another new feature I’m thankful for lets you swipe up or down on the post of the bud to raise or lower the volume. (The swiping motion took a minute to figure out, but once you get it right, it’s easy.) This makes a big difference, especially when you’re on a bike and don’t want to reach down to fiddle with your watch or phone in a jersey pocket. I’ve never had problems getting the AirPods Pro to fit in my ears, but the new ones come with four different tip sizes, up from three for the original AirPods, to customize them so they fit snugly and comfortably.
Transparency mode means you can have the AirPods Pro in your ears and be able to hear your surroundings as naturally as possible. With the new AirPods Pro, transparency is significantly enhanced so that it sounds like I don’t even have headphones in. During Zoom meetings I’m able to clearly listen to whoever is speaking, but still feel like I have a complete understanding of what’s going on around me and don’t have to take the headphones out to rejoin the world.
Apple also says the new AirPods Pro come with something called adaptive transparency, which reduces the impact of loud noise, like sirens or jackhammers, when you’re walking around with them on transparency mode (I haven’t found a construction site to test this yet).
So Are They Worth $250?
Like all Apple products, the new Pros are not cheap. But I always try to break down a price by how much I use the product, and it’s clear that for $250 I’m getting a device that I’ll use nearly all day, most days—and they’re cheaper than comparable earbuds from Bose and Sony. For anyone who travels extensively, exercises regularly, or spends a fair share of time on Zoom meetings, the new AirPods Pro make all of these activities better and easier. And then of course there’s the audio itself. People who prefer over-the-ear headphones will stick with their top choice, but the rest of us who want one headphone for daily tasks and makes everyone from John Coltrane to Odesza sound great, will be really happy with the new AirPods Pro.