Why I’m returning my AirPods Pro

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Just a few cents-worth of silicone can ruin your new $250 earbuds.
Just a few cents' worth of silicone can ruin your new $250 earbuds.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Why am I returning my AirPods Pro just a day after receiving them? If the AirPods Pro don’t fit in your ears, then tough. There’s pretty much nothing you can do about it short of returning them to Apple.

However, if you’re prepared to wait, there might be some hope.

If the AirPods Pro don’t fit your ears, they’re almost useless

There will almost certainly be custom AirPod Pro tips available sooner rather than later. The three differently sized tips Apple includes with AirPods Pro have a custom, rigid, snap-in base. It is nothing like most other earbud tips, but that won’t stop manufacturers selling these things in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors and materials. As long as the new tips are small enough — or squishy enough — to fit into the charging case, they’ll be great.

But right now, also thanks to that custom snap-in base, you can’t just grab some spare tips from another pair of earbuds and push them on. You’re stuck with the three sizes that come in the box. And what if they don’t fit?

You’re out of luck.

There’s a reason that the AirPods Pro come with a clever Ear Tip Fit Test. Without a good fit, the AirPods Pro don’t function properly. The seal is required both for a good bass sound, and also for the earbuds noise-canceling feature. Sealed earbuds cut out a lot of environmental noise just by physically blocking the sound. Then the active noise cancellation further reduces levels by generating “anti-noise.” Without a good seal, you’re left relying on just the ANC, which isn’t up to the task.

How do AirPods Pro sound when they don’t fit?

As you might have guessed, I can’t get a good fit with the AirPods Pro. The best I can manage in the Ear Tip Fit Test is an occasional green checkmark on the left ear. The right ear is impossible to fit. I never got a good fit with the original AirPods, either, but at least they could be screwed and twisted into the ear to get a decent — if temporary — fit.

The AirPods Pro offer almost zero wiggle room. If one or both of your ear canals is too wide for them to fit properly, there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve tried jamming them in hard, licking them to maybe make a better seal, and even holding them in place during the test, all with no good result.

And yet, even with a suspect fitting, the AirPods Pro sound fantastic. As long as you’re in a quiet spot. The sound is balanced, clear and very present. Compared to my over-ear Sony WH900N headphones, the AirPods Pro are very close. If anything, they seem more detailed than the bigger Sonys. The sound is a little pushy, and it can feel like you’re being rushed along, but in short, the AirPods Pro really do sound great. And this is for a Bluetooth earbud, remember.

Active noise cancellation outdoor test

Out in the street, though, things gets much worse. Without a good seal, you can hear everything. Traffic noise is very noticeable, as is the screaming background noise of the metro. To their credit, the AirPods Pro ANC does a good enough job that I can still listen to a podcast on the metro without having to crank up the volume, but it’s not comfortable.

So, my advice to anyone with a history of earbud fitting problems is that you should test them out first at an Apple store. Or just wait until the market for third-party tips gets started, and try those. Me? I’m returning my AirPods Pro to Apple today.