The new AirPods Pro are fandabbydosey [An appreciation]

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AirPod Pro
Apple's new AirPods Pro earbuds are a super-great update to the original.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Hot dang, Apple’s still got it. The new AirPods Pro are fantastic.

They’re truly great headphones, and every major new feature improves on the old AirPods in big and significant ways.

  • The sound is fantastic — a big upgrade.
  • Their active noise cancellation is as good as Bose and Sony headphones (and maybe even better). Finally, you can use AirPods on airplanes.
  • Transparency mode is weird magic.
  • Best of all are the new Force Sensor touch controls, which take a minute to get used to but are way better than tapping. They’re my favorite new feature, and I burst out laughing with delight when I got the hang of it.

I freakin’ love the new AirPods Pro!

AirPods Pro review

The original AirPods were great — a real breakthrough for truly wireless Bluetooth earbuds. They were so good, that it’s really surprising Apple managed to improve them in significant ways.

With AirPods Pro, the setup process remains easy, painless and still the best out there. Once in your ears, they prove super-comfortable — as comfy as the originals, which often would “disappear” in my ears because I hardly felt them.

So how do AirPods Pro sound?

What about AirPods Pro audio quality? How do they sound? In a word — fandabbydosey. (Google it.)

Sound quality is a big upgrade from the old AirPods. The AirPods Pro deliver much better sound overall, and the audio quality gets quite a boost from Apple’s noise cancellation features. Oh mama, AirPods Pro sound great!!!

There’s a lot more bass. And that bass is solid — booming even — and can deliver a real visceral thump. It makes music much more immersive than the old AirPods. You really get sucked in, and can really feel it. It’s not overwhelming, though. The bass is strong, but clear. Everything sounds energetic and well-defined.

AirPods Pro vs. Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Sony WH-1000XM3

Right out of the box, I made the mistake of doing a head-to-head test with my old AirPods. I used to think the originals sounded pretty great. However, when I inserted the old AirPods after the new Pros, I could tell the difference immediately. The old AirPods sounded weak and tinny by comparison.

I immediately regretted the A/B test. “Oh great,” I thought. “I just ruined three pairs of perfectly good AirPods.”

They now sound broken. “That’s it,” I thought. “I’ll never be able to wear them again because they sound terrible now.” This is a bit of an exaggeration — the old AirPods still sound great, but not in a direct, comparative test. The new AirPods Pro absolutely kill them.

I also tried head-to-head tests with a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones and a pair of Sony WH-1000XM3. They are two of the leading active noise-canceling headphones on the market right now, and both are really exceptional headphones. To my ear, the new AirPods were almost directly comparable, which surprised me. I thought the bigger drivers in the headphones would outshine the AirPods Pro, but Apple’s new earbuds held their own.

I honestly had trouble discerning a difference in sound quality with the Bose QCs. They sound really similar. The AirPods Pro are maybe brighter in the trebles. The Sony WH-1000XM3’s definitely brought more bass, but they’re pretty bass-heavy.

The AirPods Pro come with three pairs of tips
The AirPods Pro come with three pairs of tips.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

AirPods Pro active noise cancellation

Here’s another big surprise: The AirPods Pro perform just as well as the Bose and Sony headphones when it comes to noise cancellation — both passive and active.

I thought the over-the-ear cans would do a better job. After all, the big headphone cups surround your ears, sealing out the outside world.

To test the AirPods Pro, I rode my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, where noise from the wind and traffic often makes listening impossible. The active noise cancellation on the AirPods Pro did a great job of drowning out traffic din on the bridge. I could hear the music clear as a bell (while still hearing a bit of traffic noise).

Later, I took all three headphones to a noisy taqueria, and tested them during the lunchtime rush. Surprisingly, I think the AirPods Pro did a better job at noise cancellation, which I was not expecting at all. I could hear less of the din with the AirPods than with either the Sony or Bose headphones. (Others have experienced this, too.)

As my colleague Charlie Sorrel notes, the AirPods Pro do such a good job of canceling outside noise, I was able to turn down the music a couple of notches. By contrast, I had to turn the music up with the Sony and Bose cans to hear it above the din.

Transparency mode

The AirPods Pro’s new Transparency mode feature is weird magic. It uses the earbuds’ microphones to pipe in outside noise, helping you listen for announcements at the airport or oncoming traffic. Initially, Transparency mode seems a little freaky. It’s an odd sensation to have the microphones pipe in outside sound as though you’re not wearing any earbuds, let alone sound-isolating ones. I also felt like it enhanced my hearing — which may have been just my imagination — but it works very well when listening to audio. It works as advertised: The music sounds great but you can also hear what’s going on around you.

I wish Transparency mode was adjustable, though. It’d be great if you could pipe in more outside sound if you wanted to (like Amazon’s Echo Buds do). But for now, it works OK, even for cycling, which I know is a little sketchy from a safety perspective. (I don’t recommend it unless you are away from traffic or a very confident rider.)

Favorite feature: The new Force Sensor controls

The best feature is the new haptic controls via a Force sensor on the AirPods Pro stem. It’s Apple at its best. The Force Sensors work like a charm and are much better than the old tapping controls, which now feel primitive and silly.

The new touch controls do take a bit of getting used to. At first, I tried to press the target area like I was tapping the screen of my iPhone. But I quickly realized it works much better if you give it a little squeeze with two fingers.

The genius touch is a simultaneous clicking sound in your ear that sounds as though you are pressing a real button. This clever illusion gives you instant feedback that your input worked, unlike tapping the old AirPods (which you never know if it worked or not). It’s a fantastic new control scheme that’s much better than what came before.

Phone calls: How do they sound?

I called my 74-year-old mother, who is deaf as a post. Poor old mom usually can’t hear me unless I speak directly into the iPhone’s microphone. I never call her using headphones or earbuds. But guess what? She heard me fine using the new AirPods Pro. Admittedly, both of us were in quiet environments. It’s not a huge stress test, but it’s good enough for me.

Case closed

The AirPods Pro case is slightly bigger than the original
The AirPods Pro case is slightly bigger than the original.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

The new AirPods Pro case is also a delight. Some are complaining how big it is compared to the original AirPods case, but it doesn’t make much difference to me thanks to my giant dad jeans pockets.

I really enjoy the way the AirPods Pro slide into the case. It’s easy to forget how well-made Apple stuff is. My AirPods Pro arrived at the same time as a pair of Amazon’s Echo Buds. On the surface, they seem very similar — true wireless buds that come in a charging case that’s just like Apples’. But everything about the Amazon earbuds is crappy and worse. The fit is terrible. In fact, I couldn’t get them to fit right. And every time I touched the earbuds to adjust them, it launched the voice assistant, which quickly drove me batty. The Amazon carrying case is crappily made and comes with — horror of horrors! — a crummy mini-USB charging port. Really, these days, USB-C is de rigueur. By contrast, Apple’s case and overall fit and finish is far superior. Everything feels top-notch, as usual.

AirPods Pro review: Conclusion

Now that AirPods Pro are here, there is no point in buying the old AirPods. If you’re looking for a pair of earbuds, the better sound and active noise cancellation make it a no-brainer to spend the extra $50.

Everything Apple upgraded on the new AirPods Pro adds true value. They sound phenomenal, much better than the previous model. The ANC works well and is basically a must-have. The Transparency mode feature is well-thought-out and well-implemented. And the new squeeze controls are just a delight (once you get the hang of them).

Apple’s new AirPods Pro earbuds are a super-great update to the original. Highly recommended.