In less than three years, Apple’s AirPods went from being reviled to becoming a cultural phenomenon. They’re the best-selling wireless earbuds in the world—and if you believe Apple, the best-selling headphones period.
Just a few months ago, Apple introduced an update that added wireless charging and voice commands to the models first released in late 2016. Then Apple casually dropped the AirPods Pro one morning in October. The new models feature noise-canceling technology that presumably is the differentiating “Pro” factor between them and the original versions.
Quartz spent the last week with the new AirPods Pro to see if they’re worth the $249 splurge.
Everything that’s good about the old AirPods. All the features you might want from the excellent second-generation AirPods can be found in the Pro models. The case can be charged wirelessly, it isn’t much bigger than the case for the old models, and you can call out to Siri without having to touch your phone.
You can hear the world around you as needed. While the main selling point of the Pro buds over the regular ones is that they’re noise-canceling, you’re not going to want that in every situation. If you’re crossing the street, trying to hear an announcement on the subway, or being asked a question by a co-worker, you can press and hold on the stem of the AirPods Pro to turn off the noise-canceling feature and go into what Apple calls “Transparency mode”—the same setting found on the new Beats Solo Pro headphones.
They’re water-resistant. Although I’ve been on countless runs, gone to the gym, and generally worn my old AirPods in wet weather without issue, apparently I wasn’t supposed to do that. The AirPods Pro are the first ones Apple lists as water- and sweat-resistant, meaning they should be great for taking on your next workout.
The noise canceling is… fine. Regardless of how great your software is, you’re only going to be able to block out so much noise with earbuds. Big and heavy headphones that cover your entire ears, like the Bose QC 35 II, are going to be able to do a much better job. But the tradeoff is that you’re then wearing something weighty on your noggin, instead of some tiny little buds that pop into your ears.
I had to take a few flights over the last week (on Airbus A321s if you want to know), and the whine of the engines was still pretty obvious with the AirPods in, especially on takeoff and landing. In less hectic settings, the noise canceling is passable, but as I sit in my office right now and type, with the AirPods Pro in my ears, I can hear my own keyboard clack, along with the keyboard of the person next to me; I’m keenly aware of a conversation happening on the other side of the office, and of someone behind me struggling to open a snack. None of these noises are particularly loud, but they’re still there. If I put on my Bose headset, they’re gone.
Three sizes do not fit all. To get a decent seal on your ear canals, the AirPods Pro uses rubbery tips that are supposed to fit snugly and block out the world around you. The tips come off, with a little bit of coaxing, and Apple provides three sizes meant to accommodate most ears. Through the iPhone, Apple even offers an “ear tip fit test” in the AirPods’s settings that’s supposed to determine whether the earbuds are in properly. Every time I took the test, it told me that I had a “good seal,” but within about 10 minutes of wearing the pods, I could feel them slipping slightly out of my ears.
The smaller ear buds were too small for my ears, and the larger ones didn’t fit into my ears. I don’t really see a solution here—if you’re between sizes of the AirPods tips, you may well be out of luck.
New controls are more difficult. On the first two generations of AirPods, you tapped the side of the earbud twice to activate Siri or to pause a song, depending on your choice, and that was that. There weren’t a ton of options, but they were all simple. On the AirPods Pro, there’s a range of things you can do, but for each action you have to squeeze both sides of the stems of one of the AirPods. Given that the stems are shorter than on the other models, this is actually rather difficult to do without pulling the earbud out of your ear. It’s not clear why the new pods couldn’t also have the tapping interface option found on the old AirPods.
Battery life is average. One of the biggest downsides of AirPods is that they can’t last an entire day. They charge very quickly and the case can hold around 24 hours’ worth of battery life, but if you want to wear them for a long-haul flight or a work day, you’re going to have to charge them after around five hours. This is still true with the AirPods Pro, and Apple says if you’re constantly using the noise-canceling function, you’ll get more like 4.5 hours’ worth of battery life on a single charge. My Bose can last around 20 hours on a single charge.
They… squeak? I don’t know if it was a pressurization thing on the airplanes, but pushing the AirPods back into my ear while I was in the air caused them to emit a high-pitched squeaking noise. I haven’t been able to recreate it on the ground, but it’s happened on both the flights I took.
They’re expensive. Noise-canceling technology doesn’t come cheap. The AirPods Pro cost $249, a $90 jump over standard second-generation AirPods and a $50 leap over the models with a wireless-charging case. They’re about $20 more expensive than Sony’s terribly named WF-1000XM3 earbuds, which I found did a better job of both noise canceling and making you look like Frankenstein’s monster.
If you love the Apple ecosystem and are in the market for a pair of noise-canceling earbuds, these are definitely a decent option. And if you already own a few Apple products, you know you’re going to be paying up for Apple’s first foray into the noise-canceling market.
But there are better options out there. If you just want a small, pocketable pair of wireless headphones that will be plenty useful in most situations, get the standard second-generation AirPods. They’re the best and tiniest option out there for iPhone users. If you want noise-canceling earbuds, check out Sony’s offering, but in that case, I would suggest you think about what problem you want your headphones to solve. If you want to block out as much sound as possible, whether you’re on a plane, at work, or traveling, over-the-ear headphones are still the superior option.