November 1, 2019

AirPods Pro: Initial Impressions

There are few products that I get as much use out of as AirPods, so it was inevitable that the AirPods Pro would be on my desk the day they became available.

It’s only been a couple of days, but I can already confidently say that I’m happy with them; they improve upon the originals in ways that justify their added cost, the ANC (Active Noise Cancelling) and Transparency modes work well, and the adjustable fit makes them accessible to people who couldn’t otherwise enjoy them.

Fit and Finish

They look better. The shorter stems and larger grille make for a more sophisticated appearance. The originals always looked cheap to me, and while these are still white plastic, they look a bit more in line with their price point.

More importantly, they fit very nicely. The fit test indicated that I had a good fit with the default medium tips, and they did fit just fine, but I found that they got fatiguing in a way the original AirPods didn’t. I swapped in the small tips and it made a world of difference: much more comfortable, an even better seal, and it’s easier to put them in and take them out. So don’t be afraid to experiment even if the test indicates a good fit with the medium tips.

Sound

I’ve had a lot of people asking me about whether the sound is better than their predecessors’, and it is, but these are still not high-end. If sound is your primary criteria, then the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless, or the Sony are going to be better choices. And over-ear headphones will do a better job than any casual consumer earbuds like these (let’s not get into the wild world of IEMs).

The AirPods Pro sound profile is very similar to the originals’, but the better passive isolation from the silicon tips means that you can actually get the full effect in more situations, not just when you’re in a quiet room.

I would describe the sound signature as unsurprising, unexciting, and unimpressive, but also accurate, pleasing, and flexible. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s a good thing: I’d take this over the weirdly imbalanced sound signature of the Beats equivalents any day.

Perhaps the best endorsement I can give them is that, as a composer, I’m fine knowing that people are listening to my work on these. I know they’re getting a good experience that reflects the way I intend for things to sound.

Noise Cancellation and Transparency

As far as Transparency and ANC goes, I have more testing to do, but my initial reaction is that both are very respectable. Transparency in particular is very tastefully done—things don’t sound unpleasantly amplified or distorted.

ANC is an interesting subject because of how differently manufacturers tune their cancellation algorithms. I went into a bit more detail on this in my roundup of some of the best ANC headphones, but essentially some prioritize constant low-frequency noises like engine hum, while others tackle random higher-frequency noise like conversation more aggressively. The result is that some are better at cancelling one kind of noise or another, so the best” ANC will depend more on your usage than anything else.

Except for Sony, whose ANC is currently more effective than anyone else’s across the entire frequency range.

Needless to say, the AirPods do not compete favourably with the Sony equivalents on that front, but they do hold their own very well against the rest, and I actually think that subtler ANC is better for a lot of people. It can be quite disorienting to have the world entirely disappear, and it’s arguably unsafe for navigating in the city.

I don’t have a good sense of how they behave on the subway or airplanes yet, but I can now listen to things when I’m out on a walk in the city in a way that I never felt I could with the original AirPods.

I know a lot of people are just fine with the original AirPods on this front, but it’s because they’re comfortable pushing the volume up high, and I am not. I want to protect my hearing, and trying to overpower a city just leads to fatigue and hearing damage.

This is actually the true, everyday value of ANC for me: allowing me to listen to things at more reasonable volume levels in more contexts.

Other Impressions

The case is still in that size zone that feels effortless to carry and pack. If you flip it sideways, it’s so similar to the normal AirPods case that it won’t affect anything.

Connectivity-wise this is familiar territory. The pairing process is effortless and fun, and the fact that these have controls for the ANC and Transparency modes right in the Control Centre volume area give them an advantage over any of the competition.

In fact, that integration is perhaps the AirPods’ core strength. These feel like the default” system for listening to things on Apple products in a way that no other competitor will ever be able to achieve. Whether or not that’s fair to the competition is a worthy discussion, but the fact remains.

The haptic stem buttons are maybe not as easy to use as I had hoped—this is one aspect of usability where the more compact stems are a negative—but anything is better than smacking the side of your head to trigger a reaction. The press-and-hold gesture for switching sound mode works reliably, and shorter presses perform the same actions as inline controls used to on EarPods.

There’s a very subtle haptic click when you successfully engage the control, but it’s so quiet that it’s easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention, leading to some uncertainty about whether or not you’ve successfully engaged the control.

More to Come

I use AirPods daily, in all sorts of situations, so I will continue to test and compare them not only against their predecessors, but also against different brands and over-ear headphone equivalents.

It’s difficult for me to make sweeping statements about whether or not something like this is worth buying, because so much of it depends on individual use cases, but as always I welcome your emails and tweets with questions and will happily try to answer based on your needs.

Happy Friday!


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