Updated: Aug 19, 2021
Written by Cheryl Tan
Apple has now joined the active noise-cancelling true wireless earphone competition with the AirPods Pro. Other brands like Sony have had experience with noise-cancelling technology even before they launched their WF-1000XM3 true wireless earphones earlier this year, so do the AirPods Pro suffer from Apple’s lack of experience in this area?
Let’s talk design first. The original AirPods have always been light and compact, and that was a big selling point. The new AirPods Pro are just slightly bulkier, but still a great deal more pocketable than other true wireless earphones in their carrying case. The earbuds themselves now come with silicone ear tips that allow for a better and more secure fit in the ear.
One of my biggest issues with earphones made by Apple was the uncomfortable fit that the old AirPods had, so this is a great improvement for me. The tips also allow for a better seal in the ear, improving passive noise isolation. With the new design, Apple has implemented a new feature to test the fit of the silicone tips and let the users know which size best fits them.
Controlling the earbuds works via squeezes on the stems of either side, and I actually prefer this more than I do touch controls since they’re much more accurate and less prone to ghost touches. Granted, this could be an issue if you’re exercising with these, but for general day to day usage, I can’t find anything wrong with them.
Each earbud has two microphones, one outward-facing to detect noise outside of your ear and determine how to implement noise cancellation, and one facing the user’s ear canal to detect noise that might have made it past the seal as well as analyse how music playing sounds in the ear.
Apple claims that the AirPods Pro adjusts the level of noise-cancelling 200 times a second, which is unprecedented in the market. And the AirPods Pro does work well. They cancel out low hums and rumbles well while muffling human voices. But the noise cancellation isn’t quite as strong as others I’ve tried, and I feel that a big part of that is due to the vents that are in the earbuds. The vents are there to reduce that pressure that’s common amongst noise-cancelling earphones and headphones, but those also let in external noise.
Higher pitched sounds don’t get cancelled as efficiently though. I noticed that there’s a high-pitched whistling coming through when I’m sitting near the back of buses, and I still do hear vehicles passing by me on the road, which is great for safety, but it does show that the noise-cancellation tech isn’t quite there yet.
But the thing that really amazed me with the AirPods Pro is the Transparency mode. Other noise-cancelling headphones and earphones have a similar mode where music is lowered and ambient noise is piped in, but it always sounds artificial and boosted. These, however, sound really natural. Voices aren’t changed and there’s no boost to it.
Sound-wise, these are the typical Apple AirPods sound. It’s balanced, neutral, easygoing and overall, a little cooler. Bass isn’t quite as punchy, but it’s fast and more measured. People looking for stronger bass shouldn’t expect too much out of these though.
The mids are where music shines here. With Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, the vocal layering is decent and there’s enough detail and texture to her voice. The Lover remix by Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes also shows how good the separation is, with both their voices distinct even when they’re harmonising.
Instruments sound good, but I felt that the highs were a bit lacking in energy and brightness. There’s a bit of sparkle, and I’ve found that once there’s music playing in addition to the noise cancelling turned on, external noise can no longer be heard. Volume is unable to be changed via physical controls though, so you’ll either have to do it on the phone or pull up Siri to do it through voice control.
The AirPods Pro is powered by Apple’s H1 chip, which was previously used in the second-generation AirPods. Calls are handled well and connection to an iOS device is solid. These can also be connected to Android devices, but you do lose ease of connectivity and some features might not work as well. Noise-cancelling still works though, so there’s that.
I managed to get around 4 hours and 10 minutes of continuous playback on a full charge, connected to my MacBook Pro with noise-cancelling turned on, which lines up quite accurately with Apple’s estimated time of 4.5 hours. Apple claims that with the carrying case, users will be able to get over 24 hours.
So who are these for? It’s pretty much a no-brainer for people who are already using iPhones and Apple products. These work and they integrate well with the ecosystem. It’s a bit of a harder sell for people using Android phones however, since it’s not as easy to connect them at the start, and these are pretty expensive at S$379. Noise-cancelling works, but again, there are other options out there that edge out the AirPods Pro on price and performance.
More information and purchase options can be found on Apple’s website.