Apple's (AAPL) AirPods are the best-selling headphones in the world. In three short years, they've gone from being endlessly memed, to being an icon on par with Apple's original EarPods headphones.
Now the company is rolling out its AirPods Pro. With a new design; active noise-cancelling technology; and, at last, water resistance, the $249 AirPods Pro provide all of the features fans have been clamoring for since the original AirPods hit the market.
And while $249 is a lot to swallow, the AirPods Pro are worth it.
A new look and feel
The AirPods Pro look similar to the original AirPods, but there are some key differences that make them stand out. First, the stems on the Pros are a lot shorter than those on the standard AirPods, looking as if they've been sawed off.
And rather than the hard plastic tip design Apple has used since the EarPods, the AirPods Pros include three, interchangeable silicone tips. The new tips are needed to create a seal inside of your ear, which is crucial in noise cancelling earbuds.
I found myself being extra careful when removing the Pro's tips, though, as I was constantly nervous that I was going to tear the thin silicone around their base.
I've never been much of a fan of silicone tip earbuds, mostly because they tend to sit on a small peg that goes into your ear. Samsung's $129 Galaxy Buds and Amazon's (AMZN) $129 Echo Buds both use the peg and tip style, and both have proven uncomfortable for me.
Apple's AirPods Pros have a kind of hard plastic ring that helps the silicone tip keep its shape, instead of the peg. I found the Pros much more comfortable than both Samsung's and Amazon's offerings — though at times I felt a small niggling feeling in my right ear while wearing the Pros. That went away with a quick adjustment, though.
Everyone's ears are different, however, so if you're nervous about how the Pros will fit, Apple offers the opportunity to try them on at its retail stores.
To help ensure you get a tight ear seal when using the AirPods, Apple has included an ear tip test that determines if too much outside noise is getting into your ear canal when wearing the Pros. If the test finds that the tips are too loose, you'll get a notification telling you to change the Pros’ positions or switch the tips. After some testing I ended up using a large tip in my left ear and a medium tip in my right ear.
Unfortunately, the tip test is buried in the Bluetooth menu under the AirPods Pro's listing. I wish Apple had made a separate app for the Pros to make the feature easier to get to.
On top of their new design, Apple has made the Pros sweat and water resistant, something customers have wanted out of the AirPods since their launch. I sweat so much when I exercise, it looks like I’ve showered with my clothes on, and I've never had an issue with my standard AirPods failing due to water damage. So, I'm not sure how much of a difference the new designation actually makes, beyond giving customers' peace of mind.
Audio quality and noise cancellation
The original AirPods are great earbuds, but because they don't create a seal in your ear, ambient noise seeps in, degrading the sound of whatever you're listening to. But, sealing your ears makes them feel plugged up.
To alleviate that feeling, Apple built vents into the Pros that allow air to pass back and forth. It also allows you to hear your voice when you're talking, so you won't end up screaming at someone sitting next to you.
The tips, however, don't keep out all ambient noise, which is why Apple has added active noise-cancelling technology to the Pros. Active noise-cancelling, or ACN, works by using an external microphone on the buds to listen for ambient sound frequencies. The buds then create the opposite frequencies for that sound, cancelling it out in your ears.
The Pro's ACN work well, but as with all ACN technology, it doesn’t completely block out all ambient noise. You’ll still hear things like loud trucks and trains, though they’ll be significantly muffled.
There are also situations when you want to listen to music, but still be aware of what's going on around you. Or you may want to pause your music and have a quick chat with someone without taking out your AirPod. And that's where Transparency mode comes in.
Transparency mode uses the Pros’ external microphones to capture ambient noise and funnel it into your ears, letting you hear things like conversations even with the Pro's silicon tips plugging your ears.
I take the subway to work every day and like to hear what’s going on around me. Transparency mode does just that, letting me hear my surroundings, while still listening to music. Cyclists will likely appreciate this feature while riding in busy areas, as will pedestrians who frequently walk along busy streets.
Transparency mode isn't unique to Apple, though. In fact, Samsung offers a similar feature with its Galaxy Buds. ACN, meanwhile, is also available on Sony's (SNE) highly-regarded WF-1000XM3 earbuds, available for $229, but it's rather uncommon to find on most buds.
As for sound quality, the AirPods Pros sound far better than standard AirPods thanks to their ANC and seal.
Bass hits slapped harder, and guitar riffs shredded considerably more. It's really no contest between which sounds better. While the original AirPods provide quality audio, the Pros blow them away.
The standard AirPods have touch controls that let you do things like tap to answer calls, double tap to skip songs, tap three times to rewind, etc. But because the Pros go inside your ear more than the original AirPods, Apple said it needed to change out the tap controls so people weren't pushing the Pros deeper into their ear canals.
To that end, the company has added touch controls to the Pros’ stems. You can still perform the same basic gestures as you did with the originals, though you'll now have to squeeze the stems instead of tapping.
Long-pressing also now lets you switch between ACN and Transparency modes. Unfortunately, like the standard AirPods, there's still no physical volume controls on the Pros.
And of course, you can still use Siri hands-free by saying "Hey, Siri."
Apple has also changed the volume slider in the Control Center to let you ACN and Transparency. Simply swipe down to get the slider, and then long press on it to bring up the new menu. Alternatively, you can switch between ACN and Transparency via the Bluetooth settings menu.
Should you get them?
The AirPods Pros are certainly more expensive than the standard AirPods, but they're easily worth it. The ACN and Transparency modes work incredibly well, audio quality is top notch, and above all, they're comfortable to wear.
While $249 sounds expensive, it's important to point out that it's just $50 more than the AirPods that come with a wireless charging case, something you'll also find with the Pros.
If you're an Apple user, the AirPods Pro are the easy choice to make for truly wireless earbuds.
More from Dan:
Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.