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Transparent mode is significantly better than the previous generation
Sound quality is clear and has a fuller range
Built-in case speaker to locate the AirPods is useful
New extra small (XS) ear tips give their fit more flexibility
Still one of the most expensive pairs of earbuds on the market
Connectivity chaos remains if you have multiple Apple devices
The original AirPods Pro have been such strong sellers that Tim Cook has called them Apple's "most popular model" and "the most popular headphones in the world." They also earned a spot on ZDNET's best wireless earbuds list.
Three years after the launch of the first premium AirPods, Apple is serving us the iPhone's newest side dish: the AirPods Pro 2. At first glance, they look practically identical to their successful predecessor. So, what exactly is different with the latest earbuds?
After using them for about a week, here's my take on everything from the fit and finish to the new sensor technology to the overall sound quality.
Dual beamforming microphones
Bluetooth 5.3, supporting AAC 56
Apple H2 headphone chip; Apple U1 chip in MagSafe charging case
Up to 6 hours of listening time standalone (up to 30 hours with case)
Let's address the elephant in the room…the AirPods Pro 2 look pretty identical to their first gen predecessor. I know many people, including myself, were expecting a new design. Alas, this was not the case -- although the AirPods case did get some noticeable upgrades that we'll dive into soon. I have to wonder if the lack of external change was less a lack of innovation and more a continuation of a classic. That is, have AirPods become as essential of an accessory as a briefcase for working professionals and a gym bag for gym rats?
As a working professional in New York City, I find wireless headphones are essential for getting across town unbothered. But even when I'm tuned out, I can't help but notice the number of AirPods dangling off the ears of pedestrians. While Apple may be straying from design trends like a pebble form factor or making different colors, it's clearly establishing AirPods Pro as the coveted Birkin Bag of the wireless headphone world.
While subtle, the engineering changes to the outside of the new AirPods do make for a different listening experience. To start, the acoustics vent has moved from the side of the earbud to the top. While you may not notice the difference right away, you will once you start listening, as I'll explain in a moment.
My favorite update is the inclusion of extra small (XS) ear tips. That's right -- AirPods' second generation now offers a fourth set of silicone ear tips in addition to the small, medium, and large ones. The ear tips -- already designed to create an acoustic seal that "locks in" the audio -- are comfortable, light, and with the inclusion of the extra small tip, fully fit my ears. I've been using the small ear tip with my AirPods Pros for the past year and while they have fit my ears, for the most part, I feel like I constantly had to adjust them -- especially when doing high-impact exercises. Naturally, I was excited to put the new tips to the test.
After getting embarrassingly sweaty from a warm-up jog on the treadmill and not having to once adjust the AirPods, I started to sprint. With my first generation AirPods Pro, it did not matter how perfectly I placed the buds in my ear before starting sprints; at least one always fell out. With the Pro 2's extra small ear tips, I sprinted at nine miles per hour (mph) twice -- each for 40 seconds -- and they stayed perfectly secure. My workout was uninterrupted and so was the audio.
Can you hear a difference?
The sound quality, at every level, is crystal clear on the Pro 2's. When it comes to music, both instrumentals and vocals have a full but vibrant sound and equally come through. I wanted to know, though, if I could tell the difference only because I was expecting a difference. So, I conducted a little experiment.
For direct comparison, I put the Pro 2 in my left ear and used the Samsung Galaxy Flip 4 to listen to the first half of Harry Styles' "Music for a Sushi Restaurant." I used an Android device to see if the AirPods Pro 2 were just as impactful when not paired with an iPhone or Apple-made gadget. On my right ear was the first-generation AirPods Pro. Personalized Spatial Audio was turned on for both.
I chose the song because it's particularly bass-heavy and incorporates brass instruments that supplement the mid-to-high frequencies. It's a song that explores a wide range of sounds.
In the left ear (the Pro 2), the vocals sounded clearer and the lyrics more enunciated. The trumpet and bass were not only full but I felt like I was in a sound booth listening to the band. The brass instruments were pronounced, and I picked up on instrumentals that I hadn't noticed in my previous (and numerous) listening sessions.
In my right ear, the sound was still good. But after listening with the Pro 2, I felt like I was listening to a more congealed-toned, warmer version of the song. The instruments didn't have their own shining moments as they did with the other earbuds, but overall, the sound was still clear and the bass was full. After a direct comparison, the trumpet had a bit of that "underwater" feeling. That is, I felt like after hearing the song in such clear quality at first, there was a sound that hadn't been unlocked or was being stifled somehow when I listened with the first generation Pros directly after.
All in all, the original AirPods Pro sound great. The AirPods Pro 2 just sound better.
With the iOS 16 update, AirPods introduced Personalized Spatial Audio (PSA). PSA implements custom ear and head mapping instead of a general algorithm that may not fit people with who don't have a "typical profile." One of the major improvements is the ability to make audio feel like it's coming from directly in front of you -- something I did notice with the new AirPods Pro 2. However, it's important to note that the iOS 16 update also enabled PSA for AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro Max, the AirPods Pro 2, and Beats Fit Pro.
Apple claims Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is about two times better with the H2 chip. By moving the microphone to the top of the earbuds and focusing on frequency level instead of volume, Apple did indeed improve the ANC capabilities. As I type these very words and listen to music at around 70% volume, I can't hear myself typing, my AC unit blast, or my roommate yelling at the TV as she watches Monday Night Football.
Walking down the streets of New York, I feel like I'm in my own world. While the ANC on the AirPods Pro (first gen) was good, I often felt disoriented with noise canceling -- like there was a white noise wall blocking my senses. With the Pros 2, the cancellation feels more natural and less artificial.
I was eager to see if the ANC was good enough to replace the earplugs I usually use during spin class. There's typically one particular spot under a speaker in my spin class that everyone avoids booking. It just gets too loud to work out comfortably in. So, I booked the spot and put the AirPods Pro 2 to the test. When I popped in the earbuds, they didn't drown out all the noise but I found that I was exposed to the right balance of internal and external sound. I was able to perfectly hear the instructor, stay on the beat, and enjoy my time without feeling like I was going deaf or missing out on the music. The best part: they didn't fall out of my ears and I didn't have to adjust them once.
Adaptive Transparency mode
One of the most impressive features of the AirPods Pro 2 is the updated Adaptive Transparency mode. As someone who lives in a very noisy city with lots of construction, I need to stay aware of my surroundings. Whether it's listening to make sure I don't miss my subway stop or the humming of an electric bike as I'm crossing the street, I need to be in tune with the world around me, even if I've got music playing. In my testing, the Pro 2's new Transparency mode effectively balances the sound around me with the audio in the earbuds. That said, I typically have to turn up the volume by about 25% when I transfer from ANC to Transparency mode.
A smarter charging case
For those who, like me, frequently misplace their AirPods case or let it slip between couch cushions, the addition of the speaker to the AirPods case itself has been long awaited. With the second generation, I can now ping my AirPods case using the Find My feature on my iPhone. With the earbuds, the speaker plays a chime series that is high-pitched -- so much so that I was able to locate the AirPods from the depths of my backpack in another room.
Charging and battery life
I am usually that person who forgets to charge their AirPods all week but still gets frustrated when they die mid-walk home from work. So I was happy to hear Apple's claim of a 33% boost in battery life -- totaling six hours of listening time and five charges from a fully charged case
The case still had a 65% battery charge after my first full day of testing the AirPods, which consisted of listening to music and podcasts throughout my commutes, during a workout, and on a two-hour flight. I was impressed.
In defense of my charging forgetfulness, I'm often faced with the choice of charging my iPhone or my AirPods. This new generation, however, can be topped up by an Apple Watch charger. Since my Apple Watch charger sits lonely by my desk most of the day, I can now put it to use to keep my AirPods case charged up.
Gesture features and sensors
Similar to the first generation of the AirPods Pro, you can press the stem once to pause or play audio and hold the stem to switch between ANC and Transparency mode(s). Additionally, you can now adjust the volume right from the AirPods' stems.
While the feature sounds great in theory, I found it awkward to adjust -- especially when I'm on the go. The stems require a bit of applied pressure for the volume to adjust, which means that your hand positioning has to be very close to your ear. Especially if you're on a run or moving quickly, I find it takes the same amount of time -- without the awkward hand placement -- to just turn up the volume from my phone.
I have also noticed that the skin sensors are more sensitive. So, I've had instances when I'd accidentally hang up a call or pause a song when all I wanted to do was adjust the audio.
While the AirPods Pro 2 are primarily an iPhone accessory, they can also connect to an Apple Watch, iPad or Mac. If you're logged into the same Apple account on all these devices then the AirPods are automatically available to connect. This can be super convenient because you don't have to mess with Bluetooth pairing as you do on other headphones.
However, the problem is that Apple has tried to make the AirPods smart enough to automatically switch between devices. If you have multiple Apple devices then this can quickly become chaotic and it can be one of the biggest problems with AirPods. The result is that it can sometimes be difficult to get your AirPods to switch back to your iPhone after they attach to a Mac or an iPad. So you have to go into settings and manually force them to the device you want. Software updates over the past year seem to have made it worse rather than better.
If you've run into this issue and you were hoping that the AirPods Pro 2 and the new H2 chip would help to fix it, I'm sorry to disappoint you. This is still a problem.
The AirPods Pro 2 are an encore of the originals, delivering improved audio quality in a more accessible form factor. A lot of the more physical, tangible updates are in the case, but there is no denying that the sound quality on these buds is the best yet. Whether or not that extra boost in sound quality or case functionality is worth the extra $70 depends on what you prioritize from your wireless earbuds.
If you're happy with the original AirPods Pro, you're not missing out too much. But if you want the best of Apple's wireless earbuds lineup and lose your charging case more than expected, then the new generation awaits.
For another perspective on the AirPods Pro 2, check out my colleague Jason Cipriani's video review here or watch below.