Regular readers will know that I've been testing a lot of earbuds lately. While my daily drivers are a pair of Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro, I've also been using Sony's WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling earbuds and Amazon's Echo Buds with built-in Alexa, both with mixed results. They're good, but both have peculiarities that make them less than ideal.
So much so that I found myself going back to the Liberty 2 Pro buds.
Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.
Which brings me to the Apple AirPods Pro buds.
Must read: The ultimate MacBook USB-C accessory just got better
AirPods Pro buds seem to be selling like hotcakes, or maybe that should be changed to selling like AirPods Pro buds, with Apple unable to get me a set for almost a month. However, I went off and spoke to a few people, who went off and spoke to other people, and I managed to get a set delivered overnight.
They arrived, I peeled them from their packaging, and within five minutes I was convinced that they are the best earbuds that money can buy.
Sounds good, right? It isn't.
Let me explain.
Let's start at the beginning. The AirPods Pro are Apple's noise-canceling version of the AirPods. They're smaller and sleeker than the AirPods and come with an even heftier $249 price tag.
There's my first issue. $249 is a lot of money for a set of earbuds. For that sort of money, they don't need to be good, they need to be pretty much perfect.
And they are pretty much perfect.
Simple touches -- like Transparency Mode (which allows the outside noise in, which makes it feel like you're not wearing earbuds) coming on automatically when you have one bud in, and noise-canceling kicking in when you add the second -- are welcomed. And these features work and work flawlessly.
But, still, $249 is a lot of cash, especially when you factor in other things which I will come to later.
But it is worth noting that when people are willing to shell out such a big chunk of cash for earbuds that work well, it highlights just how dire the competition has become.
AirPods Pro: Yeah, they are so good, but for all the wrong reasons (in pictures)
The AirPods Pro are also beautifully engineered. Small, sleek, comfortable, have great audio output while at the same time doing a magical job of shutting out the rest of the world, and are insanely easy to use. Everything from the initial set up to operating the buds is just mind-blowingly miraculous. The clicker for operating different modes is brilliant, and so much better than the touchpad that other companies seem to be using. It offers all the tactile feedback of a button, without being a button.
After fiddling with fickle touchpads for a while, Apple's solution is like a breath of fresh air.
Which brings me to another issue: No other company can compete with Apple in this field because no other company can build support for its product directly into the iOS platform. No apps are needed for the AirPods Pro, and there's no tedious pairing process. You bring the case up to the iPhone, open it, and the buds and case connect automagically, complete with cool graphics.
It's so simple because everything needed to support AirPods has been built into hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and other Apple devices.
It's game over for the other players in terms of earbuds. Just as Apple gave its apps an advantage over other apps in the App Store, Apple has given itself a massive ecosystem advantage. And I doubt that this will be the last area that Apple builds an advantage for itself into iOS.
And this makes me very uncomfortable.
AirPods Pro and how they are tightly integrated into iOS
Perhaps it is time for the Bluetooth stack to get an upgrade that allows more modern features related to earbuds because it's clear from my testing that earbuds and headphones that rely on an app offer a poor user experience compared to what Apple can offer.
Sure, it allows Apple to make a supremely remarkable product, but others cannot compete, so the price will always be what Apple deems it to be.
It's a locked ecosystem. Apple allows others a toe into its garden, but the good stuff it saves for itself.
Then there's the hardware. Beautiful in almost every way, comfortable to wear, flawless in the way it works.
But also profoundly limited in how long they will last. After two years original AirPods owners were starting to report that battery life was down to minutes, but you might be lucky and get three or more years or decent usage. But be in no doubt, these are disposable items, and the memory of dropping $250 on the earbuds might still be reasonably vivid by the time they start giving you problems.
Let's assume a worst-case that they last a couple of years, then the AirPods Pro cost you $125 a year, or about $2.50 a week. I'll let you choose whether that's a good value or not.
But be in no doubt, it's unlikely that you'll be passing these down to someone unless the limerence melts away quickly and you get rid of them.
Apple will replace the batteries for $150, but that's a lot of cash, and a significant chunk of the cost of an outright replacement, so I wonder how many will go down the route of getting Apple to fix them.
Forget about trying to repair them yourself, because you'll fail and end up with a bunch of bits. I understand that it's hard to make something that's this small and integrated, and still keep it repairable, but the short lifespan, combined with the zero repairability, makes the AirPods Pro -- and AirPods, along with every other product in this category -- a crime against Mother Nature.
So, yes, the AirPods Pro are great. They are like not wearing earbuds. I never liked the first-gen AirPods -- they just wouldn't stay in my ears -- but these are something I can comfortably wear for hours, and get to the point where I forget they are in my earholes.
Sony WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling earbuds
But they are also an abomination. The limited lifespan and zero repairability are hard to swallow. The price is startling. The fact that they rely on so much support baked into iOS that other manufacturers cannot access is also worrying because it gives Apple such a leg up over all the competition.
So, yeah, AirPods Pro are the best, but for all the wrong reasons.