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AirPods Pro review: Noise cancellation and improved design are valuable additions

Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributor

Apple AirPods Pro

9.2 / 5

pros and cons

  • Good battery life
  • New, smaller design
  • Noise cancellation is impressive
  • Expensive
  • Editors' review
  • Specs

Apple's $250 AirPods Pro do all of the things that the standard AirPods do. But, with a new design and new features, do they do it better? The Pro model includes noise cancellation -- something users and reviews have asked Apple for since the AirPods launched -- and a new design.

I've used AirPods from day one, and they're still one of my favorite gadgets of the past five years. The ease of pairing, auto-pausing music if you remove an earbud, extended range, battery life, and built-in Siri have made them indispensable for me.

So, when Apple unexpectedly announced the AirPods Pro, a significant upgrade over the standard AirPods, I immediately ordered a pair and anxiously awaited their arrival. I wasn't sure what to expect; the wireless earbud market is suddenly flooded with options from some of tech's biggest players, and the AirPods Pro are simply catching up with some of the newest products. And they're more expensive than regular AirPods. 

For the past week, I've been using the AirPods, Pro and all of the hype is justified. They're great.

Jason Cipriani/ZDNET


The AirPods Pro now have shorter stems and have ditched the one-size-fits-all earbud found on previous generation AirPods. The Pros have soft ear tips that can be replaced and swapped out, providing a tighter and more secure fit.

Preinstalled on the earbud is the medium size ear tip, with small and large included in the box. Also included in the box is a USB-C to Lightning charging cable.

On each stem is a flat spot that serves as an indicator of where you should squeeze to control playback or switch between noise cancellation and transparency modes. When you squeeze one of the stems, it feels like you pressed a button that clicks, but nothing actually moves. It's one of those psychological tricks that Apple has mastered.

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The case is roughly the same size as the standard AirPods case, only sideways. Actually, it's slightly larger but still compact enough that I haven't noticed a difference when it's in the front pocket of my pants. The charging case comes standard with Qi-wireless charging support, or you can use a Lightning cable to charge it.

Thanks to the new ear tips, I've found the AirPods Pro to be more comfortable than the standard AirPods. I've used both the small and medium-sized ear tips, and the AirPods Pro haven't fallen out or felt loose.

Even though I've used AirPods since they launched in 2016, I would often experience slight discomfort in my ears after extended use (on a long flight, for example). I haven't flown with AirPods Pro yet, but I have worn them until the battery ran out of power and that same discomfort was absent.

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

New features and performance

In addition to the new design, AirPods Pro also pack some new features. They're now IPX4-rated for water and sweat resistance. Apple also added Active Noise Cancellation and a Transparency Mode to the wireless earbuds. Meaning, when noise cancellation is enabled, the amount of ambient noise you hear will be minimal. Transparency Mode will allow some ambient noise in, making it possible for you to hear vehicles as you walk along a busy street or overhear announcements in an airport.

I've spent a lot of time using noise cancellation on the AirPods Pro, and it's some of the best I've used. I can go from transparency - hearing every word someone across the room is saying - to turning on noise cancellation, and then I can only see their lips moving. The heater in my office is loud and noisy, but with AirPods Pro and noise cancellation, the only way I know that it's running is when I feel the air it's pushing out across my hands.

I didn't expect noise cancellation to be impressively good, but just good enough. However, it is impressively good. I wish I could have tested them on a plane before writing this review, but I suspect they'll do a decent job drowning out the white noise of the engine and loud passengers. 

Apple puts the AirPods Pro battery life at five hours with noise cancellation turned off, and 4.5 hours with turned on. In combination with the charging case, you should expect around 24 hours of use. I haven't been able to test the full 24-hour claim, but I can say that my AirPods Pro have had no issues reaching Apple's estimates.

Of course, sound quality is a big part of the added cost for AirPods Pro. The Pros sound better than the standard AirPods, with more bass, and a little more depth to the sound quality overall. Some of that is likely due to the seal the new tips offer, along with the improved hardware.

To make sure you have the right ear tips installed on your AirPods Pro, there's an Ear Tip Fit Test built into iOS 13.2 (required to use the AirPods Pro) that will play some sound through the earbuds, and using the microphones to listen, it will determine if you're getting a proper seal between the ear tip and your ear. I was able to use both the small and medium ear tips and pass the test. Ultimately, I have been using the small ear tips because I found them more comfortable.


Which AirPods are the AirPods for you?

If you had a hard time keeping the original AirPods in your ears, or you wish your AirPods had noise cancellation to cut down on distractions while traveling or in a noisy office, the AirPods Pro are the only way to go.

For someone who wants the flexibility of AirPods, but doesn't care about wireless charging or added features, then the standard AirPods for $159 make the most sense.

For me, noise cancellation combined with the improved fit justify the added cost for the AirPods Pro. And I'd be willing to bet you'd feel the same way after trying them.