Apple AirPods Pro Noise Cancelling Earphones Review
One of the most anticipated headphone releases in the past year, Matthew Jens decides whether these new noise-cancelling wireless earbuds make the grade.
Wireless Noise Cancelling Earphones
If I asked you to sit back and tell me what you thought were the most popular headphones in the world, what would be your answer? Beats? Bose? That wouldn't be surprising, but you'd be way off the mark. With over 35 million units sold worldwide, the original Apple AirPods are – by quite some margin – the most purchased headphone in the world. The popularity of this product exceeds even the mighty Koss PortaPro or Beats Studio.
Apple has now released a brand new addition to its headphone lineup: AirPods Pro. The company says the original AirPods will remain on sale and that this new in-ear version will not be replacing it. While its S$379 price point might seem like a big ask to some, it's a much easier pill to swallow once you compare it to similar releases such as the Sennheiser's True Wireless Momentum (S$469) and Sony's WF1000XM3 (S$349).
This pricing hasn't chased away the market, either. I tried to secure a pair of these as a gift for someone, and every store I rang told me the same thing – that there's a nationwide shortage due to high demand. Sheesh – can't say I've ever had that with a pair of headphones before!
The feature list of the AirPods Pro is impressive. It sports the same H1 chip found in the AirPods, with this new version now boasting noise-cancelling, IPX4 water resistance, a wireless charging case and interchangeable silicone tips. So, the manufacturer of the most popular headphone on planet Earth has now come back to the table with an upgraded version. Can this newer, smaller and sleeker model live up to the legacy that its younger sibling has created?
On paper, the Apple AirPods Pro are noise-cancelling wireless earbuds, but in reality, they're so much more. True to the company's well-known design philosophy, the product is simple and easy to comprehend on the outside, but jam-packed full of tech and intelligent engineering on the inside.
Take the storage case, for example. Not only does it have wireless charging built-in, but it also provides the AirPods Pro with a day's worth of portable charging – and can provide an hour of listening time with only a five-minute charge. It has impossibly smooth curves, an effortless hinge and highly pleasing aesthetic design.
The AirPods Pro mimics this marvel of engineering, curvature, colouring, and aesthetic. There are a few telltale signs that this new model was cut from the same cloth as the previous AirPods – the external shape is similar, but this time with an in-ear design and a slightly smaller stalk. These buds aren't just fancy looking, but also are shaped in a unique way to complement the curvature of the human ear. I found it easy to get a decent fit within seconds and didn't feel like I was wearing heavy acrylic or plastic shells like I usually would with a traditional IEM.
Indeed Apple has gone to great lengths to ensure that everyone gets a good fit because inside the box are three sets of tips, each with a unique plaster inner ring that stops them from ever slipping off accidentally. As for fitting tips on to an earphone, this is by far the best design I have come across. Apple has also thrown in an electronic 'fit test' on any device running iOS, utilising in-built microphones inside the AirPods Pro to ensure a perfect fit.
Gone are the awkward tapping gestures of the original AirPods. Instead, this newer model has a 'force sensor' on each bud which responds to squeeze-based gestures for controlling actions such as playing/pausing music, track skipping or answering calls. These sensors also allow you to adjust the level of noise-cancelling without having to open the app on your phone – particularly useful when you're out and about.
While the AirPods Pro seamlessly integrates into the iOS operating system, it works surprisingly well with Android devices too – albeit with fewer bells and whistles. There's still the same core feature set such as noise-cancelling and gesture-based controls.
On the inside, the proprietary H1 chip handles all the technical business. This means that compared to the original first edition AirPods, the AirPods Pro contains Bluetooth 5.0, “Hey Siri” compatibility and considerably less latency. Sadly however the H1 chip misses out on aptX or LDAC compatibility, which is a notable omission from a premium product in this price range. Shame, that.
OUT AND ABOUT
Much like other products that bear the Apple logo, the AirPods Pro has an unbelievably smart approach to an intuitive design. For example, placing one ear in will activate 'transparency mode', allowing you to hear all of your surroundings correctly. Putting in the remaining earpiece will enable the full noise-cancelling mode, allowing you to shut out the outside world.
Speaking of the noise-cancelling, it's quite good but don't expect the same levels of isolation you would get from – say – the Bose NC70. The level of isolation is genuinely awe-inspiring for a small IEM, and would be perfect for drowning out the engine noise of a flight. A pity then that the battery only lasts for five hours. or around four and a half with noise-cancelling switched on – which is barely enough juice to get to Perth from Melbourne. This is worth considering if you intend to use these solely for air travel, rather than just for getting out and about.
Equipping both my iPad Pro and Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, I spent several weeks listening to the AirPods Pro. The standout sonic characteristic is the bass response, or lack thereof. The sound signature reminds me a lot of the Apple Dual Driver IEM from 2010; there's a crisp, forward and natural midrange emphasis up top, and a spritely upper bass thump, but not too much rumble down below. Despite the lack of deep reach, the bass is still fun. It's lean and clean-cut, with a textured and accurate presentation. It's a similar story up high, with just enough upper-mid to squeeze every last vocal detail out of music without introducing any painful sizzle or offensive piercing into the mix.
A magnificent showpiece for these earphones is On My Knees by UNKLE and Michael Kiwanuka. While this is a jam-packed track with many elements playing in at once, its mastering is world-class. And despite only using the AAC codec, the AirPods Pro renders this track with ease, retaining all of the emotion, body and nuance that my more expensive cabled headphones squeeze from this piece of music. The vocals are crisp, clear and punchy, and still allow the piano samples to drift underneath without any smearing or muddiness.
Taking a step back and a deep breath, I decided to test the AirPods Pro with the delicate simplicity of The Gift by Joep Beving. This song is just one long recording of a man playing the piano; no vocals, no samples, just a piano for three and a half minutes. With this piece comes a challenge in dynamic range and detail that the AirPods Pro was happy to accept, being good enough even for critical listening. However, I found myself missing some of the detail and depth that I'm usually accustomed to from this song – the kind of air and soul that a premium Sennheiser or Shure offering delivers when paired with a decent portable DAC, for example.
When noise-cancelling is enabled, the AirPods Pro utilises an 'Adaptive EQ' which Apple claims “automatically tunes the low- and mid-frequencies of the music to the shape of an individual's ear”. It tunes the sound hundreds of times a second, similar to how a pair of Nuraphones would.
Overall then, the sound signature feels well balanced with no offensive frequencies sticking out. Indeed if anything, you might call it 'safe' because it's highly accomplished at many things without excelling in any one area. Considering the enormous market reach this product has, it makes total sense for it to have been so shrewdly voiced. Don't confuse 'safe' with 'bad' though – this product sounds terrific across a wide variety of musical genres. And this is all the more surprising considering it lacks aptX Bluetooth. I was genuinely surprised at how much critical listening I found myself doing.
So, one of the most successful companies on the planet sets out to create an upgraded model of its flagship – which was one of the most popular headphones on the planet. In this reviewer's opinion, it has succeeded. This newer, smaller and sleeker AirPods Pro package is impressive even to a headphone snob like me. Despite not having aptX compatibility or colossal battery life, the pure sound quality and usability are difficult to deny for a true wireless IEM. I hate how much I love these things!
For more information, visit Apple.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.
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