Note: This article was first published on 4 November 2019.
Apple didn’t just slap on additional microphones and circuitry into the AirPods and call it a day. Oh no, the AirPods Pro have an all-new design and a couple of interesting new features. Let’s go through them now:
All-new design ― The AirPods Pro are considerably stockier than the regular AirPods and you will notice that they have a considerably shorter stem. The change in design is due to the need to accommodate microphones and circuitry for the active noise-cancelling feature and also to improve comfort. Apple was obsessed with comfort and fit and took thousands of more 3D ear scans to arrive at the final design of the AirPods Pro.
To further improve fit and audio performance, the AirPods Pro have silicone ear tips. Apple knows not everyone likes in-ear headphones and it has gone to great pains to make sure the AirPods Pro are as comfortable as they can be. To start, three different sizes of silicone ear tips are provided. Because not everyone is fond of sticking things into their ears, Apple has designed their silicone ear tips in such a way that the tips themselves are very short and do not intrude deep into the ears. This is achieved by using a special mounting point that is almost non-existent, and by tapering the internal rubber passageway to minimise contact inside your ears. Finally, a system of vents helps equalise pressure so that you don’t get that stuck feeling in your head. The specially designed mounts also prevent the ear tips from detaching by accident.
Ear Tip Fit Test ― As I mentioned, Apple is obsessed with fit. As they should be, because how good any in-ear headphone or earbud sounds depends largely on how good a seal you can get with the ear tips. To help users get the most out of their AirPods Pro, the Ear Tip Fit Test plays a short test track and measures the sound within your ears. The test then tells users if they have a good seal and are using the right silicon ear tip or if they should switch to another silicon ear tip to get a better seal.
Active noise-cancellation ― This is the highlight of the AirPods Pro. They work similarly to other active noise-cancelling headphones. Microphones listen out for unwanted noise and tell the headphones to generate a waveform that is the exact negative so that the two cancel each other out. In the case of the AirPods Pro, there are two microphones. One external one that listens for outside noise, and an internal one that listens for any remaining noise within your ears. Apple boasts that the AirPods Pro continuously listens and adjusts the noise-cancellation at 200 times per second.
Transparency mode ― This mode lets you hear the world around you using the microphones. Using the external microphone and its system of vents, the AirPods Pro pipes sound from the world around you into your ears. This mode isn’t unique to Apple as many other noise-cancelling headphones have similar modes. However, Apple says the AirPods Pro’s execution is more natural-sounding.
Adaptive EQ ― People hear things differently because our ears are shaped differently. To ensure the best audio performance, the AirPods Pro also takes readings from the internal microphone and tunes the low and mid frequencies of the sound to accommodate for the differences in ear shape. Adaptive EQ is built into the AirPods Pro and works constantly in the background and cannot be deactivated.
Force sensor ― A capacitive force sensor sits in the stems of the earpieces and are your means of controlling the AirPods Pro. A single press plays and pauses your music, as well as answers calls. Two presses skip forward. Three presses skip back. Press and hold onto the stem to switch between active noise cancellation and Transparency modes.
To begin, let me state that my ears are quite forgiving and it’s not often that I find headphones uncomfortable to wear. Nevertheless, I thought the AirPods Pro were one of the most comfortable headphones I have ever experienced. No doubt Apple’s attention to details played a part, but an equally important factor is weight. At just a smidge over 5g, the AirPods Pro are one of the lightest true wireless headphones in the market. Rivals like the Sony WF-1000XM3, Jabra Elite 65T, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless are all about a gram heavier. It doesn’t sound much but that’s over 20% heavier and for true wireless headphones, that’s a substantial amount and the additional weight has a profound effect on how they fit and feel in your ears.
Yes. Considering the diminutive size of the earpieces, noise cancellation in the AirPods Pro is impressive. They block out a great deal of external noise. With noise cancellation activated, in home and the office, the hum of the aircon and the whirr of printers are imperceptible. Walking around, you are hardly aware of the buzz of the streets. I haven’t had the chance to try them on the plane but I think they should do well too. I played a jet engine noise test track and the AirPods Pro performed almost as good as my full-size Sony noise cancellers.
That said, I still think full-size noise-cancelling headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have the edge, but they are so much bulkier and pricier. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons.
Transparency mode is, I think, the most impressive thing about the AirPods Pro. Rival noise-cancelling headphones have similar modes but they have always sounded unnatural to me. With them, it sounds like I’m listening to a digitised version of the world around me, without certain frequencies artificially emphasised. Your own voice, in particular, often sounds like it has been put through a synthesiser.
The AirPods Pro, on the other hand, sounds uncannily natural. I suspect its system of vents has a huge role to play. Your voice sounds just like you’d think it would sound ― and so does other people’s. This means you don’t have to take off your AirPods Pro if you are trying to have a conversation. Just pause the music and activate Transparency mode. The only problem is that since you have something in your ears, whoever you are talking to might look at you weird because they will be wondering if you can actually hear them.
If you have listened to any AirPods or Beats headphone, you’d find that the AirPods Pro sound similar and consistent. The AirPods Pro has new “Apple-designed, high excursion, low-distortion” drivers but you can immediately hear the resemblance to the AirPods and even the PowerBeats Pro.
Technically, the AirPods Pro have decent detail retrieval and clarity. As for the overall sound signature, the bass is strong, impactful, but not necessarily the cleanest. The mids are fairly smooth though they are somewhat recessed. The highs are noticeably recessed.
The upside to such a sonic signature is that just about every genre sounds agreeable and pleasant. Dance and electronic tracks have sufficient low-end, music that’s focused on vocals sound intimate enough, and classical music that’s heavy on pianos and strings never gets too grating.
The downside is that discerning listeners might find the AirPods Pro’s tuning a little boring and safe. It doesn’t sound as exciting or involving as some other headphones. That said, the AirPods Pro are very solid sounding headphones that get the fundamentals right. It’s just a matter of personal taste.