The AirPods have been one of Apple’s most popular products of the last few years, so it wasn’t surprising when Apple introduced the second-generation AirPods (“Second-Generation AirPods Gain “Hey Siri” and Optional Wireless Charging,” 20 March 2019). More surprising is today’s release of the AirPods Pro, which build on those features to address some of the criticisms of Apple’s wireless earbuds. The new capabilities come with a price hike to $249, which includes a Wireless Charging Case. The AirPods Pro require at least the just-released iOS 13.2, iPadOS 13.2, and the upcoming watchOS 6.1, tvOS 13.2, and macOS Catalina 10.15.1.
(Warning—the scrolljacking on the AirPods Pro product page is slow, clumsy, and annoying; you’re better off reading Apple’s press release if you don’t have all day to scroll.)
Most notably, Apple redesigned the AirPods Pro for improved comfort and fit. Although the original AirPods were lauded by many who found the wired EarPods uncomfortable, plenty of people still had trouble wearing the AirPods. Each of the AirPods Pro earbuds comes with three sizes of soft, flexible, silicone ear tips. Apple says the ear tips use a vent system to equalize pressure and reduce discomfort. By sealing the ear canal, the ear tips block more outside noise.
The AirPods Pro also offer an Ear Tip Fit Test, presumably accessed in iOS 13.2 or iPadOS 13.2, which somehow tests the quality of the seal and identifies the best ear tip size for you. The test’s algorithms measure the sound level in each ear and compare it to what’s coming from the speaker driver, then suggest if you need a different ear tip or should adjust the seal.
Although the ear tips should provide some level of passive noise cancellation, the real win will come from the new Active Noise Cancellation mode. It uses a pair of microphones—one facing out to sample the external environment and the other facing inward—and advanced algorithms that adapt the sound signal 200 times per second to cancel background noise. For frequent flyers, the AirPods Pro may be well worth the money for the active noise cancellation alone. Perhaps traveling business professionals are the audience that supports the “Pro” moniker.
However, there’s a problem with noise cancellation—passive or active—which is that sometimes you want to be able to listen to your music or podcast or audiobook without being entirely isolated from your environment. Runners need to be able to hear cars, bikes, and other runners—once, in a single-track trail race, I seriously startled an earbuds-wearing woman when I brushed past her too closely because she hadn’t been able to hear my shouted warnings as I overtook her. (Luckily, she couldn’t hear my subsequent imprecations either.) And anyone who commutes by bus, train, or plane needs to be able to hear important announcements.
To enable that, Apple has created Transparency mode, which adjusts the noise cancellation levels to ensure that your own voice sounds natural to you. Presumably, that’s a stand-in for being able to hear important sounds around you. You can switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency modes using a new “force sensor” on the stem of the AirPods—is that Apple’s new term for a pressure-sensitive button? Alternatively, the volume slider in Control Center or the AirPlay icon on an Apple Watch both let you adjust modes. The AirPods Pro force sensor also enables you to play, pause, or skip tracks, and answer or hang up phone calls—for anything more, you can use Siri.
Active Noise Cancellation mode does consume more battery power, dropping the standard 5 hours of listening time to 4.5 hours. But the AirPods Pro boast 3.5 hours of talk time, which is up to 30 minutes more talk time than the second-generation AirPods. As with previous AirPods models, the Wireless Charging Case provides additional charges for up to 24 hours of listening time or 18 hours of talk time.
Apple makes much of the immersive sound quality of the AirPods Pro, using lots of breathless adjectives. The AirPods Pro probably sound better than the AirPods, but we’ll have to wait for the audiophiles to weigh in on whether such purple prose is warranted:
AirPods Pro deliver superior sound quality with Adaptive EQ, which automatically tunes the low- and mid-frequencies of the music to the shape of an individual’s ear—resulting in a rich, immersive listening experience. A custom high dynamic range amplifier produces pure, incredibly clear sound while also extending battery life, and powers a custom high-excursion, low-distortion speaker driver designed to optimize audio quality and remove background noise. The driver provides consistent, rich bass down to 20Hz and detailed mid- and high-frequency audio.
The AirPods Pro with Wireless Charging Case are available to order now for $249 and will start arriving on 30 October 2019. The second-generation AirPods remain available for $159 with the wired charging case or $199 with a Wireless Charging Case. The Wireless Charging Case itself remains priced at $79.
We’ll see if Apple can produce sufficient quantities of the AirPods Pro to meet demand, a challenge that took the company quite some time to meet for the original AirPods.