I was slow to hop on the AirPods bandwagon. I usually run with friends instead of by myself, and when I do work out alone, I prefer to think my own thoughts rather than fill my head with the voices of others. My primary use of earbuds has been to listen to podcasts while mowing the lawn in the summer, and they had to stay in my ears underneath earmuffs, which seemed unlikely to be true of AirPods. (There is a better solution. See “3M WorkTunes Headphones Make Yardwork More Tolerable,” 12 April 2019.)
Eventually, in late 2017, we bought a pair of AirPods, and Tonya took them over immediately. Even though she found Apple’s EarPods (and all other earbuds) actively uncomfortable, she quickly became an AirPods convert and wore them to listen to music while running on her own. I received my own pair of first-generation AirPods as a present in 2018 and used them occasionally, such as while on airplanes.
Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. With both of us needing to do many more Zoom calls, AirPods suddenly became more important, both for participating in calls and blocking out the other person’s voice. But after a run, one of Tonya’s AirPods disappeared (she often wears only one so she can hear cars better). We looked everywhere, but when it didn’t show up after several weeks, I ordered myself a pair of AirPods Pro (since I was intrigued by the noise cancellation features) and gave her my AirPods. A few more weeks later, in a miracle of household miracles, she found that the missing AirPod had fallen into a little-used drawer, so she gave me my AirPods back.
I would never have bought both the AirPods and AirPods Pro intentionally, but suddenly I could choose which I wanted at any given time. It was a natural experiment, and after over a month of regular use, I can declare a winner, at least for my ears and my use cases. Here’s my head-to-head comparison.
I’ll preface these comments with the admission that, while I don’t believe I have tin ears, I’m far from having golden ears. (What’s the fascination with using metal to qualify audio sensitivity? Maybe I have bronze ears.) That said, when it comes to general usage, I haven’t noticed any real difference between the AirPods and the AirPods Pro.
In an attempt to qualify that better, I connected both to my Mac and played my go-to test music—the “Brothers in Arms” album by Dire Straits from Apple Music—through one and then the other. Even with the same song and switching back and forth, I couldn’t really pick a winner. Switching the AirPods Pro between noise cancellation and transparency modes also made no difference, but I was in a quiet environment. When our house’s air conditioning came on, with a vent right behind my chair, the noise cancellation (both active and passive) made the AirPods Pro clearly better, particularly at lower volumes.
In an attempt to replicate how I test new running shoes against a known comfortable pair, I put an AirPod in one ear and an AirPod Pro in the other, and then switched back and forth using the Volume menu. That approach revealed that for a single earbud, the AirPods Pro outperformed the AirPods. Neither compared to the experience of having sound in both ears, but the AirPod Pro made it sound like the music was inside my head, whereas the AirPod sounded like a little speaker sitting in my ear.
The AirPods Pro get the nod here, though mostly if you believe you’ll be listening to music in environments where their noise cancellation can come into play. For quieter environments, it’s a wash.
It almost seems unfair to compare the AirPods and AirPods Pro in this regard because, of course, only the AirPods Pro have noise cancellation. With the AirPods, the best you can do is raise the volume in an attempt to drown out the external sound. I’ve done that on airplanes; I can’t imagine it was good for my hearing.
The noise cancellation in the AirPods Pro, on the other hand, can be near magical. The first time I used them, I was vacuuming the house. They were a revelation. The noise cancellation dampened the vacuum noise so significantly that I can’t imagine vacuuming without them again. I have no idea when I’ll set foot inside an airplane again, but there’s no question that I’ll be wearing the AirPods Pro when I do.
The AirPods Pro also have shorter stems, which means I can just fit them inside the earmuffs that I wear when mowing the lawn. I had hoped their noise cancellation would be sufficient to render the lawnmower as quiet as the vacuum cleaner, but honestly, it barely helped at all. When coupled with the passive noise protection provided by the earmuffs, however, the AirPods Pro noise cancellation did help. Unfortunately, they’re still fussy to keep in my ears while wearing the earmuffs, and I have to be careful not to knock them out when I remove the earmuffs.
Fit and Comfort
Here’s where I was most surprised. I was impressed by the comfort of the AirPods. I’m not as militant about hating earbuds as Tonya is, but I generally find them uncomfortable after a while. The AirPods, in contrast, seem to hang lightly in my ears. I wouldn’t want to wear them all day, but I don’t want to rip them off as soon as possible.
Interestingly, I think the comfort of the AirPods is due in part to their long stems, which help them balance in my ears. They fit well and stay in position even when I’m moving around vigorously. Although wired earbuds could be lighter, their cords messed up the balance even when they weren’t actively being pulled.
The comfort of the AirPods gave me high hopes for the AirPods Pro. With several more years of feedback and development, I figured Apple would have made them even more comfortable. Alas, that isn’t the case for me.
The problem is the silicone tips. To get the AirPods Pro to fit in your ears, you have to stuff the tips into your ear canals—it’s just how they’re designed. I dislike the constant pressure in my ears and the feeling of being sealed off from sounds around me. The listening test initiated from the iPhone tells me that the medium-size tips are best, though I can only get a good seal on the left by holding the AirPod Pro in with a finger. Switching to the small tips doesn’t seem to make any difference in comfort. (Getting the tips off is tricky, too.) Transparency mode helps reduce the sense of being cut off from the outside world, of course, but it’s still akin to having water in your ears all the time. Wearing the AirPods Pro doesn’t hurt, but I notice them constantly and breathe a sigh of relief every time I take them out.
The other problem with the silicone tips is that they cause the AirPods Pro to get a little loose over time. I’ve never had one fall out, but others have, and I often find myself pushing one more firmly into my ear.
It’s important to note here that people’s ear structures vary widely. I’ve heard many stories of people who agree with me about the comfort of the AirPods and an equal number who find the AirPods Pro more comfortable. Your mileage may vary, but if you don’t like one, you might like the other—they’re not all that similar.
So when it comes to fit and comfort, the AirPods win handily for me. I wasn’t expecting there to be so much difference, but when faced with a ringing iPhone and the two cases in front of me, I always grab the AirPods.
With the first-generation AirPods, you can control them only by double-tapping, but you get to choose two commands, one for each AirPod. The possibilities include Siri, Play/Pause, Next Track, Previous Track, and Off. I have a double-tap on the left AirPod set to invoke Siri and a double-tap on the right one to play or pause. It’s not an elegant control mechanism, but it works, especially when I’m moving.
For the second-generation AirPods (which I haven’t tested) and the AirPods Pro, Apple got fancy and enabled them to respond to “Hey Siri.” That lets you play and pause audio, move to the next or previous track, change the volume, and so on. Sometimes that hands-free approach works well, such as when I tried controlling audio while riding my bike. (After one ride, I decided I wasn’t comfortable with not hearing cars behind me.) But I’d be mortified if I had to talk to Siri in an airplane, or really anywhere in public.
Luckily, the AirPods Pro also have tiny force sensors on their stubby stems. A single press plays or pauses the audio. A double-press skips forward to the next track, and a triple-press skips back to the start of the current track. Pressing and holding lets you either invoke Siri (unnecessary unless people like pranking you by saying “Hey Siri” to your AirPods Pro) or toggle between noise control modes (noise cancellation, transparency, and off).
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I had to read Apple’s support page to figure out where force sensors were, and even now that I know, I often have to try a couple of times before my fingers squeeze in just the right place. Perhaps if I wore them more, it would become second nature, but that hasn’t happened yet.
I’m torn here—the AirPods Pro have more-flexible controls than the AirPods, but they require more manual dexterity than I often have when I’m exercising or doing yard work. But if forced to choose, I’d go with the simple double-tap on the AirPods. It’s just easier.
I also wasn’t expecting to care about the case design. Because of their shorter stems and silicone tips, the case for the AirPods Pro is shorter and wider than the case for the AirPods. Even rotated 90 degrees, it’s slightly larger in both dimensions, and it’s also a little thicker. It’s not bad, but where Apple got the heft and hand feel of the AirPods case absolutely perfect, the AirPods Pro case feels… slightly off.
I’m sure this varies depending on your hand size, but I find that the AirPods case is an addictive fiddle—it’s like that smooth stone from the beach that you just can’t put down. The AirPods Pro case, on the other hand, is a little large in my pocket and just doesn’t have the same addictive feel.
Similarly, the cover of the AirPods case snaps shut with an absolutely compelling little thunk at the end, whereas the AirPods Pro case cover… well, it just shuts. There’s nothing wrong with it, and you probably wouldn’t notice unless you were switching back and forth as I’ve been doing. But it’s not as good.
Finally, and you can probably guess where this is going, the AirPods fit into their case so smoothly and with a tiny magnetic assist that makes it seem like they’re happy to jump back in and get a charge. The AirPods Pro case has the same magnetic assist, but the silicone tips deaden the impact and eliminate the satisfying sense of the AirPods Pro snapping into position. Again, it’s far from bad, but it doesn’t compare.
Could these minor changes be related to the AirPods Pro being designed after Jonathan Ive left Apple? Or was there simply no way around the design challenges posed by the AirPods Pro?
So although it seems slightly unfair to put so much emphasis on the cases, I’ll cop to liking the AirPods case enough more that I grab it preferentially sometimes, just because it feels so good.
Making a Choice
Happily, I’ve ended up in a situation where I can choose between the AirPods and the AirPods Pro depending on what I’m doing. If noise cancellation is important, as it is when vacuuming or mowing the lawn, I always go for the AirPods Pro. (With iOS 14, the AirPods Pro will also get spatial audio for 3D sound, which might prove interesting. Though I doubt it—I just listen to music and podcasts.)
But for nearly everything else, I gravitate to the AirPods. They may stand out in my ears a bit more due to their long stems, but they’re more comfortable, and their case is a marvel of modern design that borders on artistry. Battery life is comparable, though my AirPods are older and thus don’t last as long as they once did.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that if you’re wondering which one to buy, I recommend the AirPods for most people. Part of that recommendation is based on price. The AirPods with a normal Lightning charging case cost $159. If a wireless charging case is important to you (I’ve not used one), that bumps the price to $199. I gather the AirPods are often on sale for even less. Unless you anticipate regularly needing the noise cancellation to block out the sound of airplane engines or industrial machinery, there’s just no reason to pay the premium $249 price of the AirPods Pro.