AirPods Versus AirPods Pro: Apple’s Earbuds Go Head-to-Head
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.
Adam, did you have any problems with the AirPods Pro falling out? Mine do it on occasion, and I can usually feel it happening, so usually I push it back in before it actually pops out, but not always. I’ve had to rescue one from the garbage disposal. I’d never bicycle with them or any other headphones (I did try a Coros helmet with built in bone conduction speakers, but it didn’t work well and eventually one of the speakers fell out). But I do wear headphones cross country skiing, and I’d never wear my AirPods for that given this problem. (Never find one if it fell in the snow). For lawn mowing i wear my over-the-ear Shivr headphones, which noise cancel and are much easier to find than my AirPods if they fall off.
Yes! I meant to mention that. I’ll add it. I’m not sure they’ve every quite fallen out, but they often feel as though they’re no longer seated in my ears well. A quick press with a finger stuffs it back into my ear canal, but that’s never necessary with the AirPods.
I have been put off by the look of the air pods since they were released. They look like earrings. I know that’s petty but it is what has put me off from buying them and why I am much more likely to buy the air pods pro. I got some for my wife and she loves them. By the way, I have never cared for or used the earbuds that came in the box with the iPhone or iPod. I prefer something with a rubber like tip to hold the earpiece in place.
When I got my Airpods Pro some gentleman stopped me on the street, looked me over from one side, then then the other … and said “they don’t suit you” and wandered off.
What could I do but laugh?!
That was always necessary for me with the AirPods. With the Pros I have to do it occasionally, but not nearly as often. Best of all, because the Pros create a hermetic seal, when they start to get loose it changes the sound and the way they feel, so I noticed it and catch it before it pops out.
With the regular AirPods I had terrible problems of them popping out at random times and I was much more worried about losing them. (I once had one pop out without warning while on an airplane and I was scrambling around trying to find it under the seats before someone stepped on it.)
So I vastly prefer the Pros.
My ears never took to Apple’s earbuds and AirPods. They fall out in a matter of seconds. I’ve always had to have my own headphones.
My kids gave me AirPods Pro for my birthday, and they present no such issues, I did buy some memory foam tip alternates for them and they are ultra secure in there but but the included tips do the job fine and are less ‘present’. I find I do notice them on insertion but forget pretty quickly that I have them in. The transparent mode is terrific I think. Looking forward to auto-switching…
…or unless, like me, you named your dog Cerie a decade ago, and as a result have had to immediately disable “hey Siri” on every new Apple device you’ve bought to avoid both canine and silicon confusion.
I’ve tried them both. In order to get the AirPods to fit in my ears, I have to put the right one in the left ear, and vice versa. And even then, they don’t fit snugly.
I could not get a proper seal with the AirPods Pro; not with any of the three tips.
And since I normally wear hearing aids, I don’t have much opportunity to wear them in the first place. When I’m watching AppleTV or something on my iMac and there’s someone sleeping in the house is when I mostly use them. Oh, by “them”, I mean the original AirPods; I returned the Pro model.
I too have both AirPods and AirPods Pro and prefer the comfort of the AirPods. I did buy Bulletz memory foam tips for the Pros that are much more comfortable than the silicone. I have used my AirPods and now 2nd gen AirPods under ear protection muffs for years with a simple trick: put left AirPod in right ear upside down so the stalk projects up and same for other side. The ear muffs fit easily now. It takes a little wiggling to get them to register as in my ears sometimes, but it works great. The AirPods Pro are uncomfortable under ear muffs for me.
I’ve gone back to using AirPods rather than AirPods Pro most of the time, mainly because they don’t suddenly pop out of my ears without warning (a worry if I’m out walking). I also prefer the simplicity of double tapping to stop/start.
Great comments here, folks, and they make it clear just how variable our ears are. I was careful to specify that all my comments were specific to my ears, but even so I think I’ll say more about how your mileage may vary.
OK, that’s hilarious. I know someone named Siri, but haven’t seen her in years. She runs a plant nursery that has a booth at the Ithaca Farmers Market and while I would be a little surprised if she was an Apple user (in a big way, if at all), I could imagine all sorts of issues with devices near her when people come up and greet her.
You also have to be careful if you watch “The Witcher” on Netflix. “Hey, Ciri…”
Comply just released memory foam tips for the Pros which make a huge difference for me. I’ve had fit problems with the standard tips and had the occasional AirPod fall out. The comply tips fix this issue completely and improve the passive noise reduction at the same time.
I’ve never loved the AirPod sound quality. I find the “tiny speaker on my ear” feeling creates a literal divide between myself and whatever music I’m listening to, whereas the Pros are much more immersive.
One thing you don’t seem to mention, Adam, is using AirPods vs AirPods Pro on phone calls.
I also have both types of AirPods, splurging out on the Pro as an impulse buy on day 1 when I happened to be in Sydney, walking past the Apple Store just as it opened (there was a shortish queue). To me, noise reduction is a big thing so it was easy to justify. And the initial purchase experience was a bit long, but quite fun!
The Pros are great, though the sound suppression is noticeably less than when I got them after a few firmware updates. And they are more comfortable and stay in my ears better. I like them.
Both types have great sound as you say. Walking through the city on the phone, the Pros win hands down for listening.
But talking is a different story. The Pros for me transmit more sound through the outer ear as they contact more firmly. That means I can hear myself in a muffled way while talking which is very distracting. Distracting enough that I try to make all of my phone calls with the original AirPods rather than the Pro.
And hopefully with the updates announced at WWDC, moving frequently between iphone/ipad/mac will be much smoother for both kinds of AirPods.
It’s not just ambient noise that the noise cancelling of AirPods Pro are good for in our exciting pandemic times. Caroline and I are frequently on the phone within earshot of one another – and since coronavirus, with little respite – and the noise cancelling is suprisingly good at reducing one anothers’ voices to distant or inaudible.
I loved my AirPods, but I love my AirPods Pro even more – and I use them in transparency mode a lot, too. I’m amazed at how well it works – I often forget they’re in my ears, though I am sharply reminded of them when I speak, and that part I don’t like as much. I think which one prefers is affected by ear shape and individual preference more than any individual factor.
Also, the batteries last a really impressively long time on the Pros, though maybe the batteries in my regular AirPods have just seen their best days and I forgot what I used to get out of them.
I agree that the case feels less kinetically and aesthetically satisfying, but I find it easier to insert the AirPods. And I agree that both sound superb. (And why doesn’t either case have an Apple logo on it?)
I’ve found the sound much better with the Pros. This is a matter of individual ears, of course. Although the regular AirPods rarely fell out, they also rarely stayed sealed tight enough to maintain good bass (as good as bass can be from tiny speakers). The Pros stay sealed and thus maintain their full spectrum of frequencies. They do infrequently fall out if I don’t have the stem pointed just right, but so did the regular AirPods.
For airplane and lawn mowing noise cancellation, I wear my Bowers & Wilkins PX over-the-ear phones.
People are free to have opinions, and to keep them to themselves.
WRT the missing AirPod, did you not know you can ping each AirPod [yep individually], from the “Find My” app? It is magical…and it works. You get close using geolocation and then ping them, unfortunately, they actually have to be out of their case for this to work. You cannot ping them in the case. Surely you knew this and just forgot to?
In terms of the comparison, here is my 2c worth:
4., An typical, Apple added value. The transparency feature is not avaialble on any other device, to my knowlege and is excellent at keeping you safe as a pedestrian.
Very nice review. Informative while also describing your own needs. And not poo pooing people with needs that differ from your own.
If I bought either one – I still use wired earbuds because I’m cheap – definitely the Airpods Pro. I’ve learned from using the wired Apple earpods how much noise I encounter during my commute, I take the DC metro. When I use Apple airbuds I have to pause my podcasts frequently because I can’t hear the podcasts. So for me noise cancelling is the most important feature when comparing the two. If I didn’t take mass transit every day – or just 2 days a week for the time beaing – other factors would be more important to me.
A good point! I think I agree with you in general that the AirPods Pro make for a slightly weirder talking experience.
I did know that, and I think Tonya tried it with no luck, but I honestly don’t remember.
This was useful. I ran my AirPods through the wash earlier this year. I’m hoping only the case is wrecked, but if I’m not that lucky I’ll have to pick between the models. I think I’ll stick with the AirPods.
I also discovered this and was deeply disappointed. I’m good about putting the pods back into the case. But I didn’t know where in the house the case was. And so Find My was no help. So, I’m penalized for being less reckless than the guy who leaves the pods scattered around!
How hard would it be to put a tiny beeper in that case?
I have never found the fit of any Apple earbuds tolerable for even a moment until the Pros. They can wiggle loose, but that’s a world better than never fitting at all and falling right out.
The noise cancellation can be helpful but it’s not a stunning effect. I use it a lot nonetheless.
But to me the real magic of the Pros, and what I don’t hear anyone giving enough attention to, is Transparency mode. That alone is the deal winner here. The fact that I don’t have to remove them to chat with someone is huge. And then flip modes to block out sound and re-immerse… I don’t have long blocks of time where I don’t need to hear my environment at least for a few seconds. This way I easily can switch over with a simple squeeze.
Any more, I can’t imagine spending more than $50 on any earbuds that can’t give me the key usability feature I get with Transparency.
I’ve only had AirPod Pros so my perception is definitely biased, but just the other day, I happened to glance at my sister-in-law’s AirPods case, and did a double-take because the shape looked kind of weird to me.
I like the tight seal of the in-ear AirPod Pros, but then my ear shape is one that needs something that fits snugly. I have so many never-used pairs of the old wired EarPods, because they simply never worked for me - they’d fall out instantly, with the slightest movement of my face.
Back in the before-time, I rode the subway in NYC every day, and anything that didn’t have at least passive noise reduction was pointless - one reason I loved (and still love) my Beats X, which block out then noise of the subway pretty effectively. On the subway, the AirPod Pros noise cancellation is magical, yet, I can still hear enough of what’s going on around me to not feel like I have zero situational awareness.
I have felt the AirPod Pros gradually start slipping after extended use; It sounds gross, but I think it’s because of the gradual build-up of oils in your ear canal. A little warm water rinse of the tips every so often usually helps - but I think that’s why some people swear by foam, rather than silicon tips. That said, I’ve used my AirPod Pros - in Transparency mode - on bike rides and runs with no issue (so far).
This is a cause of problems in the NYC Subway system:
The sidewalk grates are a problem too, though I’ve heard success stories of MTA workers retrieving them for people who had lost them.
And a lot of other stuff, including an engagement ring about to be exchanged during a proposal:
And the MTA has had problems with missing iPhones in addition to those lost on the subway system:
New York is an Apple kind of town.
Sadly, it’s not just Apple gear that gets stolen and it’s not just New York. A couple of years ago, we accidentally left an Amazon Kindle on an Amtrak train. We reported it immediately, but it was never found. We assume it was stolen and sold on the black market.
We immediately went to Amazon’s web site to lock the device and have it display contact information so whoever found it could return it, but nobody ever contacted us. I have no idea why anybody would want to keep a bricked device, but very few things these days make sense to me.
Someone mentioned this article about Jony Ive and the “fiddle factor” in relation to my comment about how addictive the AirPods case can be.
I did the same, sans case. I have to think that my scenario of accidentally washing just the buds is common. What was your result? For me, the wash killed my microphone but the speakers are fine. Now these are my ‘workout’ pair.
I had both for a minute, too. I am one of those for whom AirPods Pro just don’t work because of the shape. They are painfully uncomfortable for me in a matter of minutes, regardless of silicone size. It’s just as well, because the sound quality was not appreciably different and noise canceling is not essential. I went back to the AirPods – and if I ever truly need NC on a regular basis, I’ll go to full-size phones. (By the way, the standard Sony beat the standard Bose in my personal NC headphones showdown.) Reassuring to know I’m not the only one for whom AirPods Pro are not a good (literal) fit. Thank you for the article!
I have both AirPod and AirPod Pro. I got the AirPod Pro because I lost my right earpiece and the pros were on special. Then right after I got the AirPod Pros, I found the right earpiece.
The AirPod is more comfortable and stays in better, but even though I don’t have a perfect seal, I love the sound suppression. I work in a noisy kitchen, and it really helps reduce the noise.
Biggest issue I have is that both operate differently. One you touch. One you squeeze. That makes it difficult to switch between them.
I’m now on AirPods Pro because my wife didn’t like hers (they kept falling out) and she took over my Air Pods. The noise cancellation is really impressive and with the smallest tips I don’t lose them either. But I don’t like the pressure they exert on my ear and I feel like I want to clear the overpressure as soon as I’ve installed them. I also find the stems too short which makes them harder to insert. My regular AirPods sat well in my ears, never fell out, and thanks to their long stems were easy to insert and take out. The longer stems also made seating them back into the case a breeze. The case feels perfect, whereas the Pro case feels bulky to me. I admit though, the clunk sound the Pro case makes when you shut it is way nicer compared to the more clacky sound of the Air Pod case.
I am thoroughly impressed with ANC and transparency mode, but considering I’m not flying due to the pandemic, if I had to buy a new pair tomorrow it would definitely again be the regular AirPods. They’re just less hassle for me. And of course way less expensive.
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