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Apple AirPods Pro Review: Expensive earplugs or the real Hi-Fi deal?

The AirPods Pro bring plenty of features, but do they sound better than regular AirPods?
The AirPods Pro bring plenty of features, but do they sound better than regular AirPods?
Apple introduced the latest generation of its white earphones a few days ago, promising several improvements over existing AirPods. However, as iconic as its designs have been since the launch of the first iPod, the sound quality of Apple's earbuds have remained mediocre. Has the company finally mastered Hi-Fi audio quality or are the AirPods Pro just another step in the right direction?

The AirPods Pro are Apple's latest wireless earbuds offering, with the company having introduced the original AirPods alongside the iPhone 7 series in 2016. While the latter cost between US$159 and US$199 depending on whether you also buy the wireless charging case, Apple has pitched the AirPods Pro at US$249, US$100 less than over-ear alternatives like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Sony WH-1000XM3. Audio quality has been a weak point of all Apple earbuds, including the AirPods. Still, it would be a reasonable expectation for the AirPods Pro to offer a richer listening experience than the earbuds that Apple includes with every iPhone. Worryingly, the plethora of features that Apple lists on the AirPods Pro product page suggests that the company has favoured functionality over audio quality once more.

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Effective noise cancellation

Apple has made active noise cancellation (ANC) one of the main selling points of the AirPods Pro, with its marketing stressing that the earbuds can silence "the world to keep you fully tuned in to your music, podcasts, and calls". While the size of over-ear headphones gives them an advantage at blocking out noise compared to traditional earbuds, the ANC in the AirPods Pro worked surprisingly well. The earbuds practically silence the sounds of buses and trains, for example, making it easy to listen to music at low volumes.

ANC has its shortcomings, though. The AirPods Pro, like all ANC-equipped audio equipment, struggle with filtering out noise that has a higher and more variable pitch. Hence, the earbuds struggle to mask a group of people talking within earshot. However, the AirPods Pro do a much better job at drowning out the outside world than the regular AirPods do.

Another feature that Apple is pushing with the AirPods Pro is transparency mode. Effectively, this is the opposite of ANC and lets ambient noise in. Transparency mode can be activated either via the Control Center or the button on both earbuds. While transparency mode makes voices intelligible, they do sound rather strange. We would recommend taking at least one earbud out if someone is talking to you for the sake of politeness alone, though. Doing so pauses music playback, making it easier to hear someone. In our experience, transparency mode works best when you need to hear some ambient noise, like crossing a road.

Apple includes the option of disabling ANC too, which will improve battery life. The AirPods Pro should typically last around 4:30 hours between charges if you leave all the features enabled, while turning ANC and transparency off will give you an additional 30 minutes playback. Apple promises up to 3:30 hours of calls between charges too.

Design evolution, comfort revolution

The AirPods Pro come with a charging case that has broadly the same footprint as the one that Apple includes with the AirPods. The new case is broader and shorter than its predecessor, with a broader matte metal hinge too. Essentially, it resembles an AirPods case if it were rotated by 90°. Also, the earbuds have a shorter stem than the AirPods, while the microphone grilles have become more pronounced. The AirPods Pro have small ear tips too, which the original AirPods lack. Apple's latest earbuds are just as well built as the last, with the AirPods Pro also being made from plastic. While this means that they should not shatter or crack when dropped, our earbuds have already picked up minor scratches after a few days of being in our pockets. In short, the AirPods Pro are just as delicate as their predecessors.

The AirPods Pro are comfortable to wear too. The earbuds can equalise the pressure between your ear canal and the outside world, a feature that most competing products do not offer. This feature worked wonderfully in our experience, to the extent that we forgot we were wearing them after just a few minutes of putting them in. This alone makes the AirPods Pro suitable for people who have previously avoided earbuds for the pressure that they apply to your ear canals.

Beyond that, Apple includes three rubber ear tips in the box, which should provide a good fit for all sizes of ears. The AirPods Pro can even suggest the best size for you, but you must own an iPhone for this. Apple buries the feature within Bluetooth settings, but it worked well during our tests.

Apple has also changed how you interact with its latest set of wireless earbuds. While tapping the outside of the AirPods controls music playback or calls, the AirPods Pro have a touch-sensitive button in their stems. This button controls music playback and transparency mode, both of which we had no trouble activating during our tests.

Sound quality: Pro = Hi-Fi?

While we have praised the speakers of Apple's other Pro-branded products like the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro, audiophiles were underwhelmed by the audio equality of the AirPods. The same applied to the company's wired earbuds too. Assessing sound quality in isolation of comparison devices can prove tricky, so we compared the AirPods Pro with other audio equipment that we had to hand. We used a pair of Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2 in-ears that retailed for US$179.99 in 2014, along with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless over-ear headphones. Bowers & Wilkins launched the latter for US$399.99 in 2017, which it has since replaced with its PX series. The PX and PX7 also launched at US$399.99, for reference. We added a Bluesound Powernode 2i into the mix too, which is a US$799 music streaming amplifier.

We tested all these devices with our iPhone X streaming 256 kbps AAC from the iTunes Store, or Tidal and Qobuz with the Bluesound. Post Hardcore music like Our Last Night's "Demons" revealed that the AirPods Pro offer better dynamic range than the AirPods, with vocals also standing out better from the rest of the mix on the AirPods Pro than the AirPods. Likewise, the album The Quiet & The Storm by Young Chinese Dogs demonstrated that the AirPods Pro offer a wider soundstage than the AirPods do.

In short, if you are happy with the audio quality of Apple Earbuds or the AirPods, then the AirPods Pro will probably impress you. However, they sound flat compared to over-ear headphones like the B&W P7. The latter, for example, gives us goose-bumps when listening to Birte Hanusrichter, but the AirPods Pro did not give us the same effect. Overall, the AirPods Pro lack the depths and heights of more expensive wireless headphones.

Comparing the AirPods Pro against the B&W C5 Series 2 confirms our impressions. The AirPods Pro sound much brighter than the warmer C5 Series 2, with the former delivering a cleaner and more detailed version of Norah Jones's "It Was You" than the latter can. However, the bright tendencies of the AirPods Pro makes Jones's voice sound a touch too shrill for our liking, while drums lack much force.

We not only compared the AirPods Pro to other headphones and speakers but also listened to numerous hours of music on them over several days. Listening to the likes of Liam Gallagher to Windmill's Epcot Starfields reinforced our earlier impressions of the AirPods Pro as decent daily wireless earbuds.

However, they lack the depth of bass and treble to satisfy audiophiles, while their quite bright sound may put off some people. The AirPods Pro are a substantial upgrade over the AirPods though and have good sound quality in our opinion.

Verdict

In short, the AirPods Pro offer an attractive overall package. Apple's latest wireless earbuds look great, are comfortable to wear, and they have excellent ANC. They are small enough to always have in your pockets too, making them perfect for a daily commute.

If you are happy with your existing AirPods but are considering whether to upgrade, then we would recommend the AirPods Pro without hesitation. The new earbuds offer better sound quality, good noise cancellation and are also more comfortable. However, if you are looking for real hi-fi audio quality, then you should look elsewhere; the AirPods Pro are just not on that level.

While the AirPods Pro offer better audio quality than their predecessors, they lack the dynamic range or resolution of more expensive headphones. We are not talking about wired headphones either, as even over-ear wireless ones can reproduce bass and treble frequencies better than the AirPods Pro can. Likewise, Apple has tuned the drivers to sound rather bright, which may put off people who are looking for a warmer sound. Overall, the AirPods Pro are a significant step-up from the second-generation AirPods, but they fall short of delivering Hi-Fi-level audio quality.

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> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > Reviews > Apple AirPods Pro Review: Expensive earplugs or the real Hi-Fi deal?
Hannes Brecher, 2019-11- 4 (Update: 2019-11- 6)
Alex Alderson
Alex Alderson - News Editor - @aldersonaj
Prior to writing and translating for Notebookcheck, I worked for various companies including Apple and Neowin. I have a BA in International History and Politics from the University of Leeds, which I have since converted to a Law Degree. Happy to chat on Twitter or Notebookchat.