AirPods Pro review: Apple's best audio invention since AirPods

Update: Apple has released an updated model of its pro earbuds, the Apple AirPods Pro 2. Our review calls them "the best earphones Apple has made yet."

Apple is taking everything pro these days, even if the product doesn't necessarily reflect what we consider something to be a professional grade product. AirPods Pro are Apple's latest addition to the pro lineup with better audio, active noise-cancellation (ANC), and a more comfortable design. Are they pro quality? I've had AirPods Pro solidly set into my ear canals for 4.5 hours at a time since I got them and have some opinions to share with you.

AirPods Pro In-Brief

For people who want:

  • That iconic AirPods look
  • A more comfortable fit than AirPods
  • Active noise-cancelling earbuds
  • Deeply integrated Siri support
  • Automatic connection to all Apple devices
  • Long battery life
  • Wireless charging

Not for people who want:

  • Cans (on-ear or over-ear headphones)
  • Colors
  • Pro-grade audio
  • Inexpensive pricing

If you've been waiting your whole life (or at least a few years) for AirPods that are actually comfortable to wear for long periods of time, run, don't walk, to your nearest Apple Store because they've finally made something that doesn't press against your ear cartilage after a half hour.

If, however, you can't stand the feeling of something sitting deep in your ear, stick with your current AirPods. The AirPods Pro have an additional silicone tip that goes deeper into the ear canal, which I know can be uncomfortable for some.

If you want a variety of color options, you're out of luck here. AirPods Pro only come in white. That being said, AirPods have become a status symbol, so you'll be rocking the latest style with the AirPods Pro, a design that is both iconically AirPods, but different enough to make people notice.

Apple has made huge improvements in comfort, quality, and usability, but hasn't managed to do so at a low, low price, so you're still having to empty your piggy bank if you want to wear the Apple brand.

Shaping a new AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro (Image credit: iMore)

The AirPods Pro are different but the same. What I mean by that is, they still have that iconic AirPods look: they're white, minimalist, and have a stem that protrudes from the ear canal.

Apple says that the stem is to facilitate a better beam form for the microphone. It better directs the audio pickup from your mouth to your ear. I, however, think Apple keeps the stem around because it makes AirPods AirPods. It's a status symbol these days to wear AirPods. If you took away that stem, no one would know what you had in your ears. It could be Google buds or Samsung buds. AirPods Pro look like AirPods and that's a good thing.

Though at first glance, they look the same as AirPods, it only takes a second glance to see that the design of the AirPods Pro is actually quite a bit different.

Though at first glance, they look the same as AirPods, it only takes a second glance to see that the design of the AirPods Pro is actually quite a bit different.

The stem is shorter, the bud is wider, and of course, there's that silicone tip. The microphone placement is also different. The AirPods Pro have an outward-facing microphone that picks up external sound and an internal microphone that makes sure the sound you're hearing inside your ear canal has the proper balance.

The AirPods Pro stem has multiple uses now. It is the special beam-forming microphone that makes your voice clearer when making calls, but the stem also now has a force sensor that lets you pause and play music, answer calls, and switch between ANC and Transparency (or ANC and Off, depending on what you set the action to be).

The force sensor stem is incredibly intuitive ... once you figure out how to trigger it. It took me about a full day of fiddling with the stems (both sides) to figure out where to squeeze in order to activate a control.

Here's what I was doing wrong: I was pinching the stem. I somehow imagined that I shouldn't put too much pressure on the stem, so I was keeping my thumb and finger too close together.

You really do want to squeeze the stem. Thumb, firmly placed on the opposite side of the stem with your other finger placing the pressure on the stem.

I don't know whether others will have as much trouble discovering how to make the force sensor work, but I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't designed with an easier to understand user interface. One of the things I love about Apple is that their products are so intuitive that their most important features are easy to figure out right out of the box. The force touch of the stems needs just a little refining. Maybe they need a second divot on the back so you know exactly where to put both fingers for the squeeze.

Once I figured out to squeeze instead of pinch, I haven't failed to trigger the controls a single time.

Changes to the AirPods Pro case

AirPods Pro

It looks different. You can no longer say it looks like a dental floss box. The AirPods Pro case is slightly wider, slightly thicker, and definitely longer than the AirPods case. It's still the smallest case you can get with active noise-canceling earphones, though. And the AirPods Pro case supports wireless charging, so you can set it on your Qi charger and walk away. No need to plug it in to charge it.

If you do, however, want to charge it with a cable, it uses a Lightning port, so any of your iPhone cables (or most iPad cables, or Magic Keyboard cables, or Magic Mouse cables, or Apple Remote cables) will do just fine. AirPods Pro does come with a USB-C-to-Lighting cable, so you can plug it into a 2016 or newer MacBook without needing a dongle (thank goodness).

There is an argument to be had for whether the world is ready for all-USB-C all the time, but I still don't think we're quite there. My mom, for example, wouldn't even know what to do with USB-C.

The case itself, similar to the AirPods Charging Case, has an LED status light on the front to give you a glimpse into whether your buds are charging or charged up. Green if they are fully charged and orange if they're charging. The status light does not stay on, however, and if you want to check the status after your AirPods Pro have been in their case for more than about two seconds, you have to open the case again. I'm sure this is a battery-saving feature, but I find it annoying that there isn't more visual feedback to let me know how my charge is going.

The AirPods Pro sit snugly in their case and give that satisfying click when they engage the charger, something I wish the Powerbeats Pro would do. I oftentimes accidentally don't engage one of the earbuds of the Powerbeats Pro and end up with one fully-charged bud and one mostly drained one. If you're having trouble pulling your AirPods Pro buds out of the case, Rene Ritchie recommends pulling from the back where you can grip it better. Rene actually has a fantastic video with 15 tips and tricks for AirPods Pro that everyone should watch.

Other than the shape of the case, the AirPods Pro Charging Case is basically the same as the AirPods Pro case. Though it's larger, it is still tiny enough to fit in almost any pocket (it doesn't fit into the tiny change pocket on my jeans).

No pro-quality audio

The word "pro" sure is being thrown around a lot these days. Adding one or two new features and charging more for a product does not make it a professional-grade product and AirPods Pro are not professional quality audio by a long shot.

They are, however, markedly better than AirPods 2. If I were to describe AirPods as sounding like listening to music through a tin can, AirPods Pro audio is more like listening to music where there is a blanket stuffed into the kick drum.

AirPods Pro do a much better job of providing a balance of highs and mids but seems to clip the bass's wings.

What I mean by that is, AirPods Pro do a much better job of providing a balance of highs and mids (AirPods are all high-end), but seems to clip the bass's wings. It's there. It's balanced, but it doesn't offer up that rich bass sound that something like the HomePod provides.

In-ear earbuds are always going to suffer a little in terms of sound quality. It's the nature of the design. You're giving up full, rich sound for convenience and portability. However, better bass can be achieved and the Powerbeats Pro are a perfect example of audio balance done right.

AirPods Pro make music listening ... fine. Everything sort of flattens out, however. The crisp, bright highs, balanced mids, and deep, rich lows blend together a little too much for my taste.

With that in mind, I don't expect my earbuds to sound like studio headphones. If I want that, I'll pop on one of my vinyl records, turn up my receiver, and listen to Zeppelin with the benefit of 10-inch speakers.

I do think Apple could go back to the drawing board and try again to make AirPods sound like HomePods in my ears. I think Apple can do it someday, and I think Apple will do it someday.

+100 for comfort

AirPods Pro

Lory Gil (Image credit: iMore)

If you've read any of my previous earphone reviews or listened to me blather on about it on the iMore Show, you'll know that the AirPods are literally painful for me. I've got those ears. The small ones. The ones that just don't fit into Apple's range of the most comfortable fit. They are decidedly some of the most uncomfortable fitting earphones I've experienced. I can get about 30 minutes of use out of them before my ears start to ache. I can get about an hour in before they start to make my ears throb. I can get about two hours in before I start to feel fatigued because of the pain I'm enduring.

AirPods Pro are incredibly comfortable in my ears for the longest time they can be kept in one's ears.

I had low expectations with AirPods Pro. I honestly didn't think they'd be much better than AirPods. If I were lucky, they wouldn't start hurting until an hour or so in. To my great surprise and elation, AirPods Pro are incredibly comfortable in my ears for the longest time they can be kept in one's ears. On multiple occasions, I've worn them for the full 4.5-hours their battery life can allow and wished I could keep them in longer.

AirPods Pro are a set-it-and-forget-it experience. I can leave them in my ears for hours and not even notice them. I practically forget they're in my ears.

It's all about that silicone tip. It's a single cone instead of multi-tiered. This keeps the amount of silicon that presses against the ears to a minimum. They have a wide enough cone, however, that they manage to create a perfectly tight seal around the ear. Rene Ritchie mentioned that he can comfortably wear the smallest silicon tip, which is the same size I wear. No offense to Rene, but his ears are definitely larger than mine. I say this to point out that the design of the tips allow for a proper ANC seal without the wearer needing to go to a size above their comfort level in order to achieve it.

If you're concerned that the rest of the AirPods Pro bud might still hurt your ear, I can't say for sure they won't. Ears are uniquely shaped and you may have a smaller Intertragic Notch or Anti Helix (I looked these terms up) than me, in which case the plastic bud or stem may rest against your ear and make you uncomfortable or even pop out of your ears. I can say with confidence, however, that the plastic parts of the buds don't rest on any part of my ear that would cause pressure or pain.

Studio condenser mic clarity

When making and receiving calls, you want two things; Your voice should be clear with no outside sounds that the other person can hear and you want to be able to hear everything the other person is saying, no matter how loud things get around you. AirPods Pro achieves both with aplomb.

I took a walk down one of the busiest streets in my town of Sacramento during rush hour, when dozens and dozens of cars, trucks, busses, and motorcycles were whizzing past me constantly.

I was able to hear everything my call companion was saying without missing a word thanks to ANC. It was as though I was locked up in a quiet room in my house. My voice was also clear enough that, even when those large busses were driving by, my voice was heard. It doesn't completely isolate your voice — you won't be able to get away with pretending you're sick in bed when you're out on a boat — but you will be able to carry on conversations in places where environmental noise might normally compete.

Pair once — play anywhere

AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro (Image credit: iMore)

Apple's H1 chip is, by far, the best feature of any new AirPods or Beats headphones. The ability to pair once and then have all my devices signed in with my Apple ID already have my AirPods Pro listed as an option is ... well ... magical.

That is, it's magical to me. A lot of hard work went into designing the process and system that the H1 uses to connect my AirPods Pro (and every other headphones brand with an H1 chip) to all my devices. The reason I call it magical is that it just works.

Setting up the AirPods Pro is simple. It takes a few seconds longer than AirPods do to set up, but that's because there are a few additional features to tell you about. Once you tap to pair, they're ready to go. Then, whether you want to connect to your Mac, your iPad, your Apple Watch, and even your Apple TV, switching to AirPods Pro is as simple as hopping into your Bluetooth settings and choosing them from the list.

Siri, make it so

Siri directly in your ear is so cool. It's like we jumped lightyears ahead to a time when we have virtual assistants that appear whenever we call them, wherever we are. If I want to turn the lights off, I can call on Siri for help and my iPhone doesn't have to be anywhere near me. If I want to add a song to a playlist, Siri can help me out while my hands are busy washing dishes. Set a timer, check your schedule, and if you turn on Announce Messages with Siri, get your iMessages read to you automatically. All right in your ear. All without you needing your iPhone nearby.

Siri works really well. I can literally speak in a whisper (not a speaking whisper, but a real, true whisper) and Siri will hear what I've requested and answer my query. It correctly responds to my requests about as often as it does on iPhone, which isn't 100% of the time, but at least you're expecting Siri to answer wrong in this case.

So-long battery life

As far as battery life is concerned, AirPods Pro doesn't win any awards. They don't have the longest constant playback at 4.5 hours with ANC or Transparency turned on, but they're not the worst, either. With the charging case, you can get a lot of use out of them, as long as you're willing to wait an hour between your marathon listenings while your AirPods Pro charge up again.

With the charging case, you'll get about 24 hours of AirPods Pro usage before needing to charge up the charging case. Luckily, the case supports wireless charging, so you can set it on your charging pad while you're listening to music, and then just pop your AirPods into their case for a re-up when you need to.

What I think is astounding is that Apple managed to keep the battery life of AirPods Pro with ANC on to only a half-hour less than standard non-ANC AirPods. That's impressive.

How much noise does AirPods Pro cancel?

AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro (Image credit: iMore)

In-ear earphones with ANC aren't nearly as noise-cancelling as cans (on-ear or over-ear) with ANC, and part of that is due to the nature of the headphone design. Cans block out a bunch of noise because they have big, cushions that seal the sound to your ear. Earphones have to compete with what's right outside your ear.

With that in mind, AirPods Pro are remarkably good at muffling environmental noise. Let me tell you a story...

I was outside while a gardener was using a leaf blower in front of my house. I stood about 12 - 15 feet in front of him while he blew the leaves from the yard. Leaf blowers are intolerably loud. You can't hear anything when a leaf blower is going. With ANC turned on and the gardener so close, blowing leaves, I literally didn't even have to turn up the volume on my music.

I could still hear the leaf blower, but it sounded like I was inside the house, in a room with the door shut (remember, I'm 12 - 15 feet away from the gardener standing outside at this point). I kept the music playing at the same volume and though the leaf blower's noise crept in, it didn't make me want to turn up the music.

If AirPods Pro can reduce the sound of a leaf blower nearby to a muffled hum, I think ANC gets a solid A.

If AirPods Pro can reduce the sound of a leaf blower nearby to a muffled hum, I think ANC gets a solid A.

If you're concerned that AirPods Pro make you feel pressed in like there's pressure around your head, I think everyone is going to experience a different level of this, but I can speak to my own experience. Normally, ANC headphones make me feel like my face is packed in cotton. It's not intolerable, but I notice it. With AirPods Pro, as soon as I put the buds in my ears, I feel it in my sinuses. It's like the buds sealed up my face for a moment. But, after a few seconds, that feeling goes away and AirPods Pro don't feel like ANC is turned on anymore. Seriously. I've even had to double-check a couple of times because I thought it was weird that I didn't feel that pressure anymore.

I did notice that, when my head is stuffed up, when I already have sinus pressure, AirPods Pro do exhibit that uncomfortable cotton pack feeling while ANC is turned on.

Does Transparency sound weird?

Transparency is Apple's branding for a feature that allows you to let in environmental sounds while you're listening with headphones. It's different than turning off ANC. It's actually more like turning on a microphone inside the earbuds that draw in outside audio. It's ideal for when you want to be able to listen to your music at a reasonable volume, but still want to hear when a car is driving by, or be able to listen for your name being called at work.

If you've used headphones with ANC and a version of Transparency, you know that it can sound a little weird. In my case, the headphones I've tested with this feature tend to over-filter. The sound of my refrigerator running, for example, suddenly sounds like it's happening right in my ears.

AirPods Pro somehow manages to balance the filtering so that it's easy to hear voices, car engines, horns, even bicycles riding through leaves, while not overemphasizing such ambient sounds as fans or machine motors.

It still maps those ambient noise patterns and reduces how much filters into your ears, but doesn't affect the hum of car engines.

How do AirPods Pro compare to AirPods?

AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro (Image credit: iMore)

As far as comfort goes, I'm so happy with AirPods Pro that I want to shout it from a mountain top and tell everyone they should throw their old AirPods in the garbage right now. That's just me, though. Everyone's reason for why AirPods are, or are not, comfortable differs. If you find AirPods to already be comfortable, AirPods Pro may actually be uncomfortable to you. So, keep that in mind. If you don't like having things pushed into your ear canal, you probably won't like AirPods Pro.

If you've wanted AirPods, but also wanted ANC headphones, now is your chance to finally have your cake and eat it, too.

In terms of sound quality, AirPods Pro have better sound than AirPods, but it's more just because AirPods Pro have a better seal in your ears. They're not HomePods for your ears by a long shot. They still have a compressed sound quality, but instead of sounding like you're listening to music in a tin can, it sounds like someone stuffed a blanket into the kick drum. Sound just sort of stops past any mid-range. For most songs, this isn't an issue, but if you're a genre fan, you'll quickly notice that heavy guitar riffs are washed out and deep bass sounds wet. It's an improvement over AirPods, but only by about 35%.

For some, it's ANC that wins the day, and AirPods Pro excel at this feature. If you've wanted AirPods, but also wanted ANC headphones, now is your chance to finally have your cake and eat it, too. ANC on AirPods Pro strikes a perfect balance of keeping out the noise while giving you something you can fit in your pocket.

How do AirPods Pro compare to Powerbeats Pro

AirPods Pro and Powerbeats Pro

AirPods Pro and Powerbeats Pro (Image credit: iMore)

Powerbeats Pro are not ANC, they are passive noise-cancelling, which means they don't have any special anti-noise pattern hitting the airwaves while you're listening to music. They're designed in such a way that they block out a lot of noise, just because of how they're built.

If you're wondering whether you should spend your money on Powerbeats Pro or AirPods Pro, a lot of it depends on your personal needs.

If you need a good pair of workout earphones, you should go with Powerbeats Pro. Though AirPods Pro are sweat-resistant at IPX-4 rating, they don't have the same secure fit as the Powerbeats Pro with ear hooks. If you've got sweaty ears, you may start to feel your AirPods Pro slip out during a long workout.

If comfort is your priority between these two, I find both of them to be a comfortable fit in my ear, but the AirPods Pro are just a bit more comfortable. After a couple of hours in my ears, I start to feel the Powerbeats Pro a little more. They don't hurt. I just notice them. If you wear glasses, you may prefer the AirPods Pro due to the fact that the Powerbeats Pro have an ear hook. Rene Ritchie says that the ear hooks don't bother him in the slightest, but when I put on sunglasses, I find the ear hooks to be somewhat annoying.

Powerbeats Pro win, hands down, for audio quality. I've raved about how incredibly clear, crisp, and robust music sounds through Powerbeats Pro. Now, those are like HomePods for your ears. I can't say enough about how amazing the sound quality of Powerbeats Pro is. For more details, read my full review.

How do AirPods Pro compare to Beats Solo Pro?

AirPods Pro and Beats Solo Pro

AirPods Pro and Beats Solo Pro (Image credit: iMore)

I realize it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to compare earphones to on-ear headphones, but there is one aspect that I think needs comparison; Noise cancellation.

Beats Solo Pro, the on-ear headphones Beats recently released also have the ANC and Transparency features that AirPods Pro have.

By nature of their physical design, Beats Solo Pro have better noise cancellation than AirPods Pro. This is because the big cushioned ear cups already block out a certain amount of sound.

So if you're looking for a pair of headphones you can wear while mowing the lawn, Beats Solo Pro are more likely to fit your needs. They block out a significant amount of environmental noise.

As far as Transparency is concerned, AirPods Pro wins this round. Beats Solo Pro headphones tend to over-filter in environmental sounds. The distant sound of my refrigerator, for example, sounds like it's right next to me when Transparency is turned on. This absolutely does not happen with AirPods Pro. Transparency mode has a much better balance and manages to provide the clarity you need to address environmental noise.

AirPods Pro: Conclusion

AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro (Image credit: iMore)

AirPods Pro are not the be-all-end-all answer to all your audio needs. Sound quality still has a ways to go, though it's better than any AirPods version has ever been. Sound, however, is really the only thing stopping me from giving AirPods Pro five stars.

They fit well and are more comfortable than any in-ear or on-ear or over-ear headphones I've ever used. They have supurb ANC, better than anything I've experienced with in-ear ANC earphones.

And they have Apple's incredible H1 processor chip which makes it so your earphones pair quickly and easily with one device, and are automatically connected to all of your other devices that are signed in with your Apple ID.

They never drop signal. Switching from iPhone to Mac to Apple TV happens in one or two seconds. Audio automatically stops when you pull one headphone out of your ear, so if you're talking to someone, your music will pause until you put the bud back in your ear, at which time the audio will automatically start back up again.

You can use one AirPod Pro bud at a time, and even answer calls on that single bud, whichever one you want because both buds have the same exact features.

AirPods were Apple's greatest audio invention of the past few years, but had a few flaws (like comfort) and were missing a few features (like ANC). Today, AirPods Pro are Apple's greatest audio invention since AirPods, but Apple still needs to perfect the sound.

Originally written November 2019.

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).