Upgrading to the AirPods Pro

Left: AirPods Pro. Right: AirPods 2.0

I heavily rely on the comforts of music. I am not often without a pair of headphones on my person wherever I am and was happily using the Apple EarPods for quite a long time. Despite their sound quality inferiority, when compared to other garden variety headphones supplied with new phones, the EarPods did an excellent job for what they are. It was time, however, for me to explore the world of wireless headphones, and being in the Apple ecosystem, where better to start than with the AirPods.

I bought my first pair of AirPods in March this year when Apple released the second-gen AirPods, and they’ve delighted me in all the ways I hoped they would; from convenience, to comfort, and improved sound quality over the EarPods. I was instantaneously a convert and a big fan of them, which led me to learn more about the true wireless earbuds evolution and started looking forward to what’s next with AirPods.

Going Pro

Much like my approach to upgrading my six-month-old iPhone XS Max to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, I made considerations on whether I will upgrade my less than eight-month-old AirPods 2 when leaks about the AirPods Pro with rumoured new features began to surface. The only reservation I had was, if the rumoured noise cancellation made the feature set on the new AirPods, I would upgrade. Apple delivered, amongst other stellar refinements, and thus, I upgraded to the AirPods Pro.

It’s been more than a week since I got the AirPods Pro. I’ve used it every day under various circumstances and situations, and I have some observations to share based on my experience as a first-time user of truly wireless in-ear headphones with noise cancellation.

Hardware Fit & Finish

The AirPods fitted my ears well without any significant concerns they’ll fall off. The length of the stems and how they protrude away from your jawline made them look more conspicuous. Because of Apple’s one size fits all approach to the AirPods, the oval shape of the AirPods housing the speaker sits at a 90° angle to the stem. The redesigned speaker housing of the AirPods Pro has a 45° drop to allow the speaker grill and tip to edge towards the ear canal to provide a more customised precise tip fit and better seal. This redesign gives the shorter stem of the AirPods Pro an illusive slight curvature towards the upper cheek contour of the face, making them look more stealthy and less goofy. I prefer this look.

It took me a while to get used to the seal fit of the AirPods Pro. I experienced a slight degree of itchiness every time I activate noise cancellation, to the point I want to yank the AirPods out and reach for some cotton swabs. Thankfully, the seal of the buds creating suction and pressure in your ear canal is ingeniously countered by the vent system designed to equalise internal and external pressure, thereby making them more comfortable to wear for a prolonged period. This level of ingenuity in relentlessly identifying anomalies and providing solutions is what sets Apple apart from its competitors. Without this pressure equalisation, I would’ve found it hard to use the AirPods Pro.

As the days go by, the itching sensation reduced as I grew comfortable with my selection of silicone tips. Even though all three silicone tips passed the Ear Tip Fit Test, the medium silicone tips - comes as the default tips fitted on the AirPods - provided me with the best fit and seal for a truly immersive sound and acoustic performance when noise cancellation is on. I feel more comfortable wearing the medium tips as well. Although, after prolonged use, I’m left with a sensation of the AirPods still being in my ear, long after I took them out. Such is the after-effects of the pressure generated by the tight seal of the silicone tips.

Sound, Noise Cancellation and Transparency

Coming from the second-gen AirPods, the AirPods Pro sounds excellent and superior in every aspect. Apple has done a stellar job enhancing sound quality with the addition of a custom-built speaker driver, a super-efficient high dynamic range amplifier, and Adaptive EQ that automatically tunes and levels frequencies based on the user’s ear. And what good will all these be if the refined sound they help produce from within faces contention from external sounds? This is where the introduction of Active Noise Cancellation comes to play, helping eliminate external sounds for the above features to deliver and perform to their stated optimal levels - thereby giving a more accurate representation of the sounds you’re listening to, especially when it comes to music.

With anatomical differences in mind, the new and improved AirPods Pro sounds will probably be unique to the individual, I feel. Of course, this is dependent on the fit and how well-sealed the ear canal of the individual is with their choice of silicone tip, and how great a job the Adaptive EQ performs.

I use the AirPods primarily to listen to music. With noise cancellation mode activated before I started playing any music, I had feared the sounds might feel too compressed. I was surprised by how well the music I was listening to sounded tailor-made to deliver the precise levels of balanced bass and audio clarity across the board inside my ears. My experiences so far have genuinely been pleasantly and surprisingly delightful regardless of what genre of music I’m listening to. I’m even finding myself carving up more music listening time than I usually do.

Music listening can be an emotive experience, and as such, I do not appreciate my music listening disrupted if I can avoid it. When music flows and the feeling carries you, any disruption spoils the mood. It is why I fully value the addition of Transparency Mode and how well its implemented. A single tap and hold on the AirPod stem switches from Noise cancellation to Transparency, where I can lower the volume, if I need to, and have a quick short dialogue with someone, or listen out for other sounds without the music flow stopping. Transparency mode pulling in outside noise almost feels natural as if you haven’t got the AirPods in your ear. How natural the outside noise sounds I guess will be highly dependent on your environment.

I don’t believe Apple to be targeting the audiophile with any of the AirPods released so far, even with the vastly improved AirPods Pro. For the average consumer looking to upgrade and take that first step into truly wireless in-ear headphones, especially iPhone users coming from EarPods, the original or second-gen AirPods, then look no further than the AirPods Pro with Active Noise Cancellation if you value being immersed in the music you’re listening to, without outside impurities tainting the experience of sound quality.

I’m indeed happy and thrilled I upgraded to the AirPods Pro.