The RW Takeaway: The new Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency Mode make Apple’s ubiquitous white earbuds a legitimate open-road option.
- Two sets of microphones evaluate environmental noise and the buds create an opposite sound wave to squash the sound.
- Pinch the stems to pause, change tracks, or toggle noise cancellation and transparency features.
- A “Fit Test” uses the internal microphones to detect whether you’re using the correct size of silicone ear tips.
Type: Truly wireless earbuds
Totally redesigned, AirPods Pro are like Apple’s omnipresent white earbuds on steroids. They have advanced processing power that improves your audio—notably by eliminating external noise—and will fit more ears than earlier models.
We got a sample pair when the Pro model was announced on Monday and immediately took it for a run. Here are our first impressions.
Sound Quality is the Main Selling Point
Let’s get the big complaint out of the way up front: Some of you will balk at spending $250 on running headphones. And I get that. Then again, AirPods Pro come with a premium price tag because they’re doing a lot more under the hood to ensure only your music makes it to your eardrum. And if my first day spent navigating New York City subways and running Jersey City streets is typical, they’ll be the only earbuds you need to cover all of your listening needs.
The biggest difference between the Pro and early models of AirPods is the Active Noise Cancellation feature, which uses a microphone in each bud to measure external noise, plus another to gauge the sounds that slip past the silicone ear tip, to cancel out anything that’s not coming from the speaker itself. This effect is achieved by an acoustic technique called phase cancellation, where the speaker creates another sound wave of the identical frequency but 180 degrees out of phase with the original—its wave shape is the exact opposite of the sound you're eliminating. The result is the original noise is muted, if heard at all. Such functionality is typically reserved for larger on- and over-ear headphones; smaller buds usually just block out sound by sealing your ear canal entirely.
That conventional method’s downfall for runners, of course, is the loud “thump” that rattles your eardrum with each foot strike. I’ll admit, I hate that “thump.” And in addition to safety, it’s one of the biggest reasons that I reach for bone-conduction AfterShokz instead of standard ear canal-obstructing buds. Plus, to drown out truly loud racket, you have to jack up the volume. With AirPods Pro, however, I found the audio to be cleaner at lower volumes, mostly because I wasn’t suffering that “thump” 180 times every minute. This is a byproduct of a novel venting system that Apple claims equalizes pressure inside your ear for better comfort. In my first run, I found the buds were comfortable, they never slipped loose or needed adjustment, and the “thump” was all but nonexistent.
Those same microphones that provide the noise cancellation also turn a cool trick to let you actually hear the outside world whenever you want—Apple calls the function Transparency Mode. When it’s enabled, the microphones mix ambient sound into the music you're listening to. We’ve seen this feature, by any name, implemented a number of times on earbuds in the past and it’s always sucked, simply because wind rushing over those microphones caused far too much whooshing static to be tolerable. But, on the AirPods Pro, I left Transparency Mode enabled more often than not during my run along the city’s sidewalks. As you can gather from my AfterShokz comment above, I like to know when a Lexus SUV is about to mow me down. And, while I won’t say Apple’s pass-through audio is anywhere close to having your ears completely uncovered, if I keep the volume reasonable, I can hear approaching cars, bike bells, and even voices of people I run past (but I couldn’t make out their words). Best of all, there was only one short stretch during my six-miler, along the Hudson River, where I heard any noise from the wind at all.
Nailing the Fit
Previously, the AirPod was a love it or hate it device—those who were in the latter camp often said the buds wouldn’t stay in their ears. An Apple rep told me during the event on Monday that they scanned thousands of more ears, using heat mapping to find exactly where the buds should make contact with ears—and where they shouldn’t. That, plus silicone tips that fit snugly in your ear canal, make the Pro a totally different experience. First- and second-generation AirPods had an open-ear design that allowed a lot of surrounding noise in, meaning you had to crank the volume in noisy situations—subway platforms, airplanes, etc. The new design, though, means more listeners should find a better fit.
To make it even easier to dial in, Apple has included an Ear Tip Fit Test (find it within the Bluetooth settings). The buds play a short snippet of music, and the internal microphone detects any external noises that might indicate you’re using the wrong size tip. For me, the mediums that came shipped on the buds worked right away, but the app will tell you whether to adjust the bud, swap a tip, or whether you need different sizes for each ear.
Apple boosted comfort by how it implemented the controls on the Pro. Unlike other models where you stab at a button and jab the bud deeper into your ear, you control this by pinching the white stem. Hold for about a second to switch between noise cancellation and Transparency Mode. A single quick pinch pauses your music, while two skips a track and three rewinds to the start of the current song. There were a few times when I missed physical volume buttons, but then remembered I could just say, “Hey, Siri, turn it up.”
Like with the original AirPods, the run time is impressive for such a small device. Apple says the Pro model lasts for up to five hours on a single charge; turning on the Active Noise Cancellation reduces playback time by 30 minutes. I haven’t had the chance to fully test the battery life yet, but during my 52-minute run I used only 15 percent of the available juice. Most of that run was spent with noise cancelling active or using the Transparency feature. The new charging case packs 24 hours of listening time, and can be used for wireless charging—previously a $40 upcharge. If you somehow manage to drain these buds, a five-minute top-off will give you an hour of playback.
So, are the AirPods Pro the perfect workout and everyday headphones? Well, it’s too early to say for sure. They’re rated IPX4, so they should stand up to a good sweat and a rainstorm. But I know some heavy sweaters who have killed more robust headphones, and I haven’t worked up a lengthy sweat with these yet. Also, none of these technologies are really all that new, and there are other (cheaper) headphones that include some of these features, though none that really combine them all so well and so elegantly. But if this first test is any indication, a lot of runners are going to love these for both workouts and casual use. I’ll keep testing them and update with my findings as I get in more miles wearing the Pros.