AirPods Pro get noise cancellation: Is that reason enough to buy Apple's pricey new buds?
Apple announced AirPods Pro, a higher-end version of its popular wireless headphones that add noise-cancellation, water-resistance and a new design. Video Elephant
Hear this: Apple’s pricey new $249 AirPods Pro wireless in-ear headphones sound really good.
The active noise-cancellation feature, a first for AirPods, mostly succeeds at significantly lowering the volume on street sounds and other loud external distractions so that you can enjoy music or whatever else you’re listening to.
The new Pros don’t completely wipe out the sounds of screeching New York City subway trains or of construction crews jackhammering away in midtown Manhattan.
But they come close enough.
Meanwhile, if you choose to hear the outside world at the same time you’re listening to a tune, often for safety reasons, the new Transparency mode works well, too – though I still had trouble making out what a PA announcer on the subway was saying. To be fair, those announcements can be difficult to hear even when you don’t have anything in your ears.
The new features collectively represent a nice leap compared to prior AirPods and are Apple’s justification for the price hike. The company is keeping second-generation and original AirPods in the lineup for $199 and $159, respectively.
I wear those second-gens almost daily, mainly for podcasts, and I like them a lot. But when I really want to get into music, I still frequently switch to wired Bose headphones with noise cancellation.
And noise cancellation is the chief reason my first impressions of the AirPods Pro – yes, it's a mouthful – are favorable. But I’ve only been listening to music and making calls on them for a day, and not everything in my experience so far has been perfect.
Finding the proper fit
Let me start by saying that I find the latest models slightly less comfortable than their predecessors – judging by some of my peers, though, that feeling puts me in the minority. On two separate occasions, one of AirPods popped out of my ears, even though I had barely moved.
Apple includes three different sized silicone ear tips in the box, the medium-sized ones already attached to the bud. The goal is to create a complete seal when these are in your ears, which helps with both audio quality and noise cancellation.
To help take the guesswork out of which ones may best fit, Apple has designed an Ear Tip Fit test, found in Bluetooth settings on an iPhone. You place AirPods in each ear and press play. You hear a musical snippet while algorithms working in tandem with an inward-facing microphone measure what you’re hearing and compare the result to what the speaker drivers are producing.
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The test will let you know if you have a good seal for each ear or require another size or adjustment. Since you wear these independently, it’s possible that you will need a different size tip for the left or right.
The medium tips on the AirPods Pro by default passed the test in both my ears, but I chose to experiment with other sizes just the same. The tips are easy to remove and snap back on.
Both small tips formed an imperfect seal in my ears, so neither passed. On the largest size, the left one passed the ear test while the right tip failed. Oddly, I got the same result when I put the mediums back in my ears, a frustrating exercise since they initially formed a proper fit.
Controlling AirPods with a squeeze or your voice
I have another quibble. When I used a “Hey, Siri” command to ask Apple’s assistant for the weather or to tell me what song I was listening to, its response through the AirPods came at a far lower volume than the music had been at, making it difficult to hear.
You can toggle back and forth between noise-cancellation and Transparency modes in a variety of ways: You can ask Siri to make the switch, tap controls on an iPhone in Control Center, or squeeze an indented capacitive force sensor on the stem hanging down from each AirPods Pro.
Such stems are noticeably shorter than the posts on the older AirPods.
An audible chime lets you know the change to one mode or another has been registered, assuming you can’t otherwise tell the difference.
You can also squeeze the sensor on the stem a single time to play, pause or answer a call, twice to skip ahead, or three times to skip back. If you’re used to the prior models where you tap instead for these functions, there’s a very short learning curve.
These are also the first sweat and water-resistant AirPods; I wore them without a second thought in light rain.
Keeping them juiced up
As with second-generation AirPods (but not the originals), the case you charge the AirPods Pro models in can be wirelessly juiced up when placed on a compatible (Qi-certified) charging pad. The pillbox-size case on the Pro is a bit bigger than the cases on earlier models.
Apple is claiming up to five hours of listening time when Noise cancellation or Transparency mode is off, but only a half-hour less when they’re on. That doesn’t seem to be a big enough discrepancy to turn off either function though you're given the option.
According to Apple, charging the Pro for just five minutes will give you about an hour of listening or talk time. And if the case is handy, you should have zero problems having AirPods Pro last throughout the day. You can also charge AirPods in the case with a Lightning cable. Either way, an LED indicator lets you know when they’re fully charged.
As with earlier versions, the new AirPods can sense when they’re in your ear.
But the star of the show is noise cancellation. The way Apple explains it, an outward-facing microphone detects external sounds, which are then countered by what’s described as an “equal anti-noise” before you hear it. At the same time, that inward-facing mic listens inside your ear to eliminate unwanted internal sounds with anti-noise.
Apple says noise cancellation is continuously adjusted at 200 times per second. Whatever that actually means, it means unwanted noise is virtually eliminated.
I’m still fussing a bit with getting the fit just right. But when it comes to noise cancellation, silence is golden.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow @edbaig on Twitter