I’m not a fan of Apple’s new AirPods Pro. It’s actually the same issue I had with the first-generation true wireless earbuds, and it’s not a reason why you shouldn’t buy or preorder them. That’s because the issue is my ears, and how they can be downright problematic when it comes to earbud fit.
The majority of in-ear, fully wireless earbuds rely on friction to keep the bud in your ear canal. The small rubber tip fits snugly — or is supposed to — against the skin of your ear canal, keeping it in place. The problem is that my ears appear to be the wrong shape, size, angle, or some combination of the three, making it difficult to get earbuds to stay in place.
It’s why I usually prefer earbuds with a small rubber fin or hook. My current favorite is the Beats Fit Pro, which has only a small nubbin but is extremely comfortable for me to wear for extended periods of time. This time, however, Apple believes it has a solution for troubled ears like mine, and it is based on a combination of hardware and software magic.
A better fit
Apple is now including a fourth set of ear tips in the box for the former. The small, medium, and large sizes remain, but an extra-small set has been added to better grip your ear canal. I’m a big fan of such options, and while third-party ear tips were available for the first-generation AirPods Pro, having more in the box is definitely preferable.
The other half of the change, however, is due to some software magic. If you have an iPhone with a TrueDepth camera — which you almost certainly do if you use AirPods — you can use it to create a custom acoustic profile tailored to the shape of your ears. It entails holding the phone up to your ear and letting it “scan” you. The end result will not be the perfect result of an ideal physical seal, but it may make a significant difference. I wasn’t able to test it during Apple’s demo, but we’ll put it through its paces in our full review.
H2 at the heart
It’s part of a larger set of changes to the AirPods Pro software that rely on the new H2 chipset. Apple defied industry trends in earbuds by developing its own silicon to handle Bluetooth connectivity, battery power management, and other functions, but it’s difficult to argue that the investment was not worthwhile in the end. The pairing process between AirPods and other Apple devices is widely regarded as the industry standard.
The processing capabilities of the Apple H2 have been increased. It’s enough, according to Apple, for much better coverage across the frequency range when listening to music, and it works with the updated drivers’ added bass.
What struck me as I listened to Taylor Swift in the midst of Apple’s bustling demo area was how well everything held up in a real-world setting. It’s easy to imagine people listening to their favorite tracks in blissful isolation when considering the headphones market. But, in reality, we usually end up streaming Apple Music or Spotify while we’re surrounded by others.
The world at a distance
The new AirPods Pro impressed me with how well they keep the outside world at bay. For example, the new adaptive Transparency mode can adjust the level of active noise cancellation based on the sounds around you. Meanwhile, switching to full ANC reduced the sound level from 70-80 dB to the low 50 dB range, according to the companion app on my Apple Watch Ultra at the time.
No, these aren’t the earbuds you should wear for complete isolation or in situations where your hearing is in legitimate danger. However, having a broader range of options for deciding how much of the outside world makes it through, whether that’s conversations or a safety level of traffic hubbub for when you’re crossing the road, is nice.
The new gesture support is the same. One of my lingering annoyances with the first-generation AirPods Pro was having to rely on Siri to adjust volume: it’s just plain annoying to have to ask the assistant to change how loud your music is. Apple has responded by adding a capacitive swipe gesture to the stems of the new AirPods Pro, allowing you to stroke up or down to adjust the volume.
The changes Apple needed to make
It was a little difficult to get right, I discovered. Support the back of the stem with your thumb, then gently graze up and down the capacitive pad with your fingertip. As the volume clicks through different levels, there is an audible cue. While it can be fiddly at times, it’s far superior to chatting with Siri.
That’s the end of it. There’s no attempt to use the clever swiping magic for anything else, which is a commendable display of restraint when compared to how other earbud manufacturers seem determined to pack as many different features, taps, and programmable gestures into their headsets as possible. There’s a speaker to bleat if you lose the AirPods Pro case, as well as MagSafe/Apple Watch charger support for more flexibility, and if these don’t feel like game changers, it’s probably because they’re actually useful real-world features that make living with the new AirPods Pro that much easier.
The reality was that there was still a lot to like about the original AirPods Pro, and the list of things Apple needed to update or improve was relatively short. With the same $249 price tag, it’s essentially a free update, which is difficult to criticize. If you have an iPhone and want fully wireless earbuds, Apple’s EarPods Pro are the obvious choice.