Apple AirPods Pro first listen: Edging towards the all-day hearable

New tricks give us fewer reasons to take these out of our ears
Apple AirPods Pro first look
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Show me someone who doesn’t have an opinion on Apple’s AirPods, and I’ll show you a liar. Since they first hit the scene in 2016, the wireless headphones have polarized like few other Apple products. Now, they're getting their first meaningful update with the AirPods Pro.

Actually, is it an update, or will the Pro line run separately to the "main" AirPods, which had a minor upgrade earlier this year? The strategy isn't yet clear.

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If you’ve been following the Beats brand, Apple’s other line of headphones, you probably have a good idea of what “Pro” means here. It means active noise cancellation, which popped up in the latest Beats Solo Pro headphones (but not the PowerBeats Pro, confusingly).

It also means a transparency mode, a new design, better sound – and all for a much higher price of $249. Yes, it’s a lot. Is it worth it? We’ve only spent a day with the new AirPods Pro so far, but here’s what we think about Apple’s latest hearable, and what it tells us about the direction it’s going in.

Apple AirPods Pro: A new design

Apple AirPods Pro first listen: Edging towards the all-day hearable

By far the most contentious part of Apple’s AirPods has been the design, and you may be pleased to know the Pro look less… dorky.

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There are still storks, but they’re shorter and, assuming you wear them the way Apple intended, point further upwards this time. They’re still noticeable – no one will mistake these for anything other than AirPods (God forbid) – but those storks also contain the aerials that help the AirPods maintain a good connection in your phone.

What we’re saying is, they’re a necessary evil, or at least according to Apple’s reasoning. But that’s not all that has changed here: the Pro have a noticeably different shape to the earbud, which is supposed to help them stay nestled in place. I was fortunate enough that the first iterations of the AirPods held snugly in my ear, but I know plenty of people who had a more difficult time keeping them from falling out.


Apple AirPods compared: AirPods second generation (left) and AirPods Pro (right)

Also helping them stay in your ear are the ear tips, which also seal off outside sound. My biggest problem with the original AirPods was with exercise: as soon as my ears began to sweat, they would slide out, meaning they became effectively useless about 15 minutes into a run.

I’m more confident the Pro won’t have that problem, but I’m yet to put them to the sweat test. What I have been able to test is the noise cancellation, and the earbuds form an effective seal for blocking outside noise.

There are three sizes of earbud in the box – small, medium and large – but better yet, Apple has something called an Ear Tip Fit Test in the app, which will play noise into your ear and register the feedback into a microphone, also pointed into your ear canal, and determine whether you’ve got a good seal or not.

If you haven’t, you’ll know to try a different size. I got it right first time with the medium, but I’m going to play around with the other sizes too.

Apple AirPods Pro: Features, Siri and other smarts


So it’s that active noise cancellation where things get interesting. Despite Apple’s insistence that this is a totally separate product from the Beats line, I have so far found the noise cancellation to behave much the same.

Apple explained the specifics of what's happening here, but I'll boil it down as simply as this. Each earbud has a microphone on the outside as well as the inside. The outside microphone analyzes all the sound around you, while the speaker on the inside counteracts that ambient sound with anti-noise.

But this also requires having a good seal, something the internal microphone is, as we said earlier, used for doing. I tried using the AirPods Pro on a noisy train and they did an excellent job of masking most of the noise around me. I also tried them in a noisy coffee shop, down some bustling streets and on a bus.

In all cases, I was impressed. If Apple wants to own our ears – and you'd better believe it does – it needs a hearable that can stay in for longer, and that's exactly what the AirPods Pro can do.

And should you want to let the outside world in, you can, with just a short press on one of the storks or using the AirPods interface on your iPhone.

A few fellow tech journalists have reported glitches with this feature, but so far mine has behaved as it should, but bear in mind I’ve only been using them for a few hours.

Also quite clever is Apple’s new vent system, which reduces pressure that can build up with in-ear headphones that can sometimes make them uncomfortable to wear.

Finally, let's talk Siri and other smarts. Apple's assistant is present, natch, and should you have the ability switched on in your Siri settings, you can talk to it any time through the AirPods Pro with a "Hey Siri". Results on this are a little uneven so far, as it took a few attempts to get Siri's attention in more noisy environments, but I've admittedly done little testing here – so it's a big TBD.

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But Siri is now useful in other ways. The latest iOS update brings the ability for Siri to read out messages when they arrive. Again, you'll need to enable to feature in your iPhone settings, but once you have you'll hear a chime before Siri dictates your latest message.

It will tell you who sent it too, so you'll hear something like, "Message from Sarah says 'Hey, what's up?" If the number isn't in your contacts, it will tell you just the area code it came from. You can also prioritize certain contacts so Siri only reads those messages.

But this doesn't just apply to messaging on iPhone. Apple told me any apps using SiriKit can have the assistant read notifications. It's a bit of a TBD on the usefulness/annoyingness of this feature too while I get to grips with it, but with enough support I think it could be great, and certainly makes the AirPods feel smarter, but this ability is also available on the older models.

Finally, in terms of sound quality, the AirPods Pro do sound better than the older ones, but I'm having a tough time working out how much of that is down to the noise cancellation.

Apple says it's loaded these with new custom-built drivers, and uses that internal mic to adjust the signal 200 times a second in order to optimize the quality. While I don't think they're hugely stronger in bass, I'm finding the mixes on certain songs less murky than they are on the AirPods regular.

Amazon: Apple AirPods Pro
Amazon: Apple AirPods Pro

Initial verdict

The tech companies are coming for our ears, and the AirPods Pro have a promising stickiness thanks to their noise cancellation and transparency modes, which may keep them in our ears for longer. The features impress so far, and we're thrilled they look less dorky, but we'll need more time to tell if this is the all-day hearable.

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