Last week, I got my set of AirPods Pro. And after using them for a few days in various situations, can say: Best active noise cancelling headphones I’ve ever used!
Apple released AirPods Pro earlier this autumn, and I was very curious to get my hands on them. I have always been a fan of the AirPods, even though the first generation still had quite some lag with VoiceOver. But I was totally sold on Apple’s wireless future from early on. Unlike many other blind users, I was never sad to see the 3.5 mm headphone jack go.
The AirPods 2, released in the spring of 2019, did away with almost the whole lagging problem when using VoiceOver on a relatively modern iOS device. I used them with my iPhone 7 from 2016, the X from 2017, and the new 11 Pro Max I got in September, as well as an iPad Air 3rd generation. And I, for one, no longer notice a lag since I started using these new AirPods. The reason is, no doubt, the H1 chip that is in these. I also learned from a friend that his PowerBeats Pro behave the same way with VoiceOver. They also contain the H1 chip.
So I was very curious when Apple announced AirPods Pro. These are AirPods, but with active noise cancelling (ANC). For someone who travels frequently, either by plane or, as is common in Europe, by train, headphones with active noise cancelling are an absolute must if you don’t want to constantly stress out your ears when you don’t need to, especially as a blind person. And I’ve tried many of them. So far, my personally best results were with two Bose ones, the wired Quiet Control 20, and the wireless Quiet Control 30. Both of these are in-ear ANC headphones with three adjustable earpiece sizes. My ears are actually shaped in a way that I have to use the slightly larger one on one side. The most annoying about the QC-30 were the plastic strap around the neck that holds all of the electronics, and the lag experienced with the Bluetooth connection.
I had also tried some over-ear headphones over the years. But the weight of these often quickly made my neck ache. I also experienced an uncomfortable pressure on the ears stemming from the noise cancelling techniques. I tried the Bose QC-35, Sony WH1000-X3, and also the Apple Beats Studio 3 Wireless. The Beats were the best experience with Apple devices, but had the weakest ANC.
And then came AirPods Pro.
Oh people, am I sold on these! They are in-ear pieces, with three differently sized tips so one can make them fit one’s ears best. Apple even provide a fitting test within Bluetooth settings so these AirPods can test themselves if they fit and close off the ear canal properly. The way they do that is extremely clever. The ANC is done through a set of microphones that take the outside noise and produce an inverse wave form of these noises. The cancelled out signal is then sent to the ears. This is, as you correctly interject, how all these ANC headphones do it.
The clue, however, with Apple’s AirPods Pro is that they also have a microphone inside the ear that is able to pick up one’s own body noises such as breathing. Those are also used to test how much of the test music that is played can escape and thus is an indication how well the ear pieces fit and channel the sound to the inner ear rather than the outside. And of course, they are used to reduce the noises one makes while breathing, swallowing etc. That adds an extra level of comfort that I have not seen in any other noise cancelling headphones.
This is also what lessens the uncomfortable feeling of pressure on the ears once ANC is active. Because they reduce the noises from within, the whole impression is far more balanced. I could wear these for hours without feeling the least bit uncomfortable while on a train to my mom’s birthday party on Sunday.
The battery life on the AirPods Pro is also pretty impressive. On average, they hold about 45 minutes longer than projected by Apple. Music sounds great, and VoiceOver has no lag either, as these also come with the H1 chip.
Unlike the regular AirPods, you do not tap on these to play or pause, fast-forward or skip back, or call Siri. Instead, you take the longer piece of an AirPod Pro between two fingers and press. One short press pauses and plays, two skip forward, three skip backward. If you long-press, you can configure either side to either switch between ANC and transparency modes, or bring up Siri. But you can also use Hey Siri to invoke your personal assistant.
Transparency is when noise cancelling stays in effect, but some frequencies, like those in human voices, are let through so you can talk to someone and hear what they’re saying. Apple doesn’t offer several levels of transparency, as the Bose headphones do, for example. It’s either on or off. In my experience, the quality of sound is quite good, and sounds more natural than other transparency modes I have tried on ANC headphones before.
The case is shaped differently than the ones for AirPods 1 and 2. It offers charging via Lightning port or a Qi wireless charger. Pairing is done as usual with Apple or Beats headphones: Hold the case close to an iOS device, open it, wait for the screen to come up and connect. It will then be available on all devices connected to the same iCloud account. It also connects to other Bluetooth-enabled devices via standard Bluetooth pairing procedures. But the true power of the speed and long battery life is definitely best with Apple hardware and the use of the H1 chip.
In mid December, Apple released firmware updates to both the AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro. Apple installs these transparently without any user interaction. Once the firmware has been downloaded to an iOS device, it will simply be installed onto the AirPods once they are connected the next time. This is so fast that I have never actually noticed it happening, I only find out that there was an update if I look at the device information in iOS Settings, General, Info, AirPods or AirPods Pro. The current firmware revision is 2C54 for both. The AirPods 2 were previously on 2A364, the Pro on 2B588. So Apple seem to have aligned these two now.
As you might have guessed: I am totally sold on AirPods Pro. The way they work, are made, and the clever details about ANC, taking what was there before, finding the remaining problems and fixing them for users, are Apple engineering at its finest! Well done, everyone!