Apple's AirPods Pro are a big leap forward with noise-canceling and better sound

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu October 31, 2019

Yes, Apple launched second-generation AirPods in the Spring ---- but the tech giant already has a newer model. Introducing AirPods Pro, a $249 pair of true wireless earbuds that pack an updated and more compact design, active noise cancellation and a better sound.

The "Pro" variants are $100 more than AirPods with a standard charging case, and $50 more than AirPods with a wireless charging case. So it's pretty quick for a new release.

I've spent quite a bit of time with the second-generation AirPods and they've become nearly ubiquitous as they brought many new features like hands-free "Hey Siri" to Apple's line of true wireless earbuds.

So with all the new features and improvements on the AirPods Pro, are they worth $249?

The ease of use is exceptionally high

Like AirPods with a charging case and AirPods with wireless charging, AirPods Pro aim for simplicity and that "it just works" moment for the user. It starts the moment you take them out of the case and place them near an iPhone or another iOS device. The AirPods Pro are automatically detected and a window will pop up on the bottom of your screen, asking you to connect, then locking the true wireless earbuds to your account. It's super simple.

From then on, AirPods Pro will auto-connect when placed in your ears and you can easily check the battery life by holding the open case next to your device. That connectivity also extends to your Apple Watch and macOS device through your iCloud account. It's neat, and I've noticed it's much faster at switching the Bluetooth connection between an iPhone and a Mac.

Smaller and more compact

AirPods Pro keep the now ubiquitous white color, but they are smaller. The AirPods Pro chop about 25% off of the bottom stem found on the original AirPods. The core difference from the design perspective is a black sensor and vent on the outside. It's a way for those interested in status to show they are wearing the Pros.

The other big difference is the silicone ear tip. You get three sizes-small, medium and large. Out of the box, these will be set to medium. They are ridiculously comfortable. For starters, they don't stick out as much as other ear tips, like the Sony WF-1000XM3s, for example. These take up a relatively small space and they don't make your inner ears feel cramped.

Most importantly, the addition of the silicone tips creates a seal in your ear and effectively solves the problem of AirPods falling out. This wasn't an issue for me, but I know many who have experienced the trauma of having an AirPod fall out while on a run or even just walking around. I moved around quite a bit with these and the tips solved the issue.

Smaller stems also result in these being less obvious to others around you. My colleague Noelle Ike could cover these completely with her long hair. I also noticed the smaller size lets me shave or trim a mustache without removing them — a small win.

In typical Apple fashion, the company worked hard on the design by conducting 3D ear scans for a fit that works for most people. Essentially, Apple designers figured out the physical spot where the bud should and should not make contact with the ear. The result feels comfortable and snug.

Also, AirPods Pro are both sweat and water resistance up to an IPX4 rating. So while you shouldn't swim in them, these are more than capable of surviving a light rain or a good, hard workout. They performed well during my run and didn't even budge.

I'm a big fan of the new controls, which feature a force sensor on the stem. You long hold until you hear a tone to switch between active noise canceling and transparency (which lets in the outside world); a single click to play, pause or pick a call; two clicks to skip forward; and three clicks to go backward. You also get full support for "Hey Siri," thanks to an H1 Chip.

The case is a bit wider and looks less like a dental floss container. By default it supports Qi-enabled wireless charging and features a Lightning connector on the bottom for hardwired charging. It also keeps the tiny LED indicator on the front.

The Goldilocks method for fitting

I wasn't too sure about the Ear Tip Fit Test, but it's a unique approach. Essentially, when you set up the AirPods Pro, they will prompt you to run a test to help you find the best possible seal for your ear canal. (You can rerun the test by going into Settings > Bluetooth > AirPods Pro > Ear Tip Fit Test).

Place the left and right earbud in your ears, hit start test, and it will play a brief audio tone while cycling through modes. The test uses proprietary algorithms, along with the inward and outward-facing microphones to measure the quality of the audio, and how it bounces around inside the ear canal. After a few seconds, you get a result. For me, it suggested I use the medium tips, which come pre-attached in the box, and both provided a good seal.

The sound quality is second to none

Truth be told, the sound quality of the first-generation AirPods wasn't stellar. That improved with second-generation AirPods, but we wrote a few months ago that Powerbeats Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3s sounded better.

That decision changes with AirPods Pro. The sound is immensely better than both with wider soundstages and more of a balance between genres.

A custom Apple-made driver, a high dynamic range amplifier and the H1 chip powers a rich and wide sound experience. These components mix the sound properly, but the microphones and sensors also come into play for Adaptive EQ. This proprietary technology tunes the music to the specific shape of your ear and delivers a smooth and sleek listening experience across all genres.

Getting into the nitty-gritty, Apple has improved low, mid, high and bass tones across the board. And Adaptive EQ is overlaid and processes up to 200 times a second. It's a vibrant mix with all songs. And the seal of the silicone tip keeps the music in your ear canal, minimizes reverb, and through a vent system, doesn't add extra pressure in your ear.

I threw a lot of songs at the AirPods Pro. "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen hits with an enthusiastic and vibrant blend. You can clearly hear the opening drum snare and then other instruments, including guitar, horn and piano are added in layers. Vocals come through crisp and keep the raw nature of the track. "Lose You to Love Me" by Selena Gomez hits across like the ballad it is, with far-reaching vocals.

The sound is fantastic.

Battery life is great

Second-generation AirPods last a long time, and you're not losing any of that with AirPods Pro. Apple estimates up to five hours listening with no noise-canceling or transparency, and it drops by 30 minutes with those on. That's on par with what I was getting on second-generation AirPods. The carrying case can give you an hour of listening time in just five minutes, and that case packs over 24 hours of listening.

These last a long time, so you can flip on the ANC and use these on a long flight. If you don't quite make it all the way through on one charge, a quick 10-minute recharge while you run to the restroom will get you through the flight with ease. It's impressive given the technology and sound these are packing.

ANC and transparency steal the show

It really was an aha moment when I first turned on AirPods Pro's noise-canceling mode. These do an exceptional job of blocking out noise from chatty train passengers, office colleagues or that annoying vent right over your desk.

I found that you'll need volume set to at least 50% to fully block all the noise around with ANC turned on. I think it beats out the Sony WF-1000XM3s. And it doesn't create a bubble or echo chamber, thanks to the vents built into AirPods Pro.

While I like ANC, it's not a technology I'd use when I want to hear my surroundings. Transparency mode solves that problem. I used it on my walk to and from the train station and it pumps in environmental noise, like a taxi cab honking at me as I try to cross the street. It's similar to the experience on the Beats Solo Pro in that it doesn't make your music inaudible and doesn't pump in too much environment. It's a perfect mix that's great for office conversations or to make sure you don't get hit by a car while walking down the street.

Bottom line

It took Apple three generations, but AirPods Pro are the best true wireless earbuds on the market. Ultimately, the smaller carrying case, more balanced sound and active noise canceling on the AirPods Pro won us over and pushed the Powerbeats Pro out of the top spot.

They're well worth paying $100 more than the wireless charging AirPods 2 and $20 more than Sony's WF-1000XM3s. Or the same price as Powerbeats Pro. These are outstanding true wireless earbuds and live up to all the claims, while also checking all the boxes.

  • Comfortable design
  • Terrific sound that mixes vibrancy with a wide soundstage
  • Active noise canceling
  • Transparency mode
  • Long battery life with a quick charge function
  • Simple setup
  • Easy controls
  • Hands-Free Siri

Apple has a clear winner on its hands and I'd recommend you take a look AirPods Pro, even if you have second-generation AirPods. Those with first-generation AirPods will find the upgrade to be a large one, that is well worth it. Granted, I might have been skeptical of the "Pro" branding, but I'm going out and buying a pair.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.