3-month review of the AirPods Pro
Let’s get unequivocal: the AirPods Pro are one of my favourite pieces of consumer tech from the past few years.
I think the last time I felt this way about a gadget was the first time I got an Apple Watch. I loved the Watch for silent timers and alarms, and I have loved these AirPods Pro for the noise cancelling and universal connectivity ever since I bought them in late 2019.
The $329 CAD price tag does bug me because they are very expensive for in-ear headphones. I would love for other family members and friends to be able to experience this product for themselves, but the price is high enough that most of the people in my circles scoff at all of the trailing zeroes. Apple is making increasingly expensive stuff these days and not all of it is worth it.
Some of the apples fall really far from the tree and kind of suck
If you’ll pardon the brief detour, the pricing of the AirPods and AirPods Pro reminds me of what Apple did with the Smart Keyboard Folio for the iPad Pro. There used to be a really large market for iPad keyboards and there were multiple options from brands like Belkin and Logitech for well under $150. But the era of inventive iPad keyboards seem to be over, and everything is either bulky and heavy, or it’s a $239 CAD Smart Keyboard Folio.
I mention the Smart Keyboard because it’s a product that I own begrudgingly. It’s the only first-party keyboard that really suits the iPad’s form factor, but it isn’t well designed. It’s just expensive and thin. The glue at the corners tend to peel after a year of use, it only offers two (very similar) viewing angles for typing, and it lost the low drawing angle introduced by the original iPad Smart Cover.
I owned the Smart Keyboard for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and I type this article now on a Smart Keyboard Folio. I still have regrets because these products are too poorly designed to be this expensive. Thankfully the AirPods Pro feel like they deliver on the promise of hundreds of dollars of quality. They hit the sweet spot of being the only noise cancelling in-ear buds for Apple devices, but also the best ones, too.
My first set of AirPods
The concept of the AirPods — truly wireless earbuds that fit into a small charging case that slips into a pocket — isn’t new. However, I never took the bait before the AirPods Pro because I think that the open design is incomplete without some form of noise isolation. Regular AirPods users had to max out the volume at the gym or on the subway in order to really hear and feel music, and that just isn’t something I want to do to my ears.
I wanted a product that offered silicone tips for passive isolation, if not active electronic noise cancellation. The AirPods Pro launched with both these features, and they are truly fantastic. I frequently use Transparency mode-which pipes external noise into the earbuds-in situations where I need to be aware. But a quick press-and-hold on the right AirPod will activate Noise Cancellation and generate a wonderful little bubble of silence around me.
Apple likes to push demos of 3D projections of games and objects at their events, but the AirPods Pro are the best augmented reality product they offer. As someone who uses the subway on a weekly basis, the peace and quiet that the AirPods Pro offer is the killer feature.
AirPods Pro vs. BeatsX
Apple does offer another product right now that offers a semi-wireless experience with passive isolation: the BeatsX. There’s no wire trailing from the device to the earbuds, but there is a wire connecting one earbud to another, which works as a great way to keep the BeatsX always on your person. You can simply hang them around your neck and know exactly where your left and right earbuds are at all times.
I was actually concerned that moving to the AirPods Pro would be a usability downgrade because there’s nowhere to quickly stash an AirPod if you need to take one out.
That concern was unnecessary. The case for the AirPods Pro is so small that I can always keep it in my right jeans pocket, and I can quickly stash an AirPod in that pocket if I need to speak to someone momentarily. So if you, like me, were worried about losing AirPods, just keep the case in your front or back pocket. As long as you have it on your person, using the case just seems to happen automatically. It’s also so satisfying to open and close, you’ll want to do it.
I also love that there’s no power button to turn the AirPods Pro on. They activate on their own about 90% of the time, and they go to sleep when I place them in the case. The BeatsX power button was poorly designed and had no audible or detectable click, so even after two years, I had trouble turning them off to preserve battery. There are times when the AirPods Pro neglect to turn on, but putting them back into the case and trying again always sets them straight.
You’ll want to use them for everything
I think I’m just past the honeymoon period with the AirPods Pro, so I’m not using them for everything under the sun. But I was, and the H1 chip made it oh so easy to do within the Apple ecosystem. Pairing the AirPods Pro was a matter of opening the case and tapping the prompt that popped up on my iPhone screen. After that moment the AirPods Pro were ready to use with my iPad and Mac with just a few taps or clicks, no extra pairing required. Other Apple headphones with a W1 or H1 chip can do this too, but it’s extra magical with the AirPods Pro because they wake up automatically.
One downside of the AirPods Pro is that they don’t have enough juice for true all-day use. After around five hours you’ll need to tuck them away for charging. This enforced break is a good thing for your ears, but it is a minor inconvenience on long plane rides
The other caveat is that there’s no 3.5mm jack anywhere on the AirPods Pro or the case for connecting to car stereos, the Nintendo Switch, or airplane seats. I purchased another product, the AirFly Duo, to work around this. It charges via USB-C, plugs into any 3.5mm jack, and pairs with the AirPods Pro without disrupting my pairing with iOS devices.
When I want to use the AirPods Pro with the Switch, all I need to do is unselect the AirPods as an audio source from whichever iOS device they’re currently connected to, and then turn on the AirFly Duo. The AirPods Pro are smart enough to just connect to the AirFly and the sound of sweet, sweet video gaming starts to pipe into my ears.
This solution is so good that I plan to only travel with the AirPods Pro from now on, and it’s going to save me a lot of space in my bag.
There’s quality in isolation
I always feel guilty while writing about audio quality because I’m no audiophile, but I’ve realized the majority of people aren’t either. That’s why dollar store earbuds are still a thing.
Another thing I’ve learned is that I will only listen intently for so long. I get into moods where I want to sit still and pay attention to every detail in a song, but when it’s time to work or walk, most of my focus is elsewhere. I just want to be able to hear my music with enough clarity, and the AirPods Pro provide that clarity through the passive and active noise cancellation. The sound is solidly in the “good enough” category for me, and I’ll wear my B&O H9i for when I want sound quality to make me cry.
My only qualms are with the three sizes of tips that Apple provides. I use the large set right now, and it still isn’t quite right. They can still slip out, very slowly, over the course of an hour and require some adjustment. I’ve ordered a set of foam tips online that I’m hoping will seal the deal, but it’ll be a month before they arrive from China, so I don’t have anything to share yet.
AirPods Pro and Siri
In some ways, the AirPods Pro are actually giving the Watch a run for its money. I have turned off a lot of Watch notifications, but iMessage is still on, and I like seeing new messages on my wrist without having to take out my phone. The AirPods Pro — and many of the newest Apple Bluetooth headphones — interface with Siri and can read incoming messages aloud. This is even more convenient than having to raise my wrist to read a message, and it’s executed well.
This becomes especially apparent when I emerge from the subway with several new text messages from different contacts. Instead of just announcing a group or contact name and then reciting the message, Siri will relay the information much like a good assistant would (and I would know-I was a good executive assistant). It’s conversational in the right way, and it’s seriously impressive.
The AirPods Pro can also activate Siri if you call out “Hey Siri” while wearing them. As with a lot of Siri voice commands, this is pretty hit and miss. When it works it feels like magic, but there’s an art to using Siri and there shouldn’t be. You need to be loud enough that the AirPods will hear you, fast enough that the activation phrase isn’t too far away from the actual command, and then Siri needs to actually work-because sometimes Siri the virtual assistant just goes to the bathroom without telling you.
Who would I recommend AirPods to?
If you’re on the market for the best noise cancelling or sound quality, good over-ear headphones from Sony, B&O, or Bose are going to sound better, last longer, and probably block more outside noise than the AirPods Pro. All of those extra features come at the expense of extra size and weight, though. You have to hang over-ear headphones around your neck or keep them in your bag when they’re not in use.
The magic of the AirPods Pro is that you get about 80% of that over-ear headphones experience in a TicTac sized package that fits right into your pocket. If that sounds appealing and you have at least one device in the Apple ecosystem, you’re going to enjoy the AirPods Pro.
Oh, and if you are considering the purchase, I’d also spend the extra for AppleCare. Based on the prices for battery replacements, that little investment should pay for itself within two years.
Originally published at https://hisdorkmaterials.com on February 9, 2020.