There is no debate about it. The Apple AirPods are by far the most popular wireless earbuds in the world. Actually, scratch that. They are the most popular headphones in the world. Clearly, the self-righteous critique by many about its looks and sound quality didn’t matter to the millions who spent a lot of money on the first and/or the second generation of the AirPods. Purely because of the well-rounded experience they offer. This when over time, the alternatives were aplenty. Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, Jabra, Audio-Technica, Bang & Olufsen and more were vying for the same pie, and buyers genuinely had options in case they wanted to browse. Now however, the biggest update to the AirPods line-up has arrived—the Apple AirPods Pro. A lot has changed too, including the addition of Active Noise Cancellation.
Do remember though, the AirPods Pro are an addition to the AirPods line-up, and not replacing the second generation AirPods. And perhaps even the first generation AirPods, if you can find those rare gems in a store now. This means that the AirPods line-up in India now reads something like this—the AirPods (2nd generation) with standard charging case are priced at Rs 14,900, the AirPods with the wireless charging case cost you Rs 18,900 while the AirPods Pro now sit at the top of the ladder priced at Rs 24,900 and the wireless charging case is standard.
So, what are the big upgrades? First up, the AirPods finally support Active Noise Cancellation. There is a Transparency Mode which allows some passthrough of the sounds in your immediate vicinity, such as people talking. Third, there is a larger Apple-designed high-excursion, low-distortion driver which should theoretically deliver even better and wider sound. There are more sensors inside each earbud as well, for a variety of functionality. There are a range of customization features in iOS to get your AirPods working the best they can. And all this is before we even get to the looks. Oh, and the touch controls are now squeeze controls.
One of the biggest changes is the design. Essentially, a step closer to the genuine in-ear experience. That has come about because the design of the AirPods Pro now integrates the silicon eartips. Apple bundles three sizes with the AirPods Pro—small, medium and large. Medium worked best for me, but ear size, design and comfort are subjective. The advantages of the eartips are dual-pronged—a more secure fit and also better ambient noise isolation even if you have the noise cancellation set to off. What you cannot miss is the new design language. The main body of the AirPods Pro is more curvaceous than before, perhaps to make more room for the innards and that is perhaps the reason why the extension is shorter. That change itself will probably bring a lot of potential buyers onside. Chunkier doesn’t mean heavier though, at least when you are wearing them. The AirPods Pro still sit very lightly in the ear.
Pairing the AirPods Pro is a breeze. You need to have your iPhone in the immediate vicinity and simply unpack and open the charging case for the iPhone to detect and ask you to proceed with the pairing. Once the pairing is complete is where the magic begins.
On your iPhone, go to Bluetooth -> AirPods Pro -> tap the “i” option. This opens up a screen with a plethora of customization options. This includes one option that gets you set up with the perfect fit for the eartips—it is called the Ear Fit Tip Test. Basically, you wear the AirPods and then follow the on-screen instructions. The AirPods will play short music track to tell you if either you need change the eartips for better seal or reposition the AirPods for better sound. Apart from that, there are the controls for ANC, Transparency mode and all off.
Incidentally, the ANC and Transparency Mode options also show in the control panel on your iPhone and iPad when the AirPods Pro are connected—long press on the volume slider.
The new high-excursion, low-distortion driver designed by Apple immediately makes its presence felt as soon you start playing music. The sound is most certainly richer and the bass is more powerful as well. Not that I ever felt that the AirPods first or second generation felt adequate as far as the bass punch was concerned, this just takes it up a notch or two. Apple has something known as Adaptive EQ working in the background to adjust the mids and high frequencies for the best possible detailing. Soundstage is wider, the finer elements get their moment in the sun and better bass makes it more versatile with a wider genres. For me, the better lower frequencies were perhaps the most apparent in Mike G, Gooding, Sugarkane, J Mannell & pb’s track Give it My All. At the same time, most of my playlists lean heavily towards trance tracks, and they all sound more vibrant. A lot also has to do with the eartips sealing off the ambient noise, and thereby details are not lost.
The Active Noise Cancellation really makes a difference in noisy environments. This will be particularly relevant in noisy offices (as long as your boss is not calling out to you), at airports and generally when you may out and about. My wife effectively blocked me out with the AirPods Pro, which is a fine testament to the noise cancellation. To get this to work as well as it does, there is a outward facing microphone (to deal with the noise around you) and an inward-facing microphone (for noise and distortion of sound inside your ear) and then creates opposing frequencies that are called anti-noise. Do remember though, the noise cancellation mode only works when you use both earbuds, and not one, something I have often noticed at airports and malls.
You don’t even have to look too close to see there is a vent each on the earbuds. This is an integral part of the noise cancellation implementation, designed to ease the pressure inside your ears—this is quite apparent in a lot of NC headphones and earphones. I did not notice that feeling with the AirPods Pro. Apple says noise cancellation is adjusted up to 200 times per second.
The new touch control layout is also better in the AirPods Pro. Perhaps because they are actually squeeze controls! Instead of tapping on the barrel, these controls are now on the extensions. This means no more accidental change of the track you are listening to. There are now pressure and touch sensors in each extension—you can long press to switch between noise cancellation and transparency modes, tap to change music tracks and the AirPods Pro will automatically pause music or video playback as soon as you remove them and restart once you wear them again. Could we, as part of a future software update, get the ability customize the pressure for these controls? That would be just too cool.
Having said that, I did notice that the slightly shorter extensions of the AirPods Pro mean you need to be really spot on with the tap and long press gestures, at least till it becomes a habit and you are used to the new design.
A lot of the AirPods Pro’s brilliance comes from the new H1 chip, which has 10 audio cores and powers all the functionality including audio processing and the Hey Siri voice commands. The extremely low audio processing latency of the H1 chip allows the AirPods Pro to do real-time noise cancellation, reading out messages, audio processing, transparency mode and adaptive sound.
Even now, Apple AirPods Pro command among the better battery life stats among the wireless earbuds ecosystem. Apple says these will last about 4.5 with noise cancellation or Transparency mode turned on. I usually listen to music at just under 50 percent volume, and this lasted me 5 hours and 10 minutes with noise cancellation turned on. Everything turned off, added another 40 minutes to the battery life. I would say this is quite robust, and most rivals don’t come close. Then there is the small matter (actually, the slightly larger) of the wireless charging case. The pristine white finish is retained, and good thing that it is. But this case, owing to the redesigned earbuds that it has to hold within, is now slightly wider. And because of the slightly larger battery, feels a tad heavier too. To be honest, this actually feels good to hold and most certainly nicer visually too—yet remains very pocketable. Regular top-ups combine to about 19.5 hours of more battery life.
If you own an Apple iPhone, and you need wireless earbuds, you really shouldn’t be looking much further than the Apple AirPods Pro. First, the deep integration means it’s automatically synced with all your Apple devices as long as they are on same iCloud ID. Secondly, you can now share audio playback with your friends and family who may also be using AirPods. But it is the fact that the AirPods Pro now have the eartips makes this more likely to be a better fit for your ears than AirPods before it. And the fact is simple, all things considered, the AirPods Pro are significantly better than the similarly priced earbuds that Sennheiser, Sony and Bose are offering, which have fewer features, certainly no ability to sync across devices or share music streaming and certainly offer much shorter battery life.
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