Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) review: A well-seasoned sequel
Concentrating on output not aesthetics, Cupertino makes its premium earbuds more potent.
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Some people think cucumbers taste better pickled. Butter vs. margarine. Coke vs. Pepsi. There are plenty of times things look eerily similar, taste recognizably different, and the choice boils down to personal preference. Not so with the AirPods Pro. With the second generation of the company’s flagship true wireless earbuds, Apple has released a product that is both remarkably unremarkable and irrefutably more savory. If you have an iPhone and consume music insatiably, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) is undeniably worth the upgrade.
What are the AirPods Pro (2nd generation)?
The $249 AirPods Pro (2nd generation) are the long-anticipated follow-up to what is essentially the default Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) earbud for iPhone users and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear they’re already everywhere. As I write this they haven’t been released yet, but there they seem to be across from me on the train, waiting in line with me for a bagel, jogging by in the street and lounging on benches in the park. That’s how ubiquitous the white stems of the original Pro—and the 2nd and 3rd generations of its younger AirPods siblings—have become … and how subtle the changes to the form factor of the new Pro are.
It isn’t that the new AirPods Pro share some signature design language with the original wireless in-ears, it’s that physically they’re almost the exact same white, contoured, Bluetooth bulbs. At least once while trying out the new AirPods side-by-side with the originals I absentmindedly put a pair in the wrong case—easy to do, as they fit interchangeably.
A new skin-contact sensor panel and an acoustic vent have been shifted on the ’buds surface, allowing for more optimized positioning of interior-facing microphones and improved ear detection compared to the original edition’s optical sensors. A coworker I called while I was walking the dog on a breezy day said I sounded “fine,” only a little muffled with negligent hiss and flutter. And when I switched back and forth between the old and new AirPods she said the newer ones sounded “better” (we save our best words for the page, obviously). As for the AirPods (and my iPhone 14) recognizing I had them in, it all worked seamlessly, though I had no issues with the previous system. So, while the revised placement of some small black ovals does serve a purpose, it doesn’t do a lot to make the new AirPods visually distinguishable.
The AirPods Pro are still each 5.4g and feel the exact same in hand or head. If they didn’t fit your style before, they still won’t. Though if they didn’t fit your ears before there might be a chance they will now, thanks to an additional size of interchangeable silicone ear tips, which add XS to the established S, M, L options. They offer the exact same seating and stability as the originals—fine for a jog or gym sesh but not an Iron Man.
The new AirPods Pro case also features barely discernible changes, taking up the exact same footprint and weighing 45.6g, a scant 0.4g more than the original. Only pinholes on the bottom for a new built-in speaker and a lanyard loop on the side (both features we’ll get to in a bit) give away which generation you’re tossing in a pocket, purse, etc.
The latest AirPods Pro remain the most friction-free way to listen to music and take calls for anyone immersed in the Apple ecosystem. Open the case near an iOS device or MacBook and the AirPods will be instantly recognized thanks to the new H2 chip. And they can automatically switch between multiple devices registered to your Apple ID—though, I found, you may still experience a few hiccups if you have two iPhones, a MacBook, and two pairs of AirPods all at the same desk. Not the most common use case, but the handshake isn’t always effortless.
What’s new about the AirPods Pro (2nd generation)?
From the bass to the battery, ANC to charging options, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) offer more flavor to savor. And as faint as the aesthetic differences are, the sonic improvements are substantially zestier. Putting in the new AirPods for the first time, I was struck by how immediately promises were fulfilled. An increased reduction of background noise: apparent. An extended, underpinned frequency range: apparent. Apple: a proud parent, and rightly so.
The H2 chip
At the core of the new AirPods’ improvements are over 1 billion transistors packed into a more powerful yet more power-efficient chip. Despite its name, the H2 is the third generation of custom Apple silicon in earbuds, and it’s the heart of the noise cancellation algorithm, plus the Adaptive Transparency and volume-dependent tuning features (to improve low-level listening). It’s also the controller for the ear detection sensors and for the Bluetooth bandwidth, now upgraded to version 5.3 (same as the newest iPhones) for stability/range purposes yet still only supporting the SBC and AAC codecs despite rumors that a “lossless” protocol might be implemented to take advantage of all that high-resolution Apple Music goodness. All of this combined still drains less power than with the first AirPods Pro—the 2nd-gen earbuds now have a battery life of up to six hours on a full charge with ANC on (33% more than the 4.5 hours of the originals, though additional features and talk time can deplete the total faster). Using them pretty constantly door-to-door traveling from Arlington, VA, to the Lower East Side via Metro-Amtrak-subway, I never worried I’d be left listening to nothing but my own thoughts (a scary prospect).
The AirPods Pro 2 preferences panel
The launch of iOS 16 (alongside the iPhone 14/Pro) introduced a dedicated section in the Settings menu for the AirPods Pro—appearing right underneath the Apple ID/user profile. Digging in there, you can monitor battery levels of the earbuds and case, cycle through noise control, toggle on various adaptive/personalized processing modes, and assign what happens (such as pulling up Siri and alternating between ANC and Transparency) when you press and hold the notch on each earbud’s stem.
The stems also hold one additional trick: they now have a capacitive sensing layer and you can control the volume with touch by swiping up or down on either earbud’s “force sensor” (also used to pause/play/skip, etc.). No more fumbling for your phone.
The AirPods Pro 2 case
As previously mentioned, the AirPods Pro case now features small cutouts for a built-in speaker, which allows for more perceivable interaction tones (such as low battery, start charging, and pairing complete). In addition, sound can be emitted to help locate the case, which now has an integrated U1 chip for more precise triangulation in the Find My app. The aforementioned lanyard loop lets you tether the case to your wrist or bag (though lanyards are a separate third-party purchase). Despite all of this, the case is now IPX4 sweat- and water-resistant rated. And its final feature is that it can be charged via Lightning cable (yep, still no USB-C), MagSafe- or Qi-certified charger, or now even an Apple Watch charger—tested and confirmed. As for what those methods get you once you’ve (re)filled the case battery: 24 hours (four full AirPods Pro charges) of listening time.
How do the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) sound?
The first time I used the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) I was listening to an “Autumn 1991” playlist of songs I’ve lived with for 30 years. While I’d never call U2 a confrontational band, songs from the band’s early ’90s Achtung Baby period did explore more primal grooves, and “Mysterious Ways” happened to be cued up. When Larry Mullen’s slithering bassline kicked in, I stopped what I was doing to take in layered textures I wasn’t accustomed to getting without turning to something like the similarly priced Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3.
While the new AirPods don’t have the fluid, fidelity-first realism of Sennheiser’s earbuds, nor the endless EQ customization (and ability to aggressively boast bass) of the Sony WF-1000XM4, the 2nd-generation Pros still offer a highly noticeable improvement over their predecessors. The maw of the Edge’s “wah” was wider. Adam Clayton’s drums were splashier, crashier, crispier. And at 2:12 a note kicks off the bridge rattling any system that can credibly propagate it; the new AirPods Pro shuddered persuasively where the originals shrugged.
Apple claims to have developed a new low-distortion, high-excursion 11mm driver plus a custom amplifier for the new AirPods Pro and, whatever the mechanism, they took everything I threw at them—Björk to Geto Boys, Nick Cave to Massive Attack—and fed it back at me tangier than anticipated. Playing around 70dB on average, every note I knew sounded renewed, presented in greater relief when replayed back-to-back with the original AirPods. The augmented dynamics were most apparent in the richer, rounder low-end—808s push palpable air—but the thwack and skitter of drums in a song like “Kindred” by Burial didn’t lose dimensionality to subbass depth charges thanks to Adaptive EQ making sure mids aren’t hollowed or highs dampened even when the overall response is warmer. And the ultra-fine trilling in the background of “Rally” by Phoenix, almost a cicada-like nocturnal chorus of shakers and tambourine, exhibited all its stridulation in the distance.
Less is more
A few H2 chip-backed features helped this clarity. First, the noise cancellation. Apple claims it’s twice as effective and, while I can’t quantify that, the statement did seem, anecdotally, to ring true as the world rang less. (If you have an Apple Watch, its decibel monitor can tell you the amount of environmental noise the AirPods are reducing, but I didn’t have a Series 8 to test this on.)
The high and low bands, in particular, were filtered out more efficiently than on the original AirPods. Walking through Times Square as part of an ANC gauntlet that included subways to street performers, I paused briefly with a plan to swap/compare earbuds and take some pictures … and got hip-checked by someone I couldn’t even hear coming (no, not the Naked Cowboy). In less crowded environments (working in a small apartment with someone on a video call in one corner and a window A/C in another) the new AirPods were even more efficient at establishing a barrier against distractions.
I did find that, compared to the new $299 Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) weren’t quite as effective with the conversations and fumbling of bags on a crowded Amtrak train. But even if the new AirPods didn’t turn that journey into a whisper of white noise quite as well as the Bose (my current overall ANC king), they are superior at picking up the ones I did want to hear. The AirPods’ Transparency mode takes advantage of that additional bass response to make voices sound even more natural for those times when you want to run into a bodega or boutique and be able to talk without taking the earbuds out. Transparency mode also offers an H2-powered algorithm that scans thousands of times a second for harsh sounds over 85dB and, if perceived, immediately ducks the volume to protect your hearing.
More is more
That brings us to the last marquee feature, and probably the most divisive: Personalized Spatial Audio, with or without head-tracking. The rise of object-based surround sound for music has been exciting and disappointing in equal amounts. With a proper Dolby Atmos soundbar/speaker setup, I’m all-in on the immersive audio trend. Virtual surround sound piped directly into my ear canals, however, still has me torn. At times I applaud it, while at other times I find it rips me right out of the enjoyment. Of the folks doing spatial audio, however, Apple is the best getting better.
Newer albums, especially ones with a lot of in-the-box processing already, manage to be encompassing without any disconnects between elements. Older albums reencoded into Atmos can get dicey, trading impact (something that sets the new AirPods apart) for a lot more air in a way I find detrimental. So I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed using the Spatialize Stereo (fixed, not head-tracking) feature for on-the-fly processing, particularly after iOS 16 introduced the Personalized Spatial Audio option. Using the iPhone’s selfie camera, you scan your ear so that the way you specifically perceive distance can be approximated. And I’ve found that on older stereo material this has widened the soundstage for me without treating the song’s connective tissue like tissue paper, shredding the imaging. YMMV, but the feature is improved in the new AirPods and it’s worth playing with to come to your own conclusion.
So, who should buy the AirPods Pro (2nd generation)?
If you’re a fan of everything Apple cooks up and want the most flavorful option among the company’s current earbuds lineup, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) elevates basic fare and are worth the splurge for most iPhone users. Of course, there are always options/exceptions. If there are specific frequency peaks you can’t stand or valleys in your hearing you need help compensating for, the Sony WF-1000XM4 with its exhaustively comprehensive app is still the best choice for a picky palate. If you listen to a lot of nuanced music and want the most natural, midrange-enriched tuning of any earbud, get the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3. And if the absolute pinnacle of ANC is where you want to indulge, grab the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II. But if you’re not so finicky and set on biting into the Apple experience today, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) have umami.