Apple's AirPods may have popularized the wireless earbud category, spawning competing products from Amazon, Microsoft, and Samsung (and a slew of AirPods-themed memes) following their 2016 release.
But there have been a few ways in which Apple's AirPods lagged behind their rivals. Apple's $160 AirPods, for example, don't offer any features for blocking out or reducing noise from your surroundings and aren't sweat-resistant. They also don't come with tips in varying sizes to accommodate different preferences.
That all changes with the AirPods Pro, the company's newest wireless headphones that launch in stores on Wednesday and cost $250. The upgraded AirPods now support noise cancellation, using outward and inward-facing microphones to cancel out sound before you hear it. There's also an option to switch to transparency mode, which lets you hear sound from the world around you along with whatever content you may be listening to through the AirPods. And they're now sweat resistant, so you should be able to wear them during a workout or in light rainy conditions without worrying.
With the AirPods Pro, Apple is closing the gap between its popular earbuds and the competition, especially as the space continues to get even more crowded with newcomers like Amazon and Microsoft. By launching a pair of high-end headphones alongside its regular AirPods, Apple is also following a strategy its pursued with other products in recent years, like the iPhone and iPad.
Overall, Apple's new AirPods offer meaningful improvements over the regular version that will make a bigger difference for most people than the jump between Apple's first- and second-generation AirPods. I'd have to spend more time using them before I can make a judgment call, but this feels like the upgrade that owners who purchased AirPods back in 2016 have been waiting for.
Here's a brief look at my first impressions after spending just a couple of hours with the AirPods Pro.
Despite their different design, the AirPods Pro feel very similar to regular AirPods when worn — and that's a good thing.
If you already find Apple's standard AirPods to be comfortable, you can expect the AirPods Pro to fit just as well. But since the Pro earbuds are designed to cancel out noise, they fit a bit more snugly and securely than their predecessors since they properly seal your ear.
Compared to the regular AirPods, you'll also notice that the AirPods Pro have a much shorter stem but a wider earpiece that's generally larger. They still feel just as lightweight.
The noise cancellation works well enough to make a difference during a loud commute or in a busy office.
During my first hour with Apple's new AirPods, I wore them during a quick walk around New York City's Financial District and while I worked in my office.
The noise cancellation feature worked well enough to dull the sound of busy traffic and boisterous construction as I strolled around downtown New York. When I set up shop in my office's kitchen to work for the rest of the afternoon, the earbuds successfully drowned out the voices of coworkers chatting nearby.
The difference between the AirPods Pro and the regular AirPods in this regard is certainly noticeable: I could subtly hear the muffled voices of my coworkers in the background, but couldn't make out what they were saying with noise cancellation turned on using the AirPods Pro. I noticed when I switched to the standard AirPods that much more sound was able to get through and I was able to make out words and sentences.
One of my only gripes with Apple's standard AirPods has been that it can difficult to commute with them in New York City given how loud the subway typically is — especially as trains screech and grind to a halt. The AirPods Pro should help with this.
If you want to be able to hear what's happening in your surroundings, you can also kick the AirPods Pro into transparency mode. This can be done through the Control Center on your iPhone or by pressing and holding on a groove located on the AirPods Pro's stem.
The touch controls are responsive and more comfortable than some alternatives.
As previously mentioned, you can press and hold sensors located on the stems to perform certain actions through the AirPods Pro. A long press switches between transparency and noise cancellation mode, while a quick press pauses or plays music or answers a call. You can also press twice to skip forward or three times to rewind.
Although Apple's original AirPods may have earned some ridicule back in 2016 because of their elongated stems, the AirPods Pro gave me a new appreciation for this design. It makes it easy to quickly find exactly where you need to press if you want to perform an action like pausing or switching to transparency mode without using your phone. Gesture options for other devices, like the Echo Buds, often entail pressing and holding on the part of the bud that fits in your ear, which I've always found to be uncomfortable.
It's too soon to tell, but if you have an aging pair of AirPods, this may justify the upgrade.
Even after spending just about two hours with the new AirPods Pro, I can tell that they improve on the originals in a few important ways.
The new design feels lightweight and comfortable and even more secure than their predecessors. And the noise cancellation is bound to make them much more useful compared to regular AirPods, especially for those who plan to use them in a noisy gym, during a bustling city commute, or to drown out distractions in a busy office.
The real question is whether or not they're worth the higher price, and that largely depends on what you're priorities are and how much you're willing to spend. Chances are, if you have an iPhone, you're probably already eyeballing a pair of AirPods over rivals like the Galaxy Buds and Amazon Echo Buds, both of which are priced at $130.
I'll have to spend more time using them before providing a more definitive recommendation, but if that's the case, you'll probably want to take a look at the Powerbeats Pro as well — they run on the same chip as the AirPods but offer longer battery life and are a bit cheaper.
If you're deciding between the AirPods and AirPods Pro, your choice will boil down to how important features like noise cancellation and wireless charging are to you. If you're the type of person that wears headphones throughout the work day, it might be worth spending the extra $50 to get noise cancellation compared to the $200 second-generation AirPods with the wireless charging case.
But if you just want the basic AirPods experience — headphones that connect to your iPhone quickly and effortlessly and offer decent sound quality, without frills like wireless charging, it may be worth sticking with the cheaper $160 standard pair.
Our full review will have more details about how the AirPods Pro compare to the regular version, what the sound quality is like, and more.