You can still buy better-sounding wireless earbuds
No LE Audio, lossless, or hi-res audio
Controls on the stems is still a bad idea
On the outside, not much has changed with these second-generation AirPods Pro. But the sound quality has improved a lot, noise cancelling is much better, transparency mode is top-notch, and battery life is finally up to par. There’s not a lot here you can’t find on other models, but Apple makes it easy and has caught up to its fierce competition.
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The original AirPods Pro were the right product at the right time. AirPods weren’t the first true wireless earbuds, but they were certainly the ones that popularized the category, and in 2019 the time was right for a beefed-up version. Combining active noise cancelling, decent sound quality, and Apple’s signature ease-of-use into a relatively affordable pair of ‘buds was a slam dunk.
But times have changed. Three years later, the competition from Sony, Bose, Samsung, and Google is stiffer than ever. Everyone’s got little comfy earbuds, and most offer better sound quality, noise cancelling, or battery life. Even Apple’s instant pairing and other ease of use features aren’t so special any more.
The second-generation AirPods Pro may not look like much of a change, but Apple has re-made nearly everything about them other than their design. The improved AirPods Pro enter a far more mature and competitive market, but Apple has done everything necessary to make these easy to recommend for those invested in the Apple ecosystem.
Nearly identical, at a glance
You’re never going to be able to tell if someone’s wearing the first or second-generation AirPods Pro by looking. Not unless you get uncomfortably close.
The new model has the exact same shape as the old model, including the small touch-sensitive flat area on the front of the short stems. The little black ports for external microphones and pressure equalization are a different size and have been repositioned, but the glossy white bulbs and stems haven’t changed.
If you could never get a good fit with the AirPods Pro, this new version probably isn’t going to help–with one possible exception. The new model comes with four sets of eartips, adding extra small (XS) to the mix. If you’ve got really small ears, it might be the change you need to get a good seal.
I happen to have a small head and ears, and while I always got a good seal with the first-gen’s small eartips, I find the XS tips a little more comfortable. The old AirPods Pro eartips fit the new model, and while Apple sells replacement for each model separately and says they have a different mesh inside, any third-party tips you may have bought will fit the new model.
The charging case is also the same size and shape as the first-gen AirPods Pro, but with a couple of notable exceptions. On the center of the right side is a small metal lanyard loop (Apple does not include a lanyard or sell one, unfortunately), and the Lightning port on the bottom is joined by speaker holes that emit a tone when charging begins, or a loud chime when you enable Find My to locate it.
A host of new and improved features
Despite the nearly-identical outward appearance, the new AirPods Pro have a host of new features.
The charging case holds as much battery as before, but now supports Precision Finding in Find My (in addition to being able to play a tone). It charges via Lightning, Qi wireless chargers, and MagSafe as before, but you can now use your Apple Watch charger as well. And the magnetic pull is strong enough to hold the case in place, which means you can easily snap them onto an Apple Watch charging stand.
Battery life in the earbuds themselves is a lot longer–Apple rated the first generation at 4.5 hours at the new one at 6 hours. That’s right about the duration I got in my testing, with noise cancelling enabled. It’s a big improvement, but about average for this product category.
You’ll find Bluetooth 5.3 in the new model, making it among the first Apple products to support the newer standard (along with the latest Apple Watches and iPhones), but it doesn’t appear that it’s being used for anything in particular right now. LE Audio is nowhere to be found. Consider it future-proofing; the first-gen AirPods Pro got several new features in software updates over time, and the second-gen model probably will as well.
I’ve never enjoyed the little pressure-sensitive touch sensor on the stem of the AirPods Pro. It’s hard to squeeze without dislodging the earbud, and not always easy to find the little flat area upon which you’re supposed to press. The second-gen model has the same controls, but have added the ability to detect up and down swipes on the little flat area of the stem. Adding volume control fixes a big shortcoming of the original AirPods Pro, and it works pretty well–a swipe up or down changes the volume in discrete steps, and while I still think it’s bad design to put controls on one small part of those tiny stems, it’s at least a bit easier to manage than before.
While AirPods Pro have always had Transparency mode (where outside sounds piped in so you can hear your surroundings), the H2 chip in the new model enables what Apple calls Adaptive Transparency. This pipes in outside sounds while automatically limiting any sound over 85dB. It’s pretty impressive, and in a few days of testing successfully toned down the sound of hand dryers, passing motorcycles, and outdoor power lawn equipment without totally muffling all other outside sound.
All the other features of the first-gen AirPods Pro are still here. Spatial audio with head tracking. Conversation boost to amplify speech in the direction you’re facing. One-tap pairing. Audio sharing with another pair of AirPods (or Beats). Quick switching to other Apple devices your Apple ID is logged into. Hands-free Siri. This stuff isn’t as unique as it used to be, as Apple’s biggest competitors have their own versions of most of them.
A larger than expected leap in sound quality
In testing the second-get AirPods, and going back to the first-gen model to compare, I was constantly impressed by just how much better the new model is. I have been using Beats Fit Pro as my go-to earbuds because they sound a lot better, are more comfortable for me, and have all the AirPods Pro features I care most about.
I’m delighted to find the new AirPods Pro now sound just as good. Bass response is vastly improved. The bridge of the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” at 2:30 is just way too much for the old AirPods Pro to handle, but the new model has no trouble keeping up. Overall clarity and sharpness is improved across the entire tonal range, lending a new sense of crispness to Sade’s “Smooth Operator” or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley.” The subtle breathing and guitar fret shifting in Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” come through in a way the old AirPods Pro could never reproduce.
Apple says its noise-cancelling quality is now twice as good, but I’m not sure how that’s really quantified. All I know is that the noise cancelling quality of the original AirPods Pro has long since been surpassed by the competition and Apple has more or less caught up again. It blocks noticeably more outside sound than before.
The park down the street from my house is close to a major highway, and the constant drone of 80+ MPH traffic was only partially mitigated by the first-gen AirPods Pro. The new model brings it down to a barely-audible whisper you’d have to concentrate to hear.
Transparency mode was always a strength of Apple’s earbuds, with a more natural sound than most competitors, but the second-gen AirPods Pro take it to a new level. All the premium earbuds have a transparency mode now, but I’ve never heard any that sound as, well, transparent as these. The new Adaptive Transparency mode, which is also coming to the first-get model in iOS 16.1, is just icing on the cake.
Should you buy the second-gen AirPods Pro?
If you just bought a pair of AirPods Pro and are happy with them, there’s no reason to ditch them for this new second-gen model. But those whose AirPods Pro are showing signs of age, with battery life dwindling after a couple years of constant use, may be tempted to upgrade.
And anyone who has been on the fence about getting their first pair of AirPods Pro have more reasons to buy than ever. The speaker, lanyard loop, and improved Find My capabilities of the charging case are welcome, and I even find myself making more use of the ability to use an Apple Watch charger I thought I would. I’d prefer USB-C over Lighting for wired charging, but with persistent rumors saying that change is coming next year we shouldn’t have too much longer to wait.
The earbuds themselves are not my favorite design, especially the on-stem controls. But adding volume control shored up a real deficiency, as does the included extra-small eartips.
Sound quality has been improved much more than I expected. These are not the best-sounding in-ear buds one can buy, but they’re once again competitive in the premium wireless earbuds space. Noise cancelling is much better, among the best in this category, and transparency mode is the best I’ve ever heard. Adaptive transparency makes it even better.
If I’m disappointed at all, it’s that the new AirPods Pro only do everything the first-gen models did, only better. There’s no big headlining new software feature. There’s no Lossless or high-resolution audio (not that sub-$300 wireless earbuds have the sound reproduction capabilities to make such luxuries worth it, but still). LE Audio, with its new codecs and capabilities, makes no appearance. I’m willing to bet that with Bluetooth 5.3 and the new H2 processor, Apple’s got some more tricks up its sleeve coming as software updates over the next couple years.
But even without them, Apple’s improvements to the AirPods Pro make them competitive once again, and the best choice for those who use Apple products and can make use of features like personalized Spatial Audio and instant device switching.