You can still buy better sounding wireless earbuds
No LE Audio, lossless or hi-res audio
Checking the stems is still a bad idea
On the outside, not much has changed with these second-generation AirPods Pro. But the sound quality is much improved, noise cancellation is much better, the transparency mode is top notch and the battery life is finally up to par. There’s not much here that you can’t find on other models, but Apple makes it easy for you and has caught up with its fierce competition.
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 had come for an amplified version. The combination of active noise cancellation, decent sound quality and Apple’s signature ease of use in a relatively affordable pair of ‘buds’ hit the mark.
But times have changed. Three years later, competition from Sony, Bose, Samsung and Google is fiercer than ever. Everyone has small comfortable earbuds and most offer better sound quality, noise cancellation or battery life. Even Apple’s instant pairing and other easy-to-use features aren’t that special anymore.
The second-generation AirPods Pro may not seem like such a big change, but Apple has recreated almost everything other than their design. The upgraded AirPods Pro are entering a much more mature and competitive market, but Apple has gone to great lengths to make it easy to recommend for those invested in the Apple ecosystem.
Almost identical, at a glance
You will never be able to tell if someone is wearing the first or second generation AirPods Pro by looking. 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 small black ports for external microphones and pressure equalization have been resized and moved, but the glossy white bulbs and stems have not changed.
If you’re never a good fit with the AirPods Pro, this new version probably won’t help, with one possible exception. The new model comes with four sets of ear tips, which add extra small (XS) to the mix. If you have very small ears, this may be the change you need to get a good seal.
I happen to have a small head and small ears, and while I’ve always gotten a good seal with the small first-generation earbuds, I find the XS tips slightly more comfortable. The old AirPods Pro earbuds fit the new model, and while Apple sells replacements for each model separately and says they have a different mesh inside, any third-party tips you bought will fit the new model.
The charging case is also the same size and shape as the first-generation AirPods Pro, but with a few notable exceptions. In the center of the right side is a small metal cord loop (Apple unfortunately does not supply a cord and unfortunately does not sell one), and the Lightning port on the bottom is connected by speaker holes that emit a tone when charging begins, or a loud bell when you enable Find My to locate it.
A host of new and improved features
Despite the almost identical appearance, the new AirPods Pro have a host of new features.
The charging case holds the same amount of 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 also use your Apple Watch charger. And the magnetic pull is strong enough to hold the case in place, meaning you can easily clip them onto an Apple Watch charging stand.
The battery life in the earbuds themselves is much longer – Apple rated the first generation at 4.5 hours and the new ones at 6 hours. That’s about the duration I got in my testing, with noise cancellation 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 one of the first Apple products to support the newer standard (along with the latest Apple Watches and iPhones), but it doesn’t appear to be used for anything in particular right now. . LE Audio is nowhere to be found. Consider it future-proof; the first-generation AirPods Pro got several new features in software updates over time, and so did the second-generation model.
I’ve never liked the small pressure-sensitive touch sensor on the stem of the AirPods Pro. It’s hard to squeeze without loosening the earplug, and not always easy to find the small flat area you have to press on. The second-generation model has the same controls, but added the ability to detect swipes up and down on the small flat portion of the stem. Adding volume controls fixes a major 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 a poor design to have controls on a small portion of putting those little stems in, at least it’s a little easier to manage than before.
While AirPods Pro have always had Transparency mode (which channels outside sounds so you can hear your surroundings), the H2 chip in the new model enables what Apple calls Adaptive Transparency. It pipes outside noises in and automatically limits any noise above 85dB. It’s quite impressive, and in a few days of testing it has successfully toned down the noise from hand dryers, motorbikes passing, and outdoor electric lawn equipment without completely silencing all other outside noise.
All the other features of the first-generation AirPods Pro are still there. Spatial audio with head tracking. Conversation boost to amplify speech in the direction you are looking. Pair with one tap. Share audio with another pair of AirPods (or Beats). Quickly switch to other Apple devices with your Apple ID signed in. 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 it.
A bigger-than-expected leap in sound quality
When testing the second AirPods, and going back to the first-gen model to compare, I was consistently impressed by how much better the new model is. I use Beats Fit Pro as my favorite earbuds because they sound much better, are more comfortable for me, and have all the AirPods Pro features I care about most.
I’m excited that the new AirPods Pro now sound just as good. Bass response is vastly improved. The Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” bridge at 2:30 am is just way too much for the old AirPods Pro, but the new model has no trouble keeping up. Overall clarity and sharpness has been improved throughout the tonal range, bringing a new sense of sharpness to Sade’s “Smooth Operator” or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley”. The subtle breath and guitar fret shift in Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” come through in a way the old AirPods Pro could never reproduce.
Apple says the noise canceling quality is now twice as good, but I’m not sure how that’s really quantified. All I know is that the noise canceling quality of the original AirPods Pro has long been surpassed by the competition and Apple has more or less caught up. It blocks noticeably more outside noise 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-generation AirPods Pro. The new model brings it back to a barely audible whisper that you would have to concentrate to hear.
Transparency mode has always been a strong point of Apple’s earbuds, with a more natural sound than most competitors, but the second-generation AirPods Pro takes it to a new level. All premium earbuds now have transparency mode, but I’ve never heard such a sound, well, transparent like these. The new Adaptive Transparency mode, which is also coming to the first-get model in iOS 16.1, is just the icing on the cake.
Should you buy the second-generation AirPods Pro?
If you’ve just bought a pair of AirPods Pro and are happy with them, there’s no reason to ditch them for this new second-generation model. But those whose AirPods Pro are showing signs of age and battery life is decreasing after a few years of constant use may be tempted to upgrade.
And anyone about to get their first pair of AirPods Pro has more reasons to buy than ever. The charging case’s speaker, lanyard loop, and improved Find My capabilities are welcome, and I even find myself making more use of the ability to use an Apple Watch charger that I thought I would. I prefer USB-C over lighting for wired charging, but with lingering rumors of a change coming next year, we shouldn’t have too long to wait.
The earbuds themselves are not my favorite design, especially the controls on the stem. But adding volume control made up for a real shortcoming, as did the included extra-small earbuds.
The sound quality has improved much better than I expected. These aren’t the best sounding in-ear earbuds money can buy, but they are once again competitive in the premium wireless earbuds. Noise cancellation is much better, one of the best in this category, and the transparency mode is the best I’ve ever heard of. Adaptive transparency makes it even better.
If I’m disappointed at all, it’s that the new AirPods Pro nothing but do everything the first generation models did, only better. There is no big headliner new software feature. There’s no lossless or high-resolution audio (not that under $300 wireless earbuds have the sound reproduction capabilities to make such luxuries worth it, but still). LE Audio, with its new codecs and capabilities, will not appear. I bet that with Bluetooth 5.3 and the new H2 processor, Apple has even more tricks up its sleeve in the coming years as software updates.
But even without them, Apple’s improvements to the AirPods Pro make them competitive again and the best choice for those who use Apple products and enjoy features such as personalized Spatial Audio and instant device switching.