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APPLE'S AIRPODS ARE one of the rare premium gadgets that don't stick to an annual upgrade cycle.
The tech giant, which pumps out new iPhones and Apple Watches on a yearly schedule, has upgraded its true wireless headphones sparingly. AirPods debuted in 2016, and have only received updates in 2019 (a few tweaks to the hardware and charging case) and 2021 (a full design overhaul). AirPods Pro, the premium option with in-ear tips and noise cancellation, were released in 2019 and have stayed the same for the better part of three years.
That changed when the next-gen AirPods Pro were announced at Apple's fall keynote event earlier this month. The new headphones promise to offer better performance, personalized sound, and more, but the design doesn't look much different to the untrained eye. Two Men's Health staffers, Gear and Commerce Editor John Thompson and Fitness Editor Brett Williams, NASM, got a few pairs to test to see how the true wireless headphones have improved—and if the improvements make up for the long wait once they drop this Friday.
Apple AirPods Pro (Second Generation) Quick Stats
●Adaptive Transparency mode that adjusts to outside noise
●Upgraded Active Noise Cancellation feature
●Personalized Spatial Audio
●Up to 6 hour battery estimate (with ANC enabled); up to 30 hour estimate per case charge
●MagSafe charging case (now works with Apple Watch chargers), with lanyard attachment and sweat and water resistance
●Built-in speaker (on the case) for Precision Finding
●New touch control for volume
●New sizes of in-ear silicone tips for improved fit
John's Take: If you take a look at the second gen AirPods Pro, you'll quickly realize there's not much difference in design when compared to the previous version. This same styling was maintained on purpose, as Apple believes changing the look and feel of such an iconic earbud would be counterproductive. I agree; now that people are used to seeing those around them walking around with stems hanging out of their ears, it makes sense to keep leaning into the aesthetic.
Instead, Apple's team redesigned the entire makeup of the tech inside the AirPods Pro. The sharper, more fuller sound is in part thanks to Apple's new H2 chip, which works in tandem with a custom driver and amplifier to produce the sound with less distortion. The chip's processing power also enables the Adaptive Transparency mode, a much better level of noise cancellation than the previous gen, and a premium audio quality thanks to a Personalized Spacial Audio—taking advantage of the the iPhone's TrueDepth front-facing camera to map out your ears, à la FaceID—which customizes sound to your ears to create a tailor-made listening experience.
I wore my AirPods Pro for everyday use (think commuting, on walks, at home) and to the gym. The two features that stood out the most were the new Touch Control and Adaptive Transparency Mode noise cancellation.
I found the Touch Control feature most useful while working out. Apple says you can lightly swipe at the stem to control the volume, but I found gently tapping in an up or down direction to be better for me (like the previous gen, squeezing and holding the stem switches between Active Noise Cancellation and Adaptive Transparency modes). It takes a second to get used to incrementally raising the volume, but the logic makes much more sense as opposed to a more fluid volume feature, which could result in you unintentionally maxing out the volume and blasting out your ears without meaning to go so high). The other (lesser) positive to the Touch Control are the style points since gently swiping on your ear cues to those around that you, in fact, are wearing the newest generation.
The Adaptive Transparency Mode is unreal. I found it most useful when commuting or walking around my neighborhood. This is because earbuds will automatically dampen any loud or harsh noises, so ambulance sirens and loud music coming from cars or retail shops gets brought down to a level that your ears (and brain) will gladly appreciate.
All-in-all the, the second generation AirPods Pro are a significant upgrade to the first gen. The sound is certainly superior, with noticeably deeper bass when listening to genres like hip-hop and crisper instruments when listening to rock. The battery life is also on par with what Apple claims, and I found that I needed a charge less often than what I was used to with my older gen one pair. So if you’re looking for the latest and greatest of earbud tech, then look no further. If you loved your first pair of AirPods Pro, you’ll definitely want to give these a try.
Brett's Take: Thankfully, John handled the real nitty gritty parts of the wear test. While I also used the new second gen AirPods as my everyday earphone wear in the gym, on commutes, and everywhere in between (verdict: awesome, like he said), I also tested some of the other features that required me to step outside my typical routine.
I took a flight soon after I got the new AirPods Pro, so I got to put the Active Noise Cancellation and Adaptive Transparency modes to the test right away. Once the plane took off, I popped the headphones in and turned on the ANC feature. The droning hum of the plane's engines totally faded to the background, and all I could hear was my go to sleep on a plane playlist, essentially all soft indie tracks by Sufjan Stevens. Once I closed my eyes, I felt as if I were sealed off into my own space with the quiet, subtle tunes. At one point, I could feel my seat mates shifting around; it was time for a complimentary drink. I popped into Transparency mode. Right away, I was struck by how loud the engines were—but then I was able to hear exactly what the flight attendant was asking me, earphones in and all. I got my ginger ale and went back to the music.
I was able to try out a more extreme test a few days later. I had tickets to see one of my favorite bands, My Chemical Romance, on their long-awaited reunion tour. This was the perfect opportunity to test the Adaptive Transparency mode's ability to dampen dangerously loud noise. Think of this as a much smarter (and more expensive) ear plug, which some concert attendees swear by to protect their hearing at shows. I popped my AirPods in my ears during the opener's set, and when I cued up the Noise app on my Apple Watch, I could see exactly how effective the AirPods were at reducing the sound level.
That's a 10 decibel swing, and it keeps me out of the danger zone. I didn't catch other moments on video, but the range was even higher at times. I could still hear Thursday playing "War All the Time" just about as clearly as when I didn't have the AirPods in (which wasn't all that great, but more because Brooklyn's Barclays Center is a bad venue for a rock show, and I was in the nosebleeds). I didn't put the earbuds in for the headliner, however. I wanted the full experience.
In all other use cases, the AirPods Pro performed as well as could be expected. I took them on a 16-mile run through Brooklyn and Manhattan and had no issues with fit or hearing my audiobook narration, even as I weaved around pedestrians and traffic and switched between ANC and Active Transparency Mode, depending on my surroundings. Yes, I listen to books when I work out. I'm a weirdo.
While I've enjoyed using other true wireless earbuds, like the Google Pixel Buds A-Series and Jaybird Vista line, my experience with AirPods has been better. One Pixel bud stopped working after only a few months of use, and the Vista, while sturdy for workouts, start to feel uncomfortable for long wears outside the gym. There are other options out there, too, but at the end of the day, I use an iPhone, and AirPods connect seamlessly to the phone. That's the Apple advantage.
If you're on the fence about the new AirPods Pro, consider your use case. If you live in a city and commute using public transit, I would highly recommend them for the ANC alone. If you have the first gen model, you'd be missing out on some performance points, but overall the experience (minus the new volume controls) is similar, so an immediate upgrade to the second gen shouldn't feel urgent. That said, your buds might be getting a little long in the tooth. In that case, your money would be well-spent on an upgrade for the enhanced battery power.
If you don't often find yourself in noisy public spaces, the Pros aren't totally necessary. I actually prefer to use the standard third-gen AirPods when I'm kicking around in my apartment, since I'm able to give my inner ears a break from the silicone tips. But make no mistake: the Pros are the cream of the AirPods crop. They're the best model available—so if you want the best, that's what you should get.
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