AirPods Pro review: A big leap forward for Apple headphones

It’s pretty easy to say that Apple’s new AirPods Pro ($249, £249, AU$399) are good: They’re the first Apple headphones to offer active noise cancellation, which electronically counteracts exterior noise like the hum of a jet engine. They’re also the first to feature a noise-isolating design — with silicone ear tips that push into your ear canal. But as I geared up to write this review, I found myself carrying around six or seven true wireless earbuds in my jacket, distributed evenly between two pockets. You see, I was trying to determine if they were worth that elevated price tag — $100 more than the street price of the standard AirPods — and if they were really any better than the gaggle of increasingly excellent true wireless headphones available from competitors. And to answer that, I had to spend some time swapping buds in and out of my ears, comparing not only sound quality and fit, but how all these true wireless earbuds, many of them also new to the market, perform as headsets for making calls. 

Here are my key conclusions.

Read more: The best true wireless earbuds of 2019

The original AirPods on the left, the new AirPods Pro on the right.

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AirPods Pro fit comfortably and securely

I’m one of those people whose ears aren’t ideal receptacles for the original AirPods, which are now on their second generation. I can wear them, but they don’t stay in my ears all that well. I feel them start to fall out if I do anything too strenuous in them, like dash across the street to make a light or catch a bus, which you sometimes have to do in New York.

With the AirPods Pro, I have no such problem. They fit my ears securely. I can run with them — and they’re sweat-proof, Apple says. It’s also worth noting that they come with small, medium and large ear tips. I was worried I would need an extra large tip to get a tight seal, but the AirPods Pro’s large ear tips fit my ears just fine.

If you’re setting up on an iOS device, in fact, the app will guide you through testing which ear tip fits you best. And Apple is selling replacement tips for just $4 (for a set of three pairs), so replacing them when they eventually get, well, gross is eminently affordable.

The long and short of it is the new design will fit more ears than the original AirPods. I hesitate to call it a universal fit because there are always exceptions, but they’re close. The only issue is that some people simply don’t like having silicone buds stuck in their ears, even if they’re as soft and pliant as these tips are. That’s the reason why so many people like the original AirPods. They just sort of nestle in your ear — and when they fit right, they’re really comfortable. That said, a few people in my office said that even though the AirPods Pro sounded better, they still preferred the fit of the regular AirPods.

AirPods Pro sound better than standard AirPods 

The first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is that they simply sound better than the standard AirPods because they have more bass. The reason they have more bass is largely due to their new noise-isolating design and new drivers that are tuned for that design. The standard AirPods sound decent enough in quiet places but due to their open design, they just don’t do well when confronted with external noise (the bass frequencies get drowned out). The AirPods’ noise cancellation, which is effective, also helps with external noise, and the combination of the seal of the tips and the active noise cancellation means they sound much better in noisier environments like city streets. 

The Ear Tip Fit test helps determine which size is right for your ears. 

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But AirPods Pro sound quality isn’t best in class

Don’t get me wrong, I like the way the AirPods Pro sound. They’re pleasant to listen to — very good for true wireless. But they lack the clarity, definition and more textured sound one might expect from headphones that cost $250. In short, there are competing models that cost around the same price or less that sound as good or better. That doesn’t mean those competing models are better overall — there are other factors to consider — but just understand that from a pure sound standpoint, there are superior options. 

I compared the AirPods Pro to its closest current competitor, the Sony WF-1000XM3, which also has adaptive noise-canceling features. The WF-1000XM3 sounds better — its sound is bigger, smoother and more refined overall, and easier to listen to over longer listening sessions.

The Sony WF-1000XM3’s noise-canceling mode is as effective as that of the AirPods Pro. And the Sony’s battery life is rated a little higher (6 hours), quite possibly because they’re a bit larger. In active noise-cancellation mode, Apple says AirPods Pro will deliver up to four and a half hours of listening and I indeed got close to 4.5 hours playing my music at 65-70% volume levels. While battery would ideally be slightly better, it isn’t a big issue because the buds charge quickly in their case and a 5-minute charge via the Lightning port or a Qi wireless charging pad (yes, they feature wireless charging) will get you an hour of battery life. A USB-C to Lightning cable is included, but you’ll need to supply an adapter (or plug them into a USB-C laptop, if you don’t have a wireless charging pad).

Other models that sound better include the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless ($250), Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus ($300) and the Anker Liberty 2 Pro ($150). Of course, fit is a big factor when it comes to noise-isolating earphones. If you don’t get a tight seal and good fit (with any of these models), the sound quality takes a big hit.  

Settings you can access from your iPhone.

Sarah Tew/CNET
The small size and fit of the AirPods Pro are big selling points

The AirPods and their charging case are significantly smaller and lighter than the Sonys. The charging case is wider than the standard AirPods’ case and a little thicker, but it’s still a small package. And size matters when it comes to these types of earphones. The case and the AirPods are literally half the size of the Sonys. There’s something very appealing about that. Although the Sonys fit me very well, the AirPods Pro seem more likely to fit more ears comfortably.

Side note: You can wear the left and right earbuds independently of each other (wear one bud at a time) and Apple’s new Audio Sharing feature allows a friend with a compatible set of Apple or Beats headphones to connect to your iOS device to listen to the same content as you are.  

These wireless earbuds are even better for making calls

The standard AirPods are quite good for making calls. With the release of the second-gen model this year — some call them the AirPods 2 — Apple improved their noise-reduction capabilities, particularly wind noise. The AirPods Pro have three microphones on each bud, one of which is a beamforming mic that’s designed to pick up your voice. They also have similar noise-reduction capabilities, plus a vent system that’s not only supposed to relieve some of the pressure that can build up in your ear from a noise-isolating design coupled with noise-canceling features, but can help cut down on wind noise a tad, an Apple rep told me. More importantly, you can simply hear callers better because of the Pros’ noise-isolating design.

Call quality is the Sony WF-1000XM3’s Achilles heel. It’s OK, but it should be a lot better — it’s not up to the AirPods Pro’s standard.

In terms of making calls, the AirPods are top-notch. But others are catching up. For instance, I tested these against the Anker Liberty Air 2, and the Ankers and their more expensive sibling, the Liberty 2 Pro, measured up well to the AirPods when it came to making calls. Like the AirPods Pro, the Liberty Air 2 do a remarkably good job of muffling ambient noise (callers said they could hear me fine even with a lot of street and even construction noise around me). They don’t sound quite as good as the AirPods Pro, nor do they have active noise-canceling, but they fit comfortably and their noise-isolating design passively seals out a lot of ambient noise. They only cost $90. 

The only thing the AirPods seem to be missing on the call front is a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the earphones when you’re making a call. That allows you to modulate your voice accordingly and not talk too loudly. Amazon’s Echo Buds ($130), also good for making calls, have this feature.    


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