They were the surprise Apple hit of 2022. They knocked everyone who had previously written them off, sideways (including yours truly). And, try as I might, I cannot seem to break my podcast co-host, Rob.
You see, he refuses to be tempted by the absolutely brilliant second-generation AirPods Pro.
Although, I still reckon he’ll cave at some stage this year.
I’ve been using the latest version of the AirPods Pro since they were launched last September. Just like the previous generation, they follow me everywhere, join me on practically every call, and soundtrack every dog walk. But at £249, they’re still an expensive pair of noise-cancelling earbuds.
Are they worth your money? Let’s find out!
There are two things that knocked me sideways when I first tried the AirPods Pro 2 last year. The first was the sound.
The previous generation weren’t bad-sounding earbuds at all, but they were typically ‘AirPod’. That is to say, they wouldn’t knock your socks off and they weren’t offensive in any particularly frequency-boosting way, but they would keep you entertained.
Calling them ‘boring’ would be unfair. They were just a safe pair of hands. Or, more accurately, ears.
The latest iteration of the AirPods Pro are a different animal. Apple tells us that they’ve been “re-engineered for even richer audio experiences”, and the result is a pair of earbuds that sound significantly better; a feat few earbud manufacturers seem to manage with each new version of their own products.
They’re so good, in fact, that I even compared them publicly with the AirPods Max in one of the strangest headphone battles I’ve undertaken. This drew much derision from the HEADPHONE MASSIV (”how can you compare a pair of over-ear cans with a weedy pair of earbuds?!”, etc) but I stand firm: these latest AirPods Pro can compete handsomely with much larger headsets, sonically. How Apple has achieved this, I have no idea.
Noise cancelling and transparency
The second ‘knock me sideways’ moment came when I first experienced the noise-cancellation and transparency modes on AirPods Pro 2.
Both features are driven by the new H2 chip, which makes its presence felt in a very good way indeed. Just like the upgrade in sound quality, the jump in noise-cancelling performance from gen 1 to gen 2 is profound. And, once again, it really is comparable with over-ear headphones in all but the windiest of environments.
I quickly tire of spec sheets that add the word ‘adaptive’ before ‘noise cancelling’; it’s a feature that’s impossible to test against regular noise cancellation and is, I think, something that should be abstracted away from the user. Apple achieves this perfectly with the AirPods Pro 2.
Apple reserves the word ‘adaptive’ for the AirPods Pro Transparency feature. I’ll let them off in this instance because it is a far more accurate way of defining what is, I think, the crowning glory of these earbuds.
For the uninitiated, Transparency mode is a switchable feature which allows the ambient sounds from the world around you into your ears. It does this by turning off noise-cancelling and using the AirPods Pro’s mics to amplify the sounds of everyday life. It was great on the first-generation AirPods Pro; it is amazing on the second-generation AirPods Pro.
The sounds that filter in are now clearer and less synthesised, and it genuinely feels as though there is nothing in your ears at times. Apple tells us that the “intensity of loud noises like sirens or power tools” is minimised, and I concur. For calls, it’s a godsend, and the main reason AirPods Pro are always my tool of choice for that task.
Whenever I review an AirPods Pro competitor, there’s one element I can’t ignore (and, certainly, of which I’m reminded constantly by my audience) – the Apple ecosystem.
When it comes to living with AirPods Pro, it’s the main differentiator – particularly if you’re a Mac, iPhone, and iPad user like I am. More importantly, the second-generation AirPods Pro appear to have resolved the issues I’d had previously with device switching and dropped connections – they’re rock solid in that regard.
The battery life is also impressive. As always, I haven’t bothered to undertake any rigorous testing, but I can confirm that they appear to last longer both in use and on standby than the earbuds they replaced. I just dearly wish that Apple had seen it fit to give us USB-C charging on the case rather than relentlessly sticking with bloody Lightning.
On the subject of the case, it is an absolute masterpiece – I didn’t make enough of this in my original review. The addition of the lanyard loop is far more useful than you expect (it also adds some much-needed personality to AirPods Pro) and the presence of the built-in speaker and water resistance makes it the most user-friendly and convenient earbud case on the market. It’s just the right size, too!
There isn’t much, I’m afraid. This is mainly due to the aforementioned ecosystem benefits offered by the AirPods Pro 2, but also because the competition just can’t seem to match Apple’s polish when it comes to noise-cancelling earbuds.
For instance, the OPPO Enco X are a brilliant alternative (they certainly sound as good as AirPods Pro 2), and I used them personally for a number of weeks. However – and while I’m yet to try the new version – they don’t offer any of the Apple ecosystem integration stuff. There it is again!
Then, we have the Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2, which I reviewed recently, and which are easily the best-sounding earbuds I’ve ever tried. However, they’re £100 more expensive than AirPods Pro 2, feature annoyingly sensitive touch controls, and a mahoosive case, and have the most frustrating take on transparency I’ve ever seen (it can only be enabled and disabled in the app).
As for the rest of the noise-cancelling earbud market – well, it’s a bit ‘meh’, as the kids would say. Apple really does have it cornered.
As noted at the outset of this review, the second-generation AirPods Pro are an expensive pair of earbuds at £249, but I firmly believe they’ve never been more worthy of that asking price.
If you’re an Apple person, you’re getting an awful lot for your money. They are, in my mind, an essential purchase for all of the reasons noted above – indeed, it’s tough to recommend the regular AirPods at all when these exist. If you need to save for a bit longer, trust me – it’ll be worth it.
In fact, the second generation AirPods Pro are so good, that there’s only one thing I want from the next version – and, yes, it’s USB-C charging, please!
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Re: the AirPods transparency mode—you didn’t mention one major benefit—because your relatively young ears haven’t lost all the high frequency response I’m guessing, but I use my AirPods as informal hearing aids. They boost a bit of the high end and make conversations, lectures, TV considerably more intelligible. Free bonus!
Totally agree with you, the sound quality improvement between the Pro 1 and Pro 2 is staggering, to the point where the Pro 1s sound tinny compared to the richness of the sound on the Pro 2. If you are an Apple person and are happy with in ear rather than over ear, then just buy. I bought some Pro Max for working from home, and the Pro 2 are better than those.