AirPods Pro Review: Jack of all trades; Master of none

Source: Hypebeast / Eddie Lee

Apple’s AirPods had a hard time finding its footing in the digital world since its release in 2016. They were first mocked as ‘EarPods without cables’, then its magical feature of ‘just working’ caught wind pretty fast, followed by being one of the most iconic memes of 2018.

My AirPods (1st Gen) have been with me for a little under 3 years, and they are on their last legs with battery life lasting just under an hour. The AirPods (2nd Gen) weren’t anything to write home about either, so you could only imagine my excitement when the AirPods Pro announcement dropped last week.

I picked up my order on 30th October and have been using them 5-6 hours a day. They’ve been inside my orifices on public transports, on the streets in Singapore, during work, and while making daily Facetime (audio and video) calls. After spending a week with them, I feel well equipped to tell the world what I love and hate about it, and if it is something one should consider buying.

So here we go: The good, the bad, and the ugly of the all-new AirPods Pro.

Design, specs, and battery — Less for more. Less is more

Source: Cnet

They look different, if you haven’t noticed.

The cases are shorter and wider, just slightly larger compared to the regular AirPods. The earbuds have a shorter stem too, replacing the tap gestures with Force Sensors. Pressing, or squeezing on the stems doesn’t actually have any tactile feedback but instead produces these ‘clicks’ that sounds so real, it feels like it anyway. One of the few minute details that Apple likes to put a lot of thought in to (unfortunately not for its bigger releases *cough, MacOS Catalina release, cough*).

For an immersive audio experience, the AirPods Pro come packaged with three different sizes of silicone tips that fit directly into your ear canal, physically blocking out a good portion of surrounding noises. Active people would be pleased to know that they’re now sweat- and water-resistant, rated with an IPX4 rating. Although, you probably shouldn’t shower or swim with them on.

The star of the show: Ambient Mode. The AirPods Pro feature a multi-microphone system on each earbud, analysing external ambient noise. ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) Mode receives the data and cancels it with anti-noise, while Transparency Mode replicates them. They also house upgraded chips and drivers that improve audio quality. Apple also introduced Ambient EQ, optimising audio to fit your ear shape by adjusting sound signals 200 times a second. There’s no way for us to test this so we have to take their word as gospel.

There’s a catch with Ambient Mode, though. Apple says you’ll get 4.5 hours of music listening when it is enabled, but the same 5 hours as regular AirPods when they’re switched off. With the case, you get a little under 24 hours of juice.

Comfort & Fit — No pain, with all the gain

Because of the shape of the new cases, I had trouble getting used to opening/closing the lids with one hand. A workaround I developed was to hold it sideways with the charging port resting on your palm, then ‘pushing’ the lid open. Epitome of #firstworldproblems.

Fortunately, I wasn’t part of the many who had trouble with the AirPods falling out of my ears. What I experienced, though, was discomfort. Wearing them for any longer than 1.5 hours would leave my ears feeling slightly sore with some noticeable fatigue.

I didn’t experience anything of the sort with the AirPods Pro. They could sit in my ears for hours, and I could forget I even have them on, even now when I’m typing this review. The vents on the outer shell lets air in to equalise pressure and minimise discomfort, a common problem I, and many others, had with in-ear headphones.

Apple has included an Ear Tip Fit Test in the settings which plays a tune for the earbuds to determine if the current size of ear tips provide a good seal. Personally, I got a ‘Good Seal’ for all three sizes, and I swear I’m not the type of person who uses a new pair of earphones every other day! Afterwards, it’s just a matter of comfort. I would recommend you try them all, with the Ear Tip Fit Test, and use the one that gives a ‘Good Seal’ with the most comfort.

Basically, they’re comfortable to wear.

Connectivity — It just works

This whole section is just ‘Apple Magic’ over and over again.

Pairing the AirPods Pro (or regular) for the first time is a complete breeze. Flip the case open beside your iPhone and they’re immediately connected with a tap on the screen. That’s it.

Ready to listen to your tunes? Pop the AirPods in your ear and they’re automatically turned on, and connected to your device. Someone’s talking to you? Remove either (or both) side and your music automatically pauses. Done with the conversation? Put them back in and your music automatically resumes.

Want to listen on your iPad or MacBook? Simply head on to the Bluetooth settings and they’re already there, ready to connect. (Granted, these conveniences are only available with your Apple devices).

AirPods are peak ‘Apple Magic.’

Active Noise Cancellation — When memes come true

“Oh no, he can’t hear us he has AirPods in.”

Yes, precisely that. With ANC turned on, you block out 95% of ambient sounds and noises. When you take them off, you realise how loud the world is again.

The remaining 5%?

  • “Next station, Orchard..”
  • “Orchard..”
  • “Please mind the platform gap.”
  • Commuters talking right beside you.
  • Wooshing sound when you’re on the train, underground.
  • Wooshing sound when a bus passes you on the road.
  • Your helper/slave scrubbing tiles in the toilet.
  • When your colleagues are talking exceptionally loudly.
  • Girls screaming at each other when they meet in public.
  • Any loud and/or high-pitched noises.

Of course, this is very much dependent on the volume and genre of music you’re listening to. For reference, mine is always set to 70. (“Hey Siri, set my volume to 70.”)

Even when surrounding noises leak in, they don’t interfere with your music at all. They’re more like a whisper from a distance. ANC work best at cancelling out constant frequencies, like the sound from your fridge. But I’m so focused on what I’m listening to that I barely notice the leaks.

Transparency Mode, on the other hand, picks up ambient noises using the microphone and ‘plays’ it back into your ears, almost like a pair of open-back headphones. I use them when I’m walking on the streets and crossing roads, or when I’m expecting someone to call out to me (picking up my order at McDonald’s).

There is also an option to turn Ambient Mode off in Control Centre or Settings, sitting in between both modes, visually and aurally. It doesn’t completely filter out noises, but neither does it actively pick them up for you. I rarely ever use this ‘function.’

Audio Quality — Improvement that’s unheard of

The AirPods Pro sound phenomenal. At the very least, way better than regular AirPods. It still has the same neutral sound profile, but now with a wider soundstage. Songs are considerably fuller and cleaner, without any overpowering from the bass, which appear to be balanced. (Disclaimer: If you’re expecting Beats’ level of dirty hard-hitting bass then you should probably look away.)

Making calls on the AirPods Pro are a delight too, on both ends. Voices are clear and crisp, blocking out most ambient sounds, but anything softer than a ‘normal’ speaking volume will be hard for the microphone to detect.

All things considered, I also think a good portion of the improvement in sound quality can be attributed to the seal created from the silicone ear tips.

Note: SnazzyLabs does an actual in-depth review from an audiophile’s perspective here.

Force Press Controls — More misses than hits

Apple decided to replace the tapping function in favour of Force Sensors on the stems of the AirPods Pro. I would’ve preferred if they kept both features, but found myself used to it after a week. It says to squeeze the stems, although in actuality it’s more like a pinch, considering how tiny the stems are.

One press to play/pause, two to skip forward, three to skip backwards, and a long-press (about a second) to switch between ANC and Transparency mode.

Unfortunately, I am running into a few occasional problems with the Force Sensors.

  1. After popping the earbuds in and pressing once to resume a song, it would play it for a split second before pausing again. I would have to pinch once more before it would work as intended.
  2. It would incorrectly register the number of pinches. Pressing twice may skip a track backwards or pause my music.

I’m not entirely sure what’s causing this issue but I hope it’s a software bug that can be fixed with an OTA update. Otherwise I’ll have to take it back to the Apple Store and get a new pair.

AppleCare+ — Insurance for your earbuds

It is worth nothing here that the AppleCare+ upgrade for your AirPods Pro is nothing short of a bang for your buck. Aside from the two accidental damage coverage, for just US$49, you’re allowed to replace the battery of your AirPods for free. You’re essentially extending the lifespan of your AirPods Pro for another two years.

Many people, including myself, find our regular AirPods’ battery degrading after two years of use. With AppleCare+, it’s almost like breathing life into your dead US$249 earbuds.

Frustrations & Wishes — Confessions of a sheeple

BUT, Even as a self-proclaimed Apple fanboy, I can’t help but feel short-changed at some of the decisions made with the release of AirPods Pro (like many of their other product releases).

The AirPods Pro aren’t repairable at all, as rated 0/10 by iFixit. This isn’t environmentally friendly at all, and considering how $700m are spent on replacing AirPods, that’s a lot of plastic and metal going to waste. It would be great if the battery were replaceable, so an otherwise functioning pair of AirPods can have a second life. Which brings me to my next point..

Battery degradation. It has been a common issue amongst AirPods users, with most commenting a drop in battery life after a year of use. But basic AppleCare only covers a defective batteries, not wear from normal use. This warranty only lasts for a year, and you’d have to fork out US$49 PER SIDE. Sure, get AppleCare+ like I mentioned above, but why are we forced to spend more just so we can have a product that lasts longer than a year?

Tapping and volume control. I wish Apple kept the tapping function, allowing us to skip tracks back and forth. We could have the single press of the Force Sensors for play/pause, and the double presses for volume increase/decrease. Some argue that the shorter stem is the reason why tapping was removed, but I the accelerometers are still in the AirPods pro, and nobody ever tapped the stem. Or at least, I never did. It sucks that there is a lack of volume control on a US$249 product, and could only be controlled with the phone, or Hey Siri.

And finally, Siri. In order to get Siri to work properly, I would have to speak at a louder than normal volume or it wouldn’t register the order. Often times, it would also take a few seconds longer than usual before acknowledging my request.

But even with all these complaints, I’m still very impressed with the AirPods Pro.

Conclusion — The one to get if..

You are in the Apple system. Specifically, if you own an iPhone. If you own two or more Apple products, these are definitely the way to go.

The common argument against AirPods Pro are that you could spend the money on other pairs of wireless earbuds that offer greater sound quality, better noise cancellation, or longer lasting battery. Well, they aren’t wrong. But those earbuds only excel in those area(s). You’d find that their cases are bulky, their devices are uncomfortable to wear, their call quality is abysmal.

Like the title, the AirPods Pro don’t have a single feature that stands out amongst the rest. What makes it amazing is that it offers a decent quality in all aspects. It’s akin to getting a B on all your tests, instead of two As and many Es. For the common-folk, this is the all-in-one device to carry. It is portable, has decent audio and noise cancelling features with an acceptable battery life, great call quality and great comfort.

If you have the cash to spare, are already in the Apple ecosystem, and looking for a pair of wireless earbuds, you can’t go wrong with AirPods Pro. If not, the regular AirPods are great value too.

Specifications wise, these aren’t ‘value for money.’ But Apple products never were. It was always about the integration with software and hardware that makes it stand out.

The AirPods Pro get a “Brutal Approve” from me.

TL;DR: After 3 years, Apple has finally perfected the most outstandingly-mediocre pair of wireless, noise-cancelling earbuds.

Article written by: Tan Yong Heng

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