Three years ago, Apple’s wireless AirPods earphones were at best controversial: They looked as if Jony Ive had snipped the cords off his iconic EarPods, leaving hard plastic stems awkwardly dangling from users’ ears. Regardless of how the $159 earphones sounded, would anyone actually walk around with them in public? And wouldn’t buyers just endlessly lose them?

The controversies were eventually resolved in Apple’s favor. After initial production and uptake delays, AirPods began to sell quite well, even becoming status symbols in some circles. By the time an internally improved sequel rolled out earlier this year, the exterior design was no longer an issue.

Yesterday, Apple officially released the $249 AirPods Pro, an alternative that parallels the “Pro” version of the iPhone 11 in not actually being “professional,” but using a nicer form factor and better performance to justify a higher price tag. I’ve been testing the new earphones since then, and wanted to give you a focused look at what’s new and interesting.

Smaller stems, better fit

The most obvious difference between AirPods and AirPods Pro is the one you can see in the image above: Apple has shrunk the electronics to fit inside enclosures that don’t protrude as much from your ears — in two dimensions. Their unusually angled shapes rest more snugly within both the outer and middle ear, while their stems are markedly shorter than before. It’s still obvious that you’re wearing them, but if there was any residual awkwardness factor in walking around with protruding stems, it’s been cut by roughly 40%.

Aesthetics aside, I was concerned that the smaller stems might mean a reduction in microphone performance during phone calls or Siri use, as Apple’s prior design used the stems to place mics closer to your mouth — a smart trick bolstered by great software to isolate the wearer’s voice from ambient noise. AirPods Pro’s mics aren’t in the stems, yet callers told me that they had no problem hearing my voice over ambient sounds, and even gave Pro a small edge over earlier AirPods in talking sound quality. In a call with a friend who also bought AirPods Pro, his voice sounded naturally crisp and clear, while light noise in his background was basically nullified thanks to good automatic mic gain and filtering.

I also found the new AirPods Pro design to be more comfortable than its predecessors. Previously, Apple exclusively used hard plastic in the parts of AirPods that touched your ears, hoping that their glossy texture and lightness would prevent ear fatigue. Over many hours of use, I didn’t have huge problems with the prior models, but in one use case — trying to listen to audio silently while my wife slept nearby — they didn’t feel great when pressed against a pillow. That issue is gone with AirPods Pro.

Apart from shape differences, the reason is that Apple has shifted from an “earbud” design to a “canalphone” enclosure that uses soft silicone tips to directly channel audio into your middle ear canals. Three sets of tips (small/medium/large) are included in the package, with sets of three spares selling for $4. Apple includes an ear tip fit test within the AirPods Pro’s overly buried settings menu, using the earphones’ own echo measurement abilities to judge whether the rubber tips are properly sealing with your ears.

The pre-installed medium tips fit well and felt good, passing Apple’s test, though they don’t provide complete passive isolation of all the ambient noise around me. I tried replacing them with the large tips, which seemed to isolate a little better but slipped out of my ears — something that wasn’t a problem with the medium tips. Since every person’s ears are different, your experiences here may vary, but in my case, I’m settling for the slight imperfection in seal in exchange for greater comfort.

It’s worth noting that Apple guarantees AirPods Pro as IPX4 water resistant for workouts and light water exposure — not submersion, just the sort of moisture that sweat and outdoor exercise commonly produce. I haven’t yet been able to thoroughly test this, and can’t say whether active users will find the Pro model comparable to Apple’s PowerBeats Pro in stability during runs, but the added resilience is welcome.

Better sound, but (arguably) not $249 better

What was apparent before Apple bought Beats Electronics is now gospel within the audio accessory industry: Beats shattered established conventions of the audio performance one could expect at a given price tag, all but single-handedly creating a huge market for stylish but sonically unimpressive headphones. The original version of AirPods leveraged this legacy, delivering sonic performance that was only a small step up from Apple’s packed-in (or $19-$29) EarPods at a $159 price point.

Under the hood, AirPods users were paying a steep premium for seamless convenience. The earphones came with three batteries — one in each earphone, one in the included charging case — plus three Bluetooth wireless chips, three charging systems, more microphones, and other electronics. And many people have been willing to pay $159 for that bundle, or even $199 for an identical version with an even more convenient inductive charging case. For $249, AirPods Pro includes all of the $199 AirPods bundle’s features, plus more, though the charging case is bigger; more on that below.

Having tested a number of headphones that’s somewhere in the low hundreds, mostly including models priced from $19 to $1,500, I can say with complete certainty that AirPods Pro isn’t the best-sounding $249 pair of earphones I’ve ever used. Years ago, it would have struggled mightily to compare with similarly priced dual-driver wired earphones from companies such as Ultimate Ears and Shure. You’re paying a steep premium for the aforementioned wireless conveniences, especially given that the $249 AirPods Pro have the same Apple H1 chip and same 5-hour internal/24-hour case battery life as current-generation AirPods.

That said, AirPods Pro easily deliver $50 of additional sonic performance. Due largely to the silicone tip isolation, I heard plenty of extra bass, somewhat but not profoundly superior treble (higher frequency) detail, and a little more detail in the midrange. Given the choice between AirPods or AirPods Pro, I’d always pick AirPods Pro, and it wouldn’t be a close call.

Just don’t expect AirPods Pro to deliver a revelatory listening experience. I listened to a bunch of tracks with different types of instruments, voices, volume levels, and soundstages using the new earphones, and to a song, everything sounded quite good. I had no complaints about balance, apart from noticing occasional spots of sizzle in the bass. But there was also no sense of experiencing a song as if I was hearing it with studio monitors or other precision listening tools. These aren’t so much “Pro” earphones as “better” ones, much like Apple’s past and now somewhat obscure $79 In-Ear Headphones were to the infinitely more popular EarPods.

Noise cancellation, Transparency, and Siri

The other major addition to AirPods Pro is active noise cancellation hardware, a feature that has been popular in over-ear headphones for many years, and only recently became somewhat viable in in-ear models. As distinguished from passive noise isolation — which is achieved by shielding the whole ear or ear canal from sound with an earcup or rubber eartip — active noise cancellation uses microphones to “hear” ambient noises around you, then produce directly opposing sounds to neutralize the noise.

Active noise cancellation is a real thing, but attempting to quantify it with percentages (“cancels 95% of ambient sounds!”) is a fool’s errand for many reasons. Most legitimate ANC systems do a good job with low rumbling sounds and struggle more at higher audio frequencies; the best ones address as much of the audio spectrum as possible. Even so, they tend to succeed at neutralizing rumbling plane and subway train engine sounds, and depend at least partially on currently playing audio to distract you from residual ambient noises.

The ANC system in AirPods Pro isn’t the best I’ve ever tested, but like the passively isolating silicone tips, it does make a difference. You can toggle it on or off by pinching one of Pro’s stubby stems — a new trick that took a few minutes to totally grasp, but then felt surprisingly natural — or do so with Control Center in iOS/iPadOS. Activating it knocks around 30 minutes off the 5-hour battery life, according to Apple.

When it’s on, I found that it blocked out perhaps half of the noises around me, including anything low-frequency such as the rumble of a nearby dryer, but left some midrange and high-frequency sounds (including parts of voices) semi-audible. If you’re listening to music, the ANC effect is enough to drown out the world around you without turning the volume up, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Apple also includes a Transparency mode that mixes its live samples of ambient noise directly into the audio feed so that you can simultaneously hear your music and your environment. Since the passive and active noise isolation effects can lead you to believe your own voice is quieter than it actually is, turning on Transparency can help you avoid shouting when you’re on a phone call or making requests of Siri. My daughter noted that difference when I switched Noise Cancellation off and Transparency on, as well as mentioning that AirPods Pro themselves weren’t leaking my music to people nearby, unlike standard AirPods.

Ever since the 2019 AirPods arrived in March, users have also had access to “Hey Siri” functionality directly through the earphones, without the need to press a button; you just speak the words and Siri pops up. I was generally able to trigger Siri with minimal vocal amplitude beyond a whisper, and the assistant responded as ably as it could to my requests, which is to say unevenly — just like Siri without AirPods.

Apple very recently added an iOS and iPadOS feature that enables Siri to automatically read and help you reply to incoming text messages, just like the Messages application in Apple’s automotive CarPlay system. While the feature still stumbles with proper nouns, such as rendering Emil as email, it can turn the otherwise finger-demanding texting process into an almost completely verbal experience… if you’re willing to accept some little mistakes here and there.

A brief note on the wireless charging case

One of the best things about the first two versions of AirPods is the included charging case, which closely resembles a box of dental floss in shape and size. It’s small enough to make competing alternatives look oversized, and works so well that people can (and do) take it almost anywhere. When the 2019 AirPods added inductive wireless charging to the mix, compatible with Qi chargers, I was thrilled to give up Lightning cable charging as a result.

Above: This Totalee wireless charging mat is one of many Qi chargers compatible with AirPods Pro.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

AirPods Pro comes with a wider, shorter case that has all the same functionality as the one bundled with the $199 AirPods. It worked on not only the flat surface of Qi chargers I tested, but surprisingly also on the prior AirPods case-sized recessed charging spot on Mophie’s 3-in-1 charger, even though the new case is 15-20% larger than before. It’s still capable of fitting easily in a pants pocket with other items, though you may tarnish the glossy surface by doing so.

If you don’t want to use inductive charging, Apple now includes a USB-C to Lightning cable in the box rather than a legacy USB-A to Lightning cable. As a big USB-C device user, I really appreciate having the new cable in the box, but for those who don’t, the old Lightning cables you’ve accumulated over the years still work to charge AirPods Pro.

Parting thoughts

As earphones are concerned, the world has changed a lot over the past few years: Every major smartphone maker and quite a few other big companies are now selling truly wireless earphones, and the debate over including 3.5mm headphone jacks has all but disappeared. People now walk around in public wearing wireless earbuds and canalphones that would have seemed implausibly small five or ten years ago, while anything with wires increasingly seems… if not antiquated, at least arguably unnecessary.

Having used and generally enjoyed the standard AirPods for the better part of two years, I was entirely ready for an upgraded model with all the features found in AirPods Pro. It includes almost everything I personally wanted: sweat resistance, noise cancellation, greater comfort, and better sound. Ideally, I’d prefer even better, true multi-driver sound at a more aggressive price point, but the purely wireless earphone market hasn’t evolved to that stage quite yet.

But it will. Between Qualcomm and other wireless chip makers, there are already stereo Bluetooth components available at multiple price points, including chips designed to let premium smartphone makers bundle wireless headphones in the box. Samsung came close to that with massive giveaways of Galaxy Buds, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both decidedly better and even more affordable Bluetooth options appear in 2020,

For the time being, my early impressions of AirPods Pro are highly positive, and even if I did a full and proper review, I suspect that I’d struggle to point to any existing solution that is better overall. But going forward, Apple will unquestionably face price pressure from competitors who find ways to deliver either superior sonics at the same sub-$250 price point, or nearly identical functionality for much less.

Die-hard Apple users mightn’t be swayed by non-Apple options, but there are hundreds of millions of other people out there waiting for the right opportunity to cut their headphone cords and go wireless. Apart from their “Pro” price tag, I’d say the latest version of AirPods makes that case better than anything I’ve tested.

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.