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AirPods Pro First Impressions

Apple invited a few dozen media folks to New York today for a briefing and early access to the new AirPods Pro. My initial impression: I like them.

I left for home around 2:30 in the afternoon, and wore the AirPods Pro for the next three hours: on the subway in Manhattan, waiting (briefly, mercifully) in the cacophonous Penn Station, on the train ride home to Philadelphia, walking home through Center City Philadelphia, and then in my house. The subway, a train ride, and busy city streets are pretty good tests for noise cancellation.

Noise cancellation worked really well for me. I own a pair of Bose over-the-ear noise canceling wireless headphones, but almost exclusively wear them only on airplanes and trains. Wearing noise-canceling earbuds on the subway and walking through the city is going to take some getting used to. It’s so good you really do lose sense of your surrounding aural environment.

I was a dummy and didn’t take my Bose headphones on my trip today, so I can’t say how they compare side-by-side on the train, but there’s no question how AirPods Pro compare to regular AirPods. The difference is like night and day. Amtrak trains are pretty noisy — especially at what we in the U.S. so adorably consider “high speeds” — but with AirPods Pro the clackety-clack rumble was effectively blocked out.

The “Transparency” mode is interesting and a little mind-bending. It really does make it possible to conduct a conversation while still enjoying the benefits of noise cancellation. Because the silicone tips seal against your inner ear, when you turn AirPods Pro noise cancellation completely off, you really can’t hear much around you. They’re like earplugs. Transparency lets you hear parts of the world around you. One obvious use case for this: jogging or running and maybe just plain walking on streets where you want to hear the sounds of traffic.

My corner store has a noisy refrigeration unit. With AirPods Pro on — playing nothing — I couldn’t hear it at all. I couldn’t tell that my dishwasher was running even though I was sitting right across from it in my kitchen. As someone who doesn’t generally write while listening to music, I’m likely to use AirPods Pro, playing nothing, just to tune out the world around me in a noisy space.

The force sensor — the flat section on the earbuds stem that faces forward when in your ear — is effectively a button. But it’s not a button. It doesn’t actually move, and it doesn’t provide haptic feedback. But it acts like a button and — most importantly — sounds like a button. When you press it, the AirPod Pro plays a click. I use the singular AirPod there because the click only plays in the bud whose force sensor you pressed. The effect is uncannily like clicking a real button. In a similar way to how force touch trackpads on modern MacBooks and Touch ID iPhone home buttons feel like they truly click, the AirPods Pro force sensors feel like actual clicking buttons. They actually have more of a premium clicky feel than the truly clicking buttons on Apple’s wired EarPods, even though they don’t actually click. It’s uncanny, and Apple at its best.

Another nice Apple-at-its-best touch: in Control Center on iOS, you can long-press the volume control while wearing AirPods Pro to get a nice little three-way selector to choose between noise cancellation, off, and transparency. The selection indicator animates nicely, the sounds are delightful (although you can’t hear them in the movie linked above), and you can change the setting both by tapping another option or by dragging the selection indicator. It’s a simple little interaction done exquisitely well.

Force sensor actions:

  • Single-click: play/pause
  • Double-click: next track
  • Triple-click: previous track

By default, press-and-hold toggles between regular noise cancellation and transparency modes. That means, by default, the only way to invoke Siri is through the “Hey Siri” verbal command. But if you want to invoke Siri through a long-press, you can change that in the Bluetooth section of Settings on your iPhone or iPad. And, you can change it per-ear — so you can have your left AirPod Pro toggle transparency and the right one invoke Siri.

Also in the Bluetooth settings is the Ear Tip Fit Test. It’s very easy. Put the AirPods Pro in your ears, and start the test. It plays a song for about five seconds and decides whether you have a good fit with the current size tips. There’s nothing “smart” about the silicone tips themselves — the AirPods Pro don’t “know” which size tips you’re currently wearing. The Fit Test just tells you if the current ones in your ear are a good fit. For me, the default medium tips feel best and the Ear Tip Fit Test consistently agrees. For my son, the medium tips felt uncomfortable, and the Fit Test agreed they weren’t a good fit. For him, the small tips felt better and the Fit Test agreed. According to Apple, many people have differently-shaped ears and might need a different tip size for each ear, and if that’s the case the Fit Test will suggest it.

Swapping the tips is easy, but it takes a bit more pull than I expected to pop them off. Don’t be afraid — the tips seem rugged. And replacement tips from Apple will cost only $4 — truly cheap.

The AirPods Pro case is about 15% larger by volume than the regular AirPods case. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not noticeable in a regular pants pocket, and it still fits in the fifth pocket of a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans.

Battery life, so far, is exactly in line with Apple’s stated specs. My review unit started at 75% (both the buds and the case). After three straight hours of use, the buds were down to about 10%. So if three hours of use consumed two-thirds of the battery, a full charge should last about 4.5 hours — which is exactly Apple’s claim.

Comfort-wise, my ears felt fine after those three consecutive hours of use. It’s a very different feeling compared to regular AirPods, but I like it. I’ve never had a problem with regular AirPods falling out of my ears, but AirPods Pro feel way more secure. Without question, how they feel is subjective — so the good news is you can request a try-on in any Apple Store.