Gear Review: Ugh fine, the AirPods Pro are actually pretty great

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

It’s not that hard to understand what the AirPods Pro is and who they’re made for. They’re a) the better, costlier version of vanilla AirPods and b) for Apple fans who might not know any better.  

The widespread popularity of Apple’s own truly wireless earbuds has been a source of slight annoyance to snooty audiophiles (me among them) for years. “Why would anyone torment themselves with leaky, mediocre sound?” we yelled at the sky, shaking our fists. And yet, no one heard us — mainly because they’ve got AirPods on.

But Apple did hear our grouses, even though it took ‘em three years to actually do something. Last week, the new-and-improved AirPods Pro was launched, addressing all the things we didn’t like about non-pro AirPods. At an elevated price tag, of course: $379. 

Sonically, the AirPods Pro is definitely not the best-performing wireless earbuds in the market, nor are they the most affordable (though that’s pretty obvious by now).

But are they the best wireless earbuds for the legions of Apple fans happily caged within the Apple ecosystem? Absolutely.

Close, but no cigar

 
AsiaOne Unboxes: Apple AirPods Pro

We got our mitts on the new Apple AirPods Pro! Aside from the $379 wireless earbuds, check out what else is included inside.

Posted by AsiaOne on Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Right off the bat, I’m just gonna say it — there are other truly wireless earbuds that outperform the AirPod Pro’s main function: pumping high-quality audio right into your ear canals. As much as I appreciated its sound quality being eons ahead of the old AirPods, it’s only right to compare its capabilities to identical products. Especially since it’s something that costs nearly $400.

What makes the AirPods Pro sound hella better is the fact that it provides a tighter seal thanks to Apple finally deciding that silicon ear tips are a good idea. The box comes with three various sizes of flexible tips, and to really ensure a good fit, the handy Ear Tip Fit Test tool on your iPhone lets you figure out which size is best for your ears. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

If the seal’s not that great, it’ll tell you to adjust the placement or switch to a differently sized tip. The silicone tips take a bit of tugging to pop out, which is great because I’m sure most of us have had tips of in-ear buds left astray. If you do happen to lose ‘em, replacements can be bought from Apple stores. No luck for lovers of superior foam tips because the mechanism affixing the tips are proprietary. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Back to sound quality. After a week with the AirPods Pro, it remains clear that it falls short of delivering audio that’s as rich and crisp as something like Sony’s WF-1000XM3, which is a good $30 cheaper. I’m still not sure if the AirPods Pro’s Adaptive EQ — which automatically tunes the low and mid frequencies of the music according to the shape of your ear — actually improves anything. But what I am sure is that Sony has nailed the audio clarity on their wireless earbuds better than Apple. 

Listening to the entirety of (Sandy) Alex G’s excellent House of Sugar record is cleaner, fuller, and more vibrant on the WF-1000XM3. On the AirPods Pro, things just don’t sound as lively or defined. You can’t even fine-tune the equaliser settings for the AirPods Pro — unless you count changing the EQ presets on the iPhone as good enough. 

In terms of voice calls, communications were clear enough, but nothing that spectacular. 

Kill the noise

The big selling point for premium headphones are their noise-cancellation capabilities, and for the AirPods Pro, it works — and it works well. Remember that “Oh my god he’s got his AirPods in, he can’t hear us” meme? Thanks to better seal and effective active noice cancellation, yes, you really can be run down by a truck since you can’t hear it coming. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

It does the job in blocking out external sound, but again, it’s not as good as its closest rival, the WF-1000XM3. When it comes to the AirPods Pro’s Transparency mode on the other hand, I’d say I prefer Apple's take. The AirPods don’t rely on dramatic amplification of external sound, so when you’ve got Transparency switched on, things sound natural. It feels like you don’t even have the AirPods Pro lodged in your ears. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Unlike other earbuds, you can’t adjust the level of noise cancellation to your liking on the AirPods Pro. It’s either you block out everything or hear everything. Or have both features turned off.

User friendly

All that being said, I can’t argue against the pure usability of the AirPods Pro. Connectivity is an absolute cinch due to Apple’s H1 chip, and you don’t have to manually search and pair the earbuds to Apple devices. 

PHOTO: Apple

My previous complaints against AirPods (the non-Pro models) also can’t apply here. I’ve always detested the utter arrogance of the AirPods’ universal fit — because they can’t even bear to stay in my own ears. Now, the Pro version actually fits securely and, because it’s lightweight, it's really comfortable as well. 

The lightness on top of being sweat and water resistant also makes the buds a good workout companion, but I still don’t trust them not flying out during something as vigorous as high intensity interval training. Jogging, gymming and everything in between should be perfectly fine. 

One minor gripe: the switch-up from a tapping interface to squeezing commands as gestures — a slightly unnatural, forceful way of controlling playback or switching listening modes.

One major (but very first-world) gripe: the lack of volume control on the AirPods Pro itself, which is Apple’s way of telling us to use Siri. No way was I going to trigger “Hey Siri” in public, so it’s back to controlling the volume on my phone. It won’t be an issue if you have an Apple Watch though. Ah, what a supportive, ensnaring ecosystem.

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Another thing that people tend to overlook is the entire size of the package, and in this aspect, hats off to Apple. The company managed to fit all that tech into something as small and portable as the AirPods Pro, which could actually fit into that tiny coin pocket in your jeans, wireless charging case and all. As much as I love the Sony WF-1000XM3, they’re just way too bulky to fit comfortably in my pockets.  

No issues about the battery life for now — these buds can last up to five hours, and even lesser if you use active noise cancellation. It’s not much, but you won’t notice it when the AirPods Pro flit between your ears and the wireless charging case throughout the day. 

Knowing Apple products, I do have some concerns over the longevity of its batteries. Folks who bought the regular AirPods in 2016 reported that the batteries would only last mere minutes today. This could happen to the AirPods Pro too, and for $379, it’s something to think about.

Pro-grade earbuds for the masses

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Fine, you win this time, Apple. You finally convinced the rest of the world who aren’t already in love with AirPods to get onboard the sleek, white hype train. It’s getting harder to convince other folks to consider other truly wireless options because this time around, Apple really got a lot of things right about the AirPods Pro.

The masses — especially those who’ve never experienced any other noise-cancelling headphones — will no doubt be very happy to drop the cash for these buds, and I, for once, won’t object. 

ilyas@asiaone.com

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