The new Apple AirPods Pro pass the test in this review

Livia Gamper
Translation: Julia Graham

Apple has changed a few things with the new AirPods Pro. From the outside, the second version looks like the spitting image of its predecessor. The most exciting updates include new controls, the ear photo-capture feature and in-built speakers in the case. It’s time to put these headphones to the test.

I open the case, confirm connection with my iPhone and what do you know? The 2nd generation AirPods Pro are already good to go. I don’t need to download an app, create login details or any malarkey like that. At this point in time, no one other than Apple has managed to make pairing this straightforward and fast.

However, my enthusiasm for the new AirPods Pro diminishes somewhat when I compare the exterior of the old headphones with the latest edition. I feel like I’m playing spot the difference. When I look at the AirPods, this is what I pick up on: the new version only has a small sensor in the middle of the buds, while the previous edition also boasted a mic there. The sensor, which in the predecessor could be found at the bottom of the bud, is now on the upper side. That’s it.

There they are, the 2nd generation AirPods Pro.
There they are, the 2nd generation AirPods Pro.

But Apple’s made up for it by implementing some changes on the inside. Here are the most important new features:

  • You can adjust the volume on the buds themselves
  • Active Noise Cancelling is supposed to be even more efficient
  • Transparency mode is adaptive
  • 3D Audio can be personalised
  • Audio quality is reportedly improved
  • Battery life is longer (now 6 hours instead of 4.5)
  • Ear recognition has been overhauled
  • Connection is via Bluetooth 5.3
  • The case now comes with a speaker, can be attached to a lanyard and be charged using the same device as the Apple Watch.

I put these new features through their paces for a week to see how they fared in day-to-day life. Let’s start with the controls.

Controls: quick, practical and functional

One of the most obvious changes about the AirPods is the extra feature with touch controls. Now you can adjust the volume on both earbuds. A subtle sweep downwards or upwards allows you to alter it gradually.

Previously, you could only change the volume on your phone or with the help of Siri. Many of the competition’s true wireless headphones don’t even have volume control for the headphones themselves. With Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3 and on Samsung’s offering, you can only raise the volume on the right earbud and lower it using the left. This is where Apple’s solution of harnessing both headphones is more intuitive and practical.

You press the AirPods Pro gently to activate the controls.
You press the AirPods Pro gently to activate the controls.

What’s more, on a lot of true wireless headphones, the controls are slow or impractical because of time delays. This isn’t the case with Apple’s product, where everything works as it should, and speedily, without mistakes. If you’ve ever had earbuds with faulty controls, you’ll know how annoying that can be.

Apple has kept the rest of the controls the same as on the predecessor. To pause or skip to the previous or next song, you press the stems together slightly and at varying frequency. To change ambient noise mode, you have to tap the headphones for longer. It all works great. That being said, if you’re used to the buds style of headphones, it can feel strange to press the stems with your forefinger and thumb, as buds only need one finger.

However, compared with buds, the AirPods design is more practical if you need to adjust the headphones in your ear or push them in more. With buds, you always trigger the controls and end up selecting absolutely everything – inadvertently calling your boss three times and your gran once. As the controls on the AirPods are on a scale, that can’t happen.

Almost like a spot the difference picture. Which AirPods are new and which are old?
Almost like a spot the difference picture. Which AirPods are new and which are old?

Active Noise Cancelling: good, but how good?

Apple wasn’t shy in announcing its Active Noise Cancelling (ANC): «With up to double the noise-cancelling power of their predecessor […]» Even the previous gen noise-cancelling was more than respectable.

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Objectively evaluating active noise cancelling is quite a tough thing to do. I try using active cancelling first on the old gen and then the latest headphones. I get the feeling that the new generation reduces the sound of my editorial colleagues’ voices a bit more. Even when I’m outside, I’m under the impression I can hear less traffic noise. And when I’m scanning my items through in Migros at the self-service checkout, I’m initially unsure if I swiped my carrots over the belt properly because I only hear a very faint confirmation sound.

To objectively measure if Apple’s statement checks out, I take the AirPods Pro to the audio experts at Rocket Science (article in German) right after the sales launch so they can gauge the ANC and compare it to that of the previous generation. I’ll let you know the results as quickly as possible and link them here.

These little headphones can keep out a lot of noise.
These little headphones can keep out a lot of noise.

Adaptable Transparency mode

Transparency mode is the opposite of Active Noise Cancelling. In this mode, the AirPods Pro let all ambient sounds through. And Apple has recently made this feature adaptive. That means unpleasant noises such as sirens or building site noise should be fainter, while the sound of voices is raised so you can better hear them. It used to be that certain sounds – especially loud clicks – were very loud in Transparency mode.

The first test I did for this was also in the office. With the AirPods Pro, I hear a conversation about the latest Star Wars spin-off with more clarity than I’d like to. On my way home, I go past a building site and notice that the AirPods Pro dumb down the sound of the pneumatic hammer slightly. But I can still hear the drilling very clearly. And yet, I’m still impressed that the AirPods recognise that the frequency is unpleasant and something they have to react to.

Transparency mode also works very well when I’m cycling. The headphones make an excellent job of filtering out the sound of the wind, and the traffic I hear is almost unadulterated.

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3D sound and personalised ear photography feature

3D audio has been around before the latest AirPods Pro. If you activate the feature and listen to a song on Apple Music or watch Apple TV, you feel like the sound is coming at you in all directions. In the Apple app, it’s sometimes called Spatial Audio, other times Dolby Atmos. Three names and broadly speaking, they describe the same feature: surround sound and personalised head recognition for better sound.

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What’s been added is personalised 3D or Spatial Audio. But this also works with the previous gen AirPods. Using your iPhone camera, you take a photo of your ears from the side and your head front on. However, this doesn’t work with all iPhones. Apple lists all compatible devices here. Sony also boasts an ear photo feature (article in German) for its 360-degree sound. Sony’s 360 Reality Audio is similar to Apple’s 3D Spatial Audio.

Capturing an image of your ear is quick and a doddle. I tried out the feature and couldn’t detect any audible difference between that and unpersonalised sound. Nevertheless, 3D Audio is still fun. I listened to Apple Music’s optimised 3D Audio list. It even includes two Swiss artists, with Lo and Leduc as well as Dabu Fantastic featuring. 3D Audio doesn’t work with standard songs on Apple Music. But there is 3D Audio head tracking that you can activate automatically – when I used it for music, I hardly noticed the effect. What’s more, the sound depends on the position of your iPhone. This works when your phone is in front of you. But as soon as you put it in your trouser pocket, it starts to sound strange.

The AirPods Pro sound good.
The AirPods Pro sound good.

But let’s get back to the 3D Audio playlist. Listening to Shallow by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, I almost feel like I’ve been transported to a concert. That’s down to the fact the individual instruments seem decidedly rich in detail and lively. Apple 3D Audio somehow manages to make the music virtually sound as though it was coming from in front of me, like on a stage, and not from left and right as is usual. Apart from that, the bass sounds more powerful with the AirPods, without drowning the mids – in other words, the vocals and guitar. The mids are catchy, while the trebles come across as clean. The sound the AirPods deliver is appealing, especially with 3D Audio.

As I like to listen to my own music, I switch to Spotify. But unfortunately, there isn’t the whole fuss about 3D over there. I notice the switch to «normal» stereo, and yet I still like the sound quality of the new AirPods Pro. Compared with the previous generation, the sound seems fuller and somehow warmer. On Spotify, the music also has a detail-rich and yet light quality to it. This is an area where Apple seems to have made significant improvements. I wasn’t particularly a fan of the previous AirPods Pro.

In-ears: comfortable as always and with a new sensor

You either love or hate the stems on the AirPods. The fact is, the design of the headphones means the stems balance the AirPods in your ear. This is also why all generations of AirPods don’t sit as firmly in your ear, which makes them more comfortable. Despite this, they’re still glued in place while I go jogging. But there are still some of you out there who find that AirPods absolutely won’t stay in. For small ears, Apple now includes a new insert in size XS with the new generation. This means there are now four sizes of attachments to choose from.

Even when I have the AirPods in my ears for ages, I hardly notice them and they don’t press on me anywhere. That must surely also have something to do with their weight, coming in as they do at a mere 5.3 grammes. And not even all of that is actually sitting in your ear.

With the predecessor, the ear recognition feature didn’t always work reliably. For instance, when you’d take the AirPods out, music would still be playing. But now it’s different. Apple clearly seems to have worked on the ear recognition sensors, as they’re now incredibly accurate. Even when I hold the AirPods Pro in my hand, they don’t suddenly start blaring out music of their own accord. Instead they’ve barely touched your ear and the music is already playing again – just as it should be.

Small and with accurate sensors on the top and on the earpiece.
Small and with accurate sensors on the top and on the earpiece.

The re-engineered case: hangable and findable

According to Apple, the charging case is «completely new». And yet, this is another situation where it feels like you’re playing a game of spot the difference. On the right side, there’s an obvious small change. This is where Apple incorporated a slot so you can attach the case to a lanyard. Apple’s related Incase Lanyard will set you back 13 francs. But you can also use one any other lanyard as long as the little ribbon is thin enough to go through the small slot.

One of the updates means you can now hang the case up.
One of the updates means you can now hang the case up.

Additionally, there’s a small visual difference on the bottom of the case, where Apple has included four tiny speakers. These can play a sound that’s intended to be used with the Find My search feature. Thanks to the beeps, it’s meant to be easier to find your case again if you ever mislay it.

That being said, I wasn’t able to locate the case when the headphones weren’t in it. Instead, the Find My feature selected both earbuds and made them beep dutifully. Meanwhile, the empty case wasn’t even shown in the list. So, you can only lose the case when the AirPods are in it – when they’re separate, you can’t locate the case.

As before, you can get a fix on the individual headphones in the app and ping them so that they play a sound. If you don’t lose the case but instead it gets caught in a storm, it’s not so bad. As with the headphones, it’s IPX4-certified, which means it’s protected from splashes of water on all sides. In terms of power, you charge the case using Apple’s standard Lightning cable or via an Apple Watch charging device.

With the new generation, Apple has built a speaker into the case.
With the new generation, Apple has built a speaker into the case.

Battery and connections

The improved battery capacity is an invisible but important change. Now with Active Noise Cancelling activated, the AirPods have a runtime of six hours rather than the 4.5 it used to be. Compared with the competition, this is safely in the middle of the range.

The case can charge the new AirPods Pro five times, giving an operating life in ANC mode of 30 hours on one charge. Before, you were looking at 24 hours on one charge.

The case can charge the AirPods Pro up to five times before it needs recharging.
The case can charge the AirPods Pro up to five times before it needs recharging.

What’s more, the AirPods Pro transmit using Bluetooth 5.3, which is currently the most up-to-date Bluetooth standard. Over the course of a week of testing, I never encountered any connection problems. Even switching from an iPhone SE to an older MacBook worked with minimal delays. However, the AirPods Pro can’t exactly be described as multi-point. In other words, you can’t maintain several active connections at once. That being said, switching from one to another is so quick that it almost feels like it.

Voice quality on phone calls

Voice quality on true-wireless headphones is always a talking point as, in many cases, it’s not very good. However, given that quality in calls is also dependent on other factors, such as reception and the person on the other end of the phone, I decided to test voice quality locally.

You can check out the results for yourself.

As you can hear, voice quality is good and I sound clear and not tinny. But at the start of the video, my hand catches my chair and you can hear that clearly. All that to say that the AirPods Pro can’t completely filter out loud and sudden background noises.

Verdict: THE thing for Apple users

The new AirPods Pro look like the old ones. And yet, they’re different. Apple has developed a few obvious features, such as the controls and improved some important technical intricacies. In particular, the sound quality stands out. Then, there’s the effective Active Noise Cancelling, the adaptive Transparency mode and the longer battery life.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Gen.) MagSafe Case (ANC, 6 h, Wireless, True Wireless)
139 of 1000 remaining

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Gen.) MagSafe Case

ANC, 6 h, Wireless, True Wireless


The predecessor model was good in itself. Now the AirPods Pro are even better and are THE headphones to pick from in Apple’s true-wireless collection. That’s why I can safely say the AirPods Pro are worth buying if you’re an Apple user who doesn’t yet have any in-ears.

Compared with the competition’s true-wireless headphones, the new gen AirPods aren’t exorbitantly expensive at their special price of 259 francs. The Sony WF-1000XM4, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 and Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro are all also great headphones that are a few francs cheaper. But they’re all lacking the smooth integration into Apple’s system. And that’s exactly what makes the AirPods Pro come close to being the perfect headphones.

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Testing devices and gadgets is my thing. Some experiments lead to interesting insights, others to demolished phones. I’m hooked on series and can’t imagine life without Netflix. In summer, you’ll find me soaking up the sun by the lake or at a music festival.

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