Apple's truly wireless earphones AirPods have been a category definer since it was first launched in 2016. However, unlike iPhones and other gadgets, earbuds are not updated every year. Earlier this year, Apple updated the existing AirPods with a new one but has now introduced a Pro variant featuring a new design along with improved sound and active noise cancellation. Does active noise cancellation, a feature popular with over-the-ear headsets, really work with in-ear buds? Let's find out:
While the basic design concept continues to be the same, a lot of changes in design from the case to buds are clearly visible. The case is slightly wider yet it slides in the pocket comfortably. It supports wireless charging (Qi-certified) or can be charged using the lightning cable. There is a LED indicator at the front that blinks between green, orange and white and a button at the rear for reset and pairing.
Moving to buds, instead of hard plastic, these have soft silicon ear tips that ensure the AirPods Pro stays put in the ear. Unlike most in-ear buds that create pressure because of silicon seal, Apple has added vents that equalises the pressure. Because a single ear tip may not fit in everyone's ear, Apple has added a pair each of small, medium and large ear tip in the box. Even the stem is slightly shorter compared to previous AirPods, which appears good but one may take time to get used to using the controls. Just like the previous-gen AirPods, opening the lid of the case displays the battery status of the case as well as each earbud on the iPhone (post pairing).
Pairing and fit test
Apple has mastered the art of seamless pairing between its products. Just by bringing the AirPods Pro closer to the iPhone, a setup animation pops up on the screen asking to connect. Once paired, the animation quickly guides about media controls, noise cancellation feature, and more. The new AirPods Pro comes with active noise cancellation. Apple has introduced a special 'ear tip fit test'. Tapping on the 'i' icon on the AirPod Pro in Bluetooth settings shows an option to test whether the current ear tips are offering a good seal along with best acoustic performance. After placing the earbuds in respective ears, it quickly ran the fit test by playing music where the inside facing microphone analysed the sound in the ear canal. Of the three, the medium tip worked the best for me - both in terms of the fit as well as the sound. It offers a secure fit without feeling too heavy. It even stayed put while brisk-walking as well as running. Being sweat and water resistant makes it ideal for workout sessions too. Moreover, I found AirPods Pro comfortable enough to wear for longer duration. Most importantly, as I was signed into my iCloud account, AirPods were automatically paired with all supported devices linked with my Apple ID.
With new earbuds, even controls have changed. Instead of tapping on the stem, it now houses force sensors that need to be pressed for answering calls, skipping tracks and switching between active noise cancellation and transparency mode. Pressing it once works for answering a phone call or playing and pausing the music. Pressing it twice skips the track forward and pressing it three times skips the previous track. The earbuds beep when the force sensor is long pressed, indicating a mode switch between active noise cancellation and transparency mode. I was able to switch between the two from the control centre, where tapping on the volume slider opened a new window, allowing me to switch between ANC, off and transparency mode. While the former blocks the outside noise, the latter allows some ambient noise that helps you stay aware of surroundings. This is a much-needed mode, especially when at the airport or on the road. And just calling out "Hey Siri" activates voice assistant to make a call, play music, and more. However, there is no way to control the volume from the stem. I had to either pull out my phone or ask Siri to do it.
Active noise cancellation
Apple has put in a lot of technology for the AirPods Pro to offer active noise cancellation in in-ear buds. Apple has used an outward-facing and an inward-facing microphone for this. The former detects external sound and cancels it using equal anti-noise. The latter identifies unwanted sound inside the ear and eliminates the same. Apple says that noise cancellation is continuously adjusted at 200 times per second for truly immersive sound. In real life usage, the active noise cancellation works well. When turned on, it successfully eliminated the unwanted outside noise. For instance, when turned on (with no music playing), it cancelled out the background noise of the running fan, air conditioners and light background music. However, I could continue to hear faded conversations. Playing music with noise cancellation turned on was a bliss. I couldn't even hear the person calling me from behind. For this to work, I had to wear both the earbuds. But while walking on the street or when sitting at the work station, I preferred switching it to transparency mode that allowed the outside noise to be heard.
Apple hasn't traded off sound to incorporate active noise cancellation. Instead, the Pro sounds better than the previous-gen AirPods with noise cancellation turned on. When turned off, it sounds very much like the previous generation. The music sounds well-balanced across genres including classical, rock, pop, or podcasts. The vocals were clear and with noise cancellation turned on, I could hear even the lightest of the background score. It offered deep bass and the highs were not so overpowering. These may not be the best sounding earbuds in the market but come close.
Against Apple's claim of 4.5 hours of runtime with noise cancellation turned on, the AirPods Pro lasted me close to five hours on a single charge and even more when the feature was turned off. The case when fully charged offered another couple of cycles of charging, lasting for close to 20 hours with everything combined. The AirPods Pro case supports wireless charging (Qi-certified) and is accompanied with the lightning cable too. For calling, I often used single earbud but for music or podcasts, I wore both.
Apple AirPods Pro did an impressive job at noise cancellation. It might not be the best on the block when it comes to music but the active noise cancellation and transparency mode work flawlessly. The product perfectly fits into the existing Apple ecosystem.