I was very glad when I heard Apple announcing the AirPods Pro with ANC. This will hasten the adoption of active noise cancellation feature across the audio industry, similar to what Apple did for true wireless earbuds.
Before AirPods Pro, active noise cancelling technology is a premium tech. Now, with all the buzz going on, every consumer is looking out for this feature in their next TWS. The AirPods Pro ANC is not the best, but there are other good features that collectively make the AirPods Pro a surprisingly good all-rounder TWS earbuds.
I ordered the earbuds from the Apple Singapore online store and chose to collect the next day from Jewel Changi Airport outlet. The whole fulfilment process was smooth, expected nothing less from Apple. The sales staff verified my order, picked up a pre-assigned unit for me, and offered to set up the earbuds.
I am not an Apple product advocate, and do not own an iPhone. But AirPods Pro work with any device with Bluetooth audio, so it will work with Android phones and even digital audio players. As a true wireless earbuds, the AirPods Pro wears comfortably and works seamlessly. There are usability experience that other brands should learn from (some probably already did). For my review, I tested mainly with Android devices.
Getting the AirPods Pro paired is easier than most other TWS. Flip the case open, press and hold the case button at the back, and once the LED blinks it’s in pairing mode. Once pairing is successful, then remove the earbuds and start using. Most other TWS earbuds require you to press-and-hold the button on the earbuds itself, often a hit-and-miss because you need to power off and then power on to go into pairing mode. Newer TWS earbuds with auto pairing feature is automatically in pairing mode if no device is connected.
Auto Transparency Mode
The AirPods Pro automatically goes into transparency mode if you only wear one of the earbuds. This ensures your listening is balanced. The moment you insert the second earbud, it will enable ANC mode. To toggle transparency mode and ANC, press and hold the sensor on either earbud.
The transparency mode is very natural. I can wear the earbuds, turn on transparency mode, and have a normal conversation as if I am not wearing the earbuds. And the AirPods Pro feel really comfortable, I can just wear them the whole day even if I am not listening to any music.
Active Noise Cancelling
This ain’t no voodoo magic. The way ANC works is to position mics strategically to pick up ambient sound, then process an inverse sound wave and play it through the in-ear drivers, effectively cancelling out the noise. For AirPods Pro, there are additional mics facing the in-ear to further remove any noise.
Let’s be upfront: the ANC does not work as well as Sony WF-1000XM3. But given most consumers would experience ANC for the first time (thanks to Apple’s massive tech influence), people would be naturally impressed. Lower frequencies like motor noises are removed with ease, while upper frequencies remain audible. It is so “poor” that I can still hear my wife talking to me when music volume is low. Comparatively, Bose HP700 would eliminate noise so effectively that it would be difficult to make out any words from a conversation. Nevertheless, having ANC is better than no ANC. And at this point of time given the lack of competition, AirPods Pro’s ANC is literally “second-best”.
The controls are activated only by lightly pressing on the sensor. It is a better experience than full touch sensor, as it is less accident-prone to trigger the AirPods Pro. Also, the positioning of the sensors makes the control less intrusive on the ear canals as opposed to tapping or clicking buttons.
To change tracks, double-press on either earbuds for next track, triple-press to go previous track. You cannot adjust volume from the earbuds.
Apple chose to make the charging LED disappear after a while during charging. I guess it works great for users who dislike light pollution when charging in the dark. To check the charging status, tap the cover and the LED will light up for a brief moment. This only works when charging with a wireless charger.
The AirPods Pro are rated to deliver 4.5 hours of continuous listening with ANC, while the case can deliver a total of 24 hours listening time (about 4 charges). With IPX4 rating, they are safe with casual wet situations like rain or sweat.
The AirPods Pro delivers a well-balanced all-rounder sound quality. Its treble is not impressively bright nor transparent, but it offers satisfying details, thanks to a wide sound stage that spreads the instruments for a roomy ambiance. The bass is lacking in impact, but the forward midrange provides a little more fullness and warmth which I slowly grow to like. It’s got the character of the Klipsch T5 True Wireless, but with a little more treble presence.
Switching between stereo and mono audio – when one of the earbuds is docked – is quite fast, one of the better TWS I have reviewed. It works fast even on a non-iPhone device. For call voice quality, the other party has no problem hearing me, and I can switch between transparency mode and ANC mode during calls.
I was actually prepared to be highly critical of the AirPods Pro, but after using it for several days, it actually offers a very compelling package. From the audio point of view, it is not the best sounding yet it offers a good sound balance. For ANC, there are better products out there, but having one is better than having none. I am impressed with the intuitive activation of Transparency mode when one earbud is worn, and that really shows the attention to details from Apple. The earbuds are comfortable to wear, though not as secure as many other TWS.
While the battery life is just 4.5 hours, it is sufficient for my kind of usage pattern. The most important aspect is the case size, that is compact enough to be carried around at all times. I’m not a fan of the glossy plastic, but thankfully there are no shortage of after-market protection covers.
There aren’t a lot of true wireless earbuds with active noise cancelling as well as Transparency (or Ambient Sound) modes. Sony WF-1000XM3 is undoubtedly better in technology, but when it comes to product design and comfort, they are quite undesirable. If you are looking from a product quality perspective, Sony WF-1000XM3 is still the one to go for. But I would bring out the AirPods Pro rather than the Sony, and would gladly sacrifice audio quality and weaker ANC.
In terms of value, S$379 cannot get you more battery life or better IP-rating or personalisation features, but being an Apple product, you are paying a premium for design and user experience, and from what I am experiencing during my review, I am getting my money’s worth.