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Apple AirPods Pro Review: the ultimate podcast listening experience?

Apple's new AirPods Pro are here and promise bringing a superior listening experience in a very tiny package. But how good are the little earbuds from a podcast listener perspective? And more importantly, is this rather expensive gadget worth the money?


A Little Bit of History


Since the invention of the first headphones in 1910, audio technology has come a really long way. It's funny how little, in general, wired headphones have evolved in the last century.


Brandes, early earphones for radio usage (ca. 1919)

I still remember how in 2014 I was a a proud early adopter of bluetooth headphones, which these days seem to have become the golden standard.


When Apple announced the new AirPods, I was immediately sold. And even though I was so much hyped about the product, when I actually got it, I realized how much better they were than I thought, and how advanced these new bluetooth earbuds were.


So here's the catch: I love the AirPods and believe that they are the best piece of hardware Apple has done since the iPhone. This means that my review might quite subjective, but hey, you read my blog for my opinions, right? Otherwise you'd be reading the specs on Wikipedia ;)


General Impressions


The AirPods Pro are a very different beast, as compared to the two previous versions. They look different, they feel different, they have a different feature set.



AirPods Pro in their box


The presentation is, like any other Apple product, just delightful and in a few seconds the new AirPods are paired with your iPhone.


The new earbuds present a completely redesigned look & feel, with the addition of rubber endings that you put in your ear canal for better sound isolation. Also, the stem is shorter and the form much more curved.



AirPods Classic (left) vs Pro (right)


Noise Cancellation


The two biggest additions to the feature set of the AirPods are active noise cancellation and transparency mode. The first one should be familiar to most people who might have had over ear headphones in the past. The idea is simple: the earphones try to prevent external noise from interfering with the desired audio experience.


So how is the quality of the noise cancellation in the AirPods Pro? Well, it is quite mind blowing for such a small device. You will still hear external sounds, especially really loud ones. Isolated, individual sounds will reach your ears, but of course much much quieter.


What is gone for sure is white noise. This alone make it worthwhile checking out the Pro version of the AirPods. I actually made an experiment and took my Dyson vacuum cleaner for a spin. Even on the most powerful setting (thus the loudest) I could very comfortably use the AirPods and only hear really minor background noise, while the music or voice were crystal clear.


But there is a feature that, to me, is much much more interesting than noise cancellation. This is the transparency mode.



Noise cancellation or transparency mode


Transparency Mode


It's funny how some features that have such a huge impact just appear out of the blue, without big announcements. I truly had never heard of such a thing as a transparency mode and was even more intrigued after listening to some podcasts that would talk about it. I just listened to a podcast that said that although this feature has been available in over-ear headphones for a while, it wasn't present in in-ear headphones until now.


So transparency mode is kind of like the opposite of noise cancellation, but it's not. Let me explain. When using the classic AirPods, you notice that the surroundings are a bit quieter than without the earbuds in your ears. What happens then is that when you listen to a podcast or music, it's quite hard to understand someone talking to you, or you will lose some less obvious external sounds.


So what transparency mode does is, imagine you're editing a multi-track podcast production. One track is the external sounds that the AirPods register, and the other track is what you're currently listening to. The AirPods Pro put one track over the other to provide both a clean listening experience while being able to even follow an outside conversation.


And if you're like me and have a toddler around the house, this feature will feel like a godsend. You will be able to hear any sounds coming from your kid (both expected and unexpected ones!) while still having a great listening experience.


Listening to Podcasts


If you're reading this blog post you might be more interested in the podcast listening capabilities of the AirPods, especially since that information is usually not even part of audio hardware reviews elsewhere.


What you notice right away: audio is crisp, clear, and nicely balanced.


Combine the audio quality with noise cancelling (or transparency) and you get a really outstanding user experience.


I had really a blast listening to podcasts in noisy environments, like the train (or train station) with noise cancellation on. But even with transparency mode on (which you should turn on when walking through the city to avoid getting hit by a bus!) it was a really solid experience, but in that case you need to significantly increase the volume level.


Battery Life


I only tried the AirPods Pro with either transparency or noise cancellation on, as I believe that the off mode is just not an option anymore, as it provides no value add.


Both times I tried to squeeze out the most out of a charge I got to around 4,5 hours of usage. That is less than on the classic AirPods, but still very, very decent, given the additional features and the much shorter stem (that BTW looks just so much better!). The good thing about the AirPods is, you can put them into the charging case just for a little bit and they will get charged fast enough so you can keep using them again.


And since we're talking about charging: the AirPods Pro come with no charger, which in this price category is a shame, but at least they come with a USB-C to lightning cable, so you can basically plug it into your MacBook or wall charger. I personally replaced all the old school USB-A chargers at home with USB-C ones, and I recommend you to do the same. It will cost a bit of extra money in the beginning, but once you have everything running off USB-C, charging becomes so much easier.


Siri


Since the second revision of the classic AirPods, you can use hands-free voice commands by saying "Hey Siri". And while Siri is not miles but lightyears behind Alexa or Google Assistant, it at least allows me to change the volume while riding my bike. I tried to play podcasts with it, but the only thing I can manage to do reliably is to start the Apple Podcasts app. But once open, it will just play the last thing you had been listening to. Might work for you, but I am more of a mood-listener that chooses everyday something new to listen.



AirPods Pro in my left ear – looks good, huh?

Summary


The AirPods Pro definitely deserve the "Pro" in their name. They feel like a much more advanced version of the AirPods, they offer quite different characteristics and are overall just much different from the classic version.


Are they a net improvement for everyone? I don't think so, if you don't value noise cancellation or transparency mode, you might just stick to the classic AirPods.


But if you want the best ultraportable audio experience: the AirPods Pro might be well worth the additional cost. In my case, they even allow me to save money, because I'm not going to be getting more expensive headphones from other manufacturer to get the noise cancellation.


Although the price is high, the new AirPods Pro are definitely worth the money.


Positive

- Transparency mode and active noise cancellation

- Shorter stems and overall redesign look great

- Great audio quality, crisp and clear voices for a great podcast listening experience


Negative

- Much more sensitive to how they earbuds sit in the ear canal

- Comfort might be decreased if not used properly

- Reduced battery life

- Not AirPods' fault, but come on Apple, just get your best people together and make Siri worth our time!



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