We stress test the AirPods Pro in our ultimate review: including a 34-hour return flight & long distance running in tropical weather
About a month ago, we published our Day 1 Review of the AirPods Pro, where we established that they’re one of the best true wireless options in the wild today. Since, I’ve had the chance to test them at several cafes, on long-distance runs in the sweltering tropical heat, and on a very, very long flight.
24 hours with the AirPods Pro was sufficient to convince me of its superb comfort, take-everywhere portability, and readily-accessible features like always-on Siri and one-touch Noise Cancelling and Transparency. With one month of everyday use, here’s what I learnt about Apple’s latest earphones.
Fit, Finish & Ergonomics
Never mind the actual AirPods Pro – the case itself impressed me from the get-go. Other true wireless earphones might fit readily into your everyday sling bag or even a tiny purse, but the AirPods Pro’s case slipped perfectly into the tiny “watch” pocket of my jeans.
For SGD 379, having the AirPods Pro literally everywhere you are pays for itself faster than its bulkier counterparts (I’m looking straight at you, Sony WF-1000XM3). We’re not even considering more expensive and frankly gargantuan wireless ANC headphones from manufacturers like Bose, Sony and Jabra.
Out of its case, the AirPods Pro pop straight into my ears with only marginally more effort than the OG AirPods. The smaller “stem” is slightly more finicky to get a secure grip on, and the in-ear design requires some wriggling to ensure an air-tight seal in the ears.
That’s relative, of course. Similar but stemless in-ear designs like the Jabra Elite 65t and the Klipsch T5 true wireless earphones require even more deft manipulation and I’d consciously avoid fumbling around with them while entering a lift or standing over a slotted drain cover.
With a solid grip and confident tug, the silicone ear tips detach from the AirPods Pro to show a speaker grille that is almost flush to the body. This means that unlike other in-ear earphones, the hard hardware of the AirPods Pro never gets inserted into your sensitive orifices.
I did find that the in-ear design required some fiddling for adjustment, so the force-sensitive controls on the stems make a whole lot of sense. Squeezes between thumb and forefingers are a lot more intentional. I did, however, accidentally hang up in the midst of two calls while adjusting the AirPods Pro absentmindedly. Neither involved my boss, so I’m in the clear. Phew!
34 hours in the air with the AirPods Pro
I fly often enough to believe that noise cancellation should be a basic human right. I’ve got a mid-sized do-it-all bag that functions as camera bag, everyday carry and airplane carry-on extraordinaire. Boarding a flight usually means it is half-filled by bulky hard cases to transport an essential pair of wireless ANC headphones.
That’s a struggle, especially since I’m a photographer and have to contain lots of bulky gear in the six-litre bag that’s already been half-colonised by headphones. No worries with the AirPods Pro – they’ll be in my pocket, anyway.
On board, even with the added storage you get on premium economy, the large cases for ANC headphones also make it a hassle should you choose to stow them mid-flight. The tiny AirPods Pro encountered no such issue and remained in my ears most of the time, though they had to be popped back in the case to charge about twice.
Lasting slightly more than the advertised five hours between charges, it wasn’t too disruptive since a break for my ears and my bladder has to happen anyway. It’s an inherent limitation given the minuscule dimensions of the AirPods Pro, but quick charging meant that I could get three more hours of playback with only 15 minutes in the case.
Another not-so-obvious limitation is the lack of wired options for use with the In-Flight Entertainment systems on planes. I rarely rely on the movies the airline elected to stock up on and instead prep a library of books, games and movies to peruse on board, so this wasn’t an issue.
For IFE diehards, third party accessory manufacturer AirFly sells a dongle that plugs into audio port and wirelessly pairs with your wireless headphones via Bluetooth.
Running With the AirPods Pro
I’m not the most disciplined when it comes to my exercise regime, so I’ve got several tricks to incentivise my 10-kilometre runs. There’s the sweet treat at my neighbourhood convenience store at the end line, but also an immersive podcast to tune out drear of the run.
Running in both tropical Singapore and 16°C (61°F) Los Angeles was particularly enlightening. The AirPods Pro produced minimal microphonics and other annoying thumping noises we associate with in-ear exercise earphones, and fit perfectly for me throughout my 10-kilometre (6.21mi) runs.
The air ports of the AirPods Pro meant that there was no pressure in my ear canal, eliminating that suffocating sensation where my heartbeat and respiration is too audible.
I’m a talented producer of perspiration, and tropical, humid Singapore elicits bucketloads of it especially on my long runs. I’ll usually start having some issues about halfway through my runs, when the perspiration coming from inside my ear canal starts to make the ear tips extra slippery.
Even so, audio still held up well, and I never once felt like the AirPods Pro was about to fall out of my ears.
I don’t carry much on my person, but the AirPods Pro have become an indispensable part of my everyday carry. Being able to cancel environmental noise wherever I am has been truly delightful, but more delightful has been the ability to quickly and easily transition to Transparency mode.
I travel and commute often, which means I have to regularly listen out for boarding codes, converse to check for directions, and to be generally aware of my surroundings. Transparency on the AirPods Pro frankly puts all other similar competitors to shame.
In simple terms: it transforms your in-ear, noise-cancelling AirPods Pro into regular ol’ earbud-style AirPods. It’s a stupid way to put it, but that means I get to enjoy the benefits of OG AirPods when I most require it (read: situational awareness).
Most impressive is Transparency’s ability to convey a sense of spatiality. Sounds sound near or far, left or right, top or bottom, and back or front. That’s essential when you’re crossing a road, or listening out for a waiter who might pop over your shoulder with a piping hot coffee. Voices also sound extremely natural – even your own.
The AirPods are the best selling wireless earbuds worldwide, and its sound quality reflects that – and this is both good and bad.
Some might suggest its value as as status symbol and its ease of use to be the main contributors to its popularity and I concur. The audio on the AirPods has been good, but really mediocre. It appeals to the median consumer, the mass market – keep a wide berth, audiophiles.
AirPods Pro makes some strides, however. Its new in-ear design means a better seal for improved bass, improved loudness, and reduced airiness. No more need to crank it up just to hear the words.
Soundstage is noticeably more limited and constrained, but everything seems tighter and denser. With an inward-facing microphone, audio is automatically equalised for the unique structure of your ear canal.
We’ll start with the bass, since that’s the most noticeable improvement. There’s significant weight to the bass on Ramsey Lewis’s instrumental People Make The World Go ‘Round. The slap bass hook that occurs throughout the track is full of texture and extends sufficiently low. They’re definitely not for bassheads, but kicks and deep voices shine on these.
Vocals are really where the AirPods Pro shines. That’s great, since increasingly popular podcasting and video content is voice-centric when it comes to audio. Diana Krall’s The Best Thing For You preserves the brightness of her voice.
Microphone performance is one of the best we’ve tested, although it does seem to require a loud, confident voice to be picked up effectively. I did find myself running into some trouble with volume in public places when I didn’t want to speak too loudly.
There’s AirPods Pro, and there are AirPods Cons
Despite its superb performance on flights and for runs, the AirPods Pro suffers from additional issues common to most other ANC headphones I’ve reviewed.
Extremely-low pitched noise like idling motors and other vibrations can cause a rattling interference with the Noise Cancellation. An eight-hour long Megabus trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the bumpy intercity tested my limits a little – the only solution was to turn artificial noise controls off entirely and rely on the passive noise isolation.
With its huge pass-through ports designed to equalise air pressure in the ear, the open-back design of the AirPods Pro meant it provided significantly less passive noise isolation than traditional closed-back in-ear earphones.
Another Pod peeve I had was with voice calls. Like all other in-ear earphones, voice calls tended to loosen the airtight seal and degraded the fit of the AirPods just short of free-fall out of my ears. I very much preferred the voice calling comfort of the OG AirPods but really don’t miss the airy, difficult-to-hear audio at all.
Like we’ve covered in the Day 1 Review, the AirPods Pro is a particularly enticing product in a scantly-challenged category. I consider myself quite a connoisseur of active noise cancelling headphones, and the svelte, tiny AirPods Pro is making me question myself.
Sure, there are several drawbacks. At SGD 379, the price is a huge consideration for many comparing it to the AirPods (SGD 239 with standard charging case). It’s a full S$30 more expensive than its closest competitor, Sony’s WF-1000XM3, and you get IPX4 water resistance in return.
And there’s a smattering of caveat emptor-s that might prove to be deal breakers for some. Compatibility limitations with airplane IFEs, ANC artefacts, five-hour battery life, and Apple ecosystem-oriented design (Lighting port, iOS pairing).
But I’d say it’s a clear choice for many. You don’t have to travel often to appreciate on-demand noise cancellation, and even audiophiles can enjoy the non-offensive sound of the mass-market AirPods Pro.
For me? The tiny, take-everywhere case and extremely comfortable design of the earbuds and the tips make it the obvious choice.