Apple’s AirPods have had a decent, if bumpy, ride with us over the years. A raft of four-star reviews for its wireless earbuds, and a single five-star rating for its first over-headphones, the premium and excellent 2021 Award-winning AirPods Max.
The AirPods and AirPods Pro in-ears have always been one step behind the competition, particularly when it came to sound quality. They’ve been good-but-not-great wireless earbuds; lovely to use for iOS users, but never quite reaching the sonic heights established by the top noise-cancelling earbuds in this crowded and popular category.
That’s all changed with the latest AirPods Pro 2. The second generation of Apple’s flagship wireless ANC earbuds promises a more powerful processor, with advancements in active noise-cancelling, longer battery life, new features and, more importantly, better audio performance.
Since its launch in September 2022, Apple has launched an updated version with the charging case now featuring a USB-C connector, replacing the old case with its proprietary Lightning connection. That's the only material difference, with the earbuds themselves unchanged between the two versions.
With the AirPods Pro 2nd generation, Apple finally gave us the five-star experience we've been waiting for. With its brilliant sound quality coupled with updated features, it's a great pair of wireless earbuds to stand amongst the class leaders.
The AirPods Pro 2 (with the original Lightning case) first launched at £249 / $249 / AU$399 in September 2022, and it's a price tag that’s unchanged from the launch price of the original AirPods Pro (2019), which is both surprising (there were rumours of a price hike) and welcome considering the general rise in prices across all tech products.
The current, updated AirPods Pro 2 with the USB-C case launched in September 2023 for £229 / $249 / AU$399 – that's the same price as before in the US and Australia, but UK buyers can rejoice with a very welcome £20 discount off the original price. You can't buy the USB-C case separately, but as that's the only difference between the two models (and any software updates apply to both), don't feel shortchanged if you are happy with your original model.
This remains a competitive price point for flagship earbuds and Apple's flagship is now the most affordable pair of its five-star rivals. The superb new Sony WF-1000XM5 currently cost £259 / $299 / AU$419, while Award-winning Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II retail for just under £280 / $299 / AU$429 (although this model is being replaced by the newer, pricier Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, £300 / $299 / AU$450).
Both the original AirPods Pro and the Pro 2 with the Lightning case have disappeared from Apple’s website. The Cupertino giant clearly wants you to focus solely on the new 2nd generation model with its new USB-C case, but you can still find the other buds at a discount at various retailers.
Place the two generations of AirPods Pro side by side and they’re effectively indistinguishable. Apart from the slightly repositioned vents and microphones, the bud-and-stem design remains exactly the same.
You now get four ear tips in the box: a smaller XS size is included, giving you more options to get the perfect fit and seal. If you’ve struggled with the AirPods’ fit before (as some on our review team have), the extra tip could help. We’d run the handy ear tip fit test to double check you have the best seal for sound quality, too – we found a good seal with more than one ear tip size. They are comfortable to wear as well, thanks to a lightweight design that you don’t have to cram into your ear holes.
One thing the original Pro were criticised for was a lack of on-device volume controls, a staple of any wireless earbuds. Apple has finally seen sense and rectified this with a touch-capacitive layer on the stems where you can swipe up or down (on both buds) to change volume. There’s reassuring haptic feedback when you swipe and, while it takes a bit of getting used to, it’s responsive every time we use it.
You still have to pinch the stems to pause and skip playback and take calls, while a long press switches between the different noise-cancelling modes. It all works well, and over time have found the method just as intuitive as tapping on the earbuds’ surface area like we do with the Sony or Bose rivals. As a bonus, there’s no chance of accidental track changes when you brush against the AirPods.
The bigger design change is to the charging case: it now has a built-in speaker and a lanyard loop. The speaker emits tones to indicate charging, low battery and to help you find it if you’ve misplaced it. The case itself remains the same small and pocketable size – it easily slips into a pocket, bag and the palm of your hand. These features remain the same whether you're using the Lightning-equipped case or the new case with the USB-C connection.
There are more ways to charge wirelessly too: with an Apple Watch charger, a Magsafe charger or any Qi-compatible charging mat.
If you have the original case with a Lightning connector, a Lightning to USB-C cable is provided in the box. If you've got the updated model with the USB-C connection in the case, you'll be glad to know a USB-C to USB-C cable comes with the box, too.
Let’s get straight to it: the active noise-cancelling in the Pro 2 is impressive. There’s an immediately noticeable difference between the new and old models, with Apple reportedly blocking out twice as much background noise with the new earbuds. This is thanks to a combination of the powerful new H2 chip and the ‘optimised’ re-positioning of the acoustic vents and mics, says the company.
In practice, we found it to be incredibly effective. Background noise disappears to a mere murmur, whether that’s office chatter or the roar of train engines on our daily commute. It’s a comfortable, airy effect, too, and does a great job of letting you enjoy your music without much distraction from the world around you. Compared with the original AirPods Pro, which we’ve had with us throughout our testing, the improvement to noise-cancelling with the 2nd generation model is dramatic.
We’re not quite as cocooned in silence as our new benchmark in flagship ANC earbuds, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II, but the AirPods Pro 2 is a satisfying step up from the original Pros, and its improved ANC performance is ideal for everyday use.
Apple’s advanced H2 chip that powers the earbuds is responsible for many of the improvements in performance – both ANC and sound – as well as a handful of new features, general smooth use and greater efficiency.
Type True wireless earbuds
Active noise-cancelling? Yes
Spatial Audio? Yes
Battery life 6 hours (single charge in earbuds with ANC on), total 30 hours (with charging case)
Earbuds weight 5.4g (per earbud)
Charging case weight 45.6g
One of these new features is called “Adaptive Transparency”, which aims to reduce sudden loud and harsh noises when using Transparency Mode to keep aware of your surroundings. This works well on the London Underground, where the sharp, screeching sound of the tube rails is blissfully damped down. It can be a subtle effect at other times, but we would recommend keeping it toggled on as it does take the higher-frequency edges off environmental noise like traffic.
In our original review published in 2022, we wished for the ability to adjust the level of ANC the way you can on the Bose and Sony rivals. Apple has clearly listened to our complaints (or more likely to wider customer feedback), as 2023's latest iOS 17 software update brought with it a new Adaptive Audio feature to the AirPods Pro 2 (available on both versions).
When kept on, this new mode reacts to the noise levels in your surroundings and adjusts the level of ANC dynamically. It's a nice blend of full ANC and Transparency Mode, and we found the effect to be reactive and subtle: high traffic noise was damped down, while the ANC effect was effectively absent in our quiet home office. While you still can't manually adjust the actual level of ANC, it's nice to get a great halfway point alternative to ANC being simply on or off.
Another addition is Conversation Awareness and it works similarly to Sony's nifty Speak-to-Chat feature, by lowering the volume of music you're listening to when the buds detect you're speaking. Unlike the Sony version (which can be easily triggered by any noise you make), Apple's version doesn't get activated if you cough or are singing along to music. It does seem to recognise more intelligently when you're talking to someone. The way it gradually fades in and out of the volume changes is more elegantly handled, too.
Call quality remains decent. Our voice sounds a touch thin rather than fully rounded out over video and phone calls, but still very clear and audible. Callers’ voices come through cleanly as well. Although, it's the wonderfully clear Sony WF-1000XM5 you want if you're after the best quality for voice calls.
Battery life on the AirPods Pro 2 has improved greatly, too, now taking on the class leaders. You get six hours in the earbuds on a single charge (with ANC on), with a total of up to 30 hours with the charging case. That’s six hours more than the previous model (which topped out at 24 hours total) – and is now far more competitive compared with the Sony WF-1000XM5 (eight hours in the buds, 24 hours in total) and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 (seven hours in buds, 28 hours total).
We did find that the souped-up charging case with its features drains a bit more power than before during use, but it charges up swiftly. If you’re running low on battery, pop the earbuds into the case for five minutes to get an entire hour of charge.
As ever, using the AirPods Pro 2 is supremely easy and intuitive. Apple has a great track record in improving the seamless use of its devices – especially within its own iOS ecosystem – with every generation. And it proves the same here: pairing with our iPhone 12 is near-instant, every single time. Playback is responsive, and the ’Pods pause naturally when an earbud is taken out (and resume playing when it's put back in). It all works smoothly without you having to give it a second thought.
There’s also a new dedicated AirPods section in the iPhone’s settings menu for quicker access (rather than delving into the Bluetooth menu) – it's much easier to access than having to fire up a separate app as with other headphones. The settings are extensive: you can customise Siri voice control, spatial audio, ANC modes, touch controls and turn various features (such as conversation awareness) on or off.
Apple’s Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking returns, giving an immersive, 360-degree effect when listening to music or watching videos. As before, some tracks fare better than others, and overall we still prefer the stability and tight cohesion of the original stereo mix. You can now personalise Spatial Audio to your profile for a more accurate effect, too. The process involves using your iPhone’s camera to capture images of your ears, but we struggled to make headway here: it’s a tricky and frustrating process, and one we hope Apple can streamline in an update.
Those with an Android device sadly won’t have access to any of these extra features, and there’s still no Android app (like Beats – an Apple-owned brand – provides with its Fit Pro buds) for the AirPods. The major tech brands – Apple, Samsung and Google – are keeping their flagship products’ best features very much in their own walled gardens, rewarding those that stick within the ecosystem (Samsung's Galaxy Buds 2 Pro are a prime example). While it does mean that platform-agnostic rivals like Sony and Bose have wider appeal, the AirPods Pro 2 are still worth a look regardless of the device you use, as they sound so good.
And they do sound really, really good. Apple has always impressed us with the clarity and tonal neutrality of its products’ audio quality, coupled with a wonderful way with voices. There’s all of that in the AirPods Pro 2, but now with added weight, greater detail and even greater dynamic subtlety.
Inside each earbud is a new custom low-distortion, high-excursion audio driver, transducer and high dynamic range amplifier, which combined with the H2 chip’s advanced audio algorithms, results in a sound that’s been improved in every way from the original Pro.
The performance is engaging and entertaining right from the second we start listening. It’s a richer, more powerful sound – every song played has a pleasing amount of solidity and weight. The heavy guitar riffs and drum beats in Slipknot’s The Dying Song are delivered with a muscularity we’ve not heard in AirPods before, but there's still a clean, well-organised and detailed presentation that ensures you’re not just hearing a wild mess of sound.
There’s a superb sense of drive. The AirPods Pro 2 are rhythmically agile and nimble, songs flow with an easy fluidity, and they communicate both high-energy tracks and ones that are more contemplative with ease. The sparse piano notes in Chilly Gonzales’ Whist are delicate and have ample space around them, while Macklemore’s Thrift Shop sounds snappy, slick and packed with playful attitude.
We have so much more fun listening to these AirPods Pro than the previous generation. There are more layers and textures to dynamic shifts, keeping you hooked on a song. They dig deeper, soar higher without any hint of brightness, and the midrange is beautifully conveyed.
From the gravelly, soulful tones of Tom Waits to the more languid tone of Wet Leg’s vocals, the AirPods Pro are solid, focused and crystal clear with voices. It simply sounds natural. If you’re a fan of podcasts, nuances in humour and inflection are relayed clearly through the earbuds – you’ll be immersed in whatever you’re listening to.
We’ve praised the openness of the AirPods Pro’s sound before, and once again we’re struck by how airy and open these earbuds can sound, even with the improved noise-cancelling. This is in part thanks to the updated vent system that helps with better airflow. With full ANC and Adaptive Audio turned off, the sound is clearer, with even more space in between elements for the song to breathe. A touch more subtlety in detail and dynamics is uncovered, too.
Next to the Sony and Bose rivals, Apple is now on par where it once was still playing catch up. The lively Sony XM4 now sound lightweight in comparison to Apple’s richer, more full-bodied performance, but the newer Sony XM5 offer a greater level of detail, clarity and power. The pricier Bose QC Earbuds II have the edge over the AirPods Pro 2: they sound even subtler, more evenly composed, and the sonic character is better balanced across the different ANC modes.
But there’s no denying Apple has levelled the playing field: the AirPods Pro 2 sound confident, as if they’ve finally found their footing. They deliver a sound that’s very capable while also being very easy and fun to listen to. Regardless of what you’re listening to, the AirPods Pro 2 turn their hand skilfully to all genres of music.
It’s worth noting there’s still no support for high-res or higher-quality codecs, which remains at odds with the 24-bit high-res audio tracks available in Apple Music’s large catalogue. The AirPods Pro 2 use the basic AAC codec over Bluetooth – while this lags behind the aptX HD and LDAC codecs in terms of the amount of data transferred, it doesn't necessarily mean that sound quality suffers. The AirPods Pro 2's sound quality when paired with an iPhone outperformed most other earbuds that do have the snazzier codecs, so the Bluetooth codec doesn't seem to be a limitation here.
Apple clearly doesn't think any gains in audio quality can be made using current Bluetooth standards. Instead, it has announced a new "groundbreaking wireless audio protocol" that "unlocks powerful 20-bit/48kHz Lossless Audio" – although this only works when the Pro 2 USB-C model is connected to the upcoming Apple Vision Pro headset. Let's hope that wireless protocol makes it to other products for music playing as well.
We admit that we weren’t expecting such a huge leap in performance from the AirPods Pro 2 when they were announced. We certainly didn’t expect them to trouble the best-in-class competitors such as Sony and Bose, but with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple has more than caught up.
The noise-cancelling is convincingly effective, they are once again lovely to use, and most of all: they sound fantastic. It’s an all-round enjoyable performance.
Apple has brought out even more features that improve the experience of using the AirPods even further (Adaptive Audio ANC mode, conversation awareness), but we’re glad to see the company push the boat out when it comes to audio. We knew Apple was serious about sound when we heard the AirPods Max headphones, and it’s fantastic to see it bring that level of quality performance to the more popular, smaller and relatively more affordable AirPods Pro range.
Apple has stepped up, and the AirPods Pro 2 remain, even a year on, a five-star stunner.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Comfort 5
Read our five-star Sony WF-1000XM5 review
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