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 new 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.
Can Apple finally give us a five-star experience with the new ’Pods?
The AirPods Pro 2 cost £249 / $249 / AU$399 at launch – 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 tech products.
It’s a competitive price for flagship earbuds, and it means that they sit right in between two stellar five-star rivals: the Sony WF-1000XM4 which you can currently buy for under £200 in the UK, and the brand new, excellent Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II (£280 / $299 / AU$429).
The original AirPods Pro have disappeared from Apple’s website – the Cupertino giant clearly wants you to focus solely on the new 2nd generation model – but you can still find the 1st gen buds at a discount at other 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, but we still don’t find it quite as intuitive as tapping on the earbuds’ body as with the Sony or Bose rivals. On the other hand, 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.
There are more ways to charge the case too: wirelessly with an Apple Watch charger, a Magsafe charger or any Qi-compatible charging mat, as well as a Lightning to USB-C cable that is provided in the box.
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 brilliant 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.
We only wish there was a way to adjust the level of ANC. The Bose Earbuds II let you set up different ANC levels and profiles for different situations, and it’s a really useful feature. We’d like to see Apple incorporate something similar in future, one that could work neatly with iPhones’ Focus modes.
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.
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-1000XM4 (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 the new, souped-up charging case 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), where you can customise Siri voice control, Personalised Spatial Audio, Adaptive Transparency and touch control settings.
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. 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 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 ANC 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 WF-1000XM4 now sound lightweight in comparison to Apple’s richer, more full-bodied performance. The pricier Bose QC Earbuds II have the edge: 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 – this lags behind the aptX HD and Sony’s LDAC codecs that are able to transmit more data wirelessly. We can only hope that Apple, which has shown it is serious about audio, has something up its sleeve soon for future generations.
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.
There are ways that Apple can improve the AirPods even further (ANC modes, higher quality audio codecs), 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 are, finally, a five-star stunner.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Comfort 5
Read our review of the Sony WF-1000XM4
Also consider the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II
Read our Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 review