APPLE’S AIRPODS ARE one of the rare premium gadgets that doesn’t adhere to an annual upgrade cycle.
The tech giant, which releases new iPhones and Apple Watches every year, has been sparingly upgrading its true wireless headphones. AirPods debuted in 2016 and have only received updates in 2019 (a few tweaks to the hardware and charging case) and 2021 (a full design overhaul). AirPods Pro, the premium option with in-ear tips and noise cancellation, was released in 2019 and has remained the same for the better part of three years.
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That changed when the next-generation AirPods Pro were announced at Apple’s fall keynote event earlier this month. The new headphones promise to offer better performance, personalized sound and more, but the design doesn’t look much different to the untrained eye. Two Men’s health executives, Gear and Commerce Editor John Thompson and Fitness Editor Brett Williams, NASM, tested a few pairs to see how true wireless headphones have improved — and whether the improvements will make up for the long wait once they release this Friday.
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) quick stats
●Adaptive transparency mode that adapts to ambient noise
●Upgraded Active Noise Canceling Function
●Personalized Spatial Audio
●Approximate battery life up to 6 hours (with ANC enabled); up to 30 hours estimate on a case-by-case basis
●MagSafe charging case (now works with Apple Watch chargers), with cord attachment and sweat and water resistance
Built-in speaker (on the case) for Precision Finding
●New touch controls for volume
●New sizes of in-ear silicone tips for a better fit
John’s take: If you look at the second generation AirPods Pro, you will quickly notice that there is not much difference in design compared to the previous version. The same style was deliberately kept, as Apple believes it would be counterproductive to change the look of such iconic earbuds. I agree with that; now that people are used to seeing the people around them walking around with stems hanging from their ears, it makes sense to keep leaning into aesthetics.
Instead, Apple’s team has redesigned the entire make-up of the technology inside the AirPods Pro. The sharper, fuller sound is in part due to Apple’s new H2 chip, which works together with a modified driver and amplifier to produce the sound with less distortion. The processing power of the chip also enables Adaptive Transparency mode, a a lot better level of noise cancellation than the previous generation, and a premium audio quality thanks to a personalized spatial audio – which uses the TrueDepth camera on the front of the iPhone to map your ears, à la FaceID – which adapts the sound to your ears to create a personalized listening experience.
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I wore my AirPods Pro for everyday use (think commuting, walking, at home) and to the gym. The two features that stood out the most were the new Touch Control and Adaptive Transparency Mode noise reduction.
I found the Touch Control feature to be most useful when exercising. Apple says you can lightly swipe the stem to control the volume, but I found gentle tapping in an upward or downward direction was better for me (like the previous generation, pinching and holding the stem toggles between Active Noise Cancellation and Adaptive Transparency modes). It takes a while to get used to increasing the volume incrementally, but the logic makes much more sense as opposed to a smoother volume function, which could lead to you inadvertently maxing out the volume and blowing your ears out without wanting to go that high ). The other (less) positive about the Touch Control is the style points, as you can gently swipe your ear at those around you who are basically wearing the latest generation.
The Adaptive Transparency Mode is unreal. I found it most convenient while commuting or walking around my neighborhood. This is because earplugs automatically attenuate loud or loud sounds, lowering ambulance sirens and loud music from cars or shops to a level your ears (and brain) will love.
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All in all, the second-generation AirPods Pro are a major upgrade from the first-generation. The sound is certainly superior, with noticeably deeper bass when listening to genres such as hip-hop and sharper instruments when listening to rock. The battery life is also similar to what Apple claims, and I found myself needing to be charged less often than I was used to with my older generation one pair. So if you’re looking for the latest and greatest in earbud technology, look no further. If you loved your first pair of AirPods Pro, you’ll definitely want to give this one a try.
Brett’s Take: Fortunately, John covered the real core of the wear test. While I also used the new second-generation AirPods as my everyday earphones at the gym, on the commute, and everywhere in between (verdict: great, as he said), I also tested some of the other features that I used outside of my typical routine.
I took a flight shortly after getting the new AirPods Pro, so I had to put the Active Noise Cancellation and Adaptive Transparency modes to the test right away. As the plane took off, I plugged in the headphones and turned on the ANC function. The droning hum of the plane’s engines faded completely into the background, and all I heard was me going to sleep to an airplane playlist, essentially all soft indie songs by Sufjan Stevens. As soon as I closed my eyes I felt like I was being closed off in my own space with the calm, subtle tunes. At one point I felt my seat mates shifting back and forth; it was time for a free drink. I got into Transparency mode. I immediately noticed how loud the engines were, but then I could hear exactly what the flight attendant was asking me, earphones in and all. I grabbed my ginger ale and went back to the music.
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A few days later I was able to try a more extreme test. I had tickets to see one of my favorite bands, My Chemical Romance, on their highly anticipated reunion tour. This was the perfect opportunity to test the Adaptive Transparency mode’s ability to attenuate dangerously loud noise. Think of this as a much smarter (and more expensive) earplug, which some concertgoers swear by to protect their hearing at shows. I put my AirPods in my ears during the opener set, and when I activated the Noise app on my Apple Watch, I could see exactly how effective the AirPods were at reducing noise levels.
That’s a 10-decibel swing, and it keeps me out of harm’s way. Other moments I didn’t capture on video, but the range was sometimes even greater. I could still hear “War All the Time” playing Thursday, about as clearly as when I didn’t have the AirPods (which wasn’t great, but more so because Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is a bad venue for a rock show, and I had a nose bleeding). I didn’t put the earplugs in heaven though. I wanted the full experience.
In all other use cases, the AirPods Pro performed as well as could be expected. I took them on a 16-mile run through Brooklyn and Manhattan and had no issues with my fit or hearing my audiobook narration, even as I weaved around pedestrians and traffic, switching between ANC and Active Transparency Mode depending on my environment . Yes, I listen to books when I exercise. I’m crazy.
While I enjoyed using other true wireless earbuds like the Google Pixel Buds A-Series and Jaybird Vista line, my experience with AirPods was better. One Pixel button stopped working after just a few months of use, and the Vista, while sturdy for workouts, starts to feel uncomfortable when worn outside the gym for a long time. There are other options too, but in the end I use an iPhone and AirPods connect seamlessly to the phone. That’s Apple’s advantage.
If you have any doubts about the new AirPods Pro, consider your usage scenario. If you live in a city and commute on public transport, I would highly recommend them for the ANC alone. If you have the first gen model, you’ll miss out on some performance points, but overall the experience (minus the new volume controls) is similar, so an immediate upgrade to the second gen shouldn’t be urgent. That said, your buds can be a bit long in the tooth. In that case, your money would be well spent on an upgrade for the improved battery power.
If you don’t often find yourself in noisy public areas, the Pros aren’t all the way required. I actually prefer to use the standard third-generation AirPods when I’m kicking around my apartment because I can give my inner ears a break from the silicone tips. But make no mistake: the Pros are the cream of the crop AirPods. They are the best model available, so if you want the best, get it.
Brett Williams, fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former professional soccer player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.
John Thompson is the Gear and Commerce Editor at Men’s Health, covering fashion, grooming, gear and technology. He was previously the Style & Gear Editor at BroBible.com and a commercial writer for TheManual.com. His interests include shopping for rare vintage clothing and following his favorite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals.