Here's an audacious claim: I believe the AirPods Pro 2 is the most important product Apple is releasing in 2022. The iPhone 14 (and Plus, and Pro, and Pro Max) will make more money, the Apple Watch Series 8 and Ultra will save more lives, and the iPads and Macs that are rumored to be unveiled next month will extend Apple's lead in the computer and tablet market. Then there's the second-generation AirPods Pro, which are officially released today. Read on for my full AirPods Pro 2 review.
It's safe to say that Apple's earbuds helped popularize true wireless earbuds, which have become ubiquitous over the past six years. Bose, Sony, Jabra, Soundcore, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Edifier, and any audio company worth its salt has tried competing with the AirPods, and yet Apple's earbuds still own a lion's share of the marketplace according to a 2022 survey. It doesn't matter that some AirPods competitors offer better sound or more precise active noise cancellation, the AirPods reign supreme.
The release of the AirPods Pro 2 is significant because it’s the first time Apple has updated this line since the autumn of 2019. A lot has happened in the world of true wireless earbuds since then, and Apple had to play catch up. I’ve surprised at the sustained popularity of the first-generation AirPods Pro given the increased competition it faced, but it was clear Apple had to make a move to compete with other entrants in the premium Bluetooth earbuds market. It succeeded.
AirPods Pro 2: A Review
Apple said the AirPods Pro are its most popular headphones during its September 2022 “Far Out” keynote presentation, which is why so much is riding on this hardware update. This is the first time Apple has updated its most popular headphones. The second-generation AirPods Pro are compatible with iPhone models going back to 2017, and can be paired with non-Apple hardware running on Windows or Android. The $250 earbuds are expensive when compared to the competition, but a downright value compared to the company's other hardware.
AirPods have become the iPod of the 2020s — an audio-related status symbol that happens to be as good (or better) than most of the competition in many ways. Rather than prioritizing one aspect of the second-generation AirPods Pro — audio quality, noise cancellation, battery life — Apple has chosen to address all of them. As part of my AirPods Pro 2 review, I've spent the past week with the earbuds, and can emphatically say they're Apple's best headphones yet, even if they’re more of an evolutionary upgrade rather than a revolutionary one.
Refinement, Not Reinvention, with the AirPods Pro 2
If you already have a pair of AirPods Pro, unboxing your new pair may be a lackluster experience. The earbuds look the same, except this time Apple includes a set of Extra Small sized eartips in the box. Beyond that you’re left with the same Lightning to USB-C cable, instructions, and Apple Stickers inside a petite, well-constructed box. In fact, the only physical difference Apple made with the AirPods Pro 2 is invisible: You can now adjust the volume of your audio by swiping up or down on either earbud’s stalk. Apple saved the big external design changes for the second-generation AirPods Pro’s battery case.
The updated case has a larger battery, which can extend the life of the AirPods Pro by 30 hours instead of 24. It also has a speaker, which allows you to ping it using Apple’s Find My app to help you locate the earbuds if you misplace them. The speaker was louder than I expected, which aided me in my quest to retrieve the second-generation AirPods from a tangle of bed sheets. The case will even chime when you place each earbud back into it to signify that they’re charging. Finally, the second-generation AirPods' case has a lanyard loop in case you want to attach them to a strap for safekeeping.
I found during my AirPods Pro 2 review that the big improvements Apple made for the new model were on the inside, which is what actually matters. This is the first pair of earbuds to run on Apple’s new H2 chip, which is responsible for most of the second-generation AirPods Pro’s best features. The H2 is more energy efficient, which allows the earbuds to last up to six hours per charge with active noise cancellation enabled — a 30-minute jump compared to the first-generation AirPods Pro. I didn’t notice this bump in my everyday testing, but that’s mostly because I kept the earbuds in their case between listening sessions.
The H2 is also what allows the second-generation AirPods Pro’s microphones to quickly analyze outside sounds, which lead to big performance improvements in the earbuds’ active noise cancellation. The chip can process the audio you’re listening to optimize its sound. This is especially true when you’re listening to audio that supports Apple’s Spatial Audio technology, which creates a virtual surround-sound experience when listening to music or watching TV shows and movies with a Dolby Atmos mix. Many other high-end earbuds, like Sony’s WF-1000XM4s, use a processor to accomplish similar features, but Apple is operating on a much larger scale than its competitors, so many more listeners will reap the benefits.
The New AirPods Show the Strength of Apple’s Ecosystem
Apple’s biggest advantage is that it makes both headphones and the devices they’re meant to be paired with. This means the company can build hardware and software features that allow them to communicate more effectively. For example, the AirPods Pro 2 were linked to my Apple ID the first time they were paired with my iPhone, so they were instantly recognized by all of my other Apple devices.
During my AirPods Pro 2 review, I found that when I opened the lid of my MacBook Pro, the earbuds would automatically connect to them. If I was listening to audio on my iPhone at the time, it would give me a “connect” prompt, which I could click to manually switch over to it. If I paused audio on my iPhone, then started playing audio on the MacBook Pro, it would automatically pair to my second-generation AirPods Pro and start playing. Nine times out of 10, this would work flawlessly, and I began to trust the second-generation AirPods Pro to intuitively know where and when I wanted to listen to audio. No headphones I’ve tried — earbuds or otherwise — functioned quite as well in this regard.
The downside is that many of the second-generation technical advantages only apply when you’re connecting them to another Apple device. If you pair the second-generation AirPods Pro to a Windows PC or Android device, they’ll operate like a normal set of Bluetooth earbuds. You’ll still experience improved battery life and active noise cancellation on non-Apple platforms, but the seamless jumping from one device to another and support for Spatial Audio and Find My are noticeably absent.
Pairing the AirPods Pro 2 to an iPhone Took Seconds
Apple has the AirPods pairing process down to a science if you’re using an Apple device, so there was very little for the second generation to improve upon. I opened the lid of the second-generation AirPods Pro’s case near my iPhone, and it instantly asked to connect them. That’s it, there was no step three. If you’re connecting the AirPods Pro 2 to a non-Apple device, you need to put them into pairing mode by pressing a button on the back of their case.
Once the pairing process was done, I was able to opt into a feature called “personalized Spatial Audio” for a more authentic surround-sound experience with compatible audio and video. The process took about a minute and consisted of using my smartphone’s front-facing camera to take a scan of my face, right ear, and left ear. Once it was done, my phone created a unique audio profile based on the shape of your face and ears.
Personalized Spatial Audio is completely optional and won’t impact the sound quality of your music or the second-generation AirPods Pro’s active-noise cancellation performance. You can turn this feature off if you don’t like your profile, or ignore this feature entirely. It didn’t seem to make a tremendous difference in my experience, but wasn’t a big hassle either.
Noise Cancellation is Sophisticated with the AirPods Pro 2
I don’t think the AirPods Pro 2 have the best active noise cancellation (that’d be Sony’s WF-1000XM4s, or Bose’s new QuietComfort IIs) or audio quality (we have to give it to Bowers & Wilkins’ PI7s or Beyerdynamic’s Free Byrds), but they’re still the ones we’re most inclined to recommend to iPhone owners.
The active noise cancellation on the second-generation AirPods Pro was a big improvement over the first generation, and blocked out all of the noise on a bumpy New York City subway car when listening to music at 80 percent volume. I could listen to music at roughly 60 percent volume to eliminate the ambient noise on a New York City street — only the loud honk of a horn from a car close to me was noticeably audible.
The AirPods Pro 2 were good at blocking out different types of noise, and I’m sure they’ll fare well when you’re faced with a single, consistent noise like the whirring of an airplane engine. Many noise-cancelling earbuds are tuned to eliminate sounds from a specific frequency band, but the second-generation AirPods Pro didn’t exhibit any bias. If you’re trying to work or study in a noisy environment, I’m confident in the earbuds’ ability to effectively cancel out the sound of clinking glasses or fingers tapping a keyboard.
A common feature I was surprised to use frequently during my testing was transparency mode, which allows you to play music while ambient noise gets filtered into your ears from the earbuds’ microphones. I’m used to popping an earbud out of my ear when talking to someone, but I squeezed the stalk of one of my AirPods Pro 2 and was impressed at how natural my fiance's voice sounded.
You Can’t Customize the Sound, but the EQ is Right On
The biggest question you may have about the AirPods Pro 2 is: “How do they sound?” I’m pleased to respond with an emphatic: “Very good.” If you have the first-generation AirPods Pro, or are coming from a more budget-friendly pair of earbuds, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re blown away by Apple’s latest headphones. The second-generation AirPods Pro are clearly tuned to accentuate bass frequencies, which annoys audiophiles like me who prefer a completely neutral sound that can be tweaked with a virtual EQ, but I’m in the minority. Apple knows that nobody should sit there trying to figure out if an earbud’s “rock” or “pop” EQ setting sounds better for their preferred genre of music, and took executive action.
I tend to listen to classic rock, and can confirm that the recently remastered version of Blondie’s 1977 hit “Denis” sounded very rich. Debbie Harry’s voice stood out as the bass thumped along and the drummer held a steady beat. I could easily pick out each element of the song and focus on it, which is the sign of a good pair of headphones. Likewise, the crunchy guitar on the 2022 remix of The Beatles’ “Taxman” sounded sharp without hitting the treble frequencies too hard. My ears didn’t hurt as George Harrison lamented the British tax system.
But I understand that many listeners who use the new earbuds will listen to modern pop music, so as part of this AirPods Pro 2 review, I used Apple Music’s browse feature to sample the latest tracks from Burna Boy, Bad Bunny, and EST Gee. It was immediately apparent that this was the music Apple used to tune the second-generation AirPods Pro. The keyboard notes at the beginning of EST Gee’s “Backstage Passes (feat. Jack Harlow)” jumped out of the earbuds and sounded crystal clear. Its bass was deep while the vocals sounded practically life-like.
The heavy vocal effects on “Last Laugh” by Burna Boy were audible but never made the performer sound inaudible. Deep vocals can get overpowered by a song’s bass, but that never happened with the second-generation AirPods Pro. The same was true when I listened to “Me Porto Bonito” by Bad Bunny & Chencho Corleone, which features echo-y vocals and a prominent snare drum backbeat. The drums and vocals both sounded distinct, and the background bass was still perceptible despite being in a completely different part of the sound spectrum.
I mentioned earlier that I’m the type of listener who likes to have some control over the way my earbuds sound, but Apple’s tuning on the second-generation AirPods Pro was undeniably satisfying. I may not have been hearing music the exact way it sounded to the engineer working in the recording studio, but quickly let go of that grudge and started enjoying my tunes. Most listeners just want earbuds that make their music sound good, and the AirPods Pro 2 easily clear that bar. I mentioned earlier in this AirPods Pro 2 review that the second generation weren’t the best sounding earbuds I’d ever tested, but I can say they were the most consistent. What the earbuds lacked in clarity they more than made up for in delivering a subjectively good sound every time I listened to music.
This was especially impressive when I jumped around from genre to genre for this AirPods Pro 2 review, or decided to move from a podcast to music. The transition from the sound of a spoken word piece can sometimes be jarring, but the transition was a lot smoother when listening on the AirPods Pro 2 due to whatever audio processing is happening inside of each bud.
These are the Headphones iPhone Owners Should Consider
After my AirPods Pro 2 review, I can easily recommend the new earbuds to anyone who primarily uses Apple devices because of how easily they fit into the company’s hardware and software ecosystem. Instant pairing, a streamlined setup process, improvements to spatial audio performance and the Find My feature make an appreciable difference in how nice the earbuds are to use every single day. Windows and Android users will still experience the sound quality and active noise cancellation upgrades found in the second-generation AirPods Pro, but a bit of the magic will be lost.
For many, AirPods are the default choice when searching for new wireless earbuds, whether they’re paired with a new iPhone 14 or the five-year-old iPhone 8. If you’re in that camp, you’ll have a lot of fun listening to music on the AirPods Pro. You won’t find a better pair of headphones to pair with that device. Apple made enough changes that I can even recommend upgrading from a pair of first-generation AirPods Pro if their battery life has diminished significantly, or you’re craving the convenience of Apple’s earbuds with better sound. Apple’s AirPods Pro 2 may not wow you with a new design, but the way they sound.
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