On September 7, 2016, Apple introduced the world to AirPods. It was another four months before most folks could start to find them in stores, but for over five years now, AirPods have been a sensation. I frequently hear people say that AirPods are their favorite Apple product, and there are certainly times when I agree. Apple has added lots of new features since 2016 including better battery life, the ability to just say “Hey Siri” out loud, Qi charging, and the force sensor button, but I think that the biggest improvement was when Apple added noise cancellation in the AirPods Pro. I will admit that when Apple first introduced the AirPods Pro on October 28, 2019, I was not very enthusiastic. I thought that noise cancellation was only useful when you are on a long plane flight. But two months later, I started using AirPods Pro myself, and I quickly became a convert. Reducing the noises of the outside world makes listening to anything much more enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be the white noise on a plane flight. It can be the sound of a treadmill, the sound of air conditioning in a building, or the sound of other people around you. Any time that you can reduce that noise, it is much easier to appreciate the music or voices that you are trying to listen to.
A few days ago, Apple started selling the second generation of the AirPods Pro. The new model takes everything that you already love about AirPods and AirPods Pro, and adds many more features to make everything better. Apple sells them for $249, but you can often find them cheaper elsewhere. (They are currently $239.99 on Amazon.) I love them and recommend them, and this review explains why.
Improved noise cancellation
There are two ways that earphones can reduce noise from the outside world. One way is to block the outside noise from coming in, which is passive noise cancellation. Over-the-ear headphones with lots of cushions around your ears aim to do that. The other way is active noise cancellation, which works by using a microphone on the outside of the headphones to listen to the outside world. Virtually immediately, the headphone then produces the equal but opposite sound waves inside of your ear canal to cancel the outside noise. Bose pioneered this technology, and it released the first consumer active noise cancellation headphones in 2000.
Active noise cancellation relies on not only microphones but also computing technology. The computer chips need to listen to the outside world, figure out how to produce the opposite sound waves, do so incredibly quickly, and do so in a chip so tiny that it can fit in a device small enough to fit in your ear. You know what company does an excellent job creating small and powerful computer chips? Yep, that would be Apple. Apple is replacing the H1 chip used in prior AirPods with a brand new H2 chip. And many of the advantages of the second generation AirPods Pro are due to this chip. For example, Apple says: “Featuring up to two times more noise cancellation than their predecessor, the H2-powered AirPods Pro are built to let you listen in peace. With control over what you hear—and don’t hear—you’ll be immersed in songs and podcasts like never before.”
Noise cancellation on a first generation AirPods Pro is very good. But with the second generation model, the noise reduction is noticeably better. It’s a substantial improvement. This is nice because it further reduces the distractions of the outside world. It is also nice because I can more easily focus on the music or podcast or audio portion of a movie or whatever else I am listening to.
Do you want to see how much the noise is being reduced? If you have an Apple Watch, you can do that. I played a loud video on a computer using the computer’s built-in speakers and then opened the Noise app on my Apple Watch. My watch warned me that because the noise was over 80 dB, it could be dangerous if I was exposed to it for a long period of time. But then I put my second generation AirPods Pro in my ears (connected to my iPhone, not the computer), and the Noise app showed me that, because of noise reduction, I had reduced the noise from the computer by about 20-25 dB such that I was now in the safe zone.
As nice as it is to block out the outside world, sometimes you want just the opposite. You want to pay attention to the world around you, but you want to listen to something on top of the outside world. Transparency mode does this, taking the sounds from the outside world and playing them inside of your ear, along with whatever is playing from your iPhone or other audio source. I probably use Transparency mode almost as much as I use Noise Cancellation mode.
The second generation AirPods Pro adds an (optional) mode called Adaptive Transparency. It works like the normal Transparency mode, but thanks to the H2 chip, it can also minimize the intensity of outside loud noise like a siren or power tools so that you can listen to all of the outside world except the truly annoying parts.
Better sound quality
Yet another advantage of the H2 chip is that is helps the AirPods to have even better sound quality. When I first read about this feature, I thought that this would be great for other folks but probably not relevant to me. I don’t find that I’m all that discerning when it comes to listening to music; as long as the sound is decent enough, I tend to enjoy it.
Having said that, even I can hear that while the first generation AirPods Pro sound good, the second generation AirPods Pro sound better. For example, this weekend I was listening to a new album from New Orleans legend Dr. John. He passed away over two years ago, and the album that he was working on when he died is finally out. (There have been many interesting reasons for the delay; music reporter Keith Spera of the Times-Picayune has an interesting article on the drama.) It is a great album with lots of good songs, both originals and covers. I especially love that the first line in the first song on the album is: “Well, hello there. My, it’s been a long, long time.” Yes, Dr. John, it is indeed nice to hear your voice again. Anyway, I mention this album because it includes a great version of the song “End of the Line” originally recorded by the Traveling Wilburys. This version features Dr. John, Aaron Neville, and the new singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt. This is an excellent arrangement, and it sounds noticeably better using the second generation AirPods Pro versus my first generation AirPods Pro. Each voice and instrument seems more distinct. The sound is slightly crisper and more precise. I noticed the same thing on many other songs.
I don’t mean to make too much of a fuss over this. I’ve enjoyed listening to music on every version of the AirPods. If I’m not paying close attention and going back and forth between different headphones, I probably would never notice the difference. But I’m certainly in favor of music sounding even better, so it is nice to see Apple using the new H2 chip to provide a better listening experience.
Allowing AirPods to recharge when they are in their storage case was a great idea. It means that most of the time, you’ll never have to worry about battery life. It’s only an issue if you are listening for four or five hours in a row. Nevertheless, there have been times when I’ve used AirPods with very long videoconferences, such as a deposition that goes all day long, and in those circumstances, battery life is an issue.
With the first generation AirPods Pro, Apple advertised about 4.5 hours of battery life. Apple says that the more efficient H2 chip provides six hours of battery life. I haven’t yet kept a pair in my ears for six hours straight to test this, but I’m sure that there will be times when I will appreciate the additional power.
Let’s now discuss some changes that are not directly related to the H2 chip. One change is the ability to change the volume on the AirPods themselves. In the past, you would have to do this on your iPhone (or whatever device was playing sound) or with your Apple Watch. But sometimes it is not convenient to reach for your iPhone. And even if you are wearing an Apple Watch, you need to first go to the Now Playing screen and then change the volume, which takes a few steps.
With the second generation AirPods Pro, you can slide a finger up or down the touch sensor to increase or decrease the volume. It takes a few tries before you figure out the right way to do it. I recommend putting your thumb behind the stem to give it support while you use your pointer finger to swipe, and a larger swipe motion works better than a smaller motion. The volume does not gradually change as you are swiping up; a single swipe-up motion tells the iPhone to increase the volume, in both ears, by the amount that would occur if you pressed the volume up button on the side of the iPhone. And to tell you that you did the swipe motion correctly, you hear a tiny sound to confirm that the swipe was recognized.
Adding a volume control to the side of AirPods is a fantastic idea. I’ve seen a few reviewers write that they found the feature hard to use and that sliding a finger can cause the AirPod to come out of an ear. I thought that at first too, but now that I have gotten used to the gesture, it is working well for me just about every time. Michael Potuck of 9to5Mac has some good suggestions on the way to change volume successfully.
Volume control has become one of my favorite new features of the second generation AirPods Pro.
When Apple introduced the third-generation AirPods a year ago, it added a skin-detection sensor. This sensor helps the AirPods detect when they are in your ear so that when removed from an ear, the music can pause. (And when put back in your ear, the music resumes.) The first generation AirPods Pro, and earlier models of the AirPods, used an optical sensor, which can get confused and think that they are in your ear when they are instead in a dark pocket. It is annoying to resume a podcast and find out that it had been playing, without your knowledge, so you have lost your place. This didn’t happen to me very often, but it has happened more than once. Thus, I’m glad to see Apple’s skin-detection sensor added to the AirPods Pro.
MagSafe charging—even with an Apple Watch charger
When Apple introduced the second-generation AirPods in 2019, you could get the regular version for $159 or, for an extra $40, you could get a version that supported a wireless Qi charger. Nowadays, with the third-generation AirPods, it costs only $10 more to get a case that supports a wireless Qi charger.
With the third generation AirPods, Apple added another advantage: MagSafe charging. Not only can you charge the case without using a cord, but if you use a MagSafe-compatible charger, the AirPods case will attach magnetically to the charger so that you can be assured that there is a good connection; plus, the case is less likely to slide off of the charger by accident. The magnetic part of MagSafe charging is a big advantage over regular Qi charging.
With the second generation AirPods Pro, Apple has added yet another advantage. Not only do you get MagSafe charging, but you get MagSafe charging that works with an Apple Watch charger. I’ve only been using the Airpods Pro for a few days, but I’ve already found this feature rather useful. I have Apple Watch chargers in various places in my home or office, and I love that if I find myself near one, I can just put the AirPods case on there to recharge it.
Find My AirPods Pro
Before the second generation AirPods Pro, you had some options for trying to find your AirPods if they were lost, but they were limited. With prior models, you can see the location on a map of where they were last connected to your iPhone. That could be helpful if you cannot find them at your house and the Find My app reminds you that you left them at your office. But it doesn’t help if you are in the same building where your AirPods are located and you cannot find them.
If AirPods are outside of their case, you can use the Find My app to play a sound. The sound is not very loud since the internal speaker is designed to play sound directly into your ear canal not to fill an entire room. But this can be helpful if you are in a very quiet room and an AirPod slips between the couch cushions.
But what if your AirPods are in the case and you cannot find them? With the second generation AirPro Pro, you finally have options. Two of them, in fact. First, you can use the Find My app to locate the case. The new case includes Apple’s U1 chip so it works like it has an AirTag built-in. Walk around your house and the Find My app will tell you how far away you are from the case and whether you need to go left or right. This makes it incredibly easy to find the case.
Second, this is the first AirPods case that has a built-in speaker. Thus, you can tell the case to play a tone, and hunting down that tone makes it easy to find the case even if it is covered up by something else.
For me, when my AirPods leave my ear, they go directly in the case, and I suspect that many folks work the same way. Thus, being able to find the AirPods case is huge. I’m very happy to have this as a new feature.
Speaker on the case
Having a speaker on the case is great if you lose the case. According to Hunter Fenollel of Popular Mechanics, the speaker has a peak volume of 67 decibels when on a table 10 feet away. It is certainly easy to hear.
The speaker on the bottom is one of the ways that you can distinguish this new case. In the following photo, the first generation case is on the left, the second generation on the right:
The speaker is used for other purposes as well. When you put AirPods in the case to charge, once they are recharged to 100%, the case plays a short ding to alert you. If you put the wrong AirPods into the AirPods case, the case will make noise to warn you. The case will also ding when it is running low on battery power.
When you put the case on a charger, it will ding to tell you that it has started charging, a nice way to get confirmation that the case is in the correct position for charging. It also plays a ding when you connect a Lightning cord to charge the case. If you don’t like these charging sounds, you can turn them off. Go to the Settings app on your iPhone, select your AirPods Pro, make sure that at least one AirPods Pro is out of the case, and then turn off the switch next to Enable Charging Case Sounds.
Unlike regular AirPods, AirPods Pro has replaceable tips. With the second generation AirPods Pro, the product comes with a new tip, a new XS size, plus the traditional S, M, and L sizes.
For my ears, I’ve always had a mixed experience with the tips provided by Apple because I often feel like they are going to come out of my ear. Thus, for most of the past year, I’ve been instead using the COMPLY Foam Apple AirPods Pro 2.0 Earbud Tips (available on Amazon for $24.99.)
If you purchase replacement tips from Apple, you will see that Apple has different listings for the first generation and second generation tips. Apple explains the difference this way: “AirPods Pro (1st generation) ear tips have noticeably denser mesh than AirPods Pro (2nd generation) ear tips.” But even if the tips have changed, the way that the tips attach to AirPods does not appear to have changed. Accordingly, these COMPLY replacement tips work just as well on the second generation AirPods Pro as they did with the first generation AirPods Pro. Thus, I suspect that other third-party tips already on the market will continue to work just as well.
I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to continue with the COMPLY ear tips or give the Apple tips another try. Nevertheless, it is nice that you can take advantage of existing third-party tips with the second generation AirPods Pro.
For a while now, Apple has given you the option to personalize an AirPods or AirPods Pro case with engraving. This year, there are some changes.
First, the engraving itself is different and larger. In part, that is because you are RESTRICTED TO USING CAPITAL LETTERS, which seems like an odd restriction. But the letters are also larger, in a more pronounced font that reminds me of engravings on AirTags. Instead of letters, you can also use a (limited) selection of emoji characters. In the following picture, the engraved first generation case is on the left, second generation on the right:
Second, the engraving is not limited to the physical case; it also appears on the virtual representation of the case that shows up on an iPhone when you first pair and when you open the top and see an indication of the remaining battery life:
This is a neat trick. I notice that the engraving does not show up on my iPad, only on my iPhone, but perhaps that is because this requires iOS 16 and iPadOS 16 has not yet been released. Regardless of how it works, I like it.
By the way, Apple is now letting you use Memoji for the engraving on any AirPods case. To do so, you need to order using the Apple Store app on an iPhone.
I carry my AirPods Pro case in my pocket, but if you prefer to carry it or attach it to something via a lanyard, you can now do so. The right side of the case now has a lanyard loop. In the following picture, the first generation case is on the left and the second generation case is on the right:
Apple does not make its own lanyard, but you can easily buy them from third-parties.
In my opinion, AirPods Pro is the best earphone to use with the iPhone or iPad. But they also work very well with Windows, which is the computer I use in my office in my law practice. I’ve used my first generation AirPods Pro for years to listen to audio on my Windows computer and to participate in videoconferences. They work great. The first time you do so, you need to open the lid and hold down the button on the back to put the AirPods Pro into pairing model. But after that first time, you can just put the AirPods in your ears and use the Settings app in Windows to connect them.
I’ve tested the second generation AirPods Pro with Windows, and everything continues to work as expected. Noise cancellation and Transparency Mode work. You can hear everything, and others on a videoconference can hear you via the built-in microphone. You can squeeze on the tips of the AirPods to play/pause video. You can use the new swipe up / swipe down gesture to instruct the Windows computer to increase or decrease the volume. Everything just works as you would expect.
The second generation AirPods Pro looks somewhat similar to the first generation, and that is a good thing. The first generation model was great, and all of that greatness continues forward in the new model. But on top of that, there are substantial improvements. The H2 chip improves active noise reduction, Transparency mode, music quality, and battery life. The volume controls are a great convenience. Better skin detection, lanyard support, and MagSafe charging on even an Apple Watch charger are small but nice changes. The U1 chip and the speaker help you to find AirPods when they are lost and in the case, and the speaker is useful in other circumstances too. And even the engraving is nicer. Add all of this together, and the second generation AirPods Pro is a substantial upgrade.