Oct 20, 2023

Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Gen USB

Parker Hall

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Unless you’ve got a thing for port-snooping, Apple’s new USB-C-enabled AirPods Pro look just like the old ones. That’s fine. Well-heeled iPhone owners still want a pair to silence the world around them between calls on their iPhone 15 Pro. New features like Adaptive Audio, which turns your music down when it detects you talking, make the already-decent headphones better than ever to use. (Don't worry, lowly Lightning AirPods owners. You'll get it, too.)

These are all compelling reasons to buy a new pair, but to me, the main reason to buy the newest AirPods Pro is the change you can’t see. Apple updated the audio architecture inside the buds, and they now sound better than ever. That’s right: Apple continues to call these and the pair updated in 2022 the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation, but these are actually the third-generation buds. They are physically different under the hood.

If you're not an audio nerd, you might not notice much, but these buds are excellent. In a space that’s increasingly crowded with competitors, Apple’s noise-canceling buds are once again the best for most iPhone owners, even when you consider also-great options from Sony, Bose, Jabra, and others.

I am a staunch hater of standard AirPods (6/10, WIRED Reviews). They don’t have silicone tips, so the bass is all wobbly and wrong. They barely fit in my ears, and they’re simply too expensive compared to the myriad of competitors that do the same things but better—including Apple’s own Beats headphones.

The AirPods Pro, however, operate in an entirely different stratosphere of sound and fit. Thanks to truly excellent onboard noise-canceling, they're useful almost anywhere. They’re insanely popular for everything from wandering around the house to flying across the country. The mics work great, and the noise reduction and sound is among the most dynamic, especially in the bass, that you’ll get from a pair of buds in its price range.

My god, they’re popular. Over the Zoom years, I’ve noticed an increasing array of folks on the other side of calls rocking the curly white elephant trunks. I even see a shocking amount of them at the gym, where the previously IPX4 (now IP54, with no apparent changes) rated headphones hold up quite well.

Apple has noticed, for sure. What do you do with a product that’s already pretty solid and beloved? You improve it incrementally and add features. Now the folks at Apple Park have implemented new tools that, thankfully, all AirPods Pro owners will get when they update to the latest Apple OS and update the headphones’ firmware.

I couldn’t get Apple to comment directly on what the new physical acoustic architecture inside the buds actually entails. Given that it’s so hard to repair these buds, I didn’t pull mine apart to see the differences. I do hear a more refined soundstage in the new AirPods. There is just a bit more definition and sheen up high when listening to European classical music and acoustic music like jazz.

Without confirmation, I’m not sure whether this comes via a new pair of drivers or just a new physical layout inside the buds themselves, but the newer model does slightly improve upon (the admittedly already solid) performance of the older pair, to my ears.

The sound quality, all said, is still above average in the earbud space. They have authoritative bass, crisp but never sibilant highs (even on shiny modern pop), and the noise canceling really allows you to get an awesome musical picture. Watch a film or TV show, and the spatial audio features make these some of my favorite buds for travel.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C

Rating: 8/10

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Battery life (and wireless charging) remains the same between models, at a somewhat limited five hours. Talk time remains 3.5 hours, so you'll want to return them to the case after longer meetings. Another downside that I already mentioned: Once these bite the dust, there is basically no way to repair them—which is to say, add a new battery. For a company that touted sustainability in its recent announcement of the Apple Watch, its products are nearly impossible to fix by yourself. That's lame, especially given the number of folks I've had complain to me about their AirPods batteries dying over the years.

Whether you have new or old AirPods Pro, you get new Adaptive Audio features that can turn noise canceling and volume up or down depending on ambient sound. There is also a new Conversation Awareness mode that will turn down your audio and lower the sound of the background so you can hear someone speaking to you (all this after the headphones detect you speaking in the first place).

I like the idea, but I can’t use the feature at home. It turns out many of us on the WIRED Gear team talk to our dogs like they’re people, so it’s always muting me for a dog chat. I do like the new ability to mute calls with a single double touch of an earbud. It's awesome when you're out and about on Zoom meetings, or on group Facetime calls when you don't want to be heard.

Finally, the headphones have support for a new Lossless wireless protocol (at 20 bit/48 kHz) that will allow the new buds to connect seamlessly to Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro headset. That’s nice for anyone who has any interest in paying $3,500 for a set of VR goggles when those are for sale next year. Most of us won’t notice.

If you already own a pair, are these new buds worth buying? If you have an older pair, probably not. The new acoustic architecture sounds great, but it's not a compelling enough reason on its own. Even in back-to-back tests, I had a hard time picking between them on audio alone. That’s a testament to how good they already were, and to the fact that Apple knows how not to mess up a good thing. Sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to tune a few spokes.

Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation) with USB-C

Rating: 8/10

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