Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation review: Personalised and just about perfect
- Improved ANC and superb transparency
- Comfortable fit
- Improved battery life
- Spatial audio is for Apple Music only
- Personalised audio can sound a little hollow on some tracks
- Best suited for iPhone users – but not iPhone SE owners
- White would be great if we were all still rocking iPods, Apple – how about some colour?
It's been a good long while since Apple released the first generation Apple AirPods Pro.
We've seen the even fancier AirPods Max and the upgraded AirPods 3 since Apple first debuted its "pro" set of AirPods, but the regular old AirPods Pro – impressive for their time – had to make do against a rising tide of very impressive competitor devices from the likes of Sony, Bose, Samsung, Google and plenty more besides.
But now, the AirPods Pro are back. Well, OK, Apple never actually stopped selling them, but I always wanted to see a scene where some AirPods Pro burst through the doors in a skeevy Western saloon, and this is my review, so go with me here. Apple positions the Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation as the new sheriff in town, with enhanced… basically everything.
It's a big and bold set of claims that the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation largely live up to. They're not the absolute best sounding pair of true wireless buds, but as a combination of features and battery life if you're comfortably in the Apple ecosystem, they're very hard not to love.
Design: Everyone still loves white like it's 2001, right?
I've been reviewing Apple gear for some years now – decades, in fact – and I can still recall when I tested out one of the first Apple iPods. Apple's music player of the early 2000s was so iconic that it didn't even need branding.
All you needed was a silhouette of that classic all-white shape to know what you were looking at. While Apple makes most of its billions of dollars from iPhones these days, there's absolutely no denying that the iPod is the device that saved Apple from absolute extinction 21 years ago.
Maybe that's why Apple's audio designers are so afraid to step away from a basic white motif for its AirPods models. Just as it is with the AirPods 3 and the AirPods Pro before it, the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation can be yours in any colour you like… as long as you're willing to buy a secondary case or splash paint on its white, egg-like casing.
Apple, you sell iPhones in many hues, and even the venerable iPod Classic at least got that weird black U2 model back in the day.
Just in case you think I'm making that up, I'm not.
Apple, would it kill you to make AirPods, and especially the pricier AirPods Pro 2nd Generation model, in other colours?
That's not to say that Apple hasn't made some design changes to the AirPods Pro case. Putting the Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation case next to its 1st generation counterpart, you'll immediately spot the lanyard loop at the side, although you'll have to buy an actual lanyard separately.
The case also has speaker holes at the bottom, and this is because each individual AirPods Pro 2nd Generation and the case itself are all now findable via Apple's Find My application. The case needs a speaker, because one way you can find your lost case is via getting it to play a sound.
I do feel like bud loss is far more likely, but I experimentally got a family member to "hide" the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation case in my house and used the speaker function to locate it, so it does definitely work.
Before you ask, no, it doesn't mean you can use the Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation case as its own tiny music speaker. Maybe that's a feature Apple will throw into the third gen model.
The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation actual buds retain the basic bud and stalk design of the 1st gen models, but they're now equipped with a skin sensor to more accurately tell when they're in or out of your ears.
The same tap and pinch gestures from prior models are still present, as well as a front-facing slide section that's meant to enable easy volume changing.
I say meant to, because I hate it so much, and there's really not much I hate about the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation at all.
Touch controls on wireless buds are always awkward, but to get the volume slider to work properly, the most natural thing to do is balance it in your ear by putting a finger behind it. At which point all too often the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation interpret that as a pinch/grab gesture, pausing music or switching active noise cancelling (ANC) and transparency modes on me. It's infuriating and while your tolerance may vary, it's a distinct downgrade in my view.
Performance: Audio is good, ANC is good, transparency is great
Apple's claim is that everything on the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation is improved, from the internal speakers to the microphones, the active noise cancellation to transparency, and of course the actual audio that you get from them as a result.
There isn't a headphone maker on the planet that won't claim that their new headphones are a revolution in listening, so I'm always highly sceptical about performance claims when it comes to audio output.
Music appreciation in particular is an inherently subjective matter, and while you can measure audio waveforms to an extent, that cold digital picture won't always relate to the types of audio you want to listen to or the experience you will have.
I have a lot of experience with the 1st Generation AirPods Pro – I even managed to near-drown a pair in my washing machine – so I'm well aware of their still-impressive audio output.
The reality there is that while the OG AirPods Pro sound good, they had been eclipsed in my view by models from the likes of Sony and Bose, to name but two. So Apple had its work cut out for it in audio presentation terms.
Out of the box and quickly paired to an iPhone 14 Pro, the AirPods Pro delivered a clean and appealing sound across a variety of music genres with ANC enabled.
You can eke out more battery life with ANC disabled, but I can't fathom why you'd pay the extra for the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation if you weren't going to have ANC enabled most of the time.
The new trick that Apple has in store for AirPods Pro 2nd Generation buyers is personalised spatial audio.
Spatial audio is itself an Apple Music only affair, but if you're a music subscriber that way, the theory is that it'll make for more immersive sounding music with greater separation between instruments and vocalists. Personalised spatial audio involves using the TrueDepth camera to take a spare face shot and then images of your ears to fine-tune that spatial audio setting for your very own ears.
With the right tracks – and even within Apple Music, it's only a selection of albums and songs that are mastered for spatial audio – it can work nicely to create that more immersive "live" setting. It's definitely a different way to appreciate audio, although I did find for some tracks I warmed more to the regular spatial audio mix rather than its pick of my personalised taste.
On Billy Joel's "Allentown", a song I'm very familiar with, while it did pick out instruments nicely in the mix, it also felt slightly hollow to my ears. You can always disable Personalised Audio on your compatible devices, although if you disable it within an iPhone's settings, it'll disable it across everything in your Apple account.
The other small quirk there is that it absolutely requires a true depth camera. The big current generation omission there is the iPhone SE 2022.
Its iPhone 8 base means it's a FaceID-free zone. You could pair a set of AirPods Pro 2nd Generation to an iPhone SE 2022 – but you can't set up personalised spatial audio through it in any way.
Speaking of requirements, the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation will work with other devices that don't bear an Apple logo. Yes, I know you're shocked, but Bluetooth is a standard, so it is entirely feasible to pair the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation up to, say, a Galaxy Z Fold 4 or a Pixel 6 Pro if you must.
Of course I did, and they work for the most part. Even the annoying sliding finger audio volume controls work, but you do miss out on a lot of the customisation options open only to iPhone buyers.
I can't see too many Android users opting for them – but then that's what the Pixel Buds Pro are for.
Do the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation beat out the competition in straight line audio performance? I'm not so sure that they do, but they absolutely do bring Apple up in line with the industry's best for audio as long as you're providing decent quality files to begin with.
Experimentally testing with some older MP3s that I'd ripped from CDs years ago at low bitrates, the ability of the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation to cope quickly became apparent. Of course, Apple would prefer I not dabble that way at all, and for many these days it'll just be a question of the quality of streaming music your preferred provider offers.
The 1st generation AirPods Pro had fallen well behind on the active noise cancelling front compared to headphones that followed it. Apple's contention here is that the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation are up to two times better with regards to ANC.
"Up to" could be weasel words here, but the reality of testing and using them out for a variety of tasks, from running with traffic nearby to blocking out my overworked coffee machine, do show a lot of improvement when it comes to muffling outside sounds.
Head to head within my head, they're the equal of some of my favourite ANC headphones, including the Bose QuietComfort buds for general noise cancelling ability. You're still not lost in your own entirely quiet galaxy, but they'd work well within an office setting if you wanted to avoid your noisy workmates or their keyboard clatter.
Where I was genuinely blown away by the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation was switching to transparency mode. Like so many competitors, this flips the microphone arrangement to make outside voices clearer while you're wearing them, so you're not straining to hear or shouting too loud because you can't hear your own voice.
The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation are easily the best and most comfortable transparency headphones I've ever tested. Sound through them is genuine and feels real.
To give you an example of this, at one point I was chatting to my wife while wearing the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation with transparency enabled, and I grabbed their case to put them in my ears for some music listening… because I'd forgotten they were still in my ears.
Battery: Better, with room to improve
True wireless buds are always going to be compromised when it comes to battery power to some extent. There's just only so much you can do in terms of packing in batteries into buds that won't drag your ears down in comical fashion, after all.
The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation improve on their predecessors with a claimed 6 hours of ANC battery life and 30 hours of case charging, up from 4 and 24 hours respectively in the first generation.
These are figures that largely pan out in real world testing too, with the caveat that like any other sealed battery device they will degrade over time. Right now I can hit that 6-hour listening mark, enough for a lot of – but not quite all – of a work day, but I wouldn't be comfortable saying that this will be true in a year or two.
Apple has improved charging options for the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation as well, providing wired and wireless charging options that allow for Qi, Magsafe or Apple Watch charging.
It's nice to be able to top up the case from any charger you've got handy, but I do wish it had switched out the lightning port on the case for USB C. It's clearly where Apple is going with other products and will have to in order to sell in the EU in the next couple of years, so why not get the party started early, Apple?
Should you buy the Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation?
- Buy it if you’re in the Apple ecosystem and want the best iPhone-specific wireless buds.
- Don't buy it if you’re an Android user.
Apple's own-brand headphones are, naturally enough, best suited for iPhone users.
The interesting factor here is quite how much choice you now have, just within devices called "AirPods".
If you don't care about ANC and just want simple buds, the 2nd Generation or 3rd Generation AirPods are considerably cheaper and still happily sold by Apple.
If you're more of the type that sits and listens only to music, possibly while wearing a smoking jacket in a chair, that's the AirPods Max market (and a horrible stereotype to boot).
The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation sit in the middle, priced at $399. They're very good, easily the best simple true wireless buds Apple's made to date.
I'd still give a very slight audio edge to Sony's exceptional XM4 buds if you're an audio purist, and there's obvious appeal for Android users in either Samsung's Galaxy Buds2 Pro or Google's Pixel Buds Pro for those on the Android side of the fence.
But if you're an Apple user through and through, then Apple has done what it needed to with the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation, with generally excellent audio and improvements across the board.
Pricing and availability
The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation sell in white only – seriously Apple, colour exists, think about it – for $399 outright.
How we tested
The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation used in this review were provided for the purposes of review, as was access to Apple Music to test out spatial audio features. They were primarily paired with an iPhone 14 Pro for most music testing, as well as experimentally to other devices to test compatibility. Battery rundown tests were run over a week of testing time to get a picture of likely power endurance.
The reviewer has more than 2 decades of tech product reviewing under his belt and is a multi-time Australian IT Journo award winner, including awards for best reviewer and best technical journalist.
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