AirPods 2 review: An all-around improvement with truly epic noise cancellation

If my time with the AirPods Pro 2 has taught me anything, it’s that looks can be deceiving. While the latest version of Apple’s now iconic premium earbuds look virtually unchanged from a distance, they pack a range of subtle tweaks — to controls, sound quality and overall usability — that add up to a significant upgrade. And then there’s the incredible active noise cancellation (ANC), which is shockingly better than what was once an industry standard.

That said, I’m not sure that current AirPods Pro owners need to rush out and spend another $249 for these extra perks. And in the years since the first AirPods Pro first took the world by storm, plenty of great alternatives have popped up with more exciting designs, interesting features and lower prices. But despite all of that, the AirPods Pro 2 are among the best wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested, and the ones I see myself using for the foreseeable future. Here’s why.

The ultimate Apple earbuds

The AirPods Pro 2 are as good as it gets for Apple users, offering some of the best sound, controls and active noise cancellation you can find in a pair of buds. Existing AirPods Pro owners don’t need to rush out and upgrade, but everyone else willing to invest the $249 is in for a treat.

Mike Andronico/CNN

The AirPods Pro 2’s biggest selling point is the promise of ANC that’s twice as good as the previous model. It’s a bold claim, but one that these buds absolutely live up to.

I walk through a lot of noise living in New York City — including clackety construction, whirring car engines and constant chatter — and the new AirPods Pro reduced it all to a blissful, barely audible hum. While I could still clearly hear the racket of my overworked air conditioner on my previous AirPods Pro with ANC on, the AirPods Pro 2 knocked that same annoying noise to a soft, unobtrusive rumble. And when I accidentally took the old model out for a walk with me, I immediately noticed the increased amount of street noise that was getting through. The AirPods Pro 2’s upgraded noise cancellation really is that good, and has made running my daily errands that much more pleasant.

The new AirPods Pro feel virtually the same as before when it comes to overall comfort, which is to say that they were a delight to wear for hours at a time. They’re not quite as snug as the wing-tipped Beats Fit Pro — which are still more ideal for working out — but they also feel lighter and less obtrusive. The big change this time is the addition of an extra-small silicone ear tip, which joins the existing small, medium and large options that come included. I found the default medium tips to feel perfect out of the box, but if you’ve always found the AirPods Pro to be too big for you, this might be the time to jump on.

Mike Andronico/CNN

One of my favorite additions to the new AirPods Pro are touch controls, which let you slide your finger up or down the stems to quickly raise or lower the volume in small increments. It’s a small upgrade that’s made a huge difference in my day-to-day use, as I almost never have to take out my phone anymore when I need to adjust my audio playback. On-ear volume controls are far from a novel concept, but the AirPods Pro 2’s take on them is the most intuitive I’ve used yet.

Jabra’s earbuds offer decent volume controls, though you’ll have to long-press one of their physical buttons to make adjustments — potentially making things too soft or loud in the process. The Beats Fit Pro’s buttons can be configured to control volume, but you’ll have to give up noise control in the process. By contrast, the AirPods Pro’s new volume controls feel like a natural extension of the existing pinch controls, which were reliable as ever for pausing, skipping tracks and answering calls. While I usually prefer earbuds with physical buttons (like my trusty Beats Fit Pro), the AirPods Pro 2’s combination of intuitive playback and volume control is going to make it hard to go back to anything different.

Mike Andronico/CNN

The AirPods Pro 2 have been a joy to use as my main music headphones for the past week, pumping out some of the clearest, richest audio quality I’ve gotten from a pair of buds. Everything from the sunny guitars and bubbly vocals of Beach Bunny’s “Weeds” to the spacey hip-hop of Kid Cudi’s’ “Lovin’ Me” sounded loud, crisp and satisfyingly bassy, all while making it easy for me to pick out every subtle background detail.

I didn’t notice a massive night-and-day difference when bouncing between the AirPods Pro 2, AirPods Pro and Beats Fit Pro, but Apple’s newest buds did a better job handling higher-frequency noises (such as crunchy lead guitar riffs) and delivered a cleaner, wider overall sound. This upgraded sound is all made possible thanks to some improved internals as well as a new H2 chip inside that aids in both noise cancellation and overall quality. This processor packs what is essentially twice the computing power inside, and is custom-tuned for the most common noisy environments, such as a loud coffee shop.

Apple’s latest earbuds really stood out when I listened to Spatial Audio tracks like Turnstile’s “Endless,” whose fuzzy punk guitars and layered vocals sounded so immediate and immersive that I was ready to get in the pit. This experience was enhanced in part by the new Personalized Spatial Audio feature, which takes Apple’s 360-degree sound technology a step further by tuning things to your specific ears. Setting up Personalized Spatial Audio took only a few seconds of capturing my head shape via my iPhone’s front camera — a process that was similar to setting up Face ID, and one that I found much easier than the multiple photos I had to take (and retake) to get Sony’s 360 Reality Audio working on the LinkBuds S.

When listening to the same tracks in Personalized Spatial Audio on the AirPods Pro 2 and standard Spatial Audio on the regular AirPods Pro, I definitely noticed a subtle improvement in overall sound separation. The good news is that you don’t have to buy the new AirPods just for this perk — Personalized Spatial Audio is also available on the AirPods Pro 1, AirPods 3, AirPods Max and Beats Fit Pro. You’ll just have to update your phone to iOS 16, and have an iPhone with a TrueDepth camera (so iPhone X or newer). Personalized Spatial Audio also works across Apple devices, so once you set it up on your iPhone, you’ll be able to enjoy the same sound profile on your iPad or Mac.

Mike Andronico/CNN

Another small quality-of-life upgrade I appreciate is the dedicated AirPods section in the Settings menu. Now, you’ll see an icon for your AirPods as soon as you open Settings instead of having to fumble around the Bluetooth menu to find your buds and make manual adjustments to things like sound modes and touch control. And like Personalized Spatial Audio, this feature is available for all modern AirPods as well as Beats Fit Pro.

Mike Andronico/CNN

Some of the AirPods Pro 2’s biggest upgrades can be found in the case, which has gotten some physical and software-based tweaks that should hopefully keep them from permanently going missing. The most noticeable change is the lanyard loop on the right side of the case, which makes it easy to connect a lanyard (such as this $13 Incase model) that you can then attach to your wrist or backpack to ensure that the AirPods Pro stay with you at all times.

If that’s not enough to keep your buds from going MIA, the new AirPods Pro now let you track down the case via the Find My app (most Apple headphones support this feature, but it’s usually limited to the buds themselves). Best of all, the case itself can now make a chime when you’re looking for it, which is perfect for when it inevitably falls under your couch cushions or under your bed. And if you have an iPhone 11 or newer, you can take advantage of Precision Finding to get detailed instructions on where your case is — just like you would with an AirTag.

On top of being harder to misplace, the new AirPods Pro case is now more durable, with an IPX4 rating that should ensure that it can handle some gym sweat or a few splashes of water in the rain. The case’s sound effects aren’t limited to when it’s missing either; it’ll also make specific chimes when it begins charging, when it’s low on battery or when it’s in pairing mode, which provides a nice extra confirmation and could be handy for the visually impaired. I can personally live without these noises, which is why I was glad to discover that you can disable them in the Settings menu.

Mike Andronico/CNN

I’ve been using the new AirPods Pro for a week now — and for long hours at a time using a mix of ANC and Transparency — and I’ve only had to charge the case twice so far. Apple’s latest premium earbuds have provided fantastic overall endurance considering I wear them pretty much all day, and they hold up well against the competition.

My personal experience with the second-gen AirPods Pro lines up well with their rated battery life, which promises six hours of continuous playback and a total of 30 hours in the case with ANC on. That lines up with the Beats Fit Pro, and will get you about 90 minutes more endurance than the original AirPods Pro and up to six hours more than the Bose QuietComfort 2. However, it still can’t beat the excellent 12 hours we got out of our current best noise-canceling earbuds pick in the Sony WF-1000XM4.

Fortunately — and unlike the Beats and Bose buds — the AirPods Pro 2 continue to support wireless charging, whether you’re using a MagSafe device or a traditional Qi wireless charger.

Mike Andronico/CNN

Other than a few nice upgrades to the case and some slightly different ventilation on the buds themselves, the new AirPods Pro are nearly identical to their predecessors on the design front. In fact, there were multiple occasions where I accidentally popped the old ones into my ears before heading out for a walk. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the AirPods Pro still look and feel fantastic, and there’s a reason you can’t leave the house without seeing a few pairs — but it may be a bummer for those hoping for something fresh.

If you’re getting bored of the same ol’ Apple white and don’t want stems hanging out of your ears, these aren’t the earbuds for you. At a time when competitors like the Beats Fit Pro and Galaxy Buds 2 Pro offer a range of color options and lower-profile, stemless designs, it would have been nice to see the AirPods Pro shake things up a bit.

Mike Andronico/CNN

The new AirPods Pro introduce Adaptive Transparency, which is designed to provide the same great ambient sound experience as the previous model while softening noises that may be extra harsh on your ears. Unfortunately, while Transparency mode is as great as ever when it comes to keeping me aware of my surroundings, I’ve yet to notice the “Adaptive” part make a real difference during testing.

Even with Adaptive Transparency turned on, I encountered plenty of loud noises — including revving motorcycle engines, sirens and my dog’s vicious bark — that were harsh enough to make me want to switch ANC on. And when I stood near a noisy worksite while flipping Adaptive Transparency on and off, I struggled to hear a difference when doing so. It wasn’t until I sat in front of my soundbar and blasted a video of construction noises that I was able to notice a slight sound reduction with Adaptive turned on. So the tech does work (specifically to protect your ears from anything that’s louder than 85 decibels), but you might not always notice it in action.

The AirPods Pro’s core Transparency experience is still the best around — I was able to hear nearby traffic and carry on conversations as if there were nothing in my ears — but I was disappointed to find just how subtle the new adaptive capabilities are. I would love to see the AirPods adapt something closer to the Adaptive Sound Control found on the Sony LinkBuds S, which can automatically switch between ANC and ambient sound based on your location and activity.

A high price by today’s standards

The new AirPods Pro cost $249, and while that’s not unreasonable for such a high-quality pair of ANC buds — and cheaper than rivals like the $299 Bose QuietComfort 2 and $278 Sony WF-1000XM4 — it’s still pretty pricey by today’s standards.

The Beats Fit Pro (which have many of the first-generation AirPods Pro’s key features) cost $199, as do the Sony LinkBuds S, which offer an awesome adaptive sound mode you won’t find anywhere else. The new Jabra Elite 5 also have some pretty great ANC, and they’re only $149. And if you can live without the latest and greatest, the original AirPods Pro are pretty much permanently discounted to $179 or less on Amazon these days. I’d argue that the AirPods Pro 2 are worth the money, but there are cheaper options for those on a tighter budget.

Active noise cancellation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Ambient sound

Adaptive Transparency mode

Transparency mode

Aware Mode

Ambient Sound

Spatial audio

Yes

Yes

No

Yes (360 Reality Audio)

Battery life (rated)

6 hours (earbuds only); 30 hours (with case)

6 hours (earbuds only); 30 hours (with case)

6 hours (earbuds only); 24 hours (with case)

8 hours (earbuds only); 24 hours (with case)

Wireless charging

Yes

No

No

Yes

Sweat and water resistance

IPX4 (earbuds and case)

IPX4 (earbuds only)

IPX4 (earbuds only)

IPX4 (earbuds only)

Weight

0.19 ounces (per bud)

0.19 ounces (per bud)

0.22 ounces (per bud)

1.44 ounces (buds and case)

Ear tip sizes

Extra small, small, medium, large

Small, medium, large

Small, medium, large

Small, medium, large

Software support

iOS

iOS, Android

iOS, Android

iOS, Android

Colors

White

Black, White, Sage Gray, Stone Purple, Moon, Dune, Earth

Triple Black, Soapstone

Black, White

Price

$249



$199



$299



$278

After nearly a year, it might be time for me to put my beloved Beats Fit Pro in their case for good. The AirPods Pro 2 are the new gold standard for Apple headphones, offering superb sound quality, great battery life and some of the best ANC you can find on a pair of earbuds. Couple that with some smart quality-of-life upgrades to the case, controls and software experience, and these are about as good as it gets for folks with an iPhone.

But what if you already own the first-gen AirPods Pro? Unless you’re willing to pay $249 for better noise cancellation and controls, you can skip out for now. You’ll still reap the benefits of the new Personalized Spatial Audio and the improved Settings menu via iOS 16, and while enjoying some damn fine sound quality for years to come. If you want a more colorful and workout-friendly alternative (while still staying in the Apple ecosystem), the $199 Beats Fit Pro are your best bet, while Android fans are better off with the $229 Galaxy Buds 2 Pro or $199 Pixel Buds Pro, depending on their device.

Still, if you’re an Apple user ready to join the ANC world for the first time, it’s hard to do better than the new AirPods Pro — almost as hard as it’ll be to hear the chaos of your daily commute.

The post AirPods 2 review: An all-around improvement with truly epic noise cancellation appeared first on My Blog.

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