When some new gadget hits shelves, the question I always get is: “Is this Shiny New Thing worth it?” Readers rightfully want to know what the upgrade is, and whether it warrants their hard-earned green.
Reviewers like me rarely get to talk about how devices perform over time, but it is a useful exercise. Batteries degrade. New competitors shed light on shortcomings. More experience offers perspective on where the tech shines—and where it doesn’t.
This week, I’m looking back on my almost-one-year relationship with the AirPods Pro, Apple’s noise-canceling wireless earbuds. But I’m also testing what’s shiny and new about them, updates that came this month via iOS 14: spatial audio for a theater-esque experience, automatic switching between iOS and Mac devices, sound amplification for people who are hard of hearing, and new low-battery notifications.
While Apple is keeping the price steady at $249, I’ve spotted AirPods Pro discounted by as much as $50 this month. And any successors likely won’t show up for another year.
All that means last year’s ’Pods are still relevant today. If you’re considering them, here are the most notable observations about my Pros, which have been sitting in my conchae for close to a dozen moons and lived to tell the tale:
• Transparency Mode (aka “Don’t get hit by a bus” mode) is fantastic for listening to turn-by-turn Google Maps bike directions on the road.
• After riding many hours on a stationary bike, I’m very, very glad the Pros are sweatproof.
• The case collects micro debris in its crevices, especially in the hinge. Some stains are hard to avoid: The white silicone ear tips turned the same rosy hue as the pink earplugs I wear at night.
• After a year of daily use, my Pros still last just over four hours with noise cancellation and music on, and a couple of calls peppered in. (Apple claims 4.5 hours of listening, 3.5 hours of talking.)
• I nearly lost my AirPods twice—once in a jacket pocket and another time in a car cup holder. Frustratingly, the iPhone’s Find My app was unhelpful. Only out-of-case AirPods appear on the Find My map, and what monster stores ’Pods out of their case? I’ve already purchased a $15 Tile sticker tracker to keep tabs on that case.
How the Pros stack up against other headphones I tested:
• In a microphone quality test comparing five wireless earbuds, the AirPods Pro came out on top. During work-from-home life, the earbuds became an essential part of my office setup.
• The Pros’ active noise cancellation is surprisingly effective for their size. They can’t isolate like bulkier over-ear headphones, but they best other buds such as Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live ($170) or Amazon’s Echo Buds ($130). The Pros do face stiff noise-cancellation competition from coming contenders: Bose’s QC Earbuds ($279) are due Sept. 29, and Jabra’s Elite 85t ($229) are set to ship in November.
• The AirPods Pro aren’t as suitable for plane travel as I’d hoped—not that you’re doing much of that anyway. The four-to-five-hour battery life won’t survive a long-haul flight on a single charge, and you can’t plug them into an airplane’s seat-back entertainment console. And only over-ear headphones can provide the complete quiet needed to sleep on those trips. Sony’s WH-1000XM3 ($350) and Bose’s 700 ($380) both have batteries that last over 20 hours.
Overall, the AirPods Pro have fared well long term, hitting the portability-functionality sweet spot for working, commuting and working out. And while the price is somewhat steep, at least the recent updates didn’t cost any extra.
Spatial audio brings a virtual surround-sound experience to the AirPods Pro. The feature leverages the Pros’ internal motion sensors to track the direction of your head in relation to your device—a recent-model iPad, iPhone, Apple TV or Mac with up-to-date software—then digitally projects three-dimensional sound all around you.
When spatial audio is enabled in Bluetooth settings, it will automatically kick in for compatible media with many popular types of multichannel surround-sound audio, such as Dolby Atmos. You can check whether it is active by long-pressing the volume slider in the Control Panel, then looking for the animated spatial-audio icon. It is up to app makers to support spatial audio. In my tests, it worked with HBO Max, Disney+ and of course Apple TV+ but doesn’t yet work with Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. “We do not have anything to share at this time,” a Netflix spokeswoman said.
When I tested it with “The Mandalorian” on Disney+, I was immediately transported into a movie theater. It is hard to describe: You can feel spacecraft whizzing across the screen and the intricacies of every robotic sound. And when I moved my head around, the actors’ voices stayed on the screen where they were meant to be.
It is mind-boggling that so much sonic depth can come from such tiny equipment. And it would be all the more impressive if I didn’t have to use my phone to experience it. The update isn’t compatible with my three-year-old 10.5-inch iPad Pro.
Some apps are also tapping into the motion sensors of the AirPods Pro. The game “Temple Run 2” turns into a workout: To move your character around in the game, you jump, lean and squat. The game didn’t always register my actions, but at least I worked up a sweat.
For the work-from-home set, the more exciting update is automatic device switching, which moves your AirPods connection between different devices without any menu fiddling. If you’re working on your Mac and get a phone call, the audio connection will immediately swap to the iPhone and a notification will show up on your computer: “Moved to iPhone.”
This feature also works with second-gen AirPods, Powerbeats, Powerbeats Pro and Solo Pro.
In testing, my AirPods Pro appeared connected to both my iPad and iPhone. I’d watch a YouTube video on the iPad, then pick a podcast on the iPhone, and the switch was instantaneous. The feature works between all devices signed into the same Apple ID, which is great—as long as one of those devices isn’t shared with other family members. Before handing off your iPad to the children, disable the Bluetooth, unless you want to be interrupted by the sounds of Peppa Pig and her friends.
The feature will come to Macs when MacOS Big Sur ships later this fall. I’m personally disappointed because my company-issued MacBook Pro, like so many IT-governed machines, won’t get that upgrade soon. We’re not even on MacOS Catalina. It could be 2022 before I can take advantage of a feature that would significantly improve my AirPod experience.
One of the more incremental updates for AirPods is a new low-battery notification when 20, 10 and 5 percent is remaining. There is also an accessibility option to amplify soft sounds and adjust certain frequencies. For AirPods Pro, you can make quiet voices or your environment more audible when using Transparency Mode.
Apple products are designed to work seamlessly with other Apple products. That is the promise—the more you invest in the ecosystem, the more you get out of each device—and it is the key selling point of the AirPods Pro.
When the ecosystem works, it is fabulous. When something doesn’t quite work, that is when you feel that tug, the invisible hand of Apple pulling on you, its loyal customer. When I couldn’t get spatial audio on my “old,” suddenly obsolete iPad, I had to wonder, is an upgraded tablet my next Shiny New Thing?
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Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected]