The new AirPods Pro

I bought the new AirPods Pro yesterday and returned them today (I didn’t return them; see the end of the post for an update). That’s not coz I hate them or anything, just that they had one very important niggle for me and so I don’t want to pay the current full price for them. I’d rather wait for a deal or something when the price goes down (as they tend to do with the AirPods and other headphones too at least).

So let’s get the bad out of the way: it’s the ear fit.

I don’t think my ears are identical. Heck, I don’t think even my head is symmetrical (at least in terms of ear position). I know that with on-ear headphones that have notches (very useful to mark the position of the band if it’s adjustable) I typically tend to have one side on say 3 bars while the other on 2 bars so one side is slightly higher than the other. Similarly with in-ear headphones I sometimes have to use different size ear tips – usually a large for one ear and a medium for the other. With the AirPods Pro the left ear fits amazing well and I get a good seal, while the right ear is so-so. I tried all three sizes, and while the large works great with the left ear the right works ok-ish with the large and not at all with the others. In fact with the small and medium the AirPod Pro doesn’t even sit properly in the right ear.

One good thing about the AirPods Pro though is the ear tips testing they do via the Settings app. With any other pair of in ears I’d not get a good fit and think that maybe it’s just me being picky or whatever, but with the AirPods Pro even the ear tips testing app told me that the right ear didn’t have a good seal. Of the more than 15-20 times I tried to take them off and on, I managed to get a good fit twice in the right ear (the trick is to put them in as usual and then use the thumb to sort of push them further into the ear canal) but that fit only stayed for a few mins and it soon loosened. I wasn’t even munching anything for the fit to loosen – one time I was walking, the other time I was sitting, and in both cases after a while I could feel the right side loosen and while the AirPod Pro wasn’t going to fall out I can feel the outside air and slightly more noise.

That’s it really. That’s the only negative thing I found about the AirPods Pro. If that fit was perfect – heck if they had just included an XL size ear tip, I could have used that for the right ear and be very happy with these. In fact, I don’t think the L size ear tip is really large; it’s between what I’d usually consider a Medium and Large, so if the L size was actually XL, and the M size was actually L, I could have just used the L in right ear and M in the left ear (which, come to think about it, is what I usually do anyways).

One nice thing about the ear tips though – they have little markers with S, M, L on them so you know what size it is instead of having to compare with the rest of the lot. It’s a good touch. I am not a huge fan of the click on mechanism to put them on. It does the job, but is a bit scary when you have to rip the ear tip out and hope it doesn’t tear. Similarly when you push them in it doesn’t always click. I’ve had to turn it around a bit for the notches to align and it to click in. But it’s not a big deal. I get the rationale behind the design change, so power to them.

Moving on to the good parts of the AirPods Pro: everything else.

The noise cancelling is great. The first time I put them in it reduced the outside noise and I thought: “great, not bad noise cancelling”. Then I realized that the noise cancelling wasn’t even on, this was just noise isolation from the ear tips. So I turned it on and boom I could just feel it kick in and dim the outside noise. That is great! That’s an experience unlike most other noise cancelling headphones I have used. Sure they noise cancel, but I’ve never had the transition. If I put on a pair of Bose QC 35IIs and on them the outside noise goes off, but that’s more like a flick of a switch as opposed to the transition which happens with the AirPods. It’s not a big deal in the end coz what matters is the eventual noise cancellation, but it’s a nice touch. (The same way when you take a photo on the new iPhone 11s and its dark, the phone doesn’t just tell you to hold the phone still – there’s a timer on top and the photo slowly comes on the screen as it’s being captured).

I used the AirPods Pro out for a walk along with my Sony WF1000XM3s. That’s my other pair of noise cancelling in ear buds that are similarly wireless and all, so I figured I must compare like against like. I wish I could give a proper answer about which one noise cancelled but that’s difficult because I never got a good fit with the AirPods Pro. The one time that I got a great fit (and even the app said I had a great fit) the AirPods Pro were amazing – as good as if not a bit better than the Sony WF1000XM3s – but most other times it was so-so. I could hear a lot of the outside noise and feel the outside air in my right ear.

The good thing about the Sony WF1000XM3s is that they come with many tips, including a few foam ones. So I have the foam ones on and even though I am using the same size in both ears I am able to push the right ear one more deeply inside and it stays put. Because of that I get good noise isolation and cancellation and they feel better. Where the Sony sucks though is in its app, which is terrible. Or rather, where the AirPods Pro excel is in its integration with the Apple ecosystem. There’s no slowness as you can easily toggle noise cancelling or transparency via the Settings menu or Control Centre (or even via the Apple Watch – so cool!). It’s all very natural with the AirPods Pro. Even the gestures between these two devices. For the Sonys I have to tap on the little touch area, and that’s fine, but occasionally it doesn’t register well and so skips ahead when I meant to skip back for instance. The AirPods Pro though have this little squeeze gesture and while I found it awkward initially I quickly got used to it and now I’ll miss it. Apple’s done some fine stuff in there, I really wish they’d just included a larger size ear tip and I could have been so happy. :)

Another area where the AirPods Pro shine over the Sony WF1000XMs is the mic. They work great. The Sonys are fine as long as I am inside and there’s no noise to cancel, but take them out and its like they noise cancel what I am speaking. Everything gets chopped up.

A lot of reviews compared the AirPods Pro to the PowerBeats Pro. I don’t get that comparison though. They are different beasts. The PowerBeats have no noise cancellation, and come with this humongous case … so you can’t even carry it around. At least the Sony WF1000MX3s have similar features and only a slightly larger case (not as pocketable as the AirPods Pro, but still it makes an attempt). I like the PowerBeats Pro though. Interestingly their sound signature is different to the other Beats headphones. The only other Beats I used before the PowerBeats Pro is the Beats X – which I love, and I have some 2-3 pairs of coz they keep breaking – but while the latter is more bassy the PowerBeats Pro is neutral. They fit well in the ear coz of the over-ear hooks, and have a good mic and all that. So if you want an AirPods equivalent that fits well in your ears and you don’t care about portability, then by all means get them. Definitely better than AirPods a long as you don’t want something small to carry about. But if you want noise cancelling, then AirPods Pro it is … provided they fit in your ears. With the PowerBeats my left ear is the odd one. I feel like it could fall out of my ear any time, or that the fit isn’t well – neither of which is really true, just that I feel like the left side can do better some way. A good thing about the PowerBeats Pro is that you can mess with the hook to try and get a better grip or push the headphones deeper so I have been fiddling with that to make the left side feel better.

The mic on the AirPods Pro is better than the QC 35IIs too. So if that matters to you, and not that you should be comparing the AirPods to Boses, that’s a plus for the AirPods Pro (along with the fact that its more portable, integrates better with Apple, less pricey etc). The mic of the AirPods Pro is as good as, if not slightly lower, than the NC 700s. The latter have pretty good mics, and they noise cancel the surrounding noise well too when you are speaking into it. The NC 700s however are way more pricey, and less comfortable, so it’s a different thing altogether. But that said, I’d still choose the AirPods Pro over it if I could have got the fit correct (and thus the noise cancelling too). Until that happens there’s no sense in me paying the full price for something that I’d like to own coz it’s great but which I may not make full use of coz it’s primary use case for me (noise cancelling) doesn’t work well coz the fit is bad. Hopefully in a while the price drops or there’s some 3rd party ear tips that have better fit etc. – who knows!

Ok, that’s a lot of words for a product I will be returning soon. :)

Ps. Forgot to mention this earlier. Kudos to all these wireless earbuds – AirPods, AirPods Pro, Sony WF1000XM3, and PowerBeats Pro – for either offering identical controls on the left and right side or at least the option to customize the controls on either side so you can choose to have them identical or decide which side does what. As a person who tends to use both hands that’s one thing I hate about most on-ear headphones – the important controls are all mostly on thh right side. Of these only the PowerBeats Pro offer volume controls too (on both sides, wow!) as well as nice clicky physical buttons, but the lack of volume buttons for the others isn’t that big a deal for me as I can just press the volume switch on my phone through the pockets or just use the Apple Watch.

Update 1: So I wrote the blog post, packed up the AirPods Pro (as I had already filed a return request), and went about with the rest of day. After a while I had this idea to test the mics of my various headphones. I use them for a lot of calls and while I know the Bose NC 700s are the best I wanted to compare it against the others. After doing that for the various headphones (yes Bose NC 700 rocks in terms of mic and mic noise cancelling) I thought let me try with the AirPods Pro too. After all I have them at home.

As usual the right ear didn’t fit, but whatever. The test wasn’t that great either coz I could hear a lot of the background noise due to the poor noise cancelling. However, while I was taking out and putting in the right AirPod this time I didn’t push it in as I was doing before. I simply put it inside my ear, no extra twisting or anything. I don’t know why I was pushing earlier – just habit I guess from the regular AirPods or other in earbuds. When I just put in the AirPods Pro though they stayed in magically, and even better the seal was perfect. Since then I have taken it out and put back simply a dozen times, and each time the seal is great and the test app too confirms it. Nice!

So pro tip: don’t push in the AirPods Pro, or twist or anything. Just put them in. It might feel like they are going to fall down but they won’t. I pretty much jumped around after doing this to see if the AirPods Pro fall, but they didn’t. I was like Joanna Stern in this video, less good looking and less watchable. :)

Update 2: A week after the above update I finally returned the AirPods Pro. And now I miss them, but on the whole it’s probably for the better. (Haha, sounds funny saying that about a pair of headphones). I returned the PowerBeats Pro too as they too were in the return window.

So why did I return the AirPods Pro? Because as much as the seal improved after I started to just put them in, and they stayed alright even after all the moving around I’d do, I couldn’t get this thing out of my head that the right ear bud will fall out. The logical part of my brain knows it won’t fall, but the non-logical part is always tense that it may fall out and so I keep pushing it in at random to appease myself. I didn’t like that.

I returned the PowerBeats Pro too for similar issues. There it was the left ear. The right ear had a perfect fit, the left was not completely sealed and while that didn’t give me any worry about the PowerBeats Pro falling out (coz of the hooks) I was conscious of the lack of seal and hence not great sound quality. Whenever I’d push it in the music sounded better. I played a bit with the hooks to get the ear bud to go in deeper, but that started to hurt my ear coz the hook was pressing in. I guess for the PowerBeats I wanted a larger left ear bud. So complicated, my ears!

I still might get the AirPods Pro again. They are great portable headphones. I just didn’t want to spend that much money now coz it’s more of a luxury item currently than something I absolutely need.