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24 hours with AirPods Pro, hands-on: Thoughts so far about Apple's wireless earbuds

Seven early impressions of Apple's new noise-canceling earbuds, which actually fit in my ears this time.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
6 min read
Apple Airpods Pro
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Apple Airpods Pro

The original AirPods on the left, the new AirPods Pro on the right.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple just released a new set of AirPods this week called the AirPods Pro. Read our in-depth AirPods Pro review here. At a price of $249 (£249, AU$399), the newest wireless earbuds deliver two new and long-anticipated features: active noise-cancellation and a noise-isolating design. The new AirPods' noise-canceling mode is supposed to electronically block external noise -- and it works, even in crowded Penn Station. The noise-isolating design, with silicone ear tips that push into your ear canal, come with an unexpected perk: these wireless earbuds might actually fit inside your ears. I got an early review sample and took the new AirPods for a spin in the noisy streets of New York, then brought them back to the office for some further listening. Here are my early impressions.

Read more: Look inside the AirPods Pro: Teardown shows how hard repairing them would be

1. AirPods Pro fit comfortably and securely

I'm one of those people whose ears aren't ideal receptacles for the original AirPods, which are now on their second generation. I can wear them, but they don't stay in my ears all that well. I feel them start to fall out if I do anything too strenuous in them, like dash across the street to make a light or catch a bus, which you sometimes have to do in New York.

With the AirPods Pro, I have no such problem. They fit my ears securely. I can run with them -- and they're sweat-proof, Apple says. It's also worth noting that they come with small, medium and large ear tips. I was worried I would need an extra large tip to get a tight seal, but the AirPods Pro's large ear tips fit my ears just fine.

Watch this: AirPods Pro first impressions: Should you upgrade?

The long and short of it is the new design will fit more ears than the original AirPods. I hesitate to call it a universal fit because there are always exceptions, but they're close. The only issue is that some people simply don't like having silicone buds stuck in their ears, even if they're as soft and pliant as Apple says these tips are. That's the reason why so many people like the original AirPods. They just sort of nestle in your ear -- and when they fit right, they're really comfortable. A few people in the office I talked to said that even though the AirPod Pros sounded better, they still preferred the fit of the regular AirPods.

Apple AirPods Pro have a new design

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2. They sound better than standard AirPods 

The first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is that they simply sound better than the standard AirPods. Thanks to their noise-isolating design and new drivers that are tuned for that design, they clearly have a lot more bass and richer sound. And thanks to the noise cancellation, which is effective, they sound much better in noisier environments like city streets. The standard AirPods sound decent in quiet places but due to their open design, they just don't do well when confronted with external noise. It can literally drown out your music.

Apple Airpods Pro
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Apple Airpods Pro

The Ear Tip Fit test helps determine which size is right for your ears. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

3. These wireless earbuds are even better for making calls

The standard AirPods are quite good for making calls. With the release of the second-gen model this year -- some call them the AirPods 2 -- Apple improved their noise-reduction capabilities, particularly wind noise. The AirPods Pro have three microphones on each bud, one of which is a beamforming mic that's designed to pick up your voice. They also have similar noise-reduction capabilities, plus a vent system that's not only supposed to relieve some of the pressure that can build up in your ear from a noise-isolating design coupled with noise-canceling features, but can help cut down on wind noise a tad, an Apple rep told me. More importantly, you can simply hear callers better because of the Pros' noise-isolating design.

4. AirPods Pro's noise-canceling mode doesn't sound better than the Sony WF-1000XM3 -- but they're smaller

I compared the AirPods Pro to its closest current competitor, the Sony WF-1000XM3, which also has adaptive noise-canceling features. The AirPods Pro sound excellent for true wireless earphones, but the WF-1000XM3 arguably sounds a little better -- it's bigger and smoother overall, with slightly warmer sound, and is more pleasant in longer listening sessions. The Sony WF-1000XM3's noise-canceling mode is as effective as the AirPods Pro's. And the Sonys' battery life is rated a little higher. In active noise-cancellation mode, Apple says AirPods Pro will deliver up to four and a half hours of listening.

All that said, the AirPods and their charging case are significantly smaller than the Sonys. The charging case is wider than the standard AirPods' case and a little thicker, but it's still a small package. And size matters when it comes to these types of earphones. The case and the AirPods are literally half the size of the Sonys. There's something appealing about that. 

Apple Airpods Pro
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Apple Airpods Pro

The Pros have shorter stems. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

5. The stems are shorter and I like the new controls better -- but there are still no volume controls on the buds

The standard AirPods have touch controls. You tap or tap and hold a touch zone on the side of the bud. The AirPods Pro have a force sensor in the stem of each bud -- and the stems are shorter, which is good. You pinch the stem to activate the controls. Pinch twice quickly to advance a track forward. Press and hold to turn noise cancellation on or off or to toggle a transparency mode that allows sound to leak in (so you can hear train announcements, for example). 

You can also program the press-and-hold function to call up Siri manually if you don't want the always-on (hands-free) Siri feature to be active. Like the AirPods, the Pros have Apple's H1 chip that allows for always-on Siri, so you can call up Apple's voice assistant simply by saying "Hey, Siri."

Apple Airpods Pro
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Apple Airpods Pro

Apple says the air vents on the inside of the buds help release some pressure.

Sarah Tew/CNET

6. It's worth spending $50 more on the AirPods Pro instead of the AirPods with Wireless Charging

If you like your current AirPods and they fit your ears well, you don't need to run out and buy the Pros (I'd wait for your AirPods to die, which they will sooner rather than later if you use them a lot). But if you've been eyeing the $199 AirPods with Wireless Charging, I'd pass them by and go straight to the Pros. The Pros have a wireless charging case too, and their superior sound and added features are worth the extra dough.

The big question is this: How low will the standard AirPods (without wireless charging) go? They list for $160 but they often cost less and we've seen for them for as low as $130. As their price creeps down, I'd say those are the AirPods to get if you don't want to spend too much money on AirPods. Forget the wireless charging. It's an overrated feature and should cost less. 

7. The Beats Powerbeats Pro are in trouble

Many people were looking for better sound and a more secure fit than the AirPods and they can get both in the Beats Powerbeats Pro. Apple, of course, owns Beats, and the Powerbeats Pro earbuds have big bass and dynamic sound as well as long battery life in a sporty design. They also cost $250 but have lately been selling for $200, which probably should have been a tip-off that the AirPods Pros were coming. The Powerbeats Pro are still great true wireless headphones, but the big strike against them is their bulky charging case. With their sweat-resistant design, bolder sound, and more secure fit, the AirPods Pro are a direct competitor. The smaller size and more discreet profile of the AirPods Pro makes them the more appealing choice than the Beats.  

There's plenty more to talk about when it comes to the AirPods Pro, and I'll post my full review after further testing and comparisons. But suffice to say for now, they're going to be at the top of a lot of wish lists this holiday season. 

Originally published Oct. 29.