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Apple AirPods Pro review: The first Apple headphones to offer active noise cancellation

The Pros have shorter stems. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The AirPods Pro noise-canceling is very good but has some limitations

I've been getting a lot of questions from readers about just how good the AirPods Pro noise-canceling is and whether it's better than what you get from full-size headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 or Bose QuietComfort 35 II. I was generally impressed with AirPod Pro's noise canceling. In open office environments and in other places like a cafe where people are talking around you, I didn't think there was much of a difference when I switched between the AirPods Pro and those larger headphones. They all do a decent job, although you can still hear people's voices a bit. 

I think the full-size headphones and even Sony's WF-1000XM3 do a better job muffling low frequencies. I haven't used the AirPods Pro on a plane yet, but I have a noisy HVAC unit in my apartment and the Sony and Bose full-size headphones did a better job quieting its loud hum. 

As far as airplane use goes, the AirPods Pro would certainly help with noise reduction, but just be aware there's no way to plug these into an in-flight entertainment system. You'd have to hook up a Bluetooth transceiver to the headphone jack. But the Pros will absolutely be better on a plane than standard AirPods, which are all but useless thanks to their open design.

Also, if you're sensitive to active noise-canceling, you may not be able to use these with the noise canceling on (there's no way to adjust it to a lower setting like there is with the Sony WF-1000XM3; it automatically adapts to your environment). You can turn the noise-canceing off, however, and just live with the isolation delivered by the ear tips.

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, or just talk to someone while you have your AirPods on).

The new controls take a little getting used to, especially if you're coming from the standard AirPods and like their controls. Apple says it moved to the force sensors in the stem because tapping the buds with a noise-isolating design like the AirPods Pro's, you'd really hear the tapping and that would irritate people. Some people might not be happy with that decision, but I was fine with the new control method. I had some mishaps at first but I'm doing better after a few days of use. 

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." That's how you adjust volume levels -- by telling Siri. Otherwise, you have to make volume adjustments on your device. 

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wireless connectivity was rock solid

Even with their easy pairing features, the original AirPods weren't immune to Bluetooth glitches and the occasional dropouts. I used my review sample with an iPhone 11 Pro running the latest version of iOS 13 (you have to have 13.2 or higher) and didn't have any real audio dropouts during my limited testing period. Audio syncing in video apps was also solid; there wasn't any lag that I saw, though I didn't try every video app.

Like the AirPods, you can use the AirPods Pro with Android phones (I used them with a Galaxy 9 Plus). The auto Bluetooth pairing feature isn't available and the always-on Siri feature doesn't work. But they work like normal Bluetooth earphones and you can use your phone's voice assistant. The noise-canceling works the same as it does with an iOS device.

I connected to a Mac without a problem but I haven't tried the AirPods Pro with a Windows machine yet. 

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. 

The Powerbeats Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Beats Powerbeats Pro are in trouble

Many people were looking for better sound and a more secure fit than the original AirPods and they can get both in the Beats Powerbeats Pro. Apple, of course, owns Beats, and the Powerbeats Pro earbuds have bigger bass (than the standard AirPods) and more 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 a very good 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. I also think some people will prefer their sound to the Powerbeats Pro, which is more hyped in the treble (maybe a little too hyped for some). 

I'd only get the Powerbeats if I was worried about losing a bud doing an activity like mountain biking where there's a higher probability of a bud falling out of your ears. The Powerbeats Pro's ear hooks do help keep the earphones on your head.

A bit pricey, but with a lot to like

With seemingly all of Apple's products, you have to separate the marketing hype from reality. This isn't the first in-ear true-wireless with noise-canceling. Sony's had earphones with the feature for around two years and we're seeing other models, including Libratone's Tracks Air Plus (available only in Europe, £179), Ausounds AU Stream, and Amazon's Echo Buds ($130), which feature Bose noise-reduction technology, that do a decent job muffling ambient sound. This also isn't the first model with a transparency mode. The Jabra Elite 65t, Sony WF-1000XM3, Echo Buds and plenty of others have such a "hear-through" feature. So when Apple says "magic you've never heard" and talks about a "customizable fit" because three different sized eartips are included, I kind of roll my eyes. 

But even if they don't sound as magical as you'd hope a $250 model would, the AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of truly wireless earphones. That's largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance, effective noise-canceling and excellent call quality. Yeah, they're expensive at $250, but the good news is you'll use them so much you'll probably wear the battery down -- it does degrade over time and isn't replaceable -- and have to buy a new pair in 18 to 24 months, if you don't lose them first.

Originally published earlier this week.

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