AirPods Pro earbuds look sleeker, and noise-canceling works even in Penn Station

I probably won't become a meme this time around, because Apple's redesigned AirPods are a lot more subtle in selfies.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Scott Stein
5 min read

Penn Station, noise cancellation and AirPods Pro: suddenly mellow.

Scott Stein/CNET

I've been trying out the AirPods Proavailable now, for less than 24 hours. After being an early AirPods meme in 2016, I was obviously curious how the new Pro buds would feel now that AirPods are... well, everywhere. I thought about this back in the spring, when the AirPods were slightly revamped with a wireless charge case. And, now that the AirPods Pro are suddenly here, I thought: Here we go again. (Read our in-depth AirPods Pro review here.)

So, I walked to the 6 train, and took a noisy ride back to the office. This was the real-life test I was looking for.

I snapped a quick photo of myself wearing the AirPods Pro, just to see. I wanted to share as soon as I could, to show how they looked next to the original AirPods. But in my first selfie, you couldn't even tell they were there. Turning to the side, I see the Pros' white handles. They're smaller now. The jutting-out is clearly reduced. If you saw them in my ears, you'd think of them as AirPods, just like always.


CNET's Scott Stein in an AirPods meme that shot to the top of Reddit in 2016. Photo censored by CNET.

Reddit user mcdswimr

We've gotten used to little white sticks coming out of people's heads. AirPods have already been normalized. The AirPods Pro are actually even more subtle. I remember what it was like to be the only one wearing AirPods. Those times have long passed.

Apple AirPods Pro have a new design

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Squeeze to silence the world

The noise-canceling AirPod Pros snap in and out of their active noise-muffling by squeezing the stem, which feels more like holding for a few moments until a subtle click and a chime happen. Then you either get noise-canceling, which reduces the din of a crowded NY to a more hushed, treble-filled whisper... or, you get the Transparency mode, which is an audio pass-through where you can listen to the world. 

A few tracks of the Phantom Menace soundtrack (underrated), and I was deep in John Williams land and unaware of a few people who suddenly were sitting next to me. I'm used to environmental audio awareness with AirPods. I have to remind myself to adjust to the closed-off Pros.

Transparency mode, which lets in the outside audio of the real world, sounds great when talking to someone face-to-face (their voice sounded normal), but for other ambient sounds, I could tell there was some subtle amplification going on. All noise-canceling modes can be turned off, too, and the Pros just end up letting in more of the outside world. It's an in-between mode.

Squeezing the shorter handles and holding just enough sometimes feels fiddly, and I accidentally pause (squeeze without holding). Two squeeze-pinches skips a track. Three goes back a track.

I've assigned one ear to launch Siri on a squeeze, and one ear to do noise canceling. Apple still won't allow further customizations, like volume controls. I wish there were volume controls. I also find, as I walk from Penn Station, that pinching on a shorter stem is harder to pull off than AirPod-tapping used to be.

One weird note: Sometimes shifting between modes caused quirks, like entering Transparency instead of noise canceling. Or, one ear wouldn't work. Very occasional quirks, but they did happen.

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

They ease right in

The original AirPods fit my ears fine. But the Pros fit my ears better. It seems like, of the three sets of tips in the box, my ears are fine with medium. I like that Apple has an in-app earbud tip fit test that determines if you're wearing the right ones, by listening to music playback.

Putting the AirPods Pro in my ears isn't quite as easy as before: I got used to popping in the AirPods in seconds. The wider flip-up box, and the way the Pros nestle... maybe it's muscle memory, but getting these out and angling them in my ears is a bit more prep work, just enough to make me maybe consider keeping them in longer, or not as spontaneously putting them on? I don't know.

It's been a while since I've worn silicone earbud tips, so the earplug-like feel takes some getting used to. I started to like how AirPods rest in a way that allows outside noise in (call me weird, but for commuting it's not crazy). Now I'm shifting modes to get my noise-in just right.

Now excuse me, I have to catch my New Jersey train.

Scott Stein/CNET

Commuting through pillows of sound

Heading home to New Jersey, nestled in with strangers and announcements and plowing through the chaos of Penn Station, noise canceling turned my life into a chill disconnect. I have a bit of awareness of noise, but I have to take care now of possible obliviousness and collisions.

I walked home in the misty damp, making a call home. Calls sound fine, and I think I was heard fine. 

A dusting of mist, and all was fine with the Pros.

The next morning, on the train again, I put The Road: Part II by UNKLE on, and the immersive tones felt uninterrupted. I switch back and forth with the older AirPods. I can't tell how much better they sound, or whether it's the noise canceling allowing me to hear everything in better isolation. But the experience is definitely better.

Battery life, on an hour-and-a-half long home-to-work commute, went from 100% to 76%.

I try triggering noise-canceling from the Apple Watch with WatchOS 6.1. It works, but I'd rather just pinch my AirPod Pro stem.

Crossing busy New York streets, I still get some interruptions of audio like I do with all Bluetooth things. It stops when I'm across the intersection.

The office, AirPods Pro in all day

Now I'm just walking around like the worst person, wearing them in my ears nonstop. I slip into my music world, silence my open office. I pop Transparency mode to have a conversation. Pass-through conversations sound great, normal, fine. Ambient audio is a bit enhanced, like I have the slightest bit of Spidey-sense. I can hear distant rustlings. 

I wander into an office, pop Transparency on again. Then off. It reminds me of test-driving some early augmented audio wearables like the Here One. Will Apple add extra filters and modes to the AirPods Pro, with that H1 chip? I'm curious, and Apple won't indicate, of course, where things could go next.

Scott Stein/CNET

I feel normal

I have no idea if $249 (£249, AU$399) is too much or too little for earphones. It seems too expensive. But Apple's gradually inched the AirPods price up with the wireless charge case, and these are $50 more than those. 

What I do know, so far, is that three years after I first wore AirPods, AirPods are utterly normal. And now it's all a matter of how much you'd prefer to pay for wireless buds... and which ones to choose. Wireless wearables are everywhere, and I wonder how far they'll slide into something like augmented audio reality, or part of an ecosystem like smartglasses.

Those are thoughts for the future. For now, at least I know that the AirPods Pro are comfier and better. And... so far... I'm keeping them in more. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Originally published Oct. 30.