Apple AirPods Pro 2 USB-C Review: Still Hard to Beat for Apple Users
Aside from their charging port, Apple has made some small changes to the new USB-C AirPods Pro 2 that make them ever so slightly better.
Updated Nov. 9, 2023 7:00 a.m. PT
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David CarnoyExecutive 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, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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The new-for-2023 AirPods Pro 2 with MagSafe Charging Case (USB-C) are very similar to last year's Lightning model and cost the same ($249, £249, AU$399 list, with a street price closer to $200), but they're not identical. First, the new buds and charging case add increased dust-resistance (IP54 rating instead of IPX4). Second, in a pinch you can use your iPhone 15 to charge the USB-C AirPods with the included USB-C cable. And lastly and most interestingly, Apple has added support for 20-bit/48 kHz Lossless Audio with a "massive reduction of latency" for Apple's upcoming $3,499 Vision Pro headset (note that Apple Lossless Audio actually goes up to 24-bit/192 kHz). As part of that support, Apple has announced it's developed a "groundbreaking wireless audio protocol," but some bloggers and YouTubers have noted that the AirPods Pro 2 feature a new "acoustic architecture."
It's unclear whether that's a hardware change, a software change or both. Whatever the case -- and I'll discuss below whether I think the new buds sound any better -- the key thing to note is that the AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C) do offer some slight upgrades beyond their switch from Lightning to USB-C charging. Those upgrades aren't substantial enough to make anyone want to ditch their original AirPods Pro 2. But at least Apple has brought something intriguingly new to this iteration of AirPods, even if it's shrouded in a bit of mystery.
Apple is gradually moving away from proprietary Lightning connectivity and charging in its devices. It started with newer iPads moving to USB-C and now the iPhone 15 models have swapped in USB-C for Lightning too. (The Apple-owned Beats brand blazed the trail here -- nearly all of its headphones now offer USB-C.) Presumably, all of Apple's accessories -- including eventual updates of other AirPods -- will also make the jump to USB-C.
As noted, from an external design standpoint, nothing except the charging port has changed with the new buds. They look and fit the same and come with the same four sizes of ear tips, including extra-small tips. However, there are no extra-large tips, which I would welcome. The buds now fit people will small ears better, but some people with larger ear canals may have to opt for a set of third-party foam tips to get not only a tight seal but a secure fit.
If you want more details on how the original Lightning AirPods Pro 2 differed from the original AirPods Pro, you can read our review of the original AirPods Pro 2, where I also offer in depth assessments of their performance and features. To be be clear, the new AirPods Pro 2 offer the same robust features geared toward Apple users, including spatial audio with head-tracking and automatic switching between Apple devices on your iCloud account (that feature has been slightly improved). Also, their performance for noise canceling and voice-calling is same -- it's excellent overall -- and so too is the battery life, which is rated at up to 6 hours with noise canceling on, with an extra four charges in the case.
The AirPods Pro 2 got some new features with the release of iOS 17 on Sept. 18, 2023. Among those free upgrades to both models of the AirPods Pro 2 are Adaptive Audio, Conversation Awareness and Personalized Volume. They're definitely nice improvements that enhance the functionality of the buds, and you should obviously try them out if you're an AirPods Pro 2 owner once you update to iOS 17. But as I tested out those new features with the "new" AirPods Pro 2, the biggest question I had was this: Do the USB-C AirPods Pro sound any better than the previous Lightning version?
When the AirPods Pro 2 were first released in 2022, some people were hoping that they would be able to stream Apple Lossless tracks over wireless. They couldn't and neither can the new AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C) -- at least not with any Apple devices currently on the market. Whether they'll be able to do it in the future with anything beyond the $3,499 Vision Pro headset is anybody's guess. But it appears that Apple is laying the groundwork for it with the new acoustic architecture.
In my attempts to ascertain whether there are any differences in sound quality, I paired both the old and new AirPods Pro 2 to my iPhone 14 Pro and swapped them in and out of my ears, using the same large ear tips on both buds. (Initially, the buds were running different firmware, but in subsequent tests they both were running the latest AirPods Pro 2 firmware.) I also did some listening tests using an iPhone 15.
I did my best to set the buds for the same volume level, left noise canceling turned on and didn't engage any other features, including spatial audio. I then listened to a handful of tracks over and over, including Spoon's Knock Knock Knock, Imagine Dragons' Monday, Florence and The Machine's Choreomania and Ed Sheeran's Shivers, on both Apple Music and Qobuz, which does offer hi-res tracks for devices that support hi-res wireless streaming via audio codecs like LDAC.
The average listener will be hard-pressed to notice a difference in sound quality between the old and new AirPods Pro 2. They both sound excellent for how lightweight they are, which is partially why we gave the original AirPods Pro 2 a CNET Editors' Choice award last year. But I also came away from my testing feeling that the two earbuds don't sound exactly the same, and that maybe, just maybe, the new USB-C AirPods Pro 2 sound a tiny bit more refined with ever so slightly cleaner sound.
My only problem is that I'm dealing with is a little inherent bias. Ever since I learned there was some change to the acoustic architecture, I haven't been able to firmly believe the two buds sound exactly the same. So I could be wrong; my mind could be playing tricks on me. But after some additional testing, my gut and ears say there is a very small difference.
Why would Apple not say they sound better than the originals if they do? Well, sometimes Apple likes to keep things a little vague and mysterious and doesn't reveal everything about a product until months after it launches. Case in point: We only learned last summer that the AirPods Pro 2 would be getting Adaptive Audio, Conversation Awareness and Personalized Volume -- all of which are now available via that iOS 17 update.
Apple AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C) final thoughts
As noted in the intro, there isn't a truly compelling reason to buy these new USB-C AirPods Pro 2 if you already own the originals -- unless, of course, you bought an iPhone 15 and simply don't want to deal with a Lightning cable. (Of course, both the iPhone 15 and AirPods Pro 2 charge wirelessly if you want to go that charging route.)
But for Apple users anyway, the AirPods Pro 2 remain hard to beat if you're looking for a new pair of noise-canceling earbuds. When the first AirPods Pro came out around four years ago, it was really their compact size, comfortable fit and Apple-only features like auto switching between all the devices on your iCloud account that were their big selling points. That's all here still -- and more -- but now the sound and noise canceling, which were good but not great before, compete favorably against top earbuds like the Sony WF-1000XM5 and Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds that cost even more. (You can typically find the AirPods Pro 2 for around $200 or $50 less than their list price.)
And while the AirPods Pro 2 (USB-C) may not sound quiet as good as the Sony WF-1000XM5s -- or they don't muffle noise quite as well as the Bose QC Ultra Earbuds -- they're close and also have top-notch voice-calling capabilities along with an excellent feature set. Alas, Android users don't get access to the full suite of features, but I do know some folks who use the AirPods Pro 2 with their Android smartphones because they say they can't find earbuds that offer better voice-calling performance.
In the final analysis, the AirPods Pro 2 may not be the best at everything, but they do everything very well and are also lightweight and fit most people's ears comfortably and securely. And that's why they remain one of our CNET Editors' Choice award winners in the headphones category.