I wouldn’t have made it through the lockdown period if not for the large terrace in my old apartment block and my AirPods Pro. I used the latter so much on long calls while I walked on the terrace, that one evening when I tried to clock more steps than usual, they popped out of my sweaty ears and got trampled under my feet. The AirPods Pro was my closest ally in my loneliness, as well as in the claustrophobic environs of Zoom calls. Now the latest version is here, and with some extra features on what was already the best truly wireless earphones out there.
Truly wireless earphones are hard to improve, especially if the audio quality is already good. But Apple has thought out of the box on how this can be achieved, justifying the gap between device updates. There is almost no change in the design, or so you will think initially. But there are new elements here — a small lanyard loop, the ability to be charged using the Apple Watch charger, and some speaker grills.
Why would the AirPods Pro case need speakers, you might wonder? Well, this is because Apple is trying to solve a problem faced by many users, that of misplacing the case. Now, one can use the FindMy app on your iPhone to seek and find the case, like you would use the Apple AirTags. If you are near the location and still can’t find it, there is the option to make the case play a tone, and that is why these have speakers.
I tested the feature first at the Ahmedabad Airport while waiting for a flight, and it worked wonderfully well in the crowded space with multiple iPhones for the device to send pings to. Back home in Noida, the AirPods still seem to show the Airport as its location, even though it’s been over 10 days since I returned from Gujarat. I think this is because the phone recognises that the AirPods are nearby and with the earbuds inside them.
Setting up Apple devices is so easy. As soon as you take the AirPods Pro out of the box, the iPhone starts guiding you on what to do next. In the process, it also asks you to take photos of your ears, so that it can customise the spatial audio experience for you. Many other earphones, especially from Sony, do this now. You can also check if the silicone tips are fitting perfectly, and the app will recommend if you need a better seal. All this preps you for the experience that is coming.
The first AirPods Pro had very good noise cancelling. And Apple has really outperformed itself with what it offers in this version. The noise cancelling is perfect in many aspects, and it is not just keeping the noise out. Once you wear the new AirPods Pro, it is as if you are wearing two pods of silence. They just negate the sharpest noises and soften everything else. And it does so without creating the sort of negative space that we in the initial years identified with noise cancelling.
While travelling in the US, one thing you realise is how popular the AirPods are as a product. It is as if everyone is wearing a pair. And this is where the new adaptive transparency feature on the new AirPods Pro is so innovative. When in transparency mode, the AirPods immediately cancel out loud noises around you on their own. This is a great feature for those wearing these in urban environments.
This is also where the difference between Apple’s noise cancellation and transparency modes needs to be underlined. You have the noise cancellation mode, where most ambient noise around you is negated. You can switch this off and hear what you would without the AirPods on. But in transparency mode, you actually hear a bit better than natural. This is the best mode to be in when you are with people or in a situation where you might have to interact with others, like at an airport. In a noisy restaurant, this will ensure you hear everyone at the dinner table.
There is a lot of ease with using the AirPods Pro, especially if you are a slave of the Apple ecosystem as I am. For one, the AirPods know when they are in your ears and switch on noise cancellation automatically. Then they connect by default to your iPhone. If you are working on the MacBook, it sends you prompts asking if you want to connect there. If you do, and then later shut the MacBook, it goes back to pairing with the iPhone.
Yesterday, I was in the office canteen and didn’t realise I had left the iPhone on my desk. That’s when a call came in and I had to take it on the watch. Voila, the call was in my ear thanks to the AirPods, which I had previously not connected to the Apple Watch Ultra, which I was reviewing last week. That’s the ease of use you pay for, along with everything else.
But how good is the audio quality?
Well, let me tell you that spatial audio makes more sense on Apple devices than earphones from others. For instance, I was listening to the latest episode of my favourite Empire podcast at the Delhi airport, and the spatial audio made it feel like I was in a room flanked by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand. The sense of space these tiny AirPod Pros can recreate, even while listening to a simple podcast, is amazing.
And this goes to a whole new level when you listen to something from Apple Music that is produced to be consumed with spatial audio and Dolby Atmos. Like Luke Combs performing Hurricane for a live audience literally transports you to Charlotte. It is as close as possible to the real thing.
With something richer, for instance, the title track of Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana, the AirPods show their versatility. They fill up your ears with layers and step up the game when needed, but without trampling on the details that add so much to the composition. This is almost like a microscopic study of the OST, with notes big and small getting the same amount of attention.
Ramin Djawadi’s overture for Surreal is in a different spectrum altogether. The AirPod Pro’s near-surreal noise cancellation mixes with Djawadi’s soft notes to create a satin cushion into which you can sink in, and float to your own lonely worlds.
The AirPods are easy to control by pressing on their stems to pause, play or skip a song. And you swipe up the step to increase volume. But I preferred using the iPhone, which was almost always nearby, to do these.
The battery life is good enough to last a week with regular usage. If like me, you also wear the AirPods all day long to cut out the noises that have started permeating our lives as we return to public spaces, then you can maybe squeeze in three days on a full charge. But the best thing for me is how this can be juiced up on the wireless charger I have on my office table.
At Rs 26,900, the new AirPods Pro are not for everyone. But I would like to stick my neck out and call these the best truly wireless earphones around. Now, I am saying this not because these have the best audio profile at the moment. There are models from Sony and Sennheiser that maybe do a better job, but no other earphone offers such a complete package as the AirPods Pro. This is a bundle of the best noise cancelling, ease of use, convenience and audio quality, especially for Apple users. And that makes the AirPods Pro worth every penny you spend on them.