Apple AirPods Pro review: comfortable, clever earbuds with great sound

AirPods Pro offer detailed music, solid noise cancellation and have some smart features, but have some issues compared to newer models

AirPods Pro review 2021
(Image credit: Future)
T3 Verdict

Apple AirPods Pro are excellent wireless earbuds for iPhone owners. They sound great, the noise cancellation is strong, and the secure yet comfortable fit means they work very well for exercise too. They may not be quite at the top of the pile any more, but there are still a LOT of good reasons to buy them.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Detailed and well-balanced sound

  • +

    Very secure and comfortable fit

  • +

    Noise cancellation is good

  • +

    Lots of nice extra features

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Very much best for Apple devices

  • -

    More nuance in Transparency mode would be nice

  • -

    Over-ear headphones have better ANC

We've refreshed this Apple AirPods Pro review in the context of 2021, because the world of the best wireless earbuds has changed a lot since their debut. Apple's AirPods have been a wild success story, and it was only natural that Apple would follow them up with this better-sounding version, and eventually the elite AirPods Max.

What does it mean for these to be "Pro" – Apple's favourite buzzword – compared to the originals? The headline news is that in most ways the AirPods Pro are much better specced than the more basic – and, to be fair, £100/$100 cheaper – AirPods. The Pros give you a proper in-ear fit, gym-friendly sweat and water resistance (IPX4), and a wireless charging case as standard. They are also full-on noise-cancelling headphones, which puts them in the rarefied company of devices such as the Sony WF-1000XM3 and newer Sony WF-1000XM4 noise-cancelling earbuds.

There are also clever additions such as a test to see if the AirPods Pro are fitted properly in your ears; adaptive sound that optimises audio based on your ears' shape; and a new squeeze-based control system, replacing the taps you had to use on the original. There's also a raft of iPhone-specific features, such as ultra-quick pairing and hands-free Siri access, plus support for new Spatial Audio sound, and even more features coming in iOS 15.

AirPods Pro review: Price and release date

Apple AirPods Pro review


(Image credit: Future)

AirPods Pro were released in October 2019, and the official price is £249/$249, which is pretty typical for high-end noise-cancelling wireless earbuds these days. That said, since their release, the price has dropped when buying from retailers other than Apple – you can expect to pay more like £200/$200.

The price drop was kind of necessary here, because Sony's fantastic WF-1000XM4 have come in at the £250/$250 price with the latest and greatest sound technology and much longer battery life, so the AirPods needed to compensate. Having said that, AirPods are also getting squeezed from the other direction, with the Sony WF-1000XM3 now under £150/$150, and Beats Studio Buds coming straight in at £129/$149.

Like the regular AirPods, the AirPods Pro only come in white. They do, at least, hold their colour really well – we haven't seen any major discolouration since launch.

Apple AirPods Pro review: battery life

AirPods Pro review


(Image credit: Future)

With noise cancelling on, the AirPods Pro are rated for 4.5 hours per charge. Turn the noise cancelling off and Apple says you should get five hours, which is the same as the regular AirPods. 

Depending on how you look at it, that means either the ANC is impressively efficient, or the benefit of turning it off is weirdly negligible. Beats by Dr Dre's recent Solo Pro, by contrast, gains an extra 10 hours of life if you turn the noise cancelling off.

We come down on the side of turning it off being kinda pointless – even if you want to hear outside noises, the Transparency Mode is a clearer option than turning NC off, which just tends to mean you get some unclear muddy background sounds creeping in.

In our experience, listening with NC comes reliably close to that 4.5-hour claim. Charging is rapid from the case – the ability to get an hour of use from 5 minutes in the case is really handy, though not unusual for other true wireless headphones.

However, pretty much all other equivalent headphones have the AirPods Pro beat for the actual battery life. Six or eight hours is really the norm now, and is what you'll find on everything from the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds to the Sony models we've mentioned already. The Master & Dynamic MW08 even give you 10 hours per change, and 42 hours total including the case! Those are, to be fair, massive.

The AirPods charging case is rated to give you 24 hours of total use time, and this is much more in line with competitors, so no complaints there. And the actual AirPods units themselves are overall smaller and pretty much universally lighter than noise-cancelling competitors, so while we'd prefer six hours of battery life or more, if you don't think 4.5 hours per listening stint will be an issue, there's definitely an advantage to Apple's approach.

It comes with a wired Lightning-to-USB-C cable for charging, as well as wireless support.

Apple AirPods Pro review: fit, design and features

Apple AirPods Pro review


(Image credit: Future)

The case for the AirPods Pro is chunkier than the original, so they won't slip in absolutely any pocket quite so easily, but the difference is less than you might expect, and it's still smaller than almost all of its rivals' cases, crucially, so there's less of a bulge.

Part of the size difference is down to the AirPods Pro having tips that go properly into your ears, unlike the earlier version, which just sat on the edge of the ear canal. This gives the AirPods Pro an even more secure fit, and we've been unable to dislodge them in anything resembling normal use, including various forms of exercise.

More importantly, this improved fit also creates a much better sound seal – the classic AirPods let in a lot of outside sound. 

Multiple tips are provided, but Apple makes it easier than usual to figure out which you need to go for: you can take an 'ear fit test', which play sound over the drivers, and again uses the built in mics to detect whether there's any leakage – which would mean you don't have a good fit. You can then change the tip size to see what works best. It just gives you a tick for each ear, to say whether you're good to go, or not.

Apple says its silicon tips have been specially designed to be extra comfortable for wearing without feeling like there's something weighing on your ear. They are really, really comfortable, but not a revolution in this sense. You can definitely wear them for a long time, but that's true of lots of other great headphones.

They are a little fiddlier to get into place with the right seal though – not harder than other headphones that focus on a proper fit, but there's just a tad more work needed than regular AirPods. You get used to it very quickly – the trick is to apply them with just a little twist.

Apple's also shortened the length of the arms that poke out of your ear, so they look less ostentatious. We've already spoken to a lot of people who wouldn't touch the original, but who feel swayed by these.

Apple uses an air vent to equalise pressure in your ear with the outside world, which makes a bit of a difference – you don't get as much of the sense of your voice feeling weirdly boomy as you do with other headphones.

Pairing with an iOS device is as rapid and pain-free as you’d expect. Siri works as well as Siri, uh, usually works – it had a bit of trouble picking "Hey Siri" properly when we were standing by a busy road and trying to say it kinda subtly, but if we spoke up, it worked, and had no problems understanding our requests.

In less noisy environments, we had no problems at all with it responding to our summons.

The 'Announce Messages' feature is an interesting addition that's also available on second-generation basic AirPods (ie, if you bought a pair since March). It means that when you get a text, it will lower your music and Siri will pipe up, saying who you have a message from, which it will then read.

It reads pretty quick – in some ways, it's not perfectly suited to the casual way people chat in text, because if there's not enough punctuation, it will just barrel on through the words at a hell of a pace.

Apple has added Spatial Audio to the AirPods Pro since their release, and we'll talk about the effectiveness of this in the next section, but it basically enables the AirPods to create an impressive 3D-effect from Dolby Atmos audio or surround sound.

In iOS 15, Apple is adding more new AirPods features, including the ability for them to announce notifications other than texts, compatibility with the Find My app, and the ability to upscale stereo music to world like Dolby Atmos tracks. There will also be new support for using AirPods to amplify sounds around you, to help those who have difficulty hearing well.

Apple AirPods Pro review: sound quality

AirPods Pro review


(Image credit: Future)

If you've tried Apple AirPods, you'll know the kind of sound profile to expect: very well balanced, but absolutely not skimping on the bass. They have a pretty neutral presentation all things considered, and that's possibly helped by the adaptive EQ (see below).

However, that's not to say to the sound is the same as original AirPods – there's a distinct step up here. Original AirPods sound great in a quiet room when you're not moving, but finer detail is easily overpowered by external sounds due to their loose fit. Here, you really get the full effect, thanks to both better noise isolation – due to the fit – as well as the active noise cancellation.

As on Apple's HomePod speakers, a 'high-excursion' driver is used. This vibrates further and shifts more air than your average driver of the same size, for bigger impact.

Similar to more recent Beats headphones, the result is plenty of bottom end, but without being obnoxiously bass-heavy. Certainly if you're used to the buds that came with your phone, or even the original AirPods, the AirPods Pro will sound very full and rich indeed – like 'proper' headphones should. It's not like stepping up to a super-high-end set of cans, but it absolutely justifies the AirPods Pro's price.

Apple has placed a mic on the inside of the AirPods to detect how the shape of your ear canal affects the music, and adapt the sound so you should hear something that's more true to the original sounds. It calls this 'adaptive EQ'. There's no way to say how big a difference this makes, really although certainly, everything sounds impressively detailed.

The AirPods Pro do a really impressive job of letting every part of a track break through. High-end, mids and bass don't blur into each other, and every instrument feels like it is presented clearly. That's especially true when you have noise cancelling on, as it makes everything feel brighter, since it's not competing with background sound.

There are better-sounding headphones out there, no question. The Sony WF-1000XM4 are the main ones. The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds too. The Bowers & Wilkins PI7 are a revelation, but they also cost a lot more, so that's no surprise.

Spatial Audio is a really interesting feature. When watching a movie on your iPhone that has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, your AirPods act like you're in a movie theatre, where your phone is the screen, and you're surrounded by speakers. If you move your head, the sound doesn't travel with you – it stays locked where it should be relative to the screen. It also makes everything sound less like it's being piped right into your ears. It's a lot of fun.

With music, Spatial Audio is also available for Apple Music tracks that include Dolby Atmos (which is not a big selection so far). Here, it doesn't lock to the 3D effect to the iPhone the way a movies does, but still adds some 3D depth. Instruments sound more separated, and it's like you're in a bubble of sound with instruments floating around you. I've talked a lot more about the Dolby Atmos music experience here.

Apple AirPods Pro review: noise cancelling

Apple AirPods Pro review


(Image credit: Apple)

As well as noise isolation from the ear tips, AirPods Pro has active noise cancellation as well. The further good news is that Apple's ANC is really good; it cuts back city-centre traffic to just a murmur in the background, and the rumble of being on the Tube is massively reduced, with a just few higher-pitched noises slipping though (as is often the case with active noise cancellation).

It's not as effective as top-tier over-ear headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, but that is to be expected. The Sony in particular has the magical (well, maybe it's scientific) ability to cancel out even major roadworks more or less totally, but passing roadworks with the AirPods Pro lets a bit more noise in.

In terms of in-ear buds, the Sony WF-1000XM4 and Bose QC Earbuds again are the  major ones to beat the quality of noise cancellation here, but that still puts it in very high company. The Sony WF-1000XM3 is also arguably better, and is now cheaper, though its earbuds are very large, which certainly won't please everyone. The AirPods Pro are easier to wear and to slip in the pocket.

Most noise-cancelling headphones these days will come with a transparency mode, to let in outside noise. The AirPods Pro are no different, and you can switch between Noise Cancellation mode and Transparency Mode by squeezing one of the AirPods Pro's protruding arms for a moment. You can also use this squeeze to pause or skip tracks, and can make it invoke Siri by changing an option in your iPhone's settings.

The squeezing is a bit odd at first – it took us a few goes to get the knack – but we've really come around to seeing it as one of the better control methods. It doesn't disturb the fit, importantly, and it even works through gloves. You don't need to squeeze hard – it's just a gentle pinch. You'll hear a small click sound to indicate that it's worked.

You can also turn on (or off) Transparency Mode via the iOS Control Panel – tap and hold on the volume control to see a switch, including the ability to turn all noise cancellation modes off (you can also set the squeeze to turn all noise cancellation off if you prefer).

The Transparency Mode it self is very effective at letting through voice and similar noises – like on other devices, it actually amplifies them, so they can cut through your music, even with the volume up. If you want to hear someone talk, it actually makes things clearer than if you just turn noise-cancelling off.

We actually find it a little too transparent at times. The likes of the Sony WH-1000XM3 have different transparent modes for different situations, so an office mode focuses only on voices, while city mode lets through a wider range of traffic sounds. Other devices, such as the Bose QC Earbuds, just let you move a slider to decide how transparent you want it to be.

There's only one setting here, and our only complaint about the whole noise cancellation system is that we'd like to be able to adjust that. It seems a little unnecessary to be able to hear someone's chair click as it reclines in an office, even if you do get the advantage of the air con and distant chat being drowned out still.

Apple AirPods Pro review: verdict

Apple AirPods Pro review


(Image credit: Apple)

AirPods are hugely popular,  but with the AirPods Pro, Apple's made something that is very similar in terms of design and ease of use, but way better when it comes to sound quality. AirPods Pro fix a lot of the issues that put more 'serious' music listeners off regular AirPods, such as the leaky sound, out-of-ear fit and 'iconic' protruding arms. It's then thrown in better drivers and noise cancelling, and the result sounds excellent. 

One negative note to strike is that, while AirPods Pro work fine with Android in a basic way, there's no doubt the experience is better on iOS, with a fuller range of features. But then what did you expect?

That aside, if you want true wireless earbuds with great sound that deliver the slickest possible experience on your iPhone, AirPods Pro are a slam dunk. With their improved fit and sweat-proofing, they're even proficient headphones for workouts.

There no question that there are buds that do individual things better than AirPods Pro, and we've talked about them a lot in this review – but as an all-rounder that doesn't compromise in any area, they're a really strong choice.

Matthew Bolton
Matthew Bolton

Matthew runs T3's magazine side putting the best gadgets in ink every month, having worked across on many tech mags over the last decade. He's also our resident Apple expert, and you absolutely should not get him started about Lego or board games unless you have a free afternoon and endless patience.