The Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation wireless earbuds were a best-seller even before Tim Cook’s spiel was done when they were first introduced and whilst they don’t get a lot of rave reviews from the Head-Fi community, they still command a sizable share of the market and it is ridiculous of the high-end press to pretend that they are not the preferred option of tens of millions of consumers. Is it possible that the mainstream audience is right and that our rather insular corner of the specialist media is just wrong?
Tip: Apple’s lineup of AirPods includes:
*Apple stopped selling AirPod Pro 1st Generation, but they are still available at Amazon and other retailers. The non-Pro models do not have Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), while both Pro models do. Our review compares the Pro models only, relabeled as V1 and V2 for simplicity.
The first mainstream reviews of Apple’s AirPods Pro (2nd generation) were all glowing; the impression that I had before actually listening to the new AirPods Pro was that Apple had nailed it across the board and AirPods Pro (1st generation) were now irrelevant — a generally inferior product.
What I discovered after receiving my own pair was far more complicated. Having now spent a lot of time with both models, I am hesitant when asked for an AirPods Pro recommendation to automatically recommend the 2nd generation (V2) over the 1st generation (V1) without some discussion about their intended use-case.
In this article, after a quick rundown of the differences between the AirPods Pro V1 and V2 in terms of comfort and features, we will travel together from my apartment in New York City to my girlfriend’s family’s house in Colorado via plane, train, and automobile — and finally have greater clarity into how these two wireless ANC earbuds performed.
Who am I? Fair enough.
I am a Brooklyn-based music producer and audio engineer. Since graduating from New York University in 2016 with a degree in Music Technology, my audio career has been split between recording/mixing/mastering in the studio, live sound engineering at concerts, and writing audio product reviews.
I’m also a (mostly) shameless Apple fan — I’ve been hooked on Apple’s audio ecosystem since my first iPod (3rd generation) which had the four touch buttons, a scroll wheel, and held a whopping 2,000 songs.
I’m not, however, an Apple evangelist who thinks everything Apple does is perfect – or even good. For example, I think the Apple AirPods Max are below average in terms of sound quality and overall value and Apple Music is a surprisingly disappointing product coming from the company who invented the iPod.
Comfort & Features
My biggest gripe about the new AirPods Pro 2 is the absence of comfort. The V1 AirPods Pro came with less size options (Small, Medium, Large), but I find the V1 ‘Small’ size to be notably more comfortable than any of the four sizes included with the V2. Your mileage will obviously vary depending on the size/shape of your ears, but there’s really no contest for me – the V1 are the more comfortable pair of wireless earbuds.
The updated features are also a bit of a mixed bag in my opinion. My favorite new feature on the V2 is the ability to adjust volume by swiping up or down on the AirPod stem. This ability to change volume without taking my phone out of my pocket or my bag is a huge plus when I’m listening to something and I don’t want to get sucked into the bottomless pit of distractions that is my phone.
What I don’t like as much is the increased intensity of the ‘Noise Cancelation’ and ‘Transparency’ modes. We’ll see how the increased level of ANC (active noise cancelation) affects my car, train, and air travel experiences later in the sound section of this article but I find that using the ANC at home is just too intense.
It doesn’t make me feel quite as nauseous like a lot of early over-the-ear ANC headphones did, but it is a bit jarring when the level of ambient noise isn’t blaring.
I find the ANC intensity on the AirPods Pro V1 perfect for eliminating quiet to medium noise like an air conditioner, space heater, or the sound of cleaning dishes in the sink.
With the V2, the ANC feels a bit over the top – like my head is in a vacuum. Meanwhile, I feel more or less the same way about the ‘Transparency’ modes. When the V1 is set to ‘Transparency’ mode, I can easily forget that I’m wearing anything in my ears. With the V2 however, ambient sounds become sometimes too present.
Walking around outside my apartment, the V2 makes the traffic sounds around me even more prominent than they sound without using any AirPods. When I use the V2 out and about in Brooklyn, I’ll often set them to “Off” instead of ‘Noise Cancelation’ or ‘Transparency’.
‘Noise Cancelation’ mode on the V2 feels a little dangerous while navigating New York City’s unpredictable rush hour street traffic and ‘Transparency’ mode quickly becomes unpleasant when something noisy like a big truck squeals past on the road.
I practically never used the “Off” mode on the V1 because both ‘Noise Cancelation’ and ‘Transparency’ modes on the V1 are less intense. V1 ‘Noise Cancelation’ doesn’t knock down street noise so much that it feels dangerous and V1 ‘Transparency’ mode doesn’t seem to amplify ambient noise so much as to be annoying.
The combination of the V2’s relatively diminished comfort and intensified ambiance settings is ultimately what keeps me from recommending the AirPods Pro 2 blindly.
I still find myself using the AirPods Pro V1 regularly when I’m listening to a podcast, book on tape, or something like TikTok or YouTube where sound quality is not much of a priority. However, if one of my favorite artists releases a record and I’m going to go ahead and listen to it away from my studio, there’s no question about which AirPods I’m grabbing for that scenario.
Going back and forth between AirPods Pro V1 and 2 while listening to tracks on my Spotify Reference Playlist, the differences in sound quality are immediate and significant.
The V2 is more detailed, more dynamically impactful, and more spatially immersive than the V1. The V2’s low end presentation is probably the most obvious upgrade with its much deeper reaching, harder hitting, and more sustained reproduction of audio below 100Hz.
Listening to “Liz” by Remi Wolf, the kick drum and bass guitar in the mix showcase the night and day differences between the controlled and layered low end produced by the V2 and the more simplified and boomy low end produced by the V1.
With the V1, the kick drum and bass guitar sort of congeal and blend with the rest of the mix’s low end. The song still has a lot of impact and the music is still enjoyable, but listening to the same mix on the V2 is far more satisfying to me partly because of the way that different mix elements remain distinct from one another and partly because of how much deeper the bass manages to reach into the sub-bass frequencies.
The deeper and more impactful low end on the V2 also serves to counterbalance Remi’s virtuosic and unyielding vocal performance. On the V1, the vocals verge on sounding too forward and piercing but the low end on the V2 deftly balances the mix such that the same vocals in the same mix have greater body, texture, and don’t come across as being too far forward of the instrumentation.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…
This holiday season, I traveled to Colorado with both pairs of AirPods Pros and a pair of Moondrop Blessing2:Dusk – a very popular wired in-ear-monitor tuned by Crinacle, a personal headphone hero of mine.
At each stage of the journey, I took notes comparing the experience using the different earphones.
Trains: ambiance 68dB
Listening to music on the train, the AirPods Pro 2 is my favorite option of the three by a large margin. The superior sound quality of the V2 over the V1 makes for a more visceral, engaging, and emotionally moving experience.
Listening to “Creme Bruleee” by Spill Tab with ANC activated on both pairs, there is no contest. At 1:14 when the breakdown explodes into the instrumental section, the V2 remains relatively intelligible with better image separation and harder hitting low end impact, whereas the V1 sort of collapses and the mix lacks any sense of definition or coherency.
The Blessing2:Dusk also sounds great with arguably a more linear sounding frequency response but the sound quality differences between the Blessing2:Dusk (via Questyle M15 dongle) and the AirPods Pro 2 are not big enough, in my opinion, to warrant the extra hassle of using the wired in-ear-monitors with their corresponding dongle and cable.
The AirPods Pro 2 are also more comfortable than the Dusk. In terms of active noise cancellation, the AirPods Pro 2 are also the most effective of the three at canceling out ambient noise.
Switching over to a podcast, the wired Blessing2:Dusk is instantly out of the race due to its relative discomfort and inconvenience. For me, the AirPods Pro V1 ultimately wins out for spoken word content over the V2 because of its superior comfort and lesser noise cancelation intensity.
The extra level of noise cancellation championed by the V2 feels a little oppressive on the train where the ambient noise isn’t too loud – when my girlfriend says something to me I have to either switch to ‘Transparency’ mode or take the AirPods out of my ears to hear what she’s saying.
Subway: ambiance 79 dB
On the subway, the V2 wins out across the board. The increased noise cancelation intensity of the V2 becomes a real benefit when the ambient noise is as loud as it is on a NYC subway. Using the V1 to listen to music or podcasts, I have to set my iPhone’s volume several dB louder just to achieve the same level of intelligibility as the V2 playing at a lower volume.
The Rather Unfriendly Skies: ambiance 84 dB
Using the AirPods Pro V1 on a plane for the first time a couple years ago was a really exciting experience. The combination of wireless connectivity along with the ability to tune out droning noise inherent to commercial aviation and 200 snoring passengers was oddly satisfying.
The V2 AirPods Pro really takes the experience to another level. Whilst the V1 does knock down the ambient noise by a few decibels, the plane is still relatively loud. With the V2, much of the hum and whirring of the plane vanishes. It doesn’t sound silent by any stretch of the imagination, but with music playing it’s not an exaggeration to say that the plane all but disappears sonically.
Listening to “Earth Worship” by Rubblebucket on the plane, the V2 still manages to sound great. The bass and kick are punchy, the mix has a solid level of detail and image separation, and the vocals maintain their own sense of space in the center of the mix distinct from other instruments.
The V1 did not compare favorably in this scenario. While the low end still has some punch on the V1, much of the mix just sounds lumped together. Against the soaring level of ambient noise, the different vocals and instruments on the V1 sound non-distinct.
To use a visual metaphor, the V1 is like a 300px by 300px jpg of the original track whereas the V2 is closer to 1080px. There’s more detail, there’s less blur, and the colors are much closer to those of the original. Even if I was only listening to the podcasts and audiobooks where the difference in sound quality becomes less important, the ANC of the V2 would still make them worthwhile over the V1 when it comes to air travel.
Compared to the wired Blessing2:Dsuk IEM, the AirPods Pro 2 has much more effective and balanced sounding noise cancellation.
Switching over to a film, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean, detailed and immersive the AirPods Pro 2 sounded. I watched the film “Three Thousand Years of Longing” which served as a spectacular tour de force in terms of excellent sound design and its ability to elevate a film’s narrative.
As a music producer and audio engineer, the concept of ‘Spatial Audio’ and the ability to place mix elements in a three dimensional audio field is intriguing. In practice, however, I cannot quite figure out what the point is when it comes to music listening.
Listening to “Black Diamonds” by Big Thief, the AirPods Pro 2 do a fantastic job showcasing the song’s superb arrangement and expertly assembled mix. All of the instruments sound distinct as they chug along together symbiotically through the song.
The low end of the kick drum and bass guitar are powerful and supportive, the electric guitars twinkle and flower at the far left and right of the mix, and the drums hold down the rhythm in the center just behind the soft doubled vocal in the center.
Activating “Spatialize Stereo” is like listening to the song out of a bluetooth speaker in the middle of a small bathroom. The sound is arguably immersive from the perspective that it sounds like some elements are coming from behind my head, but overall it just sounds like a mess.
The drums, which were originally tucked carefully just behind the vocal in the center of the stereo image, come forward and spread out into one bathroom sized blur. Instruments lose their definition, the original sense of soundstage is basically abandoned, and the frequency response is skewed bright compared to the dark and warm sound of the original mix.
Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the ‘Spatialize Stereo’ setting. In theory, music mixed for “Dolby Atmos” via Apple Music is a more apt use-case for the spatial audio capabilities on the AirPods Pro because these mixes are crafted specifically for immersive spatial playback.
However, listening to “Late Night Talking” in Dolby Atmos was just as disappointing. Once again, it sounds like we’re back in the bathroom with a bluetooth speaker.
As it stands for music listening, I think ‘Spatial Audio’ is more fun to think about than to actually use.
The Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation proved to be a rather large surprise; they offer great sound quality compared to wired and wireless alternatives at the same price, work seamlessly within Apple’s ecosystem, offer strong industrial design, and the ANC is very effective in specific situations.
While I loved my AirPods Pro V1, I found the sound quality disappointing when compared to the way music sounds in my recording studio on high end monitors and wired over-ear headphones.
The Apple AirPods Pro 2 do not offer the same level of sound quality as the best studio headphones, but the gap is certainly less compared to the first generation of Bluetooth IEMs and headphones.
The AirPods Pro V1 are certainly more comfortable and that became rather noticeable during my travel when listening sessions could last more than a few hours.
The intensity of the ANC is not ideal with the Apple Airpods Pro 2 and I wish that Apple allowed users to dial it back rather significantly based on the level of ambient noise.
Apple needs to work on a proper EQ so that listeners can really fine tune the sound.
The Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation are not perfect but they do offer a lot of performance for the money and earn my highest recommendation.