Review: AirPods Pro (2019)

I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

— Douglas Adams

The prologue

For years, I have taken contrarian perspectives against some recent innovations. I have decried app stores, refused to participate in social media and seen usability sprayed with shrapnel in the slaughter of skeumorphic extravagance or simplification for its own sake. There are several distinct reasons why me and AirPods are not born friends, so why should I do this review?

The purpose of a review is not to be neutral, it is to be fair.

I have not notably changed my mind, but opinions are nothing without experience, and when I started considering getting Bluetooth headphones anyway for those situations where they are a good idea and have always excelled, I knew what I wanted to try.

A good review is not just an enumeration of facts, it is the report of a long experiment where the product is allowed to perform its function, and where its success and fitness for purpose is documented in view of expectations, competitors and suitability.

This review is based on four weeks of daily use.

The expectation

For over a decade, I have used in-ear wired headphones. Most commonly of the type sold by Apple since 2009 (I have owned somewhere north of six pairs, wearing them out as I go), but I have recently tried models from Sudio (Vasa Blå), Sennheiser (Momentum In-Ear) and Bang & Olufsen (Beoplay H3).

I don't do anything special – I listen to music and to podcasts from my computer and my phone, I occasionally take phone calls or participate in online meetings, and I pipe all computer audio out through it most of the time. While I notice distortion and can tell poor audio apart from good audio when able to compare, I am not an audiophile. I occasionally fall asleep listening to something, often podcasts. I enjoy a good microphone, and I like having the controls: volume up/down, play/pause, previous/next track, take call/hang up call.

The courage

The first models of AirPods came into this world on September 7, 2016, the same day Apple removed the 3.5 millimeter headphone jack from all new iPhone models. The move left three ways for users to attach headphones: use the bundled Lightning-to-3.5 adapter, use Lightning headphones (including the bundled EarPods), or use Bluetooth headphones (including the then new AirPods). Apple did not leave anyone stranded unless they wanted to simultaneously use the Lightning port for other things, including charging. But the adapter is now relegated to an accessory selling for $9, and in my experience, it has been famously fragile.

Apple painted the move as having the courage to leave a long-lived connector behind. Considering the near-universal reaction from users, most of which used wired headphones (if any at all), it wasn't made in a cheap, populist plea for acceptance. The presentation set AirPods up as the natural companion to every iPhone, delivering a sense of freedom and a superior listening experience.

The basics

AirPods Pro come in a small white charging case. You flip it open to light a green LED on the front, hold it close to an iPhone or iPad and tap the button on the card that pops up on screen. This names them and pairs them to that device (and all other devices with your Apple ID). You then pop each earphone in your ear, it gives off a distinctive muffled boom and you're off to the races.

When they need charging, you can pop them into the case, including one by one, and they charge from the case's battery. The case itself needs charging, and can be charged from a Lightning port or through standard Qi wireless charging. The earphones themselves do not charge standalone via Qi charging, only in the case (via pins in the stem).

When both earphones are worn, they can provide active noise cancellation through microphones picking up ambient noise. The cancellation has a mode where it can provide "transparency", imitating the sound you would have heard by not having the earphone in your ear at all.

The wire

Many reviews and impressions of any model of AirPods focus on the sensation of being untethered. Being able to move freely, without worrying about the wire, without dragging your laptop off its surface or making your head or ears suffer recoil. Although I expected more, I will admit that this is a good feeling. Being able to get up without popping out your headphones or rearranging the wire. Being able to go into another room without stopping what you're doing (as long as you keep in reasonable range of the connected device, that is).

The fit

The fit is, regardless of which of the three sized tips I use, pretty terrible. Even when I push them in as far as I can, they are at risk of falling out, and have fallen out numerous times during use.

The sound

I am ill-equipped to pose as knowledgeable. In my experience, they perform well, and do not provide worse sound than wired headphones. To my ears, they do not appear to provide earth-shatteringly crisper or deeper sound.

The noise cancellation works reasonably well, but also has a tendency to amplify background noise in a way that sounds like transmission noise. I don't know if the transparency mode always works like that, but it has put me off wanting to check.

The switching

As far as I can tell, they appear to want to stick around the last device to which they were connected. On iPhone and iPad, it suffices to have one of them inserted and start using the device for them to automatically connect; on Mac, a notification is shown offering to connect, or you can pull down the audio menu to connect (and also switch between the noise cancellation modes). On Apple TV, you have to switch manually by pulling down the info panel, switching to the right tab and selecting AirPods Pro, although in this year's tvOS edition, apparently a notification will appear where a remote button press will let you switch.

Most of the time, this works as advertised. Switching between a device where they automatically connect and a device where they don't is confusing in practice, but may settle in eventually. Wearing one earphone, taking out another earphone (waiting until it also plays the audio) and then putting back the first earphone into the charging case has the tendency to stop playback. Sometimes it resumes playback once it realizes that the other earphone is not coming back, but more than once it also resumed playback from the wrong device, playing back something entirely differently.

The controls

Theoretically, you can perform controls by pressing the tips of the earphones, but in practice, this has not worked well at all for me. It does not work omnidirectionally but instead has two grooves where your fingers are supposed to grip, but I still can't seem to find it quickly. The regular AirPods were mocked for looking like electric toothbrush brush heads, but as odd as it looked I think they may have provided a better target.

The lack of tactility or haptic feedback also means you never quite know when something has been registered or not, making the mix of "click", "press-and-hold" and "double-click" gestures on the same area awkward to perform. I miss any form of volume controls, but considering the current zoo of options (of which some are able to be reassigned or disabled), I don't miss having to properly distinguish them.

The storied curse of Harald Blåtand

As always, Bluetooth is unreliable, and AirPods are not safe from the laws of physics. I have heard things drop out and screw up, but they seem to be doing a good job of managing it.

The battery

The battery is the single sin for which I can not forgive the AirPods Pro. They have introduced range anxiety in my life.

Using AirPods includes a contract to submit to always having battery life on your mind. I have seen this with some people who work their phones to the bone, having to always cart around extra chargers or battery banks and constantly topping them up to get through the day. If you use headphones in the way that I apparently do, you have to take a similar approach.

Each earphone lasts up to a few hours on a single charge, but in a way that seems to vary. The simple thing to do is to use them from full tilt until they are drained, then place them in the charging case, wait for them to be juiced back up, and then resume. But this assumes that using headphones is an arbitrary luxury that you are fine using for some time and then being without.

If this is not how you use earphones, you are instead driven to constantly devoting some part of your mind to doing the charging shuffle. Put one earphone in the case, wait for it to rise some number of percent, then take it out, put it in your ear, wait for the sound to bridge over, then take out your other earphone and put it in the case (and deal with resuming playback or reconnecting), then set a mental timer for however long is appropriate and do it again. Repeat this process every day for the rest of your life.

This breaks concentration, kills flow and reinforces, again and again and again, that this is a task you have to do or you will screw yourself in the future. If you are in a position to do something else or go somewhere, of course you can get a free reprieve by putting them both in the charging case. And if your usage pattern looks like this — brief (less than two hours) use, with at least 30 minutes or so in the case to allow recharging — then you probably have a much better experience than I do.

But I don't. This is my life now, and there is only using them or charging them. You can't do both.

The platonic ideal

Usually, there could be some hope. After all, battery technology is constantly advancing; charging is made quicker, capacities are improving and more efficient chemistries are being developed, with the world-class incentives of taking over power production from a dirty grid and making the transition to electric vehicles possible.

But I'm not all that hopeful that things will improve for the AirPods. Apple has a history of picking a "platonic" battery life figure, building a product around it and then maintaining that battery life. For the Apple Watch, it was 18 hours of occasional use, enough to retain some charge at the end of the day. For the iPod, 24 hours of music playback; iPad, 10 hours; iPhone, more or less lasting a day, scaling somewhat with the increasing demands of apps, networks and displays.

For those products, the platonic battery life is fine. For the Apple Watch and iPhones, as long as you can charge them as part of your day, it all works. But that's not the story for the AirPods, at least as I use them. They would have to last for two or three times longer. The only time I've seen that with Apple products is recently when Apple switched Macs to their own silicon. But AirPods already use, and probably are only possible because of the W series of chips powering them to begin with. And with the charging case, it's not impossible to keep them alive more or less indefinitely. It's just a much worse time.

The alternate universe

Let's rewind to September 7, 2016 and travel to Earth 2, where Apple instead introduces the iPhone 7 which of course still includes a headphone jack. They then go on to introduce the AirPods exactly as is, and they are remembered for being a technical milestone, which took a concept started by products like the Bragi earphones and made it work more dependably than before.

Would I have been interested in this product? As a curiosity, sure. I would have been a whole lot less reticent to try it out. But I likely would have run into the same issues with it and its successors over time.

The AirPods can be many things at once: one of the better products in a market segment; a product fighting physics at every step and having the consequences to show for it; a product scarred from birth with the expectation of being a clear technological improvement over wired headphones. No product with its features can be unambiguously better than wired headphones; too much gets lost in the shuffle. It's not a fair fight, and Apple did it (and itself) a disservice by sticking it with the unwarranted removal of the headphone jack.

The big red score in the bottom right of the last page

Reality is complex and nuanced. Even in this review, there are layers upon layers of expectations, specifications, philosophy and sociology. The truth is that I'm weary of all this, of the soundbite made religion, of the compression of factors that are situational and personal into n stars out of five, and any way I came out would be a judgement call of something trivial over something essential.

The AirPods Pro are not the first piece of technology to bring unexpected mental weight into your life on a cushion of marketing, the promise of looking less like an old relic and the worship of gadgetry; nor will they be the last. They perform an adequate job with some shackles removed, hoping your use case will be shaped in such a way that you will not notice the shackles that it adds. But if you are in that sweet spot, and honestly even if you aren't, they still are both adorable, personable and functional, in their own way. They aren't made without care; nor are they the perfect manifestation of headphone technology.

I will keep using them, but I will also keep using my wired headphones; they are both excellent tools for their scenarios. And unless battery technology and Apple psychology both make enormous strides in coming years, I'd still like that headphone jack back.

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