Image credits: Darrell Etherington
No name change. The AirPods Pro 2 are still the AirPods Pro 2. Apple’s high-end earbuds got the blink-and-you-miss-it treatment at last week’s iPhone 15 event. In fact, I blinked and missed it while watching a news report. My suspicion is that the company’s inability to give the buds much stage time is a direct reflection of the upgrade here, which arrives in the form of a USB-C charging case and some updates to the listening modes.
There’s one other important piece of information that Apple has yet to reveal, but it has to do with a piece of hardware that we won’t see until early next year. Like the AirPods, the Vision Pro was largely absent from the event. I expected to see some additional content previewed, but it seems like the company is saving that for closer to launch. In fact, the new AirPods Pro belatedly confirm something we’ve suspected for a while: spatial audio set the stage for spatial computing. Confirmation comes in the form of the H2 chip.
In addition to its appearance in the AirPods Pro, the chip can also be found in the Vision Pro – an aspect about the headset that the company has not revealed so far. What that means in practical terms is that the headset is effectively built for Apple’s headphones. How’s that for ecosystem play? When the two are paired, you get 20-bit, 48 kHz lossless audio with ultra-low latency. Considering how spatial audio on headphones gives the listener a sense of location, it’s easy to see how the two will eventually fit together nicely. Of course, we’ll have to save that particular experience for another day, closer to the launch of Vision Pro, I guess.
In practical terms, you could say that the true, fully immersive Vision Pro experience requires purchasing a separate pair of AirPods. If you already spend $3,500, what’s another $249 between friends?
See all our Apple Event 2023 coverage here.
For now, it’s all about what’s new on the AirPods. As far as hardware goes, USB-C is the thing. With this news, Apple is removing one of the last remaining Lightning devices from its lineup. There are still some notable products left with the Lightning port, including the Magic Keyboard/Mouse/TrackPad, the lower-end AirPods and AirPods Max (a surprise overview at last week’s event), some older phones, and an iPad. Those will disappear over time, because they have to – although Apple technically has until 2024 to completely overhaul the line.
USB-C is a great standard, and this is certainly good news, aside from the annoyance of throwing away all those old Lightning cables. The less good news right now is that Apple isn’t currently selling the USB-C enclosure on its own. If you want the new port, you’ll have to go all-in for $249. I’m not saying they never will, but Apple hasn’t given any indication of plans to that effect.
Otherwise we are talking about the same hardware here. The original AirPods Pro 2 even charges in the old housing. That’s all good news. I mean, sure, it would be great to get a full overhaul here, but the originals arrived almost exactly a year ago, and Apple’s refresh cycles are longer for its headphones than for the iPhone. Case in point: It’s been almost three years since the first and (so far) last AirPod Max was released.
In terms of sound, the AirPods are of the highest level. It’s a full, rich listening experience that handles both music and podcasts well. Sony remains at the top of my list for pure sound quality with the WF1000XM5. But the ecosystem has always been Sony’s Achilles heel. Despite what you might think after watching five minutes of the movie “Gran Torino,” there simply aren’t any Sony Vaios laptops in the wild. On the other hand, the ecosystem is perhaps what Apple does best. Automatic switching is one of the best examples of this. Many different companies offer a version of this, but Apple’s implementation feels really seamless. Stick them in your ears and you can go from your iPhone to your MacBook without a second thought.
On the software side, the big news are the new modes, specifically Conversational Awareness and Adaptive Noise Control. In iOS 17, you can access it by swiping down to Control. When the AirPods are connected, long press the volume slider. Below that you get options for Noise Control, Conversational Awareness and Spatial Stereo. We’ll skip the last one (which already exists) for now and focus on the other two.
Noise Control now has four settings: Off, Transparency, Adaptive and Noise Reduction. Adaptive is an attempt to provide some kind of middle ground that doesn’t just turn everything off. It also has a rainbow-colored icon, so it’s hard to miss if you know where to look. Noise cancellation can rob you of your situational awareness. On the other hand, transparency in a noisy environment can make you feel like you’re not listening to anything at all. The new mode uses the built-in microphone to detect ambient noise and adjust levels accordingly.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel bar working while my room is being cleaned. This place is starting to fill up with people I’m told are called ‘Sheerios’. Apparently a red-haired gentleman is giving a concert at the stadium with which the Santa Clara Hilton shares a parking lot. When Adaptive Transparency is enabled, I can hear the people around me talking, the glasses clinking and the bartender refilling ice. Rather than being completely immersive, it’s almost as if the music I’m listening to is being played through the PA (especially when paired with fixed Spatialized Stereo).
Admittedly, a bar may not be the ideal test bed. A more relevant application would be, for example, if you are walking down a busy city street, or riding the subway and making sure you don’t miss your spot. I’ve always been a noise-canceling person, but the appeal of the new setting is certainly evident for those moments when you want to hear the music but aren’t necessarily fully immersed in it. Apple has done a great job of balancing the two here. However, the headphones do not listen to other human voices, so they cannot distinguish them from other ambient noise. However, that’s what the next function is for.
Conversational Awareness is a nice addition. It uses a combination of different sensors to determine when you’re talking. That includes obvious things like built-in microphones, coupled with more surprising elements like the accelerometer, which detects vibrations to determine that you are indeed the one talking, without having to resort to something like voice recognition. When that’s activated, the sound starts to get softer, effectively getting you out of the way while you’re talking.
I was impressed with the detection. It didn’t activate when I coughed, yawned, or cleared my throat, for example. However, when I started talking, the music started to get softer. It doesn’t stay there for any specific amount of time. The company says it relies on an algorithm to determine such things. Factors include the length of time you are talking so that a pause in the conversation is not mistaken for the end of a conversation.
Another aspect of all this is hidden in the settings menu. Personalized volume is more or less what it sounds like. Apple describes the feature this way: “Using machine learning to understand environmental conditions and volume selections, Personalized Volume automatically tailors the listening experience for users based on their preferences over time.”
I’ve been using the new earbuds for a few days now, so I don’t feel confident giving you a definitive overview of the feature’s efficacy. Still, it’s fascinating to see how Apple is using sensors and machine learning in an effort to go beyond basic earbuds. Apple has also promoted the idea of headphones that you never have to take off.
There’s still the matter of customary etiquette when speaking to a cashier at the checkout, for example. I see myself continuing to pull out one or both when talking to someone. After all, Conversational Awareness lets them hear, but does not let them know that you are listening. I’m not sure if there’s a solution to that particular disconnect, but we can already see keeping earbuds becoming more acceptable – or at least more common.
The nice thing is that the price of the AirPods Pro remains unchanged at $249. The biggest downside right now is that if you just want the new USB-C, you still have to buy the whole thing.