Noise cancelling earbuds really came into their own in 2019, with Sony leading the pack with its WF-1000XM3s.
I was blown away by these shiny bois, declaring the company must have sold souls to Satan in order to make wireless noise cancelling buds so damn good. I didn't expect to be that impressed again this year.
And then Apple dropped its own offering. While Sony may still be superior when it comes to noise cancellation, sound quality and battery life - the Airpods Pro are surprisingly impressive. And I've found myself unable to quit them.
Sony recently dropped its latest offering to the sound gods - the WF-1000XM3 truly wireless noise cancelling headphones. This inner-ear music delivery system is a bold move. It's notoriously difficult to achieve both noise cancellation and great sound quality in non-over-ear headphones. Let's see if Sony managed to deliver.
What's good about them?
While I have always found AirPods comfortable, that isn't the case for everyone. One size certainly does not fit all. Additionally, AirPods have never felt particularly secure. They often threaten to fall out if someone simply looks at them the wrong way.
The AirPods Pro have been upgraded significantly to solve these issues. Wearers now have a selection of three different tip sizes to help ensure fit and comfort. And unlike previous models they're sweat and water resistant, making them more appropriate for working out.
While they still don't feel as secure on a run as the Powerbeats Pros (thanks to the hook design), I don't feel like I'm going to lose one down a drain anymore.
This security and overall comfort is the primary reason I keep returning to the AirPods Pro. While the noise cancellation and sound quality isn't quite as good as Sony's new buds, they're more comfortable. Close enough has subsequently become good enough for the listening experience that Apple is offering.
Perhaps I was doing Apple a disservice by being pessimistic going into this, but I'm genuinely shocked at just how good the noise cancellation is.
It fires up as soon as you pop the buds in and you can immediately notice a difference, even before you blast any actual audio.
Once you do, you're immediately swept away to a quiet, private place. They have successfully blocked out office banter, obtrusive construction sounds and deluge of eclectic noises one is subjected to on public transport. You definitely know that noise cancelling is doing its job when your boss has to yell repeatedly to get your attention and ultimately resorts to flailing wildly at you.
While I haven't gotten to try them on a plane yet, I have a great deal of confidence that they will be able to handle chatting and crying babies alike. I suspect some engine noise will still filter in, though.
But in general this is good news. Because as much as I adore my over-ear Sony 1000XM3's, buds are far more comfortable to wear in-flight while attempting a little shut eye.
If you've used previous gen AirPods, you're going to notice a difference in sound quality immediately.
This is thanks to the new low-distortion driver, combined with the inside facing mics that help adapt music to an individual's ears. The noise cancellation absolutely plays a part, too.
I was able to notice far more detail and complexity in my music than on the second gen AirPods, and it made them a delight to use.
A perfect example of this is Ain't No Rest for the Wicked by Cage the Elephant. The beginning of the song delivered a dirty guitar riff to my right ear, while the distorted vocals chimed in on the left. Both built, intertwining to create a mini crescendo which mentally transported me to a live gig. And yet I was still firmly parked at my office, staring through the crumbs of yesterday's lunch. The sensation was sublime.
The Sony's still do a better job of this... but damn if I wasn't impressed by what the AirPods Pro delivered to my ear holes.
Praise be, Beats By Dre is finally making some Powerbeats that are actually wireless. Yes cords count, because 'wireless' doesn't just pertain to connectivity. Fight me. While the new Powerbeats Pros retain an unsubtle bud design (and even manages to add to it), they're at least free from restrictions now. I was sceptical about these chunky headphones at first, especially compared to the sleek second generation AirPods. But these bad boys have wormed their way into my heart, and ears. There's just one issue. The charging case has given me an existential crisis.
What's not so good?
At 4.5 hours, the battery life on these little nuggets aren't great. Most other competitors get well over 5 or 6 thanks to Bluetooth 5. That being said, the charging case does offer an additional 24-hours, which is handy.
Speaking of which, the new case is a little bigger than the second generation, but not aggressively so. It can still be easily slipped into a pocket, which is more than I can say for the comically large Powerbeats Pro case. Even the Sony WF-1000XM3 case is a little too obtrusive for my taste.
It also continues to offer wireless charging, which is always a nice bonus.
Much like previous AirPods, you can control your music via the buds themselves. But it's quite the pain in the arse. Instead of tapping the pods you now need to squeeze the stems to pause. It's slow to the point of inconvenience and I didn't use this feature outside of testing.
It's annoying to both say and write. Between this as the iPhone 11 Pro Max sounding like a discount Viagra brand, I fear for Apple's naming conventions.
Should you buy them?
At $399 the AirPods Pro are extremely pricey. But that's Apple for you.
It's also on par with other high-quality wireless noise cancelling earbuds that have been released this year. After all, the Sony WF-1000XM3's had an original RRP of $399.95.
But what if these are too expensive to justify? This could be the perfect opportunity to get a good deal on the 2nd generation AirPods if you don't care about the noise cancelling element. You're still getting great earbuds, wireless charging and a far cheaper price point. During Black Friday you could find them for $99, so I'd recommend keeping your eyes peeled during sale periods.
As for the Pros - if you're a slave to Apple, want some A+ earbuds and don't plan to swapping to the sportier Powerbeats Pros anytime soon, then yeah you'll probably love these.
I keep going back to them despite my resistance and deep love for the Sony's, which I can only assume were woven into existence with the power of witchcraft.
I just can't get past the comfort of the AirPods Pro. And the sound quality and noise cancelling capabilities act as juicy cherries atop the figurative auditory sundae.