AirPods Pro get USB-C and a few new tricks

Adaptive Noise Control and Conversational awareness are good, but not selling the case separately is a bummer

No name change. The AirPods Pro 2 are still the AirPods Pro 2. Apple’s high-end earbuds got the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treatment during last week’s iPhone 15 event. In fact, I both blinked and missed it, while headsdown on a news story. My suspicion is the company’s failure 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 listening modes.

There’s also one other important bit of information that Apple has yet to reveal, but it has to do with a piece of hardware we won’t be seeing until early next year. Much like the AirPods, the Vision Pro was mostly absent from the event. I’d anticipated a look at some additional content, but it seems the company is saving that for closer to launch. In fact, the newish AirPods Pro belatedly confirm something we’ve suspected for a while: Spatial audio was setting the stage for spatial computing. Confirmation arrives in the form of the H2 chip.

Image Credits: Apple

In addition to its appearance in the AirPods Pro, the chip can also be found in the Vision Pro — an aspect about the headset the company hasn’t revealed until now. 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’ll get 20-bit, 48kHz lossless audio at ultra-low latency. Given how spatial audio on headphones give the listener a sense of location, it’s easy to see how the two will ultimately pair nicely together. Of course, that specific experience is something we’ll have to save for another day, closer to the Vision Pro launch, I suppose.

In practical terms, you could say that the true, fully immersive Vision Pro experience requires the purchase of a separate pair of AirPods. If you’re already spending $3,500, what’s another $249 between friends?

Catch up on all of our Apple Event 2023 coverage here.

For now, it’s all about what’s new on the AirPods. Hardware-wise, USB-C is the thing. With this news, Apple removes one of the last remaining Lightning devices from its lineup. There are still some notable products left sporting the Lightning port, including the Magic Keyboard/Mouse/TrackPad, lower-end AirPods and AirPods Max (a surprising oversight at last week’s event), some older phones and an iPad. Those will go away over time, because they have to — though Apple technically has until 2024 to completely overhaul the line.

AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C

AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C. Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

USB-C is a great standard, and this is decidedly good news, aside from the annoyance of having to dispose of all of those old Lightning cables. The less good news at the moment is that Apple is not currently selling the USB-C case on its own. If you want the new port, you’re going to have to go all-in to the tune of $249. I’m not saying they never will, but Apple hasn’t offered any indication of plans to the effect.

Image Credits: Apple

Otherwise, we’re talking the same hardware here. In fact, original AirPods Pro 2 will charge in the old case. That’s all fine news. I mean, obviously 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 iPhone. Case in point, it’s been nearly three years since the first and (to this point) last AirPod Max was released.

Sound-wise, the AirPods are top tier. 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 ecosystem has always been Sony’s Achilles’ heel. Despite what you might think after watching five minutes of the “Gran Torino” movie, there simply aren’t any Sony Vaios laptops out in the wild. On the other hand, ecosystem is arguably what Apple does best. Automatic switching is one of the best examples of this. A lot of different companies offer some version of this, but Apple implementation feels truly seamless. Stick them in your ears and you can move from your iPhone to your MacBook without ever giving it a second thought.

AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

On the software side, the big news is the new modes, specifically Conversational Awareness and Adaptive Noise Control. In iOS 17, you access these by swiping down into Control. When the AirPods are connected, long-press onto the volume slider. Below that, you get options for Noise control, Conversational Awareness and Spatial Stereo. We’ll skip the latter (which has been around) for now, and focus on the other two.

Noise Control now has four settings: Off, Transparency, Adaptive and Noise Cancellation. Adaptive is a bid to offer a kind of middle ground that isn’t just turning the whole thing off. It also sports a rainbow-colored icon, so it’s hard to miss when you know where to look. Noise Cancellation can rob you of situational awareness. On the flip side, in a noisy environment, transparency can feel like you’re not listening to anything at all. The new mode uses the on-board mic to detect ambient sound and adjust levels accordingly.

Image Credits: Apple

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel bar working while my room is being cleaned. This place is beginning to fill up with people I’m told are called “Sheerios.” Apparently a redheaded gentleman is performing a concert at the stadium that the Santa Clara Hilton shares a parking lot with. With Adaptive Transparency on, I can hear the people speaking around me, glasses clinking, the bartender refilling ice. Rather than being fully immersive, it’s almost as if the music I’m listening to is playing over the PA (particularly when paired with fixed Spatialized Stereo).

Granted, a bar is maybe not the ideal testing bed. A more pertinent application would be, say, walking down a crowded city street, or riding the subway and making sure you don’t miss your spot. I’ve always been an all noise cancelling, all the time person, but the appeal of the new setting is certainly clear for those moments where you want to hear the music, but not necessarily be swept up in it altogether. Apple has done a fine job balancing the two here. The headphones are not, however, listening for other human voices, so it doesn’t distinguish that from other ambient sound. That is, however, what the next feature is for.

AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

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 mics, coupled with more surprising elements like the accelerometer, which detects vibration to determine that you are, in fact, the one who is talking, without having to resort to something like voice recognition. When that’s triggered, the audio begins to lower, effectively getting out of your way when talking.

I was impressed by the detection. It didn’t trigger when I, say, coughed, yawned or cleared my throat. When I started talking, however, the music began to lower. It doesn’t stay down for any specific set amount of time. The company says it relies on an algorithm to determine such things. Factors include the length of time you’re talking, so it doesn’t mistake a break in conversation for the end of one.

man sitting at desk wearing AR headset

Image Credits: Apple

One other aspect to all of this is hidden away in the settings menu. Personalized Volume is more or less what it sounds like. Apple describes the feature thusly: “Using machine learning to understand environmental conditions and volume selections, Personalized Volume automatically fine-tunes the listening experience for users based on their preferences over time.”

I’ve been using the new buds for a few days, so I don’t feel confident giving you a definitive review of the feature’s efficacy. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating seeing how Apple is using sensors and machine learning in a bid to take the line beyond the standard earbud. Apple’s also been pushing the idea of a pair of headphones that you never need to take out.

There’s still the question of common etiquette when, say, speaking to a cashier at the check out. I see me continuing to pull one or both out when speaking to someone. After all, Conversational Awareness lets you hear them, but it doesn’t let them know that you’re listening. I’m not sure there’s a fix to that specific disconnect, but we can already see keeping earbuds in becoming more acceptable — or, at the very least, more common.

The nice bit is that the AirPods Pro’s price remains unchanged at $249. The biggest downside at the moment is that if you just want the new USB-C, you’ve still got to buy the whole thing.

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