By Patrick Lucas Austin
October 31, 2019

If you can believe it, there was a time in mankind’s short and brutish history when people were skeptical of Apple’s AirPods, myself included. We ridiculed the odd-looking wireless buds protruding in impossible directions from early adopters’ skulls, their ears housing buds seemingly hoping to be reunited with the rest of their 3.5mm headphone cable.

The audio accessory spawned knockoff after knockoff, failed attempts from competitors, and enough memes and class warfare jokes to keep everyone laughing until this week, when Apple debuted its noise-canceling $249 AirPods Pro. Let’s be clear: These are fantastic, and probably the best Apple product since it decided tablets should be a thing. It’s the company at its finest, refining an idea until it’s close to perfect. Thank goodness they don’t come in black — what else would I complain about?

You can peg them as AirPods even before you open the case. While larger than classic AirPods, the AirPods Pro case maintains its pill-like quality, but gets a bit wider and shorter by a few centimeters. It’ll still slip right into your pocket with ease, and supports Qi charging for all your wireless needs. Opening the AirPods Pro case reveals their oddly-shaped design, made for getting in your ear and staying there.

Those weird looks are integral to the AirPods Pro’s killer features. Perhaps the most desired addition is the new Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), which uses both outer and inner microphones to deaden sound around you. It works beautifully, and makes you realize how damn loud the world is on a regular basis. Silence never sounded so good. And while the regular AirPods are pretty good at standing up to the occasional drizzle or sweat-drenched run, they were never explicitly rated for water or dust resistance. The AirPods Pro, however, feature an actual IPX4 sweat resistance rating.

The in-ear design of the AirPods Pro means you’ll get much better sound quality compared to normal AirPods. Bass is deeper, voices are clearer, and there’s less of a tinny quality when you crank it up.

Apple’s even got a fix for the “noise isolation” issue that affects in-ear headphones, which prevents you from hearing the world around you while listening to music with a snugly fit pair of earphones. Dubbed “Transparency mode,” the AirPods Pro use its ANC software and a pressure-equalizing vent to mix environmental noise with your audio. It sounds incredibly natural compared to high-end headphones like the $600 Dolby Dimension, designed to facilitate conversation while watching TV.

Apple

In fact, when it comes to Transparency mode, the AirPods Pro blow all of their competition out of the water. Where headphones attempting the same trick would give volume to silence or magnify sounds — making a running faucet sound like a hyper-localized downpour, for instance — the AirPods Pro makes everything sound, well, just as it should. Silence is (nearly) silent and conversations feel normal, without suffering from any delay or echo. While wearing them, I don’t feel the need to raise my voice a few annoying decibels in order to hear myself speak.

The AirPods Pro are designed for Apple’s ecosystem of devices, and being a participant in Apple’s walled garden comes with some luxuries. One of the coolest new features is Audio Sharing, which lets you pipe audio from your iOS device to two different AirPods at once, essentially reviving the art of headphone-splitting, albeit in a less romantic manner. Bring the two AirPods close to the same iPhone, open their cases, and tap to pair and share.

Speaking of tapping, you won’t be doing much of that on the AirPods Pro. Instead of tapping your AirPods to pause a song or take a phone call, you’ll pinch the AirPods Pro on their protruding stem. This is powered by what the company is calling it a Force Sensor, essentially a pressure-sensitive button on the stem of each earbud. Holding either stem cycles through noise canceling options, and a trip to your iPhone’s Bluetooth settings lets you customize different tapping actions.

Average listening time is about on par with regular AirPods, topping out at about five hours before you’ll need to charge. With the case, you can expect a full 24 hours of use before you’ll need to find the nearest Lightning cable or Qi wireless charger (or Samsung smartphone). You can turn both Transparency mode and ANC off to get an extra thirty minutes of battery life.

Of course, each upgrade of Apple’s AirPods has only gotten pricier, and the AirPods Pro are no different. At $249, they’re just as costly as noise-canceling earbuds from Bose or Sony. It’s also yet another “Pro” device from Apple lacking a USB-C port, opting instead to use the Apple-exclusive Lightning connector like the AirPods before it. But the AirPods Pro offer so much bang for your buck it’s hard to fault the wireless earbuds for much at all.

Buy now: Apple AirPods Pro, $249, Amazon

Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

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