I’ve been splashing out on AirPods a few months ago, when Julia and I both bought the AirPods Pro 2nd Generation. The ongoing building work around us isn’t something I enjoy while I work. I also had a pair of old AirPods 1st generation that I wanted to have repaired, but it was cheaper to buy a new pair of AirPods 2nd generations instead, so I did that. Hence, I’ve been using both side by side and can give you an impression on both, with the various differences they offer.
If you’re on the fence of which ones to buy, let me share my experience with you. They’re both very different devices, and it’ll depend on what kind of user experience you’re after. I like them both and will continue to use both depending on my needs. Let’s dive in!
AirPods 2nd Generation
Let’s start with the regular “cheap” AirPods 2nd generation. They’re the cheapest wireless Apple headphones you can buy and look exactly like the first generation, although they connect a little faster and the battery life is improved by comparison. They currently sell for $129, which is not a bad price for what you get.
If you’ve had the first generation and loved them, this is an ideal replacement. Throw in $30 for Apple Care and you have 2 years of accidentally damage repair and battery replacement, even if your dog chews one up. If you’ve never had AirPods before, but you’re familiar with the wired EarPods and enjoy the experience, you’ll feel right at home with these.
AirPods 2nd generation sound exactly the same as the first generation, as well as the wired EarPods, but with benefits of added wireless magic. I use them whenever I would have used my wired version. They’re extremely comfortable and light to wear, no matter how long I have them in my ears (I can’t say that about every pair of headphones).
The charging case is a small square box that uses a lighting connector. It seems to hold its charge much better than the AirPods Pro box, which I’ll talk about below. There was a time when Apple sold a wireless charging box with this model but it’s been discontinued so currently you only get the wired charging box for the AirPods 2nd generation.
AirPods Pro 2nd Generation
Compared to the regular AirPods, the Pro version is almost twice as expensive at $249. They have a noise reduction/cancellation feature and a lot more processing power built in (and totally improved apparently compared to the Pro 1st generation). It feels weird having several CPUs around your face that process audio signals at all times, then give you a fully processed/amended version of what you hear. Once you get over it, they do sound fantastic though.
The Pros have swipe controls for volume, and when you hold on either pod, they switch between “noise reduction” mode (i.e. the outside world is muted) and “balanced” mode, which blends in the outside world so you can hear what’s happening around you. It’s good for conversations and traffic, and switching only takes a second. I find myself doing this frequently. Note that you can connect the pods without having to listen to anything, so they’re amazing as noise blockers in coffee shops or if you just want some peace and quiet.
The pods themselves are made very differently than the regular AirPods: the Pros come with rubber seals in three sizes to form an air controlled chamber in the inner hear. They’ve seriously gone to town with some magic that literally sucks the air out (gently) and gives you a very pleasant tight fit. In the iOS settings there’s even an option that checks which size rubber seal is right for your ears.
It does take a little getting used to fitting them as you need to push them in a little more than the regular AirPods or EarPods, and the air-sucking-out mechanism certainly is a new experience. However, when enabled and fitted properly, the experience is quite zen-like and a little mind blowing. It’s something that really needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Noise cancellation is more like a reduction of annoying frequencies, rather than a complete silence that you get with on-ear models. Even with this feature enabled, you can still hear what’s happening around you, but much more muted than before. Building noise and Mr. Driller from next door, traffic and motor noises (including air planes) and the regular noise pollution we’re so used to these days fade away and let you focus, with or without listening to anything else (like music or a podcast).
The AirPods Pro charging box connects both wirelessly to a Qi charger, and with a lighting cable. The box seems to lose charge quite quickly even when not connected to a power source: when I don’t use my AirPods Pro, the fully charged box is practically empty at the end of the week (although the AirPods are still charged).
The box can also be “found” with your iOS Find my app and will emit a noise when you’re getting closer. This is also true for both pods, if you’ve lost one, it’ll keep beeping until you find it. So yeah, that’s a lot of CPUs and wireless magic at work. I wager all those power hungry components have something to do with the battery depletion in idle mode.
Another downside to the Pros is that after a while, they’re not very comfortable to wear. Your experience may vary, but I feel like my ears are complaining very subtly, and I want to take them out after an hour of use. I do not get this feeling with the regular AirPods or EarPods, which is why I prefer those for longer listening sessions.
Microphone Performance (both Airpod models)
Both models can make and receive phone calls, and as long as you’re connected to an iPhone/iPad or a new Mac, the mic sounds OK. On older Macs as well as other Bluetooth devices, the microphones sound like it’s a phone line from the nineteen-sixties (i.e. terrible). I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for it, but as a casual user all you need to know is that neither AirPod model is good for recording your voice. If you’re thinking, “hey I can use this for screen casts and game streams,” think again because it ain’t happening.
For iOS phone calls, the noise reduction is a little better on the Pro model, which apparently reduces loud noises around you, although it was difficult for me to test this. I was able to hear the other party on an iMessage call fine in a loud environment, and while it worked for both of us, it was annoying to speak for half an hour on a noisy street corner. For that ultra important phone call in the middle of Night City, both models will work fine.
The disappointing part happens when you try to pair either AirPods with something that isn’t made by Apple. I’ve explained how to pair your AirPods with other devices in this article, and while it works for a good listening experience, the microphone isn’t usable. As an example, you can pair AirPods with a Steam Deck and listen to the game audio, but you can’t talk to team mates.
A special note for Playstation users: while the AirPods can be found with the integrated Bluetooth chip, they won’t connect. You can however use a super cheap Bluetooth USB receiver, pop that into your Playstation 4/5 and connect the AirPods just fine (or so I hear, it’s far too faffy for my liking and I’ve never tried it out – I just plug my wired EarPods straight into the PS5 controller and boom, works a treat, no faffing).
So yes, AirPods and which model to buy. I genuinely like them both, and I use them both, in different situations. For casual listening at my desk and for phone calls in quiet environments, I use my regular AirPods. If I need some peace and quiet because the builders get too loud, or if I have to endure multiple hours in the waiting room of a doctor with some infomercial blaring at me, I really appreciate my AirPods Pro and mute that sucker.
If you have the cash, buy them both. If you don’t, buy them both and return one within 14 days (Apple will take them back for a full refund when bought at an Apple Shop). If you’re on a budget, or you don’t care about noise cancellation, the regular AirPods are fantastic. If you’re an audiophile and want features, and you don’t care if your ears feel weird after an hour, get the AirPods Pro.
What about the AirPods 3rd generation you ask? I didn’t consider them, because at $169 they’re certainly not as good as the Pros, and they have a very different shape than the original EarPods (similar to the Pros, but without the rubber seal). At the time of writing I haven’t tried them, but I’ve inspected them closely and decided they’re not for me.
Hope this helped! If you have any questions, do let me known the comments below.