Apple AirPods Pro 2 noise-canceling, wireless, in-ear headphones

You won't see many Apple products in these pages, and for good reason. As Stereophile Editor Jim Austin wrote to me recently in an email, "Apple may have the best acoustic-design facilities in the world, but its products are designed by engineers who don't seem to respect perfectionist sound—which is appropriate for a company that aims for the vast middle of the bell curve." Has that changed?

It took Apple years to get halfway serious about music reproduction. The $2 trillion giant didn't offer lossless files via its Apple Music streaming service until mid-2021. Its early wired earphones sounded tinny and congested, barely a step above free airplane buds. Later models were better, but not by much.

Then, starting with the iPhone 7 in 2016, Apple took away the headphone jack. People who were serious about sound and determined to keep listening "wired"—that is, not via a lossy Bluetooth connection—reluctantly purchased ugly, easily lost dongles-with-tails that spoiled their phones' clean design. Meanwhile, the convenience-minded "good enough" crowd bought a billion wireless earbuds (footnote 1), all hampered by Bluetooth's bandwidth limitations.

To this day, Apple treats even its best wireless listening devices like naughty stepchildren. Neither the $549 over-the-ear AirPods Max (which I auditioned for a few weeks in late 2021) nor the new AirPods Pro 2 in-ear monitors ($249; the product under review) support superior Bluetooth codecs like aptX HD and LDAC, much less hi-rez music. (See Jim Austin's sidebar.) The company, for now at least, sticks to its own AAC codec, which, while better than basic SBC, isn't as good as LDAC or aptX HD (footnote 2).

The new Bluetooth 5.3 standard implemented in the Pro 2s can handle lossless streaming in conjunction with Qualcomm's S5 chip, but Apple literally isn't buying it (the chip that is), preferring its own silicon. This seems to rule out a Pro 2 firmware upgrade that unlocks CD-quality-or-better audio, unless that capability is hidden inside the new Apple H2 chip that drives these AirPods. That's possible, but I shan't hold my breath.

Considering that about 100 million 24-bit hi-rez recordings now reside on Apple Music's servers, it's puzzling that the company doesn't offer a single head-fi product—wired or wireless—that does justice to that higher-quality audio.

So why am I reviewing the Pro 2s for Stereophile? The sound quality of these new IEMs is roughly as good as many (but not all) wired headphones in the same price class. Also, while most of this magazine's readers probably won't buy a pair of AirPods for serious at-home listening, audiophiles' lives extend beyond the listening room, onto airplanes and noisy subways. Are you going to wear your over-the-ear Audeze or Abyss headphones while out and about, perhaps along with a portable headphone amp? Me neither.

Finally, this review is an opportunity to look at a whole class of products. Is wireless listening the devil, or is there a place for noise-reducing IEMs in the lives of audiophiles?

What's new
I've never found it easy to tolerate objects in my ears for very long, so I'm happy to say that by a good margin, the AirPods Pro 2 are more comfortable than any of the IEMs I've purchased over the past few years (the Moondrop Arias, the Etymotic ER4SRs, the AKG N400s, and the first-gen AirPod Pros, which surprisingly I found less comfortable than the new model). The reason: You don't have to screw, mash, or jam the new AirPods into your ear canals. Proper positioning is obtained with just a light application of a finger (and you can check the quality of the seal with a new feature called Ear Tip Fit Test). The medium tips that were installed in the factory fit me nicely, but because all ears are different, Apple includes three more sizes in the retail box—including, for the first time, size XS.

In terms of convenience and thoughtful touches, the AirPods Pro 2 slap (as my kids would say), making the ownership experience second to none—awe-inspiring, in fact. Just as I remembered from the predecessor product (which debuted in late 2019), pairing couldn't be easier, especially with other Apple products. Place the brand-new buds near your iPhone and you can establish a Bluetooth link with one tap. Then, as you go about your business at home and at work, your desktop Mac, MacBook, iPad, and Apple TV will auto-detect your new IEMs and discreetly, without nagging, offer to connect.

Don't have (m)any Apple products? The new buds pair easily enough with an Android phone, but most of their extended features will then be limited or unavailable.

The synergy between the AirPods Pro 2 and the iPhone approaches seamlessness. For instance, if you open your phone's Settings app and the buds are within a foot or two, a contextual menu item pops up, giving you access to a range of tweakable features and functions. That menu disappears when the Pro 2s are no longer near. Elegant and effective.

More coolness: Placing the charging case close to your iPhone and flipping the lid brings up a battery-percentage window with readings for the case and the buds. Average battery life went up by a third with the new version, to six hours, and Apple says the battery in the dental-floss–looking case holds enough juice to fully charge the buds five times.

What else is new? Too much to cover, but here are five highlights.

The stalks protruding from the buds are now swipe-able volume controls. This works well unless your finger is wet from rain or perspiration.

You're less likely to lose the new AirPods, because the FindMy app will track them down even if they've fallen between the couch cushions or somehow ended up in the washing machine (footnote 3). And it's not only the charging case: Drop just one bud and you can find it with your phone, too. The built-in tracking technology works just like it does in an Apple AirTag.

An interactive ear test lets you tailor the Pro 2s' sound to your ears and compensate for hearing deficiencies. I heard no appreciable benefit from this feature, but a friend with mild hearing loss told me that for him, it restored "fullness" and "sparkle" to the music. Additionally, you can engage Personalized Spatial Audio after using your iPhone's TrueDepth camera to measure your face and each ear, yielding your unique earprint. (To assuage privacy concerns, Apple claims on its website that "Camera data ... is processed entirely on your device and images are not stored. Your personal profile for Spatial Audio will sync across your Apple devices using end-to-end encryption if you use iCloud and cannot be read by Apple.")

The company says the Pro 2s' active noise reduction is twice as effective. It's certainly worlds more effective than it is on my nine-year-old Bose QuietComfort 25 headphones.

The technology I toyed with most is Transparency Mode. It's not an Apple exclusive (Bose calls its implementation OpenAudio, Jabra calls it HearThrough, etc.), but the AirPods Pro 2 do it exceptionally well. With Transparency Mode, you can listen to your music while letting in environmental noise via the built-in microphones. It comes in handy, for instance, if you'd rather not get hit by the crosstown bus that you otherwise might not have heard coming. In this second-gen version of the feature, really loud noises are reduced in volume, and outside sounds no longer seem spacey and artificial, at least not to my ears. Hearing your own voice fed back to you remains slightly disorienting, perhaps because your brain struggles with the time disparity between the moment your words leave your lips and the moment the processed sound reaches your brain.

To take the sonic measure of the AirPods Pro 2, I listened using Roon, with my iPhone 14 Pro Max as a Roon endpoint. Other times, I connected to the Tidal app on my phone, and later to the Apple TV in the living room when I craved the final season of Dead to Me.

Overall, I found the music a bit more spacious with Transparency turned on, probably because a small portion of the room's environmental sound is added to the signal. Why this is noticeable even in a very quiet room at night, I can't really explain, except to say that other than anechoic chambers, even the most hushed rooms have a noisefloor. Mine hovers around 26dB, according to my SPL meter. Perhaps that's just enough to give music in Transparency Mode a hint of space.

Of course, the effect won't come close to the way sound behaves when it emanates from speakers or musical instruments in a room, but I did find it pleasing (and often exciting) that recordings were no longer so much in my head. Bands and orchestras seemed a little more spread out before me, even with the spatial audio feature turned off (more on that in a moment). The change was lifelike enough that on a few occasions, for a second or two, I got tricked into thinking that music was coming from my main system or from my four-piece Samsung HW-N950 soundbar. And once, a thunder-clap in a movie sounded real enough that I cast a startled look at the sky, only to find that no storm clouds were gathering.

Spatial audio is Apple's compressed version of surround sound, applied to just two channels. I liked it on one track, found it mildly annoying on the next, hated it on the third, and became smitten with it on the fourth. Back and forth it went, like plucking petals—I love it, I love it not, I love it. There was no rhyme or reason that I could discover, no obvious pattern, no eureka moment. Over time, the spatial trickery became an exhausting distraction, so I turned it off—on music. On movies, from Dolby Atmos blockbusters to black-and-white classics in mono, I enjoyed it. In a few films, like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream on Amazon Prime Video, the dialog seemed a bit softer than I remembered from previous viewings (though still perfectly intelligible), while music and Foley sounds got pushed to the fore. But this effect was slight, and rare.

One more thing about Transparency Mode. It clamps down instantly on sudden peaks in your environment: barking dogs, screaming babies, squealing subway brakes, police sirens, the works. That's why Apple calls it Adaptive Transparency. This gave me the bright idea that the Pro 2s could be useful at too-loud concerts; perhaps they'd reduce the volume just before the live music reaches your ear canals. To test this, I played some Motörhead tracks on my stereo system at 95-plus decibels and listened via the new AirPods, with Adaptive Transparency engaged. Alas: The buds did little to lower the apparent volume—but they did make the music sound spacey and sharp, robbing it of bass and heft to boot. In fairness, Apple didn't intend for the AirPods Pro 2 to work as glorified earplugs. But maybe Team Cupertino could add such functionality in a firmware update (or more likely, equip a future generation of AirPods with it).

I've always found the upper midrange and lower treble to be on the abundant side on Apple devices, but the AirPods Pro 2 sound a bit more controlled and smoother than the Pro 1s do. Aside from piano, voices are (to my ears) the hardest thing for transducers to get right—and these IEMs are really good with voices. Leonard Cohen ("You Want It Darker"), Jarvis Cocker ("Room 29"), Eva Cassidy ("Waly Waly"), Dominique Fils-Aimé ("Birds"): all sounded clear, substantial, and pure. The Pro 2s ably conjured up vocalists drawing breaths and columns of air in motion. And even without aid from spatial audio or the transparency feature, I often got a good sense of the acoustic space the musicians were performing in, as on the Cassidy track.

Sometimes the sound was too smooth for my taste. Through the Pro 2s, the tin whistle on "Waly Waly" appeared rounded off, diminished in tonal clarity. The same was true for the guiro on "The Look of Love" by Saskia. The instrument lacked the trademark raspy sharpness that is rendered so holographically by my reference headphones, the Audeze LCD-4 and the HiFiMAN HE1000se. Not that those multi-kilobuck products are a reasonable benchmark by which to judge a pair of mass-produced plastic earbuds.

Both in quality and quantity, the AirPods Pro 2 produce bass that is a step up from the older model. They only faltered on recordings with extraheavy low notes—the kind of bass most often created with studio electronics pushing below 20Hz. When I played "Variations" by the Submotion Orchestra, or James Blake's "Limit to Your Love," or "You Should See Me in a Crown" by Billie Eilish, there was a raggedy fatness to those hyped bass notes, a lack of control, a bloated quality that made me want to skip to the next track. But these premium AirPods do regular deep bass without obvious faults or colorations.

Is this bud for you?
There's a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to the AirPods Pro 2. I admire them for how well-thought-out they are, and I love how cleverly they integrate with other recent Apple products, especially iOS devices. They're chock-full of innovative features, some of which are meaningful (such as EQ that adapts to each user's hearing), and others that are more of the gee whiz variety (spatial audio). While these IEMs may not wow fussy audiophiles, they provide a lot of seriously wonderful entertainment, and I'll never look down my nose at that. For music performance, this latest generation is almost always pleasant and engaging. Bluetooth or no, sometimes they even touch excellence.

And yet, in another way, AirPods strike me as a raw deal. That's mainly because of the obsolescence that results from their glued-together housing, their lack of repairability, and most importantly, their limited lifecycle, especially of their built-in lithium-ion batteries (one in each bud plus one in the case).

It's not fair to only call Apple out for this; almost all wireless earbuds and most Bluetooth headphones have the same problem. The industry's dirty secret is that these products are just about disposable. If you charge your AirPods once a day (as students, office workers, and frequent travelers might), the buds' batteries will be on their last legs after 18 months, two years at best. That's based on Apple's claim that under optimal conditions, AirPods can be fully recharged about 500 times. After that, battery capacity goes downhill fast.

Sure, Apple says it will replace the AirPods Pro 2's batteries for $49, and that's great. But remember I said that one billion pairs of earbuds have been sold worldwide over the past five years? Roughly half of them are already dead—either tossed in the back of a junk drawer or buried in a landfill. It's a bad bargain for consumers and an alarming ecological burden. When the company finally stamps the Pro 2s as a legacy product (in four years? five? six?), consumers will no longer being able to replace those batteries. We'll be up the creek. Until they make their way back to an Apple store, ready to repeat the cycle.

By then, I will have owned my $350 Sennheiser HD 600 headphones for nearly 30 years. No batteries needed. Did I mention they sound unfailingly excellent? (Feel free to insert "Okay boomer" here if you're under 40.) Even if you don't care much about the environmental impact of quasi-disposable earbuds, their lack of residual value might give you pause. Virtually none of the gear we cover in Stereophile is destined for the landfill anytime soon. A lot of it will have two, three, four owners before it must be retired or rebuilt, often after decades. And at that point, it's typically still worth a non-negligible sum.

Without a doubt, the AirPods Pro 2 are a feat of design, innovation, and engineering. The increased fidelity of their music reproduction pushes them to the top of their class. But even at $249, a price that seems fair enough on its face, do they represent good value if you have to repurchase them every two or three years? Is that consistent with audiophiles'—your—sense of value? Does convenience trump sonics and environmental impact? I'm just asking the questions. The answers are up to each prospective buyer.

Speaking of questions: Beyond Apple, is there potential in this product category? I think there is. Many established hi-fi companies make travel-suitable noise-canceling headphones, and some of those products use consumer-replaceable batteries. Kudos. On the other hand, I know of no brand that has taken advantage of the recent Bluetooth 5.3 codec by building in support for lossless data. Which will be first?

Footnote 1: I wrote "billion" hyperbolically. Then I looked it up. Guess how many wireless buds have been sold worldwide in the past five years alone? Yep, about a billion pairs. See

Footnote 2: John Atkinson examined early versions of the AAC and aptX Bluetooth codecs in 2014. His conclusion was that the AAC codec "appears to attempt to preserve resolution at the expense of noise-floor modulation and the introduction of enharmonic spuriae (though it is fair to point out that the latter might be masked by the music). By contrast, aptX throws away absolute resolution in favor of preserving a random noise floor, presumably because this will be less annoying with music."

Footnote 3: See Try that with your DAC or integrated amplifier.

Glotz's picture

Apple AirPods Pro 2 appears to be disposable and lacking build quality, which was echoed in the piece. With after 2 years of heavy, daily usage, 1000XM4's are nigh-indestructible, demonstrate benchmark sound for the price, supremely easy to use and master and sport an incredible app that continues to grow in functionality.

Owners just received a new update supporting multi-point last week. The price is also the same, though started at $30 more when released in 2021.

For units to be dead already should be a non-starter for many audiophiles who rarely accept such poor longevity. I also haven't experienced the Max's, but for a company to offer a premium product at $500+ and an easy-to-break product at half as much is a non-starter as a brand, for me (and many). This product is clearly not up to the level of other Apple products that are meant to exude quality.

I have not heard the Apple AirPods Pro 2, so I don't have a formed opinion about the sound. Kudos to Roger for an honest and candid review!

Glotz's picture

The Sony earbuds for $250 are ridiculously good sound for the money. Separation, depth, bass response (with the proper EQ- Clear Bass +5, 16k +7), focus and detail are all fantastic- for the money. Without proper EQ, I think many listeners would be disappointed.

FR is really on point vs. similar on-ear headphones like Grado or HiFi Man. Their popularity and the overwhelming positive reviews over the past 2 years speak for themselves. Noise-cancelling is as good as any Bose offering or Apple, etc. Not sure how anyone could go wrong with these.

They last despite constant drops and fumbles, and they function really well. The app tracks usage - at well over 500 hours they still roll confidently.

I'm not sure who wouldn't be glad to not have sound while at work, for private, noisy-environment phone calls or for traveling, working out, etc.). As long as they fire up selections that are fitting for work, I also think music almost all of the time is just fine.

It's about our focus levels adjusting for the selection of music or the situation. Would I choose Viagra Boys for work at full volume? No.. I would go for some ambient or jazz or classical or whatever suits the moment best. Would I listen intently the same way I do when listening to my rig at home? No... but then it depends on the situation. Having freedom to do what I want and how I want is the point.

ejlif's picture

You should try them before you bag on them. I had the Sony XM4 and they AirPod 2 sound better to my ear and also the XM4 broke and are basically junk now after only using for a year or so. AirPod 2 longevity remains to be seen but they sound better and just plain work better with an iPhone than the Sony.

Glotz's picture

The review directly talks about dubious build quality. Glad they work on the iPhone.

You didn't explain how your WF's 'broke' after a year. Your claim there sounds a bit questionable.

The WF's overwhelmingly positive reviews all over the internet validate my position.

ejlif's picture

One side developed a scratchy distortion. I contacted Sony and it was a known issue and basically cost as much as a new pair to fix it so into the landfill they go. I'm just saying personally I hate apple sound and never heard an AirPod I liked until this one. I got these just to use transparency mode at work and listen to podcasts and still be able to talk to co workers. I am really surprised that they sound good enough to listen to music on. I have had a lot of gear and some really expensive stuff so it's really surprising to find something that I can tolerate music on. I would far prefer to hear it on better gear but that gear is not as convenient so these have a place in my collection and they do work. I'm not so sure about the cheap build quality. Apple makes really nice stuff and it's usually build quality wise better than anything else out there. If you really care about sound you will never use bluetooth but it's convenient and I guess sometimes that overrides quality.

Glotz's picture

I like your insights here regarding the sound quality and thanks for being transparent. I'd like to hear 'em now out of curiosity... but sorry to hear about that unit dying.

I wish consistency was better for all of overseas manufacture, not just China. There are a lot of valid reasons for it, but it still sucks when we are the recipient.

CG's picture

Real serious philosophical question...

Does playing music constantly diminish the experience? To me it's a bit like eating rich food for every meal, however you define rich. It can become not so special after a while.

I'm sure other people have different ideas about this, but I know musicians and music educators who have no interest attending concerts any longer, unless they are performing themselves or are going to see friends perform.

Anton's picture

I get what you mean.

Back in the day, hearing Beethoven's Sixth might very well be a once in lifetime experience.

Back then, who could get sick of Haydn's surprise symphony when nobody had heard a twinkle twinkle little star record a million times?

Beethoven's Fifth had not been used in countless commercials yet.

How many times do we need to hear Stairway to Freaking Heaven?

We have the luxury of hearing things enough times to become sick of them. (I am kind of done with The Beatles for this reason: reissue that stuff again, I no longer care.)

If you think on it for a bit, just how large do we think families' repertoires were for playing together at home in the pre-recording era. I don't know, did people burn out on playing the same group of songs every night by the fire?

Your point is well taken.

On the other hand, hearing music everyday is great. We have infinite choice now...we can hear new music every day!

I don't find it loses its impact, but I get your drift.

Cheers, fellow audiophile!

PeterG's picture

I pondered a similar issue the other day when wondering if I should buy the ultra version of Rumours in 45rpm. After a million listens on car radio it becomes Muzak, schlock... But wait! It's an incredibly great album! I bought it, arriving soon, I wonder how much I'll play it?...

Anton's picture

Interesting to me: people who might feel no issue with tossing Ear Buds after 2 years look at me like I am a nut when I mention tube life or stylus wear! They expect electronics to live forever, just not phones or ear buds. ;-D

We could change your paragraph for tubes or 'needles:'
"The tube/stylusindustry's dirty secret is that these products are just about disposable. If you use your Hi Fi or play records every day day (as audiophiles might), the tubes or stylus may be on their last legs after 18 months, two years at best."

Same vibe!

We recently saw Zesto opine about testing amplifier tubes at only 500 hours.

500 charges on a pair of ear buds might make a stylus or power amp tube look like a Mayfly, by comparison. (The price of tubes and styli is not insubstantial, either!)

I will lay this all down to different life expectancies (strokes) for different folks.

I am also a bit bullish on the future of recycling this stuff, it will come.

Thanks again for an honestly thought provoking review. I am not an ear budder but, conceptually, I would have nothing against the price vs. life expectancy angle.

PeterG's picture

We can rationalize all day, but these are not an audiophile product. A sad waste of Stereophile resources

funambulistic's picture

Pretty much sums it up: "The other reason: Audiophiles fly on airplanes and, in cities, take subways, and when they do, they like music."

cognoscente's picture

I think all wireless headphones fall short of audiophile requirements. The brand doesn't matter, but the principle.

For people who mainly want ease of use and in-ears, these are a good quality candidate (perhaps even the best in this price range).

For people who want ease of use and over-ears, the AirPods Max is a good quality candidate (and again perhaps even the best in this price range), even for audiophiles if used wired, which is possible.

An Apple product may not "sound" in terms of feel (elitist or distinctive) audiophile enough, soberly "listened" they are.

Anton's picture

She wears them when she taking the mutts for a hike and uses them while she's working in the barn, pasture, etc.

She likes the quality.

She can't really carry the living room system around with her, so these are a fine alternative.

They might not be prissy enough to be considered 'audiophile,' but for audiophiles on the go who want minimal fuss music or books going along for the ride, these are perfect.

About 30 cents per day for a two year 'investment' is great.

I suppose if they only lasted 500-1000 hours, were very fussy, cost 20 times as much, and sounded exactly the same, then they'd be audiophile?

PeterG's picture

Audiophile is not about money, it's about a focus on sound quality. I enjoy my Apple buds a lot, but I'm paying for style, Bluetooth, integration with my phone and laptop. All of these things come at the cost of money or sound quality. Etymotic makes audiophile earbuds starting at $100 or so

ejlif's picture

I had the version before this new version and I could not stand to listen to music on them, they seemed dull and bloated and I was just distracted. I have and have had a lot of much nicer gear so not surprising. What does surprise me is this new version I can stand to listen to music on and while not as good as some others they are pretty good and something you can say play music and run the leaf blower at the same time. The noise cancelling is good, they don't hurt your ears, they have transparency mode which would let you have background music playing and still hear and talk to others in the room. And above all they work with no BS like most Apple stuff. I'm a die hard spend all my money on gear audiophile for years and years and these really surprise me. If you have an iPhone it's certainly worth keeping a pair handy.

Dj57's picture

After many reader's comments and audio specialists,I went to my local Apple Store and tried the Airpods Pro 2 with my fave music tester,So what by Miles Davis and Lonely woman by Pat Metheny.I was really surprised by the quality I felt in my ears through Qobuz app even if it's not Hi Res that was coming in my ears..I finally got a pair and tried them this week with diffrent kinds of music and playlists and finally agrees that it fills yours ears with a delicate and balanced sound that I can experience with my Sennheiser HD 560s and FIIO Q1 Mark II dac.
Apple did a good job with these IEM and with my iPhone 12 and iPad air 5th,I can listen to some good music without worrying about cables and DAC while I walk or stare at he sky..