Why I ditched AirPods Pro for the cheaper AirPods

CNN —  

For me, AirPods Pro quickly rose to the gold standard in true wireless earbuds. They’ve got a unique build that nestles into your ear, they’ve got terrific sound aided by Adaptive EQ and they fit like a glove within the Apple ecosystem. They’re not cheap at $249, though — and still not super cheap when discounted to $179.99.

But long before AirPods Pro, Apple just had standard AirPods. Heck, I even waited in line for the original pair in December of 2016! AirPods offer simple personal audio in a one-size-fits-all design. And after many months of working from home testing and trying quite literally over a dozen pairs of earbuds, I’ve put AirPods Pro to the side and gone back to standard AirPods.

You’re likely wondering why, but there are a few core reasons. For starters, they’re much more affordable with an MSRP of $159, but they’re frequently available for much, much less. Right now Amazon has them for $115. And that’s only the starting point — AirPods Pro feature the same Apple integration as the Pro, a robust soundstage and strong connectivity. Oh, and it’s all packed into a smaller case. So let’s go down the winding road of why I’ve gone back to the standard AirPods.

A one-size-fits-all design with easier controls

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Standard AirPods have a more extended build than that of AirPods Pro. They’ll stick out of your ears more and instead of sitting tightly in your ear, they just float and nestle into the canal. You won’t find ear tips in the box, as Apple’s set out for a one-size-fits-all solution with regular AirPods.

It’s a design that works for many, though. Once in your ears, you likely won’t notice them too much — that is, unless the stem hits your face. That’s entirely possible, but they also don’t weigh down your ears like some other earbuds on the market. Standard AirPods weigh in at 0.14 ounces each, and that’s not an extreme amount of weight. For comparison, AirPods Pro are slightly lighter at 0.11 ounces but are more compact.

In my eyes, they’re still plenty comfortable, and the choice of no ear tip gives them a little more flow. Would I perform a hardcore endurance workout with these? That answer is no, as they don’t carry sweat or water resistance. I haven’t had an AirPod fall out, but colleagues along with fellow people on the internet can vouch that it’s not an unheard of outcome. Standard AirPods get a pretty good grip in the ear through the design and shouldn’t rock around all that much, though.

You also don’t control anything with the stems here — it’s all touch control on the top of the AirPods. A double tap on either AirPod can engage Siri, play or pause the track, skip forward or move backward. You can customize this in Settings on your iPhone when AirPods are connected. It’s not a selective touch surface like on the Galaxy Buds family, which we’ve found to be frustrating, but rather a pretty direct area that’s responsive.

And on AirPods Pro you need to squeeze to click on the stems, which ultimately isn’t really all that functional. It also requires even more specificity with how you press it versus just a simple tap or double tap on the AirPods themselves.

Fast connectivity with the Apple ecosystem — with some of the same features as AirPods Pro

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Standard AirPods feature the custom-made Apple H1 chip, which, interestingly enough, is also the same chip found in AirPods Pro. This powers the Bluetooth connection (and music streaming), fast pairing and simple switching that AirPods offer. This way, you can still hold them next to your iPhone to initially set them up, have them sync with your Apple ID and then connect to them from any of your synced Apple devices.

It’s pretty handy and still performs well in my testing across a few iPhones, an iPad Pro, a MacBook Pro, an eighth-gen iPad and an Apple TV 4K. The latter lets me have some private listening without disturbing anyone else. There’s quite a bit of function, and for whatever reason, the standard AirPods seem to be less picky with switching between devices than the AirPods Pro.

And connectivity is still robust with Bluetooth 5.0 inside the standard AirPods. You’re bound to experience a dropped connection over two years, but those are few and far between in my experience.

Now, along with connectivity, AirPods are super handy when paired with any Apple device. For starters, you can say, “Hey Siri” whenever you want to quickly accomplish a task like sending a message or starting a call. You can even have Siri announce messages (by reading them aloud) and giving you the chance to respond back — all hands-free. This has been especially helpful when wearing them around the house or while out and about. It essentially lets me leave my phone in my pocket when completing these tasks.

Best of all, though, for when we can travel again, you can easily share audio with another pair of AirPods. I remember sharing music with my friends and even sharing a movie while on a plane last year. It’s also not just AirPods to AirPods; it can be AirPods to AirPods Pro or even AirPods to AirPods Max and AirPods Pro. Basically all the key features of AirPods are here and work just as seamlessly.

The sound quality and battery life is still great

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Probably the biggest difference between the standard AirPods and AirPods Pro (besides the design) is the sound quality. And let’s be clear: Standard AirPods don’t outshine the Pros in this area. There’s a key reason for this, as AirPods don’t seal off your ears, which doesn’t create a single space for the audio. AirPods Pro use silicone ear tips that fit snugly in your ear for a tight seal, more immersion and more robust sound.

Even so, standard AirPods make me feel less claustrophobic — especially in comparison to AirPods Pro when they’re just passively in with Transparency or active noise cancellation (ANC) off. The result of not having a seal just lets these rest in my ears and lets me still be aware of the world around me. It also doesn’t make the sound quality bad or anything less than good here. From my original review in 2019 and to retesting over the past few weeks, AirPods still deliver a wide soundstage that aims for a clean and balanced mix. Bass can be lacking at times, but for the most part, it’s a strong mix that shines a light on all parts of a track equally.

The regular AirPods still deliver a strong push with a wall-of-sound track like “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. With a more dynamic song like “Brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo, it’s typical for earbuds to mush some elements together, but AirPods do a good job layering Rodrigo’s vocals on top, supporting elements in the middle and the main drum underneath.

On the subject of battery, AirPods meet the same bar as AirPods Pro. I’ve been getting close to five hours on each listen, while the case can provide up to 24 hours of listening through quick recharges. You also have to decide between getting AirPods with a standard charging case or with a wireless one. I think the former is plenty for most people unless you’ve gone all in with wireless chargers in your world. It’s an easy way to save some money and you’ll be able to charge with a Lightning port on the bottom of the case — which might I add is more pocketable than the AirPods Pro one.

Let’s recap

Between a lower price point and a design that just rests in your ears, there’s still a lot to like with the standard AirPods. I was quick to realize this after revisiting them and sticking with them for longer than I anticipated. The sound quality is still great and offers a wide soundstage that works with all sorts of genres. Battery life meets the mark, and the core features of AirPods are still here.

If you opt for the AirPods over AirPods Pro, you’re missing out on a more customizable design that snugly fits in your ear for better comfort and sound, along with noise cancellation and Transparency modes. The latter are crucial for some, but raising the volume on regular AirPods can help block out some everyday noise.

You can save quite a bit and score an experience that is still impressive, especially if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, with standard AirPods. Better yet, they’re on sale for just $114.99 with the standard case or $149.99 for the wireless charging case.

As for me, when I get back to plane travel and even longer commuter rails I might opt for AirPods Pro to block out the world around me without turning the volume to 10 on the standard ones. For workouts as well, I prefer the AirPods Pro for the sweat resistance. But for everything else, I’m rocking out with my standard AirPods for the simpler build, better controls and all the core affordance features.

That said — when AirPods 3 do arrive, I’ll likely be taking those for a spin.