Putting Apple’s new AirPods Pro 2, which Apple unveiled at its Far Out event on September 7, to my ears in the Steve Jobs Theater’s practical space, I was eager to experience what Apple promised would be noise-canceling. active 2x better experience. Even in that busy space, I was surprised by its effectiveness, which is mainly due to Apple’s new H2 chip.
Apple’s silicon, which some might argue started with the iPhone and its custom A-series chips, has spread across its entire range of devices to encompass Macs and tablets running its M-series processors – but the predecessor to the H2, which appeared on the original AirPods Pros in the form of an H1 chip, it actually predates the Apple Silicon concept (as much as the original A-series did).
Now, however, whatever SoC development learnings Apple gains from building its M1 lineup seem to inform the processors in every Apple device.
If there’s one hallmark of all Apple Silicon, it’s efficiency, and for the new H2 processor Apple has reached new heights by cramming twice the number of transistors – now there are more than a billion – inside the chip.
The most obvious result is the AirPods Pro 2’s six hours of life (a total of 30 hours with the redesigned charging case). That number, however, is with the more powerful Active Noise Canceling (ANC) enabled; turn it off, and the number supposedly goes up to seven hours for the buttons and 35 with the case.
More earnings from AirPods Pro
However, it’s not just the power management – the new architecture of the H2 chip is behind most, if not all, of the performance gains Apple is touting in the AirPods Pro 2.
There’s more memory on board, which gives the chip the bandwidth to handle larger audio models. In practice, this means that it can interpret a wider range of noise sources more quickly and know better what to do with them in real time.
An example might be how the AirPods Pro 2 can apparently handle loud noises in adaptive transparency mode. The transparency mode, which picks up real-world sounds through the button mics, and which I experimented with during a few brief demos and then through more casual real-world use, was impressive for its clarity and fidelity, but the H2’s fast processing it can also apparently anticipate much louder external noises such as sirens and motorcycles. To be clear, it’s not prediction a loud noise, but the response time can be fast enough to keep noises at 90db and above 85db as they pass through the AirPods Pro 2 and reach your ears.
Of course, no one is using their buds all the time, and they are unlikely to be in their ears when your neighbor decides to turn on their gas leaf blower. A more realistic scenario might be to use the AirPods Pro 2 during a concert to keep the sound below ear ringing levels.
I used the buttons during a transatlantic plane flight, and they were very effective in silencing cabin noise (until one popped up when I fell asleep and almost lost it – I’m a restless plane sleeper); they performed equally well while I mowed my lawn and during walks through the busy streets of Manhattan.
Turning on the ANC at a crowded intersection, the shift to near silence was like a whoosh, and so complete that I felt momentarily isolated. There’s still some sound coming, but it’s a dull whisper compared to the rumbling reality of a city street.
For my mowing experience, I tried switching back to the first-gen AirPods Pro and there was a noticeable difference in noise suppression. Both are good, but the AirPods Pro 2 are noticeably more effective.
Sound management isn’t just about large-scale loud noises. Apple optimized the processor’s algorithm for noisy spaces like restaurants and offices, and naturally did some work on the hardware to support these efforts. The inward-facing microphone has been repositioned to improve the way it picks up ambient noise, helping the H2 chip better understand what noise is and process it accordingly. There are also new beamforming mics that should help cut out wind and outside noise, to leave only your voice during a call.
I made several phone calls with the new buttons and noticed that no one had a problem hearing me, regardless of my environment – and in one case I had a high-oven fan running next to me during my call.
Whatever claims Apple made during its presentation, my experience so far with the AirPods Pro 2 largely backs them up, with the powerful noise cancellation likely boosted by the combination of a decent seal (finally, little hints!)
Despite hardware changes, including the new H2 chip, updated microphones, and new volume gesture controls on the stem, Apple hasn’t made the AirPods Pro 2 bigger or heavier than its predecessors; in fact, they look almost exactly the same.
The charging case looks similarly unchanged, but it has gained two or three grams, perhaps to accommodate new features, like a speaker you can use with Apple’s Find My app to help locate the case in the event of loss (the light of the case will also flash to help with the locating effort).
It’s a shame that this more powerful case can’t carry the high-end AirPods Pro either – but I don’t think you can have it all.