Apple Cracks the Intelligent Earbuds Market with AirPods Pro

For $249, High-End Hearing Tech for the Masses

Apple’s new $249 AirPods Pro wireless earbuds look very similar to the old $149 AirPods; but the new Pro model is packed with advanced technologies—including active noise cancellation, a new hearing “transparency” mode, and adaptive equalization—which deliver more than an extra hundred dollars’ worth of value. With sophisticated features long associated with more expensive high-end headsets and hearing aids, AirPods Pro positions Apple well against several other new entrants in the emerging “intelligent earbuds” market.

Apple AirPods Pro

Noise cancellation blunts the dangers of over-amplification

Active noise cancellation may be the most exciting new feature in the AirPods Pro, which will be shipped starting Oct. 30. Users of over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones from Bose and other manufacturers have enjoyed retreating into quieter worlds for a long time. But the technology has only recently made its way into much smaller wireless earbuds (e.g. Nuheara IQbuds BOOST).

Apple explains in its news release that two microphones in each earbud work together to cancel out unwanted environmental noise:

The first microphone is outward-facing and detects external sound to analyze environmental noise. AirPods Pro then create an equivalent anti-noise that cancels out background noise before it reaches the listener’s ear. A second inward-facing microphone listens toward the ear, and AirPods Pro cancel remaining noise detected by the microphone. Noise cancellation continuously adapts the sound signal 200 times per second.

Noise-cancellation addresses the growing problem of over-amplification of audio in earbuds. If you wear your earbuds all day long, too much amplification for too many hours can harm your hearing. Or, if you commute on the subway and jack up the volume on your AirPods to drown out the already dangerous levels of environmental sound, you can harm your hearing in as little as 30 minutes. But with noise-cancelling earbuds, you can protect your hearing by reducing the volume of external sounds and then lowering, rather than raising, the volume of your music or podcast.

Apple AirPods Pro Transparency Mode

“Transparency Mode” makes sound more natural

The new Transparency Mode lets you simultaneously listen to music while still hearing the environmental sounds around you. And it provides more natural sound. According to Apple’s news release, here’s how it works:

Using the pressure-equalizing vent system and advanced software that leaves just the right amount of noise cancellation active, Transparency mode ensures that a user’s own voice sounds natural while audio continues to play perfectly.

As with noise cancellation, other intelligent earbud providers are offering similar transparency capabilities, which have long been available in many high-end hearing aids. It’s another feature that is starting to define the new class of intelligent earbuds products.

Three ear-tip sizes and venting provide a more comfortable fit

The AirPods Pro maintain the fashion-forward form factor of Apple’s hugely popular AirPods. But the company says there has been a complete redesign beneath the skin. Each earbud comes with three different sizes of soft silicone ear tips designed to provide both a comfortable fit and a superior seal. Then, a vent system allows for airflow to equalize pressure, which minimizes the uncomfortable “occlusion” effect experienced with tightly sealed hearing aid earmolds or earbuds.

Apple AirPods Pro Earbud Sizes

AirPods Pro earbuds come in small, medium and large sizes for a more custom fit.

To further improve the fit, the AirPods Pro software also performs an innovative “Ear Tip Fit Test” that tests the quality of the seal and identifies the best ear tip size for your ears. Microphones in each of the AirPods Pro measure the sound level in the ear and compare it to what is coming from the speaker driver. Then an algorithm detects whether the ear tip is the right size and has a good fit, or if it should be adjusted to create a better seal.

More high-end hearing technologies

Users of high-end hearing aids may be familiar with some of the other advanced features of the Apple AirPods pro, including:

  • Adaptive Equalization: Like the advanced sound processing software in high-end hearing aids, Apple’s “Adaptive EQ” automatically tunes the low- and mid-frequencies of audio. A custom high dynamic range amplifier helps extend battery life and powers a low-distortion speaker driver designed to optimize audio quality and remove background noise.
  • IPX4 Water Resistance Rating: High-end hearing aids have long provided moisture protection, certified by IPX ratings, to repel moisture that can damage electronic components. The IPX4 rating of the AirPods Pro certifies they are “splash-proof.” While they can’t be submerged in the tub or swimming pool, they will resist damage from sweat, the occasional rain shower and other incidental moisture.
  • Finger-Touch Control: a new “force sensor” on the stem lets you touch the earbud stem to play, pause or skip tracks, answer or hang up phone calls, switch into transparency mode, etc, in the same way that some premium in-the-ear hearing aids allow you to control functions with a simple finger tap.
  • Battery Life: Apple says that in Active Noise Cancellation mode, AirPods Pro deliver up to four and a half hours of listening time and up to three and a half hours of talk time on a single charge. Through additional charges from the wireless charging case, they deliver a total of more than 24 hours of listening time, or 18 hours of talk time.

Apple says its H1 chip, first introduced in the second generation of AirPods, enables many of the new high-performance features of the AirPods Pro:

The H1 features 10 audio cores and powers everything from sound to Siri. The extremely low audio processing latency of H1 enables real-time noise cancellation, delivers high-quality sound using adaptive technology and responds to hands-free ‘Hey Siri’ requests—all at once.

Other intelligent earbuds

Apple isn’t the first to establish a position in the emerging intelligent earbuds market. Others have recently integrated noise-reduction or noise-cancellation, advanced sound processing, and other high-end technologies into a small set of earbuds:

  • Nuheara introduced its original IQbuds ($249/pair) and IQbuds Boost ($499) earbuds several years ago, with noise cancellation, advanced sound processing, and amplification for people who need help with quiet sounds in noisy environments. And its upcoming IQbuds Max product has even more advanced hearing aid technologies.
Nuheara IQbuds Max

Coming soon: Nuheara's IQbuds Max are among a new class of intelligent earbuds that integrate high-end hearing aid technologies.

  • Sony 1000X M3 earbuds cost $229/pair, and CNET says its noise-cancellation capability is “almost as good as a pair of over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones.”
  • Beats Solo Pro intelligent earbuds will have noise-cancelling capability; they list for $299.95/pair and are expected to ship Oct. 30.
  • Amazon says its Echo Buds, also expected Oct. 30, will feature “active noise reduction” with a sealed, in-ear design that limits background noise; apparently, the Amazon Echo Buds don’t offer the same level of true noise cancellation that the others claim to provide, but they do offer a more attractive $129.99/pair price.

Apple nearly ran away with the earbuds market after its Apple AirPods became a huge hit. But there are already some good alternatives in the new intelligent earbuds market that will be sure to keep Apple on its toes. Time will tell if the new features in AirPods Pro will help Apple maintain its dominance.