When the original AirPods Pro came out I only gave them a cursory glance, mostly because I’ve never had luck with IEM-style earbuds being comfortable or staying in for any period of time.
I’d been using a combo of the AirPods 2nd gen and the AirPods Max with my Apple devices when not sitting at a desk with a headphone amp.
When the AirPods 3rd gen came out I was excited. Maybe, I thought, since they claim to have improved the sound quality it’d get them closer to what people described about the AirPods Pro, but retain the (for me) better fitting design of the regular AirPods 2nd gen.
Sadly, I was mistaken there.
The AirPods 3 Didn’t Fit Well, Not Like The AirPods 2.
The AirPods 3 did indeed sound better than the AirPods 2. The highs were crisper and better defined, and the bass hit deeper. Unfortunately, the bulbous shape of the AirPods 3 meant they didn’t fit properly in my ears. While some people say they fit fine, or even better than the 2nd gen, there are plenty of others left disappointed with the design change sharing the same fit issues.
The issue for those like me is that the new bulbous head shape does not allow the tip to adequately go into the ear canal like the older 2nd gen AirPods did, so the fit is poor and so is the seal.
The 2nd gen AirPods had a much better shape for smaller ears.
Contrast That With The AirPods Pro 2’s Superior Seal
The AirPods Pro 2 still feature the larger bulbous shape — in fact that’s likely where Apple drew inspiration when they designed the AirPods 3. But the major difference is in the silicone tips.
The silicone tips extend further and offer thinner options, even an extra small set of tips that the AirPods Pro 1’s did not have.
For me, this means they actually sit in the ear canal properly despite the body’s increased girth.
And since there’s not a big price difference between the AirPods 3 and Airpods Pro 2 (or even Pro 1’s at a discount), one may be inclined to skip the AirPods 3 altogether or stick with their 2nd gen AirPods.
Sound Quality vs. AirPods Max
The AirPods Pro 2 do not disappoint when it comes to sound quality. I don’t think they’re quite at the level of the AirPods Max, which isn’t shocking because of the price and size difference.
But they do have thumpier, deeper bass than all other AirPods that I’ve tried except the Max. Versus AirPods 2 especially, the vocals are much clearer and the highs do not require EQ to sound crisp.
The AirPods Pro 2 offer a pretty similar sound signature to the AirPods Max. Very similar overall tuning, so if you like one you’ll like the other.
That is to say, Apple designed them to have a pretty balanced sound rather than the common V-shape sound profile. (V-shape meaning big bass, big highs, recessed mids.)
Areas where the AirPods Pro 2 fall a little behind the AirPods Max’s sound:
The highs, while crisper than other AirPods earbuds, occasionally have a wispy quality to them. It’s not exactly what you’d call sibilant, but the best way I can think to describe it is sounds that should have a sharp “sss” sound have a subtle blunted “shh” to them, whereas the AirPods Max do not.
The mids are, I would say, where both headphones are most similar. Vocals have an intimate feel, which I like about them. Guitars, pianos, and horns have an exciting “live” sound to them, which I find a refreshing change to all the V-profiled headphones out there with recessed mids that sometimes sound a bit dull.
I find the bass fairly similar between the AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods Max. The AirPods Pro 2’s bass is definitely stronger than any of the other earbud-style AirPods, and comes close to the AirPods Max in terms of fullness and how deep they play.
I would say as one would expect, the AirPods Max extend into the sub-bass range a little more strongly, and you get a bit more of that slam you can “feel” at higher volumes. Also, I find the bass a bit more nimble on the AirPods Max. You might say the Max offer everything the Pros do, but a bit more refined.
Still, that’s not a knock against the AirPods Pro 2’s, since I would say for the price difference (roughly $300 at full price) the fact that you can get as close to the Max as the Pros do is a bargain.
And of course, the Pros also feature noise cancellation and transparency mode as well, so you’re not sacrificing those features for the cost savings.
Active Noise Cancellation & Transparency Modes
Both the AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods Max feature these modes, however there are slight differences between them.
For me, the active noise cancellation (ANC) is pretty consistent, and I would say in some cases it seems better on the AirPods Pro 2. I assume that’s because the silicone ear tips form a seal in the ear canal, which is blocking sound in itself in addition to the ANC.
Compared to the AirPods Max, which only muffle outside sounds as much as over-the-ear headphones normally do without ANC. (That’s not to say the Max’s ANC isn’t good.)
I think the biggest difference between these two headphones is in the transparency mode.
The microphones on the AirPods Max are clearly better, and as a result the pass-through sound is more realistic. In general while wearing the AirPods Max in transparency mode it sounds pretty much exactly like not wearing any headphones, which is a big win.
The AirPods Pro 2’s transparency mode is good, but those “sss” to “shh” subtle blemishes in the highs I mentioned earlier are what give it away. My voice doesn’t sound as true when I hear myself talk, as it lacks body.
Upper mids and some of the highs don’t sound bad, but you can tell you’re hearing a reproduction of something happening nearby rather than the actual sound, if that makes sense.
One small oddity that I can’t fully explain is that I noticed background noise played through in transparency mode seemed to detract from the perceived bass in music more on the AirPods Pro 2 than the Airpods Max. Each time the room quieted down, I had a much better sense of bass at lower volumes than when the room was noisier.
Not sure why that happens more on the Pro 2 than the Max.
It’s still certainly better than no transparency mode and a great feature to have, and with the ~$300 price difference between the two models the difference in quality here is acceptable.
Once again I would say that to get as close to the Max as the Pros do for several hundred dollars less will be a win for a lot of people.
The main reasons to get the AirPods Max over the AirPods Pro:
If you want the very best sound quality that Apple offers and are willing to pay for it, and if you want the very best ANC and transparency available, the Max make a lot of sense.
Also, if you don’t find earbuds/IEMs as comfortable as over-the-ear headphones for longer sessions, that in itself would be a huge reason to get the AirPods Max.
Main reasons to get the AirPods Pro 2 instead:
If you wear hats a lot or think you’ll be out and about a lot, the bigger and bulkier Max don’t always work well. It’s hard to wear a hat with the Max. I’ve managed to wear a thin beanie with them if I roll up the sides of the beanie slightly to accommodate the headphone pads, but that’s about it.
Comparatively, this level of sound with earbuds is far more convenient for walks, running, exercising, or simply wearing outdoors in the summer months. (The Max can get pretty hot.)
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