Monday, 18 September 2023
Among the oft-quoted Alan Kay’s numerous aphorisms is “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” A sort-of corollary to that, which I believe, is that the best way to appreciate new technology is to go back to using an older version.
A few weeks ago I was running late for an appointment I’d be walking to here in Philadelphia. Most everywhere I walk, I wear my AirPods Pro 2, but that day I couldn’t find them, and I was late enough that I didn’t have time to search. I was terribly worried I’d be alone with my own thoughts for the entire journey, but my old first-generation AirPods Pro were sitting on my desk, and they still had a charge, so I wore those instead.
I remember thinking last year, when I first upgraded from the original AirPods Pro to the AirPods Pro 2, that the new ones sounded at least a little better and that both Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation modes were much improved. But going back to the original AirPods Pro for just one afternoon walking around the city really brought home just how much improved the AirPods Pro 2 are. Transparency mode and Noise Cancellation are way better, and more strikingly, just the audio quality difference alone was obvious. After a year as a near-daily user of AirPods Pro 2, I now find the audio quality of the first-generation ones to be thin and tinny. I was downright blown away by the difference.
Last week Apple announced a minor revision to the AirPods Pro 2. They now come with a USB-C charging port on the case (instead of Lightning), and some sort of upgrade to the H2 chip in the earbuds of the revised models will enable low-latency lossless audio with the Vision Pro headset when that product ships next year.
I’ve been wearing a pair of the revised AirPods Pro 2 earbuds since last week, paired with my year-old iPhone 14 Pro and a few other devices. I obviously can’t say anything about their special capabilities when paired with a Vision Pro, but in all regards related to currently-shipping features, they’re better than ever.
As of today a firmware update is available for all AirPods models. For the second-generation AirPods Pro — both the year-old ones with Lightning and the new ones with USB-C — this is a major feature update. Tweaked features include the option to mute/unmute yourself with a click of an earbud stem while using AirPods during a phone or VoIP call, and improvements to both Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation modes. But the update also brings two new features.
The first new feature is Conversation Awareness, which Apple describes thus:
When you’re wearing AirPods Pro and need to speak with someone
nearby, Conversation Awareness automatically lowers the volume of
what’s playing, enhances voices in front of you, and reduces
When enabled (all AirPods options are in the Settings app on iOS or MacOS), Conversation Awareness really is completely automatic. If you’re listening to music or a podcast and just start talking to someone, or if someone else just starts talking to you, it kicks in. It’s very clever, but whether you’ll enjoy it highly depends upon your listening environment. In my 5+ days of testing, it kicked in too frequently amidst a crowd of people, none of whom were talking to me. Sometimes on city sidewalks, oftentimes in a grocery store. In an urban environment, there are just too many people talking around me, and the AirPods have no way of knowing that they’re not talking to me, for this feature to be anything but an annoyance overall. But it’s definitely accurate: it always kicks in when I start talking, and every time it has kicked in when someone else was talking near me, even when they weren’t talking to me, I could tell whose voice it was that the AirPods detected. File this feature under “Not for me personally, but you might love it.”
The second new feature is a new listening mode: Adaptive Audio. One way to think of Adaptive Audio is as a mid-point between Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation (ANC). That’s how Apple describes it:
The H2-powered AirPods Pro now feature Adaptive Audio,
automatically prioritizing sounds that need your attention as you
move through the world. By seamlessly blending Active Noise
Cancellation with Transparency mode when you need it, Adaptive
Audio magically delivers the right mix of sound for any
Feel free to roll your eyes (or ears) at technology being described as “magical”, but damned if I can come up with a more apt adjective. In my (admittedly brief) testing time, Adaptive Audio seems more like a next-generation, even smarter replacement for Transparency mode. I’ve set mine to toggle between just two modes when I long-press either AirPod stem: Adaptive and ANC. If you’d like, you can add regular Transparency as a third mode you toggle between, but I haven’t yet found an environment where I’d want plain Transparency instead of Adaptive. Transparency with AirPods Pro 2 has been great as an urban pedestrian; Adaptive is even better. It just automatically Does What I Want™ in seemingly every context. I hear traffic and passersby, but even loud trucks and buses passing by don’t keep me from clearly hearing the podcast (typically) or song (less typically) I’m listening to.
Perhaps my usage scenarios are in the sweet spot for what Adaptive Audio is good at — the opposite of how my usage scenarios are not good for Conversation Awareness. But from my time using them, I don’t even see why Adaptive Audio isn’t a replacement for Transparency. For me, so far, it’s just Transparency but better, with more on-the-fly dynamic adjustments. It’s fantastic. (Perhaps battery life is one reason to keep plain Transparency mode around, but I have zero complaints about the battery life I’ve gotten these past five days.)
If you already use AirPods Pro, you know there are cute sounds that play when you switch modes. Each mode gets its own unique tone, and the tones for Transparency and Active Noise Cancellation sort of sound like the opposite of each other. The tones suggest “opening” and “closing” the world around you as you toggle them. Adaptive Audio has a new tone, which I’d describe as spritely or joyful. It’s the sort of sound you can imagine a fairy’s magic wand making in a kid’s movie. It’s a fun sound for a fun mode, and I can’t help but take the joyfulness of this tone as a subtle suggestion from Apple that this is the “best” mode for most people in most scenarios, other than the obvious situations where you want full-on immersive Active Noise Cancellation.
The Vision Pro is Apple’s initial foray into spatial computing. But Vision Pro is not Apple’s first product in the world of augmented reality: AirPods Pro (and to a lesser degree, at the moment, AirPods Max) are. We humans are visual creatures and we naturally tend to think of augmented reality as a primarily visual experience, but AirPods Pro offer profoundly enjoyable and useful augmentation of the aural world around you. Starting today, Adaptive Audio takes that to another level.
Adaptive Audio is only available for the AirPods Pro 2, which means I’m only going to be more irritated if I ever again find myself wearing my old first-generation AirPods Pro out of necessity. At this point AirPods Pro 2 are as much better than the original AirPods Pro as the original AirPods Pro seemed from the original non-pro AirPods. They’re far more than wireless earbuds — they’re clever, powerful, delightful computers you put in your ears. I’ll close with what I wrote about them a year ago:
The new AirPods Pro are the best single expression of Apple as a
company today. Not the most important product, not the most
complicated, not the most essential. But the one that exemplifies
everything Apple is trying to do. They are simple, they are
useful, and they offer features that most people use and want.
Most people use headphones. A lot of people use them every day — in noisy environments. AirPods Pro are — for any scenario where
big over-ear-style headphones are impractical — the best
headphones in the world.