Welcome to AFAR Approved: a deep dive into the travel items that we’re totally obsessed with, never leave behind, and can’t stop telling our friends about.
→ Buy Now: Apple AirPods Pro, from $170 (was $249)
Ever since Apple released wireless Bluetooth earbuds back in 2016, AirPods have become ubiquitous. Whether I’m commuting on the subway in New York or on a flight from San Francisco, it seems like every other person has a pair of those little white headphones in their ears. I prefer earbuds to over-ear headphones—both in day-to-day life and while I travel—but I hadn’t hopped on the AirPods wagon yet for two reasons: Lack of noise cancellation is a deal breaker for me on loud airplanes, and Apple earbuds have always been prone to slipping out of my ears. (I really don’t want to be one of those people who disrupts an entire plane of people because of an AirPod that fell out while napping.)
Apple finally changed my mind when it released the AirPods Pro in November 2019. Not only does the upgraded version fix both of the problems I mentioned above, but it also includes a few more features that make them worth the extra cost over the original AirPods. Keep reading for my full review of the Apple AirPods Pro and why I think they’re the best noise canceling headphones for travel.
Active noise cancellation silences loud jet engines and more on flights
Using both an outward-facing microphone and an inward-facing microphone, the new Airpods Pro create a noise-canceling environment that blocks out anything that would prevent you from focusing on your music, podcasts, or yes, even your nap, on your next flight.
Laura Dannen Redman, AFAR’s digital content director, got her hands on a pair of Airpods Pro the day they were released. She tested them out in AFAR’s New York office to see if they could drown out the sounds of our busy midtown Manhattan location.
“Noise canceling got rid of all the office ambient noise—the meeting in the room next door, the plates clacking in the kitchen,” Redman says. “My colleagues might as well have been submerged underwater—but I don’t feel like I’m there with them.”
She initially found it a little hard to switch from the noise-canceling mode to the “transparency” mode Apple built in so that you can hear what is happening around you without having to remove your earbuds. “Instead of tapping your AirPods, you now press and hold a sensor on the already tiny buds,” she explains. “Once you’ve got the right touch, though, it’s pretty straightforward.”
Flexible silicone tips mean that you’re less likely to lose them
Each set of AirPods Pro comes with three sizes of flexible silicone tips—small, medium, and large—to customize the fit and secure them in place. Added to create a better seal for the noise cancellation feature, this also means that the likelihood of them falling out on a bus, plane, or train is much lower.
“They’re light, they stay snugly in place—especially for people with tiny ears, like me, who always struggle to find headphones that actually fit,” Redman says.
One of Redman’s favorite features of the new Pro edition is the Ear Tip Fit Test, which you can find in your iPhone settings.
“You try different size earbuds and your phone will tell you if the fit is good [green] or just OK [yellow] for each ear,” she explains. “You might be encouraged to try different sizes for different ears, like needing a right shoe that’s a half size bigger than your left. It’s a feature I didn’t realize I’d been living without, and now I can’t imagine not having it.”
Even though the silicone tips make the seal in your ears tighter, the buds themselves are vented in and out, to get rid of any sense of suction in the ear.
“Those who hate earplugs or feel claustrophobic easily will know what I’m talking about,” Redman says.
Adaptive EQ delivers better sound quality than before
Unlike the original AirPods, the AirPods Pro have a new feature called Adaptive EQ. This means that the low and mid frequencies of music are automatically shaped to your ear by some technological magic for a richer, more immersive sound. Other innovations like a high-dynamic range amplifier and a low-distortion speaker driver also help provide better audio quality and eliminate background noise.
The charging case provides more than 24 hours of listening time
In the future, if you find yourself on one of those ultra-long-haul flights—like Singapore Airlines’s 19-hour marathon from Newark to Singapore—the Airpods Pro can be recharged just by using the case, without having to be plugged in anywhere. The earbuds themselves can provide up to 4.5 hours of listening time. When they die, simply pop them back into the case to recharge. A five-minute charge adds an extra hour of listening time, so you’re ready for another podcast or spin through your favorite album in the time it takes to go to the bathroom.
If you still like using the in-seat entertainment systems, there’s a fix for that
As more airlines remove in-seat entertainment systems from their planes, some travelers (myself included) have adapted to watching movies and shows on their phones and iPads. But if your plane still comes with in-seat screens, there is a way to use them without having to purchase an extra set of wired headphones.
The tech brand Twelve South makes a Bluetooth adapter/transmitter ($55, amazon.com) that you can pair with your wireless headphones. Once you’re onboard, you simply plug it into the headphone jack of your seat and it will send the audio signal via Bluetooth to your AirPods Pro. The Twelve South AirFly wireless transmitter has a 16-hour battery life and is roughly the size of a matchbox so it won’t add any extra bulk to your carry-on.
This article originally appeared online in 2019; it was last updated on November 23, 2021, to reflect current pricing information.