The AirPods Pro 2 get even better with USB-C and excellent Adaptive Audio | CNN Underscored

The AirPods Pro 2 get even better with USB-C and excellent Adaptive Audio | CNN Underscored

Now that the iPhone has finally transitioned to the world of USB-C, it only made sense for the AirPods to follow suit. The new AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C are exactly that — the same great high-end earbuds that Apple launched last year, but with a new charging port that plays nice with the litany of cables you likely already own.

But the real star of the show this year is Adaptive Audio, which combines the best of active noise cancellation and Transparency mode to automatically give you the best sound profile for wherever you are. It’s available on both versions of the AirPods Pro 2, so long as you update your phone to iOS 17.

With all that said, who should actually get the USB-C AirPods Pro? And for existing owners, are these new features worth the software update? To help you decide, here’s what it’s like to live in the Adaptive Audio world for a day.

AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C

The AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C make the best Apple earbuds even better, with a handy new port and a wealth of useful software upgrades.

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The new USB-C AirPods Pro are functionally identical to the Lightning model Apple released last year, and everything I said in my original AirPods Pro 2 review still stands here. These are the best Apple earbuds yet, with excellent audio quality, noticeably better active noise cancellation than the first-gen model and a case that’s a little harder to misplace thanks to a built-in lanyard loop and full Find My support. Between their handy touch-based volume controls, great overall performance and reliable battery life, the AirPods Pro 2 are the earbuds I always find myself coming back to — even after testing nearly every big rival that’s launched since.

Of course, the one big change to this year’s AirPods Pro 2 is right in the name: USB-C. Now that the AirPods Pro have ditched lighting for this popular universal standard, you can charge them up with the same USB-C cable you’re probably already using for your MacBook, iPad and litany of non-Apple gadgets, from game controllers to power banks. You get a nice braided cable in the box, and if you happen to be getting the iPhone 15 (which also adopts USB-C for the first time), you can even use your phone to juice up your earbuds case. It works as advertised in my testing, and will undoubtedly come in handy when I need a quick power-up the next time my portable charger taps out on a long flight. The switch to USB-C will likely be a positive for most folks given how ubiquitous these cables are, though folks with older iPhones that like having the same cable for their phone and earbuds may want to stick with Lightning.

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Adaptive Audio means less fiddling and more listening

USB-C is nice, but the AirPods Pro 2’s biggest upgrades are in the software — and you don’t even have to buy the new model to enjoy them. As long as you’ve got either version of the AirPods Pro 2 and have updated your phone to iOS 17, you’ll be able to take advantage of Adaptive Audio: a new feature that blends together active noise cancellation and Transparency mode based on your surroundings so you can spend less time squeezing your buds as you go about your day.

As a dog owner, this feature feels made for me. I typically keep Transparency mode on when I take my rowdy Frenchie on our morning walk, which is great for staying aware of nearby cars and pedestrians — but can also make the incessant construction around me ear-piercingly loud. When I flipped on Adaptive mode, my AirPods Pro significantly dampened the sounds of noisy drilling while still making it easy to hear the woosh of traffic and any nearby neighborhood chatter.

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Once we stopped at our usual coffee shop, the AirPods Pro’s new Conversation Awareness feature came into play. As soon as I said hi to some friends and ordered a drink, my AirPods automatically lowered my music and switched off noise cancellation so I could communicate as if I wasn’t wearing earbuds at all. Conversation Awareness did a decent job not reacting whenever I quietly mumbled to myself, and while it would kick in anytime I told a stubborn Marie that it’s time to move, it would quickly zip back to my music as long as I stayed quiet after. I just need to remember to turn this feature off whenever I get home and inevitably start singing along to my daily emo playlist.

After fueling up for the day, it was time to hit Penn Station and begin my journey down south for a work event. When I approached the subway, Adaptive mode leaned a little too heavily on Transparency mode, as the sound of a rackety elevated train zooming by above me became unpleasantly loud. But once I actually got on the train, Adaptive Audio started to show its true promise. My AirPods suppressed the loud whir of the subway equally well whether I was using Adaptive mode or full-on ANC, with the former making it just a bit easier to hear the conductor’s announcements without manually switching to Transparency.

Finally, I sat down to await my Amtrak at a relatively quiet train hall, which is where I realized that you might not always want Adaptive Audio on. In this environment, Adaptive mode picked up a good amount of the ambient chatter and general hustle and bustle of a big travel hub, whereas ANC gave me that blissful near-silence I needed to focus on some work. Still, Adaptive Audio makes wearing the AirPods Pro 2 an even more frictionless experience — you can just pop them on and go about your day, now with even less fiddling when you see a friend on the street or walk into a noisy train car. It’s what I always wanted out of the AirPods Pro 2’s Adaptive Transparency, a feature I initially criticized for not reducing as much unwanted noise as I was hoping for.

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The AirPods Pro 2 also have a new Personalized Volume toggle, which can raise and lower your music playback based on your surroundings. It was great for drowning out a busy subway station, but after it got too loud when I did the dishes — and too quiet when I sat down in my home office — I eventually turned it off. The new AirPods Pro now promise more reliable and quicker Automatic Switching when you’re bouncing between your iPhone, iPad and Mac, addressing a problem that Apple’s got plenty of flack for. Switching between the various iPhones I’ve been testing for review has been quick and seamless, though I’ll have to spend more time testing out how easily I can switch over to my MacBook. Still, as someone who’s had issues with Automatic Switching in the past, I’m happy to see the change.

It’s worth pointing out that the AirPods Pro 2 are far from the only earbuds with dynamic audio features. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds line has long offered its own conversation mode for automatically lowering your music when you speak, and Sony earbuds like the LinkBuds S and WF-1000XM5 have an excellent Adaptive Sound Control mode that switches between ANC and ambient noise based on your location and activity rather than blending the two together. I especially like Sony’s implementation, as it was smart enough to keep ambient mode active while I walked around the city and quickly switched to ANC when it sensed I was standing still on the train.

With a more convenient port and some major software upgrades, the AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C make one of our best wireless earbuds picks even better. The best part? If you already own the AirPods Pro 2, you’ll enjoy the latter for free — just update your phone and you’re good to go.

But who should actually buy this model? Those upgrading from the first-generation AirPods Pro won’t notice a night-and-day difference, but the improved audio, better ANC and general quality-of-life upgrades (including USB-C) may be reason enough for some folks to sell their old buds and make the switch.

If you’re rocking the regular AirPods and are ready to go Pro — or are getting your first Apple earbuds — the AirPods Pro 2 are a better buy than ever. I’d recommend the USB-C model for most people, but if you’re using an iPhone 14 or older and don’t want to have separate cords for each, the Lightning model is still a great pickup.

After spending a week with Adaptive Audio, my biggest criticism is that it’s simply not on enough devices. This kind of functionality would make other excellent Apple earbuds like the Beats Fit Pro and Beats Studio Buds+ even better, though considering Apple’s tendency to make its best features exclusive to the AirPods, I’m not holding my breath for that. Still, Adaptive Audio is a much welcomed addition to the already superb AirPods Pro 2, and if you already own a pair, it’s the best reason yet to update your phone to iOS 17.

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