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AirPods Pro aren't for audiophiles — here's why

The AirPods Pro worn by our reviewer
(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Apple's AirPods Pro earbuds are among the best noise-cancelling earbuds on the market, and you might think their relatively high $249 price would make them one of the best sounding options, too. But for an audiophile like me at least, that's not the case. 

Apple hasn’t specifically aimed the Pro at audiophiles of course, but the combination of a model name that suggests 'professional' and that price tag could easily lead music fans to think they'd be a top choice for pure sound quality. 

However, they didn't make our list of the best audiophile headphones and there's a simple reason for that. Let me explain.

Quality-first listening

The AirPods Pro wireless earbuds outside of their charging case

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Since their launch in 2019, the AirPods Pro have pretty much set the standard by which all wireless noise-canceling earbuds are judged, converting legions of music fans around the world to the benefits of active noise-cancellation (ANC) and connecting listeners to distraction-free music experiences. But I'm not among those devotees.

As a quality-first audio fan, I’ve traditionally opted for wired connections. But as wireless tech has evolved, I've explored plenty of wireless headphones that support the latest Bluetooth codecs and offer near-CD quality sound. 

As part of my lifelong audio journey, I’ve used Apple’s earbuds before, and have always found them to be okay when I needed a slice of motivational mood music at the gym or on a cross country run, for example. But I wouldn't describe them as an audio highlight in terms of my overall listening experience.

Apple AirPods Pro in charging case on tabletop

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Sure, the AirPods Pro are an undeniably strong wireless proposition with a terrifically engaging sound. But as an audiophile, streaming from quality audio services like Apple Music, Qobuz or Tidal, the Pro's music presentation makes me feel that there's something a bit soulless about what I'm hearing. 

It's a challenging observation to put into words, but it feels like I’m missing out on subtle nuances and finer details that I know to be part of a music mix on tracks I know well, and that the very best wireless earbuds I've heard manage to convey. 

In broad terms, bass and highs lack the kind of resolution I'm used to hearing and feel veiled and less dynamic when compared to the similarly priced, but lesser featured Grado GT220 earbuds, for example. 

The AirPods Pro are crammed with Apple's top headphone tech and Adaptive EQ is a phenomenal piece of technology that tailors the sound to the wearer's ears. It's also incredible that there’s no sense of this powerful processing analysis going on while you’re listening.

However, I feel it adds to the sense that the music is being manipulated and, for me at least, there's a layer of disconnect with the way the listener engages and feels about the music that's being played.

Personal stereo

Wearing any kind of headphone is secondary to the way I prefer to listen to music. I much prefer my music listening on floorstanding speakers in the comfort of my own living room. My favorite music just doesn’t sound right on anything else. 

It’s a personal preference thing, you understand, as I’ve evaluated sound quality on all kinds of audio products over the years without ever being elitist. But I do love the wall of sound a hi-fi speaker setup delivers — immersing myself in a tangible three-dimensional soundstage that feels like the artist is performing in my living room with the kind of scale and energy you get from being at a live music event. A sound that can be felt as much as heard. 

I realise that this isn't always possible for all music fans, and that our households and lifestyles often present challenges for the amount of time we have for quality listening experiences. Headphones are a convenient solution — and the AirPods Pro are more convenient than most.

After all, listening to music on the move is as much about the transformative effects it brings as it is out-and-out sound quality. Morning commutes are far more agreeable with music playing in my ears, as I shut out the world thanks to Apple's highly effective noise-cancelling tech and relax listening to my own personal soundtrack.

Could the AirPods Pro 2 be true audiophile headphones?

The AirPods Pro 2 may not officially be a real thing yet, but we’re anticipating an update later this year at the very least. 

Last week’s Apple Peek Performance event didn’t reveal anything about a next-gen version or confirm any of the rumors we’ve reported on so far. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, as the leaks have dried up recently; the smart money suggests it'll be September or October before we get our hands on the company’s next-gen earbuds. 

Whatever form the new model takes, Apple will have to overcome the limitations of the Bluetooth wireless standard itself if it's really going to make the 'pro' grade and satisfy audiophiles like me. 

Codecs such as Qualcomm's aptX HD and Sony's LDAC champion near-CD sound quality and 24-bit signal handling that goes some way to approaching audiophile expectations, and it’s possible that Apple could look for a more significant step up and push its own standard, or even develop a codec to make ALAC achievable. 

There's plenty for Apple to chew over before launching its next Pro earbuds, then, and whether you're an audiophile or not, you can bet they’ll be a big deal when they do finally arrive. So while I can't guarantee they'll replace the floorstanding speakers in my affections, I certainly hope they make the decision harder for me. 

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.