Of the AirPods Pro’s new functions, Active Noise Cancellation is the most compelling. The basic principles of the idea (to quiet an undesirable sound, like the hum of an airplane cabin at altitude, play a signal that neutralizes the first) are decades old. But integrating those systems into something this small is new and impressive. A company called Doppler Labs attempted an ambitious version of this, but the company shut down in 2017.
I took a pair of the Bose 700 ($400) noise-canceling headphones and the AirPods Pro ($250) on a cross country flight (a 787 Dreamliner, for fellow aviation geeks) for a comparison test. After years of testing headphones this way, I expected no competition. But it was close enough to pose a real question about which is better and why.
The Bose 700s are over-ear, which creates physical isolation from outside sound that the AirPods can’t match. Besides, this specific model is the result of decades of research and improvement that originated with the specific goal of sonic comfort during a flight. The 700s are a specialized tool that have only recently been matched by Sony and Master & Dynamic. Like Sonos, Bose created a category that it has continued to dominate.
Apple AirPods Pro
Unlike previous AirPods, AirPods Pro take aural information from microphones and calibrate the sound 200 times per second to help you hear just the music and not the outside world. On city streets or offices, it’s as effective as advertised. On a flight, it’s astounding.
A note on sound quality: noise cancellation, on any headphones, means worse sound quality than most wired earbuds. In reasonably quiet environments, music sounds much better with cables—but that’s not the idea. The idea behind noise cancellation is that even an underwhelming version of your own music is preferable to the static of an airplane cabin or subway platform. These exist for use out in the world.
In that context, AirPods are exceptional. Especially when used with an iPhone, iPad, or even a MacBook, almost nothing is as convenient as AirPods. The signal is strong enough to hold if the device is in the kitchen and you’re in the garage. Unlike earbuds that link to the device with the right ear, then relay to the left, AirPods can work independently. And the pairing process is simply opening the case next to the Apple device.
First Impressions: Apple AirPods Pro
But Bose’s headphones come close. The signal is similarly strong, pairing is easy, and typical use is intuitive. If, for example, you plug in the 3.5mm headphone jack, Bluetooth turns off. And as you cycle through noise cancellation strength levels, the differences in sound are gradual, so you can tell that something is changing. That said, I wish Bose kept the older QCs’ analog on/off switch.
All of that aside, the core noise cancellation tech of the Bose 700s make it the benchmark for blocking out airplane noise (with the Sony WH-1000XM3 as an equal). The size and simple physics of the design give these devices an unfair advantage. Plus, they have a headphone jack, so you can watch the plane’s film collection or use your Nintendo Switch.
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But AirPods Pro are shockingly good on a flight, but you really have to push them. To hear clearly, the phone’s volume needs to be at about 75 percent to hear music. And during rests or between tracks, the static will creep through. But the difference between having them in, and removing one bud to hear the outside world (or when you hold one antenna to turn off the noise-cancellation) is dramatic. So much that the decision about which one to pack could come down to how much more space the Bose 700s take up versus the Pros.
One area where Bose unsurprisingly obliterates the AirPods Pro: battery. Apple rates the Pros as lasting 5 hours. If you wear them in the terminal, on the plane, then out to baggage claim, that’s not enough battery. Bose says the 700s will go 20 hours. Even if it’s less than that, you’ll be fine. I forgot to recharge them before the return flight, and didn’t have to worry. The AirPods Pro charge quickly, but you have to plug them in and leave them alone at regular intervals to last a full flight.
I’ll still keep the 700s for plane movies and my Nintendo Switch — though you can use an adapter to fix this. But if the basic usefulness of AirPods fits into your daily routine (running, the gym, dog walking, almost anything except swimming laps), and you don’t need a headphone jacks, the Pros are probably good enough to be your only pair—flights included.