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Apple’s new AirPods Pro are awesome wireless earbuds — but for how long?

Apple AirPods Pro
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Apple’s new AirPods Pro are a smash hit, and by virtually all accounts, these are an incredibly well-designed pair of fully wireless earbuds. They address many of the major shortcomings of the previous AirPods — such as a loose fit, poor sound, and lack of waterproofing — while adding desirable new features like a new transparency mode and impressive noise canceling.

And of course, like all of Apple’s wireless buds, they come part and parcel with simple pairing, solid connection, and the kind of breezy, intuitive controls that helped cement the AirPods as the trendiest wireless earbuds on the planet. Even the way the new eartips pop off without the need to be wrangled and wrenched is Apple design at its best.

But apart from their gaudy $250 price tag, there’s one major issue with the AirPods Pro that seems to have been glossed over by the majority of all those glowing reviews: Crappy battery life.

At around 4.5 hours of listening time per charge, the AirPods Pro’s battery isn’t just mediocre for top-tier wireless earbuds in 2019, it’s bottom-of-the-barrel. If you think I’m overstating things, just look at the competition. Apple’s own Beats-branded wireless earbuds, the Powerbeats Pro, offer double the battery life of their new cousins at 9 hours per charge. The same goes for the vast majority of other, less expensive new competitors from major brands, which utilize new, more efficient chipsets to push battery life to average around 8-10 hours per charge.

It’s easy to blame the drain of the AirPods Pro’s battery on their noise-canceling, but even with cancellation off, they only jump up to the previous AirPods with 5 hours of listening time. Their closest (and cheaper) noise-canceling rival, Sony’s WF-1000XM3, offer more listening time per charge in either iteration, with a healthy 30 percent boost (6 hours per charge) while noise canceling is engaged, and up to 8 hours of listening time without it.

Apple’s latest pearly white Pods have wisely addressed this complaint before it’s been registered, offering Apple’s signature 24 hours of total listening time via a sleek charging case and, just as importantly, a fast-charge feature which loads the buds with a full hour of listening time in 5 minutes. Surely even the heaviest of users can pause their tunes for a few minutes each day, right?

Apple AirPods Pro
Dan Baker/Digital Trends / Digital Trends

But this ever-charge design is a dwindling solution to what is sure to become a growing problem with your AirPods Pro. The more you charge, the less they’ll last until their dissipating listening time becomes untenable. And since there’s no way to replace the batteries, your only choice is to trade up to the latest pair.

Of course, the AirPods Pro are hardly alone there. One could argue the perils of technology’s planned obsolescence on multiple levels, from your bank account to the dastardly environmental impact, and what’s more, we’ve recommended true wireless earbuds with less battery life as recently as last year. But things move fast in the fully wireless earbuds game, and you simply don’t have to deal with those limitations in this space anymore.

The bottom line is the AirPods Pro’s exceptionally low playback time makes them an exceptional case in 2019 — especially if you want the most bang for your buck.

At this point, you might argue that $250 isn’t all that outlandish a sum to pay for great headphones. After all, you’d spend even more on the best over-ear noise-cancelers from Bose, Sony, and other top picks. But such a comparison is truly apples-to-oranges (no pun intended). Over-ears are a much better investment than any wireless buds thanks to battery life that lasts 20, 30, or even 40 hours per charge. We’re talking days before your cans die, and multiple years of heavy use before you see major battery fallout — not to mention the fact that most work without batteries when wired in.

I’ve spent enough time with the early generation of fully wireless earbuds to know the convenience cutoff, and for me, it’s right around 3.5 hours per charge. Any less than that and it feels like I’m charging the buds as often as I’m listening. How long before your sexy new AirPods Pro hit that marker? It’s hard to say, but at this price, it’s a steep gamble for most of us.

From design to sound, there’s no doubt that Apple’s latest wireless buds are extremely compelling. But with one of the highest price tags out there, and the clock ticking on their usability, the AirPods Pro are almost more of a lease than a purchase. And in this rapidly evolving wireless earbuds market, that’s worth considering before you pull the trigger.

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Ryan Waniata
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Waniata is a multi-year veteran of the digital media industry, a lover of all things tech, audio, and TV, and a…
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