Nothing is prepping a new pair of earbuds

When Nothing was unveiled early last year, founder Carl Pei promised that the hardware startup had a full road map. Early stories about the London-based firm alluded to a pitch deck full of Pokémon characters, each representing a different product in the pipeline.

Roughly a year and a half later, Nothing has delivered two major products: the Ear (1) and Phone (1). It’s an impressive showing in a world where young hardware companies are accustomed to playing it safe.

As has been customary with all of its product launches thus far, Nothing just teased another addition. It’s a new pair of earbuds, but ones that are apparently distinct from the $99 Ear (1). Housed in a cylindrical charging case, the new headphones also buck the company’s naming conventions a bit, as the Ear (Stick).

As ever, the tease asks more questions than it answers, though this confirms rumors from the summer that the company was working on a similarly priced follow-up to the Ear (1). A spokesperson confirmed that we’re looking at a “new charging case and new bud[s].”

At the moment, however, it’s not entirely clear whether this is intended to replace the original transparent buds outright, though it seems unlikely the company would replace the Ear (1) outright this early into their lifecycle. Nothing promises a lightweight and “supremely comfortable design” when they’re officially unveiled later in the year.

Until then, a whole lotta nothing.

Nothing is prepping a new pair of earbuds by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Apple Watch Ultra first impressions

We posted a pair of Apple Watch reviews this time last week. Both the Series 8 and second-gen SE received high marks for their categories — flagship and budget, respectively. Were Apple to stick to those two products, it’s easy to imagine the company maintaining roughly a third of the smartwatch market share it currently controls.

After several years of relative stasis, however, the category appears destined for a shakeup, as the No. 2 manufacturer, Samsung (which currently controls roughly 10% of the market), has again embraced wearOS in a bid to expand its reach. We’re also mere weeks away from Google’s long-awaited entry into the category, with the launch of the Pixel Watch, fueled — in part — by its Fitbit acquisition.

While those firms were zigging, Apple zagged.

Earlier this month, the company added another key SKU to the Watch line. Announced alongside the Series 8 and SE, the Apple Watch Ultra quickly took the wind out of those products’ sails — and, for that matter, the iPhone — becoming the most talked about piece of hardware announced at the Far Out event in Cupertino. The bigger, bolder take on the smartwatch line finds Apple going after another company entirely.

Ahem, Garmin. For years, it’s had quiet success in the category. But if you know, you know.

The device maker pulled off a rare successful consumer electronics pivot. As the adoption of standalone GPS systems was utterly gutted by the iPhone and its ilk, Garmin jumped into the world of sports focused-fitness trackers. Getting back to that market study, it most recently grabbed fifth place by unit shipments (eclipsed by Chinese firms Huawei and Xiaomi) and third in terms of revenue.

You can get away with charging significantly more for these sorts of highly focused products. Case in point, the Apple Watch Ultra starts at $799. That’s a full $400 more than the entry-level Series 8, doubling the price. It’s one of a number of reasons the product is destined to be something of a niche device, versus the more one-size-fits-all approach of the standard Watch.

Another is the product’s overwhelming size. The 49mm case is considerably larger than the largest Series 8 (45mm). As is clear from our images, it’s not going to be for every wrist.

Image Credits: Kirsten Korosec

So, how worried should Garmin be about the Ultra? Apple certainly isn’t the first manufacturer to come after the outdoor smartwatch throne. Samsung, for instance, has taken its share of shots at the category over the years, to varying degrees of success.

What Apple brings to the table, meanwhile, is experience. The company has gotten very good at building smartwatches, both from a hardware and software perspective.

With watchOS 9 as a foundation, the Ultra finds Apple building rugged hardware around a great smartwatch experience, rather than the other way around. Of course, it’s quick to note that the product was built by a team of active people with triathlons and the like under their belt. (And based on many of these features, yes, Apple engineers we can tell you’re triathletes — some of you, at least.)

As such, it’s more than just a bigger, more rugged watch with some new apps on board. But does the entire package add up to something hikers, mountain climbers and other extreme athletes should genuinely feel comfortable ditching their Garmins for?

The Apple Watch has good looks and a bevy of features to offer, but we’re not ready to declare Garmin’s robust watch division dead just yet. And not just because of the price.

We know that we’re going to have to do a lot of real-world testing (beyond a few outings) to really answer the question. We’ll be getting the product on hardware writer and certified scuba instructor Haje’s wrist later this year, when those features roll out. Having not actually laid his hands on the product yet, he did share a few initial thoughts. Top of mind for Haje? The pricing model for the Oceanic app allows a user to unlock diving features on a per day, week or monthly level at a price that is lower than renting a dive watch. So, expensive for a smartwatch, cheap for a dive watch.

That’s an interesting twist, he noted. Stay tuned for a full diving evaluation soon.

In the meantime, we (hardware editor Brian Heater and transportation editor Kirsten Korosec) have put the Ultra through a few tests, including a couple of outdoor adventures and other sports, and are ready to share some of those experiences.

More of everything

Apple Watch Series 8

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The big promise of the Apple Watch Ultra is more. It’s right there in the name. More battery. More features. More girth. More ruggedness. Just more. 

A lot of this is the kind of “more” that athletes like ultra runners, triathletes, mountaineers, thru hikers, climbers and scuba divers are looking for.  But for all of these folks, more is not always the most important thing. As with any smartwatch, functionality and usability are key. A slick exterior is mostly a bonus. 

The good news here is that Apple delivers in a lot of — but not all — areas of functionality. One big gap is recovery metrics, a big area that Apple should be able to jump into if it wants to attract data-obsessed athletes. For most aspirational Apple Watch Ultra buyers this won’t matter. But those training for ultras, marathons and triathlons, they’ll want to track rest and recovery beyond those sleep metrics. And there are plenty of hardware makers like Garmin and Oura Ring and apps like Strava that can help.

The various interchangeable digital watch faces are snappy, and three new specialized bands are bright and appealing. But where Apple excels with the Ultra is its understanding of how most (but not all) athletes will use this watch.

The appeal for runners is certainly clear — rock climbing, not so much. Mountaineering, possibly. But rock climbing outdoors (especially if one is keen to tackle cracks and off-widths) — and the hand jamming that is often required — a device this size just doesn’t make a lot of sense, even if it is housed in titanium. But hey, rock climbers using watches isn’t really much of a thing at this point.

Size

The Ultra is big. Like, really big. It’s going to be too big for some users, full stop. However, with one us having a wrist size of 15 cm (circumference) it feels surprisingly smaller and lighter than it looks. The watch, outfitted in the alpine loop band, was comfortable during a nearly seven-hour outdoor outing, plugging away at the laptop as well as a tennis match.

Apple’s standard rectangular design (as opposed to the circular face of others) ensures that the toggles, wheels or dials don’t cut into your wrist during activity. For instance, the watch does not impede with a forehand or backhand stroke in tennis. We wonder, even though there is a clear triathlete aesthetic in the functionality, how those Ironman participants will deal with this oversized watch while trying to rip off a wetsuit as they scramble to transition to the bike ride.

While the rectangular design is not new for Apple, the shape is even more important as the size of the watch has expanded. The one area we didn’t test was how it might be to sleep with this watch. Stay tuned for our backpacking review because this sucker will stay on the whole time.

While the case is significantly larger than other Apple Watches, the actual display size isn’t a huge jump. It’s bigger than the Series 8 (making it the biggest Apple Watch, the company handily notes), and the standard curved glass has been swapped for a more durable, flat Sapphire panel. It’s also the brightest Apple Watch, clocking in at 2,000 nits to the Series 8’s and SE’s 1,000, without taking a significant battery hit.

Action Button — yes!

Apple Watch Series 8

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Even before we took the Ultra on a 10.7-mile hike and off-trail canyoneering adventure with 2,850 feet of elevation gain, a bit of rock climbing (scratch that) and even tennis, the Action Button stood out as an immediate improvement and necessary feature for any runner, triathlete or anyone participating in a sport in which you might be in constant motion or wearing gloves.

Mountaineers and skiers are going to recognize the value of a big orange action button on the left side of the watch. Sure, many new gloves come with smartphone-approved pads on the fingers, but they tend to be difficult to use. A big, brightly colored button that can be depressed in one action is what active users want. After using it on the Ultra, it’s easy to imagine the feature becoming standard on the Watch somewhere down the road.

That said, there’s still a learning curve. The button can be customized to the user’s liking, and while customization is great, it comes with added complexity. Press the big, new crown and tap Settings. From there, you’ll  see “Action Button.” Tap that to assign a function, including: workout, stopwatch, setting a compass waypoint, starting a Backtrack path, a dive, turning on a flashlight or creating another shortcut.

We landed on workout. From there, the button can be further customized to a specific activity. Runners might pick “outdoor run,” for instance. The promise of on-the-action is real if the user customizes the button in advance.

One point of confusion occurred while using the Action Button that others might find helpful. Pressing the big, orange button once launched the workout, in this scenario. Clicking it again “mark[ed] a segment,” rather than pausing the workout. To do that, the user needs to simultaneously push the orange Action Button on the lower left of the watch and the digital crown. It’s a simple movement and one that avoids the touchscreen.

Marking segments is great for runners, but in feature updates we’d like to customize the secondary action on the “action button.” Another accessible feature worth noting is the siren. By pressing and holding the action button and the silver Side button for several seconds, the user will feel a haptic buzz and then see “siren,” “compass backtrack” and “SOS.”

Its designers may have envisioned SOS and siren as a backcountry feature. It’s loud (but not ear-piercing outdoors) and pitched in a frequency designed to be heard over long distances. But as one backpacker here will attest, the quick access to those two features is also compelling for runs or walks in the city.

Battery life

The other “more” alluded to earlier is battery life. The feature has been a longstanding albatross around the Apple Watch’s neck, especially as the company has expanded into sleep tracking. The Ultra boasts a stated life of 36 hours — double that of the Series 8. The numbers improve further with the new Low-Power mode and other upcoming features. (For a more detailed breakdown of Low Power Mode, check out the Series 8 review.)

Most of the improvement to battery comes as a direct result of the significantly larger casing, coupled with the reduction in size of certain internal elements like the haptic motor. The math is simple: more internal volume = more room for battery. For its part, Garmin offered a cheeky response to the Ultra announcement, noting, “We measure battery life in months. Not hours.”

During the outdoor adventure, we took the watch off its charger at 7 am with a full battery. The Action Button was deployed to start the workout at 8:30 am PT.  For the purposes of testing the battery life, the workout tracking remained on for 6 hours and 43 minutes. After the workout was complete, which was 10.7 miles of on-trail and off-trail movement (the slow rock scrambling canyoneering part), we kept the watch on the wrist, just without actively workout tracking. GPS and other actions remained active. The battery lasted for a total of 36.5 hours, including the workout tracking time and other uses. So, mission accomplished there.

Compass and backtrack

One of the features that received a bit more attention here at TechCrunch is the compass and backtrack feature.

During the outdoor 10.7-mile adventure, we deployed the compass function to test the waypoints and backtrack feature. The compass had trouble calibrating during this initial test. As can be seen in the photo below, the compass is attempting to ramp up, but never does.

Apple Watch Ultra beacon compass

Image Credits: Kirsten Korosec

During a second and third test, the compass immediately opened up and the feature worked as advertised. Our interest in the compass is really about the backtrack and waypoints feature. This is a feature that will be used by a fraction of customers, but we wanted to see how well it works, because when you need it, you really need it.

During our outdoor test, in an environment with little to no cellular service, the watch was customized to show the waypoint feature on the face. The elevation, activity level and compass directions were also on the face. By tapping the directions, you’ll surface the compass itself.  From here, you have choices.

apple watch ultra compass footprints

Image Credits: Kirsten Korosec

Most users will always be on a marked trail. But for the few who wander off, like us, you can drop waypoints and then click the backtrack feature to help find your way back to the trail or car or wherever that “ok I know where we are now” spot is.

Users can tap the waypoint icon on the bottom-left corner of the Compass app, as shown above. In the second and third tests, we chose to drop waypoints along a run and a walk. Once the waypoint is tapped, a screen pops up to customize. You don’t need to go further, but some may want to note this particular breadcrumb. Perhaps it’s a trail junction or other valuable spot. Whatever it is, you can tap on “label” and give it a name. You can then rotate the digital crown and select a color. From there, you get a choice of symbols, like House and Tent.

The waypoints are in there for good (unless you manually delete later), which means if you ever want to find that waypoint marked “amazing view” you can always go back and find it.

The backtrack function is what makes the waypoint feature shine. It’s those little feet in the bottom right that help you retrace your exact route back to various waypoints you have dropped.

For hikers who head off trail, this may be useful. But again, it’s a going to be a very cool, rarely used feature that some users will love and everyone else will ignore.

In the end, the Ultra is going to be aspirational for many (like the running shoes you plan to take for a spin any day now), and functional for athletes who can use the aid for outdoor adventures. The design is intuitive and beats the pants off other fitness watches in terms of UI, streaming and connectivity. It’s sporty and has sufficient battery to attract loads of customers. But it lacks a couple of features — like recovery metrics and offline topo maps — for those really serious about training or outdoor adventures.

Stay tuned for future updates from both Apple and us. One of the upsides of the smartwatch model is that function can be continually added for the life of the device. We know for sure there are some features over the horizon, including additional battery features and scuba functionality, we’re (well, one of us) excited to take for a spin. Other features, like the ability to automatically identify when you’re running on an outdoor track (in the U.S. for starters) via Apple Maps data are also coming down the road.

There’s a lot to like here. It won’t replace a trusty Garmin outright for every devoted outdoor enthusiast, but in the end, the Ultra is much more than an Apple Watched dressed up in a rugged case.

Apple Watch Ultra first impressions by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Kalogon’s smart cushion for wheelchairs keeps the pressure off and brings in $3.3M

Anyone who has to use a wheelchair regularly runs the risk of incurring injury from poor circulation. Kalogon believes it can mitigate this common but potentially life-threatening condition with a smart cushion that prevents any one part of the body from being compressed for too long — and it has already caught the eye of the VA.

Pressure injuries are caused when a part of the body can’t get enough blood to it and the tissue starts to die. Most people have experienced the beginnings of it, like something tightening around a finger and cutting off bloodflow, but it’s not always so external, painful or obvious.

“Especially if they have reduced sensation, just about anyone who sits for an extended period is at risk for pressure injuries,” said Kalogon founder and CEO Tim Balz.

Certainly the shift to remote work has everyone wondering whether sitting for too long is damaging their body in some way or another. But this goes well beyond a sore back; people who can’t stand up and stretch, or feel the pressure or pain that might signal a real problem, are at risk of serious harm. Pressure injuries affect millions and lead to the deaths of thousands of people every year.

The solution, in theory, is to reduce the pressure on the various parts of the body that are most affected — essentially the butt, thighs and tailbone area.

This can be done by the person if they can remember to “offload” by leaning this way for a few minutes to take the pressure off, then do it again on the other side, then forward, etc. — and do it constantly. Unsurprisingly, adherence to this kind of self-care is not particularly high.

Getting a sculpted cushion is a step up — you buy an expensive foam one, then have it shaved down or compressed to accommodate the contours of your body. But Balz pointed out that this only really works for a little while — your body changes and the cushion doesn’t, so after a month or two you need to customize it again: costly and time-consuming.

More recently there have been smart-adjacent cushions made of a pair of interwoven cushions that are filled and deflated in sequence, alternating so that pressure isn’t always on one spot. These may be better, but the problem with them is that they still allow pressure to build up in pain points because the area of pressure reduction is small. And as Balz pointed out, “the chance of injury on an IT vs a thigh is like an order of magnitude difference, so it makes no sense to treat them the same.”

Kalogon’s app for adjusting the cushion’s pressure zones. Image Credits: Kalogon

Kalogon’s solution, a cushion called the Orbiter, has five distinct regions, corresponding to the tailbone and left and right thigh and butt areas generally. By keeping four of the five inflated, the user is supported adequately and a whole area is relieved of pressure. Then a few minutes later it slowly shifts that pressure to the next region, and so on.

Here’s a diagram of pressure being redistributed from the tailbone region to elsewhere (darker and green means higher pressure):

“When you sit down on it, we have a basic machine learning algorithm that at its default settings does its best to accommodate your body, but you can customize it to fit,” Balz said, either using a companion app or with the help of a caregiver or clinician. After setting its normal sequence, the cushion also monitors pressure on the different regions so it can shift differently if the user is leaning forward or to the side for longer than usual (typing, for instance, or dozing).

When the cushion deflates the rear center area, pressure is diverted to the front, allowing better bloodflow to the sacral area. Image Credits: Kalogon

“By having five cells that are independently controllable, we can move one at a time and tune that movement — support the body but drop down one of the cells. If you look at a pressure map, you’ll see that the pressure drops below the commonly accepted threshold,” he continued.

The whole thing is powered by a battery and pump unit that clips to the wheelchair, and has enough power built in to last for 14-16 hours at default settings (redistributing weight every three minutes). Users have complimented the Orbiter as a huge improvement over ordinary or semi-smart cushions. One said it allowed him to sit in his chair without discomfort for four hours, which he hadn’t done in years.

You can see it being set up and demonstrated in the video below:

Despite the glowing reviews, it’s difficult to prove the efficacy of this type of setup, Balz admitted, because there’s just not a lot of clinical data on it yet. While there are generally agreed-on helpful practices like offloading pressure, there isn’t some international board of cushion testers that evaluates these things. Though the company has conducted numerous case studies with users, there’s no big study saying the cushion reduces risk by some percentage. They can, however, say that it achieves a similar effect to offloading, which everyone agrees is a good practice.

That said, the VA took a chance on Kalogon in a few cases where there was serious risk or an existing injury and Balz said they have been very happy with dozens of deployments. While the results aren’t official enough to be published, the fact that the VA is ordering more and working with them on a study using the device indicates confidence.

The cushion launched in February starting at $2,000 and is classed as a medical device that can be paid for by a variety of means, though it isn’t going to be covered by insurance or Medicare or the like just yet. That’s in the cards, Balz hopes, but for now they’re focusing on the “dozens” of VA centers that are actively recommending Orbiters. Naturally there are many veterans who could use the product, and a VA clinician endorsing it makes it more affordable.

Kalogon just raised $3.3 million in seed funding, led by SeedFundersOrlando, with participation from DeepWork Capital,  VenVelo, and Sawmill Angels. It also collected federal grant money from the U.S. Air Force (make of that what you will). The funding will go toward scaling the company and, of course, meeting demand.

Kalogon’s smart cushion for wheelchairs keeps the pressure off and brings in $3.3M by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Google’s new Chromecast costs $30 — and it has a remote

Google announced a new Chromecast with HD streaming support today that costs just $30 and has a remote control with it. The company is launching the Chromecast with Google TV (HD) — yes, that’s the official name — in 19 countries, including the U.S.

This comes two years after Google launched a $49 Chromecast with 4K HDR streaming support and the introduction of a remote. The new Chromecast supports 1080p streaming.

The new Chromecast supports more than 10,000 apps that are on the Google TV platform, including Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+ and Prime video. What’s more, Google has improved support for live TV over the years.

Image Credits: Google

The remote is similar to what was shipped with the 2020 Chromecast. It has the shape of one half of a hot dog bun with a navigation circle on top with buttons for Back, Home, Mute, Power, TV Input and Google Assistant; volume controls are located on the side. The remote also has a dedicated button to launch YouTube and Netflix. Users can press and hold the YouTube button to reassign it to open YouTube TV, YouTube Music or YouTube kids.

Image Credits: Google

Google Assistant on the remote lets you search for shows, movies and videos along with providing voice controls for your smart home appliances. So you can control your thermostat, turn on/off your lights or even stream your Nest security camera feed directly to the TV.

The new Chromecast comes with all Google TV goodies, including profiles for different users, a content suggested tab called “For You,” the Library tab for your purchases and rentals from Google and a Watchlist that could be synced across devices. Back in May, the company added casting capabilities to the Google TV app and added that the Android TV ecosystem had grown past the 110 million devices mark.

 

Image Credits: Google

Because it’s a Chromecast, users will be able to group Nest speakers and play music in different rooms directly through their TV or phone.

While Google is parading around the fact that the new Chromecast is cheaper than the first-gen $35 device it launched in 2012, the company is updating the budget version after four years. During that time, both Amazon and Roku have launched $30 HD streaming sticks, so the search giant is late to the party.

The Chromecast with Google TV (HD) is available in “Snow” color starting today. Buyers in the U.S. will get six months of Peacock Premium — which gives access to original shows, WWE and live sports — with this new device. In July, during its quarterly earnings call, Peacock said that its paid subscribers remained flat at 13 million. So this might be one of the ploys to grow that number.

Google’s new Chromecast costs $30 — and it has a remote by Ivan Mehta originally published on TechCrunch

AirPods Pro (2nd Gen) review: Welcome updates to Apple’s best buds

Market share analyses aren’t an exact science, exactly. Different firms take different factors into account, though more often than not, the numbers more or less line up among the bigger players. We discussed these figures in our recent review of the Apple Watch Series 8, noting that the line had captured roughly one-third of the overall market. For Bluetooth earbuds or *retching noise* “hearables,” the figures aren’t quite as stark, but Apple still maintains a strong lead in the category, globally.

As with smartwatches, the company’s dominance isn’t going to be challenged anytime soon (helped along by its Beats business), though Counterpoint noted back in March that Samsung has begun taking a bit of a bite out of the company in terms of worldwide shipments. That is, perhaps, to be expected, given the Galaxy maker’s consistent position at the smartphone charts.

Left: Pro Gen 1, Right: Gen 2. Image Credits: Brian Heater

In recent years, when people ask me which earbuds to get, I recommend going with the same company that made their phone. Much like flagship smartphones, premium earbuds are mostly pretty good across the board — it’s remarkable, really, how quickly the category matured. Device manufacturers design headphones to work with their smartphones. The rule goes double for Apple. The company makes its own software, hardware and the chips that go inside of it.

Of course, pretty much any Bluetooth earbud can be manually paired to any modern smartphone, but by doing so you’ll miss out on some of the software perks — including, in most cases, the pairing itself. It follows, then, that if you’re an iPhone owner, you’re best served buying Apple headphones. The pertinent question, however, is which pair. As discussed in my Watch SE writeup, choice is important, particularly in the wearables space. While the company has expanded its smartwatch offering in recent years, however, it still can’t touch its headphone offering.

The AirPods line is effectively comprised of three different models: the (relatively) budget AirPods, the premium AirPods Pro and the over ear AirPods Max. A slightly complicated and otherwise straightforward offering is Apple’s decision to keep the 2nd Gen AirPods around alongside the 3rd — the $40 gulf between the two includes things like a hardware redesign, Spatial Audio and extra battery life. Complicating things further is Apple’s 2014 acquisition of Beats, which brings some really solid alternatives to the table. I’m partial to the Fit Pro for workouts.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The gulf between the 3rd Gen AirPods and the 2nd Gen Pros are double that of the lower end of the line. Of course, the $80 price premium amounts to a lot here. At $249, the Pros are pricey — but it’s a cost that comes with a number of truly premium upgrades over their predecessors. As with the original Pros introduced all the way back in 2019, the 2nd Gen Pros are considerably more comfortable than the standard AirPods, sound better, feature both active noise canceling and transparency and come in a case that supports wireless charging.

This year’s models improve upon their predecessors in a number of important ways, including sound and noise canceling and the addition of personalized Spatial Audio and adaptative transparency mode. The case arguably brings even more to the table, with the addition of speakers to chime when they go missing, a built-in lanyard loop (okay, this one’s less exciting that it is useful) and expansion of wireless charging functionality to include the Apple Watch’s charger (fewer cables is always better when you’re traveling).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I won’t go so far as saying this is anywhere approaching a necessary upgrade if you have a still-working pair of the Gen 1 buds, but it certainly keeps the Pros in strong contention for the top spot among all wireless earbuds. I hesitate to give any single pair the title of “best buds,” as this is a field-wide range of different preferences. Sound quality is subjective and comfort even more so. I will say, however, that the new Pros hit it out of the park for me on both counts.

The design changes seem minor, save for the couple of updates to the case. The most obvious difference on the buds themselves is a refinement to the microphone array used for things like ambient sound detection, wind blocking and noise canceling. The biggest hardware change to the buds themselves is also the most welcome. The stem-squeezing interface presents some clear limitations. Chief among them is the ability to adjust volume. Imagine the nightmare of trying to execute that with a series of clicks.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Instead, a small, touch-sensitive slider has been added to the stems. Rather than a contiguous slide interface, it’s designed to do one level at a time to avoid accidentally cranking up the sound up. I like the feature in principle, though the execution is a bit flawed. The spot is slim and located right next to your face, which makes it a bit tricky to execute a proper slide — especially if you’re attempting to do so while running. Depending on how you wear your AirPods, you may find the new interface more or less navigable.

The buds stay in place well while walking. Running for the most part, too, though I found myself having to adjust them a fair bit to keep the seal when the sweat really started flowing. Again, the Beats Fit Pro remain my gold standard if workouts are your primary use case.

There have been a few subtle changes to the buds’ ergonomics, along with the replaceable silicone tips (the of the major improvements over the standard buds, in terms of sheer comfort). The medium tips worked well for me (there’s a new extra small version, as well), forming a nice seal and sitting comfortably in the ear for long stretches.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

AirPods have long been at the forefront of a push to normalize keeping headphones in one’s ear all day. Comfort is a huge part of that, along with the stated six hours of battery life. For better or worse, they’ve seemingly made it more socially acceptable to carry out on a conversation with buds in (even before our social norms went to hell during the pandemic). Please, though, remove them when talking to the cashier at the supermarket. A little recognition of someone’s humanity goes a long way.

The addition of adaptive transparency helps further push the buds in that direction. Specifically, the company is suggesting that they could serve as a replacement for earbuds in high noise environments. Quoting from the CDC here, “A whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB, and a motorcycle engine running is about 95 dB. Noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.”

There’s an interesting solution here, when you pair the new buds with the Apple Watch’s noise app. The later gives you a read of ambient sound levels, sending you an alert when you cross a specific threshold. Toss the AirPods in with adaptive transparency on, and it will give you an estimate of the overall sound reduction. Effectively, the adaptive noise cancelling works by bringing loud sounds down to a more reasonable 80 dB. Apple has suggested people leave their AirPods in at a concert to save from potential hearing damage.

I believe we’re far away from it becoming socially acceptable to have AirPods in your ears at a concert. I couldn’t bring myself to do it at the Voxtrot reunion show last week. Maybe a few brave souls can change that — or perhaps wearing headphones at a rock show will always be a social faux pas.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The strongest experience I had on the noise canceling front was the flight home from Apple’s Far Out event. It’s one of those hearing is believing deals. Once the buds are firmly in place, there’s an almost vacuum effect that happens as the plane noise vanishes. If you’re looking for buds that will remove ambient noise completely, the buds aren’t them. I prefer something like Sony’s LinkBuds S, which offer an additional passive noise canceling element into the mix, due to their hardware design (they also rival the Pros in terms of comfort).

The effect is more subtle here. On my five-mile Saturday, for example, they didn’t cut out the sound of the Queens above-ground subway line completely. Rather, even in noise canceling mode, they leave you aware of your surroundings — something that’s probably a positive while walking through New York City. When meditating at the gym in the morning, however, I prefer being blocked off from the bad electronic music over the PA and the sounds of weight trainers slamming down barbells.

Apple’s goal is to remove as much ambient sound as possible with the noise canceling feature. That works in places like airplanes where the goal is removing all noise. Adaptive transparency, on the other hand, is designed to keep you aware of your surroundings, while protecting you from unexpected loud noises, like, say, a subway train or garbage truck.

You certainly can’t argue with the sound quality here. I mean, you can — and I did suggest that it’s subjective earlier — but for my money, Apple makes a strong case here for the best-sounding buds, whether you’re listening to music or podcasts. The balance is excellent and the sound is crisp and full. There’s none of the overreliance on bass that you get with some headphones — though the deep low-end is there when you need it.

Image Credits: Apple

Much of the improvements to sound, noise cancelling and transparency come courtesy of H2. The 2nd Gen Pros are the first AirPods to sport the new silicone, which Apple says doubles the H1’s transistor, to more than one billion. The company notes:

The brand-new H2 chip carries out more functions than ever, using computational algorithms to deliver even smarter noise cancellation, superior three-dimensional sound, and more efficient battery life — all at once.

That includes Spatial Audio. Apple’s been pushing the feature for a while now, though this time out it gets a brand new setup process in the iPhone’s settings menu along with the standard ear tip fit offering. The customizable version of Spatial Audio features a setup process similar to that of Face ID. It will walk you through the process of identifying your ear shapes to offer a better experience.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I will come right out and say that I’m still not sold on Spatial Audio. It’s a novel experience for things like Apple TV and Music, mimicking the effect of a real-world sound source. Rarely, however, do I find that it does much to enhance the experience of music listening. Instead, I’ve been long convinced that Apple is working to lay the groundwork for a fuller mixed reality experience — and a number of companies have joined that cause.

What the new Pros don’t offer, however, is high-res audio. While Apple Music supports lossless audio via the ALAC codec, the company believes that — despite claims from companies like Samsung and Sony — the current Bluetooth standard isn’t capable of delivering a consistently good experience. I will say, I do believe the Pros’ audio experience as it currently stands will be plenty good enough for most people in most situations.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The most welcome change of all just might be the speakers on the charging case. The three small holes to the side of the Lightning port bring some cool functionality. For starters, you get a single note chime when charging starts and another when it hits 100%. The biggest trick, however, is the ability to play a sound when attempting to locate a lost case. The buds were already able to do so, because they — obviously — have their own built-in speakers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

If your case went missing, however, your fortunes were left entirely to the AR Find My app, which sometimes falls short in close quarters. Now each bud and the case can send out a sound, individually. Fair warning, it’s high-pitched and downright ear-piecing (out of necessity). I just fired it up and my ears are still ringing (my rabbit is very much not a fan). Hit Play Sound in the app and you get a series of six beeps, played three times. It’s extremely handy and arguably the best new feature.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case offers four additional charges, bringing the combination up to a stated 30 hours of life — six more than their predecessors. Even with the H2 chip, I did run into the occasional connection issue — though thus far it’s nothing that turning Bluetooth on and off again can’t fix. The buds and case are rated IPX4, which means sweat and the occasional downpour won’t be an issue, but don’t like, wear them swimming or anything.

Overall, the new Pros are, again, excellent. Some really welcome additions to one of the best pair of earbuds out there. At $249, the pricing is a bit steep, but these are a pair of headphones you’ll want with you for the long haul.

AirPods Pro (2nd Gen) review: Welcome updates to Apple’s best buds by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch