The original AirPods were a godsend for morning rush hour commuting on the super crowded Yamanote line in Tokyo. The sound quality was not all that different from the wired EarPods that came with iPhone, but they were wireless and that was a game changer. There were countless times when my EarPods cable would catch on a woman’s bag squeezing past in a rush for the car doors, with EarPods and iPhone suddenly ripped out of my ears and pocket, either falling to the floor, or most embarrassing of all, trailing behind a running person while I scrambled to catch them. AirPods eliminated that problem and physical cable noises too, more than enough to put up with the familiar EarPod issues of not staying in the ear so well, or cleaning ear wax buildup on the inside mesh.
Then came AirPods Pro and the magic of noise cancellation, transparency mode and earphones that fit snuggly, so comfortable I’d forget I was wearing them. AirPods Pro 1 were a perfect companion for riding the rails. The noise cancellation was good enough to filter most of the rail and station noise for all but the most extreme cases, such as JR Shinjuku platforms with multiple busy train lines, and loud announcements that have gotten much louder since AirPods Pro arrived as more and more people use…noise cancelling earphones. JR East has compensated by cranking train announcement volumes everywhere but especially so for platforms.
There is also the COVID effect which mandates partially open train car windows for COVID killing fresh air circulation. Not all windows are opened and only a bit, 10 cm or so, usually one window on each side between the doors. But even that little opening is extremely loud when a train goes underground or through underpasses. Older cars that run on the Tokyu Ikegami line are also not soundproofed like the modern Yamanote E235 trains. COVID era train commuting is a very challenging sound environment for AirPods Pro.
AirPods Pro 2: the best AirPods for COVID era train commuting
I’m happy to report that AirPods Pro 2 are a great improvement over the original AirPods Pro for rush hour train commuting in the COVID era. Here is my quick AirPods Pro 2 take from riding the rails everyday:
With so many AirPods Pro 2 reviews out there, there is not much to add except to say the audio performance enhancement is as real as they say, the soundscape experience is much more immersive. My first impression grows stronger every day: if you like Dolby Atmos spatial audio mixes, these are the AirPods to have.
Apple’s claim of 2x noise cancellation over AirPods Pro 1st generation sounds about right. Switch point clatter, underpass roar, tunnel transit with open windows, extra loud platform announcements and more, are quiet but discernible background sounds instead of music killing sound tsunamis. You can even listen to music inside a pachinko parlor, the ultimate sound tsunami. Not that you would want to that, but with AirPods Pro 2 noise cancellation, you can.
Transparency mode is one of the killer features of AirPods Pro 1. The real time audio of transparency mode is on a level that other earphone makers have yet to match. How do you beat a hard to beat feature? By making it so natural you forget that you’re wearing them. 2nd generation transparency is much less tinny than the original. Everything sounds more natural, I’m not conscious of my voice like I was with the 1st generation, I feel like I’m having a normal conversation without earphones. Because it’s not flashy, the new ‘Adaptive’ feature is hard to pin down, but there’s a perfect way to test it. Stand outside a pachinko parlor near the entrance and wait for someone to go through the door. The resulting sound tsunami that always overwhelms 1st generation transparency is handled by adaptive transparency with ease, it doesn’t overwhelm your ears.
AirPods was a huge improvement over EarPods in every way except one: the volume/playback control buttons. Listening to music in a packed train has special challenges. There isn’t always enough space to hold iPhone in one hand and a strap or pole in another. I always put my iPhone in my pack before getting on. Apple Watch isn’t a reliable solution either. Double clicking to bring up the player app and then rotate the knob to adjust volume is great in theory, but the reality is a pain point: not enough room to maneuver, buggy WatchOS that doesn’t change the volume, etc. AirPods Pro 2 touch controls are finally complete. They are easy to use and use discreetly. That is huge.
AirPods Pro 1 were easily my favorite piece of Apple hardware these past few years. I got more day to day enjoyment than anything else. For me AirPod Pros 2 are a wonderful upgrade, not only for the new features and enhanced performance, but also for bringing the Dolby Atmos spatial audio experience into focus. I finally ‘get it’. We are still at the very beginning of the spatial audio era, but with AirPods Pro 2, I look forward to exploring new soundscapes yet to come. To enjoy a fully customized AirPods Pro 2 listening experience, make sure you dig into all the options, they make a big difference. Have fun.