Ever since Apple’s WWDC in June, we’ve known that the AirPods Pro 2 would be getting some new features with the arrival of iOS 17, which is officially available as Sept. 18. Among those free upgrades to the AirPods Pro 2 are Adaptive Audio, Conversation Awareness and Personalized Volume. They’re definitely nice improvements that enhance the functionality of the AirPods Pro 2 and you should obviously try them out if you’re an AirPods Pro 2 owner once you update to iOS 17. But as I’ve been testing out those new features with the “new” AirPods Pro 2 with MagSafe Charging Case (USB-C) that were launched alongside the new IPhone 15 models, I found myself asking a question that may be on other people’s minds: Does USB-C version of the AirPods Pro 2 sound any better than the previous Lightning version?
Here’s the thing: The new, USB-C version of the AirPods Pro 2 are very similar to the earlier Lightning model, but they are not identical. First, the new buds and charging case add increased dust-resistance (IP54 rating instead of IPX4). Second, in a pinch you can use your iPhone 15 to charge the USB-C AirPods with the included USB-C cable. And lastly and most interestingly, Apple has added support for 20-bit/48 kHz Lossless Audio with a “massive reduction of latency” for Apple’s upcoming $3,499 Vision Pro headset (note that Apple Lossless Audio actually goes up to 24-bit/192 kHz). As part of that support, Apple has announced it’s developed a “groundbreaking wireless audio protocol” but some bloggers and YouTubers like former CNET editor Brian Tong, have noted that the AirPods Pro 2 feature a new “acoustic architecture.”
What does that mean exactly? It’s unclear whether that’s a hardware change, a software change or both. But whenever I hear the words, “new acoustic architecture” on a set of earbuds or headphones, it raises the question whether the sound has changed at all.
Put another way, the AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C are designed to sound better with the Vision Pro Headset, so is it possible that new acoustic architecture makes the buds sound subtly different with current devices like the iPhone? Granted, that new architecture may very well be all about delivering more wireless bandwidth. And Apple hasn’t said anything about the sound being improved when you pair the new USB-C AirPods Pro 2 with current Apple devices. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that they sound ever so slightly different.
In my attempts to ascertain whether there are any differences, I paired both the old and new AirPods Pro 2 to my iPhone 14 Pro (still running a version of iOS 16) and swapped them in and out of my ears, using the same large ear tips on both buds. For the record, the Lightning model number is A2698 running software version 6A301, while USB-C was model number A3048 running software version 6A300. I did my best to set the buds for the same volume level and left noise canceling on and didn’t engage any other features, including spatial audio. I then listened to a handful of tracks over and over, including Spoon’s Knock Knock Knock, Imagine Dragons Monday, Florence + The Machine’s Choremania and Ed Sheeran’s Shivers, on both Apple Music and Qobuz, which does offer hi-res tracks for devices that support hi-res wireless streaming via audio codecs like LDAC.
I should note that I’ve been using the original AirPods Pro 2 for almost a year and the new USB-C AirPods for only a few days so my two samples are not in identical states from a usage standpoint. But since I test a lot of earbuds, I don’t use the AirPods Pro 2 every day, only sporadically so they’re not as heavily used as someone who has used them as their daily drivers for a year.
Let me start by saying that the average listener will be hard-pressed to notice a difference in sound quality between the old and new AirPods Pro 2. They both sound excellent for how lightweight they are, which is partially why we gave the original AirPods Pro 2 a CNET Editors’ Choice award last year. But I also came away from my testing feeling that the two earbuds don’t sound exactly the same, and that maybe, just maybe, the new USB-C AirPods Pro 2 sound ever so slightly more refined with ever so slightly cleaner sound.
The only problem is I’m dealing with is a little inherent bias. Ever since I learned there was some change to the acoustic architecture, I haven’t been able to firmly believe the two buds sound exactly the same. So I could be wrong, my mind could be playing tricks on me. But then again, maybe not.
Why would Apple not say they sound better than the originals if they do? Well, sometimes Apple likes to keep things a little vague and mysterious and doesn’t reveal everything about a product until months after it launches. Case in point: we only learned recently that the AirPods Pro 2 would be getting Adaptive Audio, Conversation Awareness and Personalized Volume — all of which are now available via that iOS 17 update.
More tests on deck
Was my observation bias — that the new headphones should be “better” — affecting my judgment? Will the performance on the two normalize once I upgrade to iOS 17? I’m doing that right now, and continuing my testing. Ultimately, once thousands of people try the USB-C AirPods Pro 2 and A/B them with the original AirPods Pro 2, we’ll hopefully get a more definitive answer on whether they really sound identical or not. For now, my gut says they don’t — but I’ll be updating this story soon with additional thoughts.