We need to talk about AirPods Pro

A deep dive on the issues which should be causing Apple a PR headache — and why this story should not be allowed to die

The extent to which she can hear that train rumble past will likely depend on which firmware version her AirPods Pro are on — Image: Apple

ack in late October 2019, Apple issued a press release which opened with the statement “AirPods are the best-selling headphones in the world.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, Apple surprised us with a new version of AirPods, the product that had taken the world by storm. And this time they were ‘Pro’. With a slick new design with much shorter stems, an adjustable in-ear fit, improved sound and active noise cancellation, they certainly seemed to earn that moniker.

They were more expensive, too. AirPods Pro retail for £249 ($249 in the US). But for many, AirPods are an essential product that are used daily and these babies looked awesome as hell, so many people picked them up straight away.

At launch, Apple touted AirPods Pro as “an exciting addition to the AirPods family that features Active Noise Cancellation and superior, immersive sound in an all-new lightweight, in-ear design.” — Image: Apple

The early reviews at launch were mixed, but positive in many places:

The Guardian gave them 5 stars, called them “a touch of Apple magic” and said the noise cancellation “stood up to engine drone on a long-haul flight”. The Verge said they “come close to perfecting the original AirPods concept.”

And The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple said: “I thought the audio quality of the AirPods was exceptional for Bluetooth headphones — actually it was just exceptional.”

I purchased them on the day they were released and, as someone who’d had the original AirPods for a few years, I was totally blown away by the smaller design and customisable fit.

But what really knocked my socks off was the noise cancellation. When I first put them in my ears I was in a very busy, loud environment. I audibly gasped because for a split second, I thought I’d gone deaf.

With a ‘whoosh’, everything was silent. It was as though I was wearing earplugs, even with no music playing (indeed, I actually used them as earplugs with no music playing for the first two weeks). Everything was completely silent.

In short, the active noise cancellation at launch was out of this world.

Firmware: The elephant in the room

Those first two weeks with AirPods Pro were like heaven on earth. Then came the sting in the tale and the start of this ongoing saga: a firmware update.

AirPods firmware updates happen automatically. And unlike with iOS and macOS updates, they can’t be stopped. You’re getting the update whether you like it or not.

Furthermore, they can’t be downgraded, which is a key issue in this shambles.

The best noise cancellation AirPods Pro had lasted two weeks

Two weeks after launch on November 14th 2019 — after a string of glowing reviews in the media — AirPods Pro across the world were updated automatically to version 2B588. This is, at the time of writing, the ‘most recent’ firmware version.

I created an infographic to illustrate the timeline of firmware updates for AirPods Pro and to help correct the widespread misconception that 2B588 is ‘good’ and 2C54 is ‘bad’. Where noise cancellation is concerned, they are both ‘bad’.

2B588 weakened the noise cancellation, and this was quickly picked up on by many users. On Apple’s support forums, a thread was created on November 24th entitled AirPods Pro firmware 2B588 reduce the noise cancelling capability. As of today, it has an astronomical 39,000 views and runs to 37 pages.

The first post of this thread read:

After my AirPods Pro auto-update to firmware 2B588 the noise cancelling suddenly become very weak, almost no difference from Off mode and Noise cancel mode.

Enter 2C54: the scapegoat release

The issue gained some traction, but the timeline gets a little blurry because not long later on December 16th, Apple released a second firmware update: version 2C54. By this point, complaints were rising about the noise cancellation, and it wasn’t long before the media picked it up.

2C54 did nothing to fix the noise cancellation issue — it remained weakened substantially from the launch firmware. The update also changed the sound profile of the AirPods, with some reports claiming improved bass response.

In the confusion — and amidst the two stealth updates — most of the media reports suggested 2C54 was to blame for the noise cancellation weakening. But in reality, the damage was actually done in 2B588.

2C54 dies, but the situation gets worse

Apple pulled 2C54 before January 2020 and the latest firmware returned to being 2B588. AirPods Pro models would no longer update to 2C54, but those that already had the update couldn’t go back. As awareness of the issue grew, people far and wide on 2C54 complained they wanted to go back to the ‘good’ firmware.

Many people engaged with Apple Support about the issue in store and via telephone support, and there were widespread user reports of Apple swapping out the AirPods Pro, providing users with units running 2B588. Unfortunately, while 2B588 is widely considered ‘better’ than 2C54, when it comes to ANC they are both significantly degraded from launch.

In short, both 2B588 and 2C54 are ‘bad’ when it comes to noise cancellation. Only the launch firmware — 2B584 — features the superior, mind-blowing ANC which the media reviewers raved about.

Apple Support credit card holds and replacement woes

I know this from personal experience. I noticed the ANC degradation immediately when 2B588 was released in November and promptly contacted Apple Support about it.

Apple took a £250 hold on my credit card and shipped me out a left AirPod, a right AirPod and a new case, in three separate shipments — with excessive packaging. I swiftly mailed back the originals in three separate shipments as per the instructions.

The replacements were running 2B584 (the launch firmware) and in the few minutes I had with them before they automatically upgraded themselves, I once again got to experience the outstanding noise cancellation the product originally launched with.

Unfortunately, Apple did not release the credit card hold for several weeks because of problems their end with TNT and the repair facility not being able to unify shipments.

And the replacements ended up being duds. They swiftly updated to 2B588 which nerfed the noise cancellation and, most annoyingly, before long 2C54 was on the scene and there was zero difference between the noise cancellation and transparency modes. Apple took a second £250 hold and shipped me a new set. It took around four weeks — and a great many hours on multiple phone calls with a senior advisor at Apple — to get the holds removed.

My current pair are fine, I suppose, in the sense they are on 2B588 rather than 2C54 and seem to work well enough, but the incontrovertible fact remains: on 2B588 the noise cancellation is nowhere near as good as launch. The product itself is not as good a product as the one I bought in October 2019.

Because of a mandatory, automatic software update. And this is not okay.

And now Apple are mailing replacements which render the AirPods completely unusable

Many people out there are in a similar boat with nightmarish support situations. To make matters even worse, this month (April 2020) it emerged users were being shipped replacement AirPods running an unreleased firmware version, 2D3, which rendered their product unusable due to a mismatch between the left and right pods.

Apple has apparently been shipping these ‌AirPods‌ running the unusable firmware since March 25 or earlier, so some customers have been without a functional set of ‌AirPods‌ for a few weeks.

It is unclear at this stage when — or even if — 2D3 will be released, or if it addresses the noise cancellation issue, which is approaching its sixth month of being a problem. And now many users are unable to even use their product in any capacity due to this horrendous firmware mismatch issue, having endured credit card holds for mail-in replacements.

At this stage, the situation is reaching a truly farcical level and it’s about time something was done about it.

Radio silence from Cupertino

Possibly the best noise cancellation I’ve witnessed since the 2B584 launch firmware is coming from Apple itself — they are resolutely ignoring this worsening issue, almost half a year later.

We all know Apple are renowned for secrecy, and I think it’s usually part of the company’s allure. It’s exciting waiting for their announcements and wondering when the next product will arrive. Plus it means their competitors have less warning and chance to copy their stuff. That’s all good.

But sometimes, Apple remains silent where they absolutely should not be and this is one such case.

As of today, it has been 147 days since the first firmware update weakened the noise cancellation dramatically on this product. And next week it will be four whole months since the most recent firmware update, the later pulled 2C54.

There has been no statement from Apple in response to the media reports about the noise cancellation shambles and with every passing day and week, hope fades for a firmware update to restore it to launch day quality.

Apple needs to put this right, quickly

This isn’t Apple’s first rodeo with weakening a product using software updates.

Indeed, The Verge reports this month that Apple has agreed to a $500 million settlement for throttling older iPhones in an iOS update following a class action lawsuit.

Ideally, Apple should avoid a similar storm here, if not for financial reasons for PR ones. The company needs to put this situation right, and only it knows how — because only it knows why this has happened.

Apple described AirPods Pro as being “packed with audio innovation to deliver superior sound and an immersive noise-cancelling experience.” — Images: Apple

Theorising about the reasons for the ANC degradation, here are a few scenarios as to why this happened, and what Apple should do if each is the case:

Scenario #1 — The AirPods hardware (e.g. the battery) can not handle the launch ANC for a sustained period of time

This scenario would follow the logic that the spectacular launch day noise cancellation was so intensive on the hardware that Apple engineers realised their batteries would be ruined in a short space of time. To compensate, they weakened the ANC so the product would last longer.

Solution: If this is true, Apple needs to fix the problem with new hardware (AirPods Pro 2.0) and then introduce a replacement program for all AirPods Pro users to mail in their units and have them replaced with the new hardware. For free.

Scenario #2 — It’s an engineering problem which Apple are still trying to fix with a firmware update

It’s possible the engineering team have had a nightmare with the firmware which only became apparent after launch, and are still working on a fix.

Solution: Apple should release a statement acknowledging the issue and stating a fix is coming soon. It’s really not rocket science.

Scenario #3 — Launch day ANC was causing headaches or dizziness

As I wrote earlier on when I first put AirPods Pro in my ears in October 2019 running launch firmware I actually thought for a second I had gone deaf when they switched on. There was a ‘whoosh’ feeling you could feel as the strong noise cancellation mode kicked in. Perhaps this was causing some people to get a headache or feel dizzy, so Apple weakened the ANC in the 2B588 update.

Solution: In an OS update, offer a slider for noise cancellation strength. The default can be 2B588 strength, or you can slide up to 2B584 levels if it doesn’t make you dizzy or whatever.

Scenario #4 — Apple weakened the ANC to prevent careless users having accidents

Another theory I have is that Apple weakened the ANC because it was too good. Sounds mad, right? But it is true that when I got them, running launch day firmware, I actually told myself I would need to be extra careful from now on crossing the road. The noise cancellation was so good, I thought I might be hit by a car.

Solution: Apple should, at the very least, clarify this point. But if it’s true and they won’t change it back (or offer a toggle) they should offer full refunds for AirPods Pro users regardless of when they were purchased OR some kind of credit. Perhaps $50, to reflect the fact the product isn’t what they bought anymore.

AirPods Pro shipped with a wireless charging case as standard, with an OS updates enabling switching of audio modes in the UI — Images: Apple

This story cannot be allowed to die

Whatever the cause of this debacle, Apple must act. Only Apple knows what to do because only Apple knows why this happened.

This story has been swirling since November of last year and is still nowhere near to a satisfactory resolution. Indeed, it’s only getting worse.

Many AirPods Pro users love their headphones, and a lot of these people didn’t even get to experience the blissful noise cancellation quality of the product’s first two weeks. Perhaps many of these people are perfectly happy with the product as-is because you can’t miss what you never had.

But if you’re one of those people, please take my word for it: you’d be even happier with the launch quality ANC on your AirPods. The levels of immersion and isolation were truly out of this world.

Rumours are swirling about Apple preparing to launch a new variant of the family, the so-called AirPods Lite, as well as over-ear ‘HeadPods’ and while that is lovely, it simply cannot be the case that AirPods Pro users are shafted like this having parted with a substantial sum of money.

And this is a matter of principle, too. Apple should not be degrading the quality of headphones via software updates.

That is why it’s so important people do not let this story fade away. Apple will eventually have to break their silence on this issue and do something about it if people keep spreading the word.

So please don’t let this story die — spread the word so that this continues to gain traction and Apple are forced to make some noise themselves.