April 18, 2020
Recently I've been testing Apple's AirPods Pro while riding. Are they a good match for cyclists? They have some killer features, but are priced at the top end of the market.
Let's take a look in-depth at the features, pros, and cons of the AirPods Pro for athletes like bicycle racers, recreational riders, and gym rats.
If you're wondering whether a set of these can get you through a long ride, the answer is "maybe". With the active Noise Cancellation turned on, a two-hour ride used about half the AirPods Pro's battery life while listening to podcasts and music. So there's enough juice to get you through about 3 1/2 to 4 hours of riding.
Apple claims 4.5 hours of battery life, which like most battery life claims, might be a little ambitious. You can get closer to the published battery life if you turn off the active noise cancellation. These aren't going to get you through an "all day" epic ride or a cross-country airplane flight. While I wish the battery life were longer, charging is very, very convenient due to the included charging case, and the case is very compact if you wish to bring it along.
The case itself is also a battery, which means you can charge on the go if needed simply by putting the ear buds inside. You can use the case to charge the buds about 4 times without needing to access wall power, so you could take these along on a multi-day gravel tour, camping trip, etc. When the case is drained, plug it into the wall like any other device to recharge.
When you're not riding, AirPods Pro are designed to be stored in their case. These would be easy to misplace, so getting in the habit of storing them in the case is good practice, they'll be charged and ready to go when needed. For those of you in the Apple environment, you can see the charge level of both the AirPods as well as the case at a glance from your iPhone.
The big selling point of the Pro vs. standard AirPods is that the Pro adds active noise cancellation. The way this works effectively in such a tiny package is impressive. For cyclists who like to listen to audio while riding, I found the noise cancellation cuts quite a bit of wind and traffic noise, making podcasts sound much better than when riding with wired earbuds. It works well up to about 20 MPH, and at slower speeds (like a 10-15 MPH gravel grinder) sound quality is excellent.
This feature has also proved incredibly useful in the time of COVID-19, when we find ourselves doing more work on the phone and in video sharing applications, like Zoom or Google Hangouts. They greatly reduce background noise which is very useful for online group meetings.
The Pro also features a transparency mode, which allows more outside sound to reach your ears - like cars, horns, pedestrians, etc. if desired. You can also turn off both modes entirely, if desired, by touching the ear buds themselves, or by using your phone.
A word about riding with music in a group, or in urban environments - when you're riding in the bunch on a fast training ride, please don't use headphones. Your attention needs to be on the paceline, and you need to be able to hear other riders for safety. Similarly, if you're commuting by bike, the noise cancelling AirPods Pro could actually be dangerous, because they dramatically reduce noise you need to make safe riding decisions. I'd recommend only using a product like the AirPods Pro when you don't need external audio cues - like riding a dirt climb up a mountain solo.
Whether AirPods are right for you depends largely on the type of riding you're doing. In my testing I found the AirPods Pro to fit snugly in my ears - I'm not worried about them falling out while riding (there are extra tips included in various sizes so you can customize the fit) but this might not be true for all riders.
For gravel grinders, bike path, etc. type riding, I find these ideal. But there's no way I'd use them for cyclocross practice, as the chance of one falling out is simply too high. At $249 a set, that would be an expensive mistake. I'd also hesitate to use them for aggressive mountain biking for the same reasons.
For use in the gym, the AirPods Pro are superb. They work well for drowning out the clatter of weights and machines at the gym, and I look forward to returning to a weightlifting routine when the pandemic permits.
In addition to your phone, AirPods can also be used with your computer. I've found this very useful for early-morning Peloton App workouts (turns out I've been neglecting my core from all these years of cycling and now I'm trying to catch up) so I can listen without waking others.
I found the AirPods Pro to be extremely comfortable for near all-day use, including phone calls, riding, video conferencing, and gym work. Small, medium, and large ear tips are provided, so you can customize the fit for your ears. Using the iPhone, you can also run a test to check if you're getting a proper fit, and change them accordingly if not - good stuff.
You can easily brush them, knocking them to the floor while removing your helmet or sunglasses, so watch out for that - it might be a good habit to remove the AirPods first at the conclusion of your ride!
Since this article was first published, I've dropped the AirPods Pro to the ground twice - once a single earbud while removing my helmet, and on another occasion, the entire charging case, which popped open. Both now have wear marks from heavy use, but the functionality is still perfect.
Another big selling point for cyclists is voice control. While the AirPods can be used with Android devices, clearly they are best used within Apple iPhone environment. When paired with an iPhone, you can listen to music, podcasts, and streaming audio; and can also use the AirPods Pro integration with Siri for voice control tasks.
Siri can read you the contents of text messages as they arrive, so you don't have to retrieve your phone from a jersey pocket or Camelbak. If you're like me and do some of your best thinking on the bike, you'll also appreciate the ability to set reminders using only your voice - think: "remind me to order more energy bars at 1pm today."
You can also do other basic tasks by simply tapping an earbud to invoke Siri, like "raise the volume by 10%" - the phone never has to leave your pocket or hydration pack. Handy.
Apple calls these "water and sweat resistant", not "water and sweat proof". In technical jargon, they are IPX4 rated, which is similar to some other consumer electronics, like many ebikes. You can't swim with them or submerge, but getting caught in a rain shower unexpectedly shouldn't hurt them.
My set is 6 months old at this time, so I'm now confident in their durability when used for sports.
Note: the charging case doesn't have the same IP4X water-resistant rating as the earbuds, so keep it out of the elements.
Apple's AirPods Pro work great for cyclists, but only under the right conditions. If the battery life meets your needs and you do the "right" type of riding, they're a slam-dunk and highly recommended. For certain other types of riding, wired headphones (or none at all) are your best bet.
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