Apple, please fix active noise cancellation in the AirPods Pro

My AirPods Pro made me wonder if I was going nuts over the holiday break. For a couple months, I loved the way they delivered me from the cacophony of San Francisco’s rush-hour trains and buses. Then suddenly they were no longer doing the trick. Hearing the roar of the train itself was bad enough (compared to what I’d gotten used to), but now the chatter of skateboarders and those annoying wearable speakers were more easily muscling their way into my eardrums as well.

I briefly considered trying Federico Viticci’s memory foam mod for better sound isolation. I took to cranking up the volume on my music all the way—as I used to do with the regular AirPods—even though the noise cancellation alone used to grant me peace. I wondered if I just been over-enchanted by a new Apple product in those first few weeks.

It turns out I wasn’t going nuts, after all: As RTINGS revealed in a recent update to its AirPods Pro review, Apple botched its own noise cancellation with December’s 2C54 firmware update. Apple pulled the update not long after it dropped, but if you were actually using your AirPods Pro, there’s a good chance the damage has already been done. Here what RTINGS said in the review’s Noise Isolation section:

“After updating to Firmware [2C54], we retested the headphones and our results showed a fairly significant drop in isolation performance, primarily in the bass-range. This means that with ANC turned on, these headphones won’t do nearly as good a job blocking out the low engine rumbles of planes or buses as they did before this update.”

It’s still good, but as many of us suspected, it’s not as good. (I even suspect you’ll only notice it if, like me, you’re frequently in places with lots of ambient noise.) The silver lining is that the update did improve the bass accuracy and frequency response. Yay.

airpods pro open Jason Cross/IDG

In our review, we noted that they weren’t the best-sounding earbuds, so some improvement in that regard is welcome.

But I don’t care as much about that, as the noise cancellation was the main reason why I rushed out on launch day to buy Apple’s buds on my lunch break. Before, if I wanted good noise cancellation on my commute, I’d plop on my Bose QuietComfort 35s, which hog space in my bag and might as well scream, “Steal me.” Lately, especially now that people are back from vacation and city life is returning to its former noise level, I find myself wanting to put my AirPods Pro aside in favor of my Bose once again. The AirPods Pro used to suffice.

Stuck in the present

The fact that Apple pulled the update so quickly suggests it may simply be a software blunder and a fix is on the way. If so, let’s hope it doesn’t take Apple months to get around to fixing it. When Sony released its 4.1.1 firmware for its WH-1000XM3 headphones last year, months went by without a fix despite widespread complaints that 4.1.1 had reduced the effectiveness of their active noise cancelling by as much as 40 percent. To this day, you’ll still find users who say it’s best to roll back to a patch before 4.1.1 if you want the best noise cancellation.

At least Sony users have that option. With the AirPods Pro, Apple allows no means of installing previous firmware. Worse, you can’t even opt out of firmware updates because the AirPods Pro start updating automatically when they’re being charged next to your iPhone. That’s bad news if you’d rather wait to see what the initial performance reports are like, much as you can do with updates for iOS or macOS.

And you’d still be waiting, as almost a month has passed since the release of 2C54. That’s a long time to wait for an Apple patch, especially considering that AirPods are easily among the iPhone maker’s most popular devices right now. Having experienced those first few wonderful weeks with them, I shudder to think of all the people who probably got a pair for the holidays and then walked away thinking the noise cancelling was just “all right.” Before, there was no question: For the quality of active noise cancellation you’re getting, $249 is a good price. That’s now debatable.