What does silence sound like? That’s a trickier question than it might seem. Maybe your imaginary quiet place is a warm deserted island or a quaint crusty library – but mine is outer space; the cold, steely, unfathomable, stretch of infinity. Silence is a terrible aloneness, something to be feared, not sought – one of the reasons headphones have remained such a consistent friend. The truth is, actual, total silence remains unimaginable – every space and situation carries a sonic, a sound, a vibe. Apple’s new AirPods Pro embrace and embellish this fact, by seeking not to blot out all trace of the outside world – as most in-ear earphones might claim – but to artificially conjure an imagined silence. And yet there’s another mode designed to deliberately channel the outside world into your solitude, allowing meaningful engagement with your surroundings while continuing to pump your desired sounds. And if you’ve never tried it before, it feels like nothing less than an audio revolution. Apple’s AirPods Pro are upgraded – but all Twitter sees is Pokémon Bellsprout AirPods 2.0 A quick refresher – despite initial scepticism, Apple’s original AirPods were immediately embraced following their late 2016 unveil. They weren’t the first mass-produced wireless earbuds in the marketplace, but naturally, Apple being Apple, they were by far the most visible. Before long, it was rare to stroll a city block or ride the MTR without spotting someone with two stark, white, unwired pylons poking from their ears, like the dude who falls in love with his virtual assistant in that freaky Spike Jonze film, Her. No tech trend had made quite such a visible incursion into daily life since someone decided iPads were the ideal platform for holiday photography. But despite the hype, three years on many remain unconverted by the design, which relies on gravity to keep them resting on the edge, but not inside, the ear. Some found them easily displaced – or worse, lost – while others grumbled that they lacked the noise-cancelling clarity offered by competitors such as Sony. Now available in stores, the hastily announced AirPods Pro correct both of these problems, and more. We review the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds Inner ear, outer body Any cheap pair of in-ear phones blots out the world more effectively than the old AirPods, because they essentially function like earplugs with speakers inside, blocking the ear-way with equal potency whether in use or not. Overuse can prove uncomfortable, leading to air pressure build-ups and aeroplane-esque popping. This isn’t Apple’s approach – the AirPods Pro’s silicon tips rest less deeply and seek not to simply block out ambient noise, but counter and complement it. Tiny microphones outside the earbud listen to the world around, and create in-ear “anti-noise” to best counter its incursion. A second microphone monitors the in-ear environment, adapting in real-time, at up to 200 times a second according to the blurb. A third microphone sits at the peak, allowing you to take calls and talk to Siri, if you’re feeling lonely. This is what’s known as active noise cancellation mode, and it proves surprisingly effective – enough, anyway, to blank out my own bad singing on a windy street. Walking around a buzzing city is positively surreal, in a disorientating but not unpleasant way. If feels less harsh than the deadening earplug vacuum of most in-ear phones, yet no less effective. Hear me, feel me Funkier still is the transparency mode, which does the opposite – actively piping the outside world back into your earbuds. The effect is akin to enjoying a private soundtrack while still exposed to everyday ambience. Sound counterintuitive? Think again – from waiting for your train stop to be announced to bumping into an old friend on the street, there are numerous occasions where you might want (or at least need) to engage with the world-at-large while on the go. And personally, I found something quite meditative about strolling – and hearing – the city streets while still streaming tunes; something oddly compelling about the angle and frequencies of sound magnified-by-microphone into this virtual-sounding ambience. Hey, I even enjoyed transparency mode when walking without music at all – instead soaking up this peculiarly imperfect perspective of Hong Kong’s street sounds. Are Klipsch T5 True Wireless earbuds better than Powerbeats Pro? The sound All this gadgetry would get pretty old pretty quickly if the overall audio was poor – and hands up, I was far from wowed by the first-gen AirPods – but thankfully some serious upgrades have been made here, too. The AirPods Pro offer a much richer, rounder and deeper sonic palate than any Apple headphones I’ve heard: the elusive, organic, mid-range of pianos and acoustic guitars, so weakly rendered on so many headphones, rings pure, while the bass is ramped up an almost excessive amount. It’s great for the subtler sounds of, say, a string quartet or jazz piano trio, but for bass-heavy music – such as funk or most EDM – it can feel unhealthily overpowering. Any serious audiophile will want something with more user tone control. An iconic snout? Despite all those disparaging memes , the AirPods Pro’s snout-like design sits snugly and feels comfortable and unobtrusive, and with three different ear-tip sizes, won’t fall out however hard you head-bang. However, I did find playback would automatically stop at times, even when sitting still, suggesting imperfect alignment. And, despite being sweat- and rain- resistant, like any in-ear earphone they will prove impossible to exercise with for runners bothered by the clomping reverberation that accompanies heavy steps. Once again, the AirPods Pro charge in their own sleek portable wireless case, claiming to offer up to 24 hours battery life in 4.5-hour bursts – with just five minutes back in your pocket to add another hour’s listening time – although our trial wasn’t long enough to put this to the test. Are the Powerbeats Pro better than the Apple AirPods? Sorry, Apple However, for all this progress, there’s plenty that remains imperfect about the AirPods Pro. The greatest fail: despite persistent pleas from first-gen users, there’s still no way to change the volume without rummaging through a pocket or bag for your device. In playback mode, the single function button, on the stem of the right bud, can only be employed to pause, skip or switch between the audio modes described above. Moreover, rather than the neat tap on the ear which activates the same functions on the original AirPods, this new, rubbery squeeze button is cumbersome and unresponsive, requiring two fingers to steady the bud while your thumb presses it down. Such a small design flaw has monumental implications for user ease and feels like a trick sorely missed. But if it takes another three years before a significant AirPods upgrade arrives, Apple devotees will no doubt gladly grin and bear it. Want more stories like this? Sign up here . Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter . South China Morning Post Publishers Limited ("SCMP") may partner with affiliates or other partners for advertising programs where SCMP will earn fees/commission when users make purchases by linking to such sites. Such links do not influence editorial content in any way.