June 25 update below. This post was first published on June 24, 2020.
This year’s WWDC is still underway, but Monday’s keynote was jam-packed with announcements. AirPods and AirPods Pro took up a little screen time but there were way more updates to the existing hardware than there was time for in the event, so many more details were revealed behind-closed-doors afterwards. Here’s everything you need to know, from the headline acts to some super-cool sideshows.
June 25 update: In the last 48 hours, Apple has issued a firmware update for AirPods Pro. Some have said this is an early delivery of the new features. It’s not, but it’s related.
As always, users can’t force the AirPods Pro firmware update to happen. It’ll do it of its own accord, thank you very much. To find out what firmware you have on your AirPods Pro, you need a companion device such as an iPhone. Go to Settings, General, About and then choose AirPods Pro. Your AirPods Pro need to be connected to the iPhone. The firmware number, until this one, was 2D15 and the new version is 2D27.
So, this does not deliver Spatial Audio or any other of the remarkable iOS 14 upgrades below, at least not yet and not beyond developers. But it is still likely to be related to it.
To be clear, my understanding is that consumers are going to have to wait until the Fall for these new features. But Apple has said that a Motion API will be available in an upcoming developer seed of iOS 14, so that developers can begin work on it, to maximize the benefits of the new audio capabilities. As such, this firmware update is likely a pre-requisite before the Motion API arrives for developers later. I believe another firmware update will happen by the Fall as well.
In the meantime, though the features like seamless switching between more devices are coming later, we can all still benefit, because this firmware does not require your iPhone to have the iOS 14 developers’ beta installed on it. It wouldn’t be surprising if Apple had taken the opportunity to fine-tune audio quality on AirPods Pro as well, and indeed some users are already reporting this.
While some previous updates have led some to claim a drop in noise-canceling quality, there are already comments on Reddit from people saying this firmware update has significantly improved things.
I’ve been listening myself and have found no big change, but of course the ultimate test of noise-canceling, the jet engine noise of a 747, is not easily available to me right at the moment! I’ll keep listening and report back.
In the meantime, here are the biggest new features that have been revealed.
AirPods and AirPods Pro Seamless Switching
This is a neat advance. Currently, there is no system for pairing headphones with another device that’s quite as simple as AirPods. Open the battery case near your iPhone and you’re done. With the next update of AirPods and AirPods Pro, which will happen in the background this Fall when iOS updates, you’ll be able to seamlessly switch between different devices. It’s already easy between iPhone and Apple Watch, but when you want to move between two other Apple devices, you have to go to Settings for the second device to take ownership. Mind you, that’s still smoother than on most non-Apple devices.
With the next update, when you stop listening to a podcast and start watching a movie on your iPad, the AirPods or AirPods Pro will know and switch accordingly.
AirPods Pro Spatial Audio
Surround-sound effects are commonplace when you’re watching a movie on TV. But it’s hard to get a sense that sounds are coming from behind, in front or even above when you’re just listening to a pair of headphones. Spatial Audio is coming for AirPods Pro, not regular AirPods, which will give that surround-sound effect. It uses the AirPods Pro accelerometers and gyroscopes…
Did you even know there were gyroscopes in the AirPods Pro? Me neither, and this will be the first time they have been utilized. Literally only Apple would build in hardware because it knew it was adding a whole new software feature later. We’re used to software updates making things slicker than before, but this takes things to another level.
It’ll mean that when you move your head as you’re watching the movie, the audio will move with you, so the hero’s dramatic speech will still seem to be coming from their lips and not somewhere off to the side.
This will work with audio content encoded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. An API will be coming soon so stereo audio can benefit, too.
AirPods and AirPods Pro Headphone Accommodations
With this feature, with its pleasingly amenable name, you can adjust AirPods audio to suit your individual hearing. It works to amplify soft sounds and tune them for your ears. You go to Settings and Accessibility, and in Audio/Video you can choose a custom audio setup which will help you to listen to a few different audio clips. You choose the one that sounds best for you.
There are three different application tunings and each has three different strengths. This works with AirPods second-generation and AirPods Pro, Powerbeats Pro, Beats Solo Pro and even the wired Apple EarPods that ship with every iPhone.
AirPods Pro Headphone Accommodations Transparency Mode
If you’re using AirPods Pro, Headphones Accommodations supports transparency mode. So that makes quiet voices more audible tuning the sound to your environment and your hearing needs. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to this as a way of actually hearing someone on the other side of a noisy dinner table instead of just smiling and nodding my way through the evening and hoping for the best.
Or at least that I don’t accidentally agree to wear a puffy shirt on national television as Seinfeld did. Anyway, this could solve all that.
AirPods and AirPods Pro Audio Sharing With Apple TV
You can already share your audio with someone else through their headphones, if that music is coming through iPhone, iPad and Mac. Soon, that will apply to Apple TV 4K. Each person listens through their own headphones and each has their own volume control. This will work with all versions of AirPods and AirPods Pro, plus Beats headphones with the W1 or H1 chip.
All of these new features arrive this Fall. I can’t wait.
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