Apple’s new AirPods Pro are packed with some pretty awesome advanced features like leading-edge Active Noise Cancellation, a Transparency Mode that makes it easy to hear what’s going on around you, and an Adaptive EQ to provide the best sound for your particular ear fit. However, it looks like there may be even more advanced engineering hiding under the hood than we first realized.
According to a new series of tests undertaken by composer and software developer Stephen Coyle, it looks like the AirPods Pro offer even better Bluetooth latency than the already pretty great original AirPods, and even slightly beats out the H1-equipped second-generation AirPods.
What is Bluetooth Latency?
Due to the wireless nature of Bluetooth, there’s an unavoidable delay between the time that a sound is generated by the transmitting device and the time that it’s received and processed by the headphones or speaker. This isn’t a limitation of the wireless medium itself — radio waves propagate at the speed of light — but rather due to the overhead in processing the audio signal on both ends, encoding and compressing it on the transmitter and then decompressing and decoding it on the receiver.
Bluetooth latency is a fairly common problem that can be most commonly observed when playing games that require a tight sync between action and sound, and it’s especially noticeable on older Bluetooth headphones. In fact, in the days of Bluetooth 2.0, games were virtually unplayable over wireless headphones, which is one reason why they got such a bad reputation, and although it’s gotten better with advanced in Bluetooth technology, it’s still noticeable in games that rely heavily on audio cues, such as rhythm games.
As Coyle explains, videos haven’t traditionally been a problem, as it’s possible for the video playback to be delayed in order to remain in sync with the audio when a Bluetooth device is in use. Apple has handled most of this internally at the iOS level for years, which is why many users aren’t all that familiar with Bluetooth latency, but it’s something that can definitely be a problem in situations where sounds are less predictable.
One of the most common places you can hear this is with the clicks from the iOS keyboard, where you can hear the clicks lag ever-so-slightly behind your fingers. As Coyle notes, the first click takes noticeably longer too, since the audio channel needs to wake up first; subsequent clicks travel along the already-established audio channel and therefore have less lag. Some game developers use the same trick of keeping the audio channel open, but this can have an adverse impact on battery life.
According to Coyle’s tests, the first-generation AirPods, which were the first devices to use Apple’s W1 chip, have a latency of 274 ms. This is slightly higher than Beats’ Studio 3 and Sony’s WH-CH700N which come in at around 250 ms, but still in the same ballpark.
Apple’s H1 chip, however, already dramatically improved things in the second-generation AirPods, lowering the latency to 178 ms. What’s surprising, however, is that the AirPods Pro, which use the exact same H1 chip, have managed to cut the latency even further — down to 144 ms.
It’s worth noting that AirPods and iOS devices also use the AAC codec exclusively, while Android devices generally use aptX, which is not supported by AirPods. This means that if you’re using your AirPods with an Android device, they’ll need to fall back to the older baseline SBC codec, which has much higher latency, so you probably won’t see the same results.
Either way, however, this does mean that Apple has figured out a way to improve latency using other engineering methods beyond the H1 chip, and Coyle says he’s optimistic that it’s a good indication that the trend of reducing latency will continue even further, allowing future generations of Apple’s AirPods to become even more in sync for features like VoiceOver and mobile gaming.
So if you needed any more convincing, it’s another great reason to grab a set of AirPods Pro for the holidays — assuming you can still get your hands on them.