Yesterday, two things happened at Apple that seem unrelated, but actually have more to do with one another than you might think. The company released a high-end version of its AirPods, now called the AirPods Pro. It did this on the same day it announced its third-quarter earnings. And while the two things aren't directly connected, the AirPods Pro represent Apple's best chance at turning around its financial performance as iPhone growth continues to slow.

We'll get to the financial results in a minute, but first, the new toys. The new AirPods Pro are, in my opinion, the best in-ear buds you can buy based on the combination of smart design, incredible sound, and top-notch noise cancellation. They're almost $100 more than the previous version ($50 more than the wireless charging case version), but that's worth it for the better fit, sweat-resistant design, and noise cancellation.

Here's my breakdown of why they're worth it, plus why they matter so much to Apple:

Design

The AirPods Pro are actually a little shorter, but stockier than the original AirPods. They also extend into the ear canal further than the non-pro version, which means they form a much better seal. You'll also notice that they have a flat area on the stem, which is where you can use tap controls to play or pause music, skip to the next song, or toggle through the various noise-cancellation settings (we'll get to that in a minute).

I've long been a huge fan of the original AirPods, even more than I thought I would be. Overall, the Pro version seem a little more balanced in my ear, perhaps due to the fact that it feels like more of the weight is resting in your ear instead of hanging out. And, just like the AirPods, connecting them to your devices is simple and fast. In fact, the AirPods Pro seem to do an even better job of switching back and forth between different devices. 

By the way, in addition to the noise cancellation, which we'll get to in a second, they have another ridiculously cool feature. They work with the "Find My" feature on the iPhone, meaning that if you lose them, they'll show up on a map.

And, even better, for the times when you realize that the map shows they're in your home or office, or wherever, you can have them play a sound to help you find them in the seat cushion. It even lets you choose which earbud to play since it's not that helpful for the left earbud to be chirping if you're holding it in your hand while looking for the right. 

Sound

Thanks to the audio-sharing feature, I was able to compare the AirPods Pro against both the AirPods and the PowerBeats Pro. While I'm not going to pretend my comparison was highly scientific, the AirPods Pro sound really good. They were fuller and clearer than the AirPods, and while the PowerBeats Pro have more deep punchy bass, the AirPods Pro have a more balanced tone throughout. Bottom line: they sound really, really good.

Part of that is because of all the technology Apple has packed into such a small piece of hardware. Apple says the AirPods Pro have an in-ear microphone that listens inside your ear, which not only helps with noise cancellation but also tunes the sound based on the shape of your ear. 

Noise Cancellation

I imagine this is the reason you came to this party, and Apple doesn't disappoint. The active noise cancellation (ANC) is really good. In fact, I was sitting in my car when I first put them in my ears, and I actually thought my car had stopped running. If you love the simplicity of the AirPods but crave the ability to shut out the outside world, say on an airplane or in a busy office, the Pro version delivers. 

But even more impressive, is the Transparency mode which actually pipes in just a bit of ambient noise for those times when you need to be more aware of your surroundings. since the AirPods Pro form a seal, just turning off ANC doesn't necessarily let in much ambient noise, but in a totally Apple-way, the company solves that problem for when you're walking down a busy street, or just want to know what's happening around you while you work.

Why They Matter to Apple

The other release yesterday for Apple was its quarterly earnings announcement. The big news is that while iPhone sales were down a little over 9 percent, the company actually increased its revenue by almost 2 percent, largely driven by wearables. In fact, Apple says its wearable category--made up of AirPods and Apple Watch--grew by 54 percent. Most of that growth was driven by AirPods, which are already Apple's second-best-selling product launch (after the original iPad). 

That's not hard to believe when you see the ubiquitous white stems hanging out of every pair of ears on the subway or in a coffee shop. Apple's wearable products are easily its best growth driver over the next five years, largely because the smartphone market is already so saturated. 

But even more importantly, wearables, and especially the AirPods, are a driver for growth because they are smart and personal, which is what Apple's brand has always represented. People love Apple's products because they have a personal connection and because they just work.

In that regard, the AirPods Pro are the perfect Apple product. They sound amazing, are super simple to use, and they are designed to be worn. It doesn't get any more personal than that.

Published on: Oct 31, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.