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AirPods are a cultural icon, and for good reason. More than two years ago, Apple released a set of true wireless earbuds that solved many of the problems that made us hate Bluetooth headphones, making them as convenient and reliable as we’ve always dreamed. And now Apple has newer AirPods with a custom H1 chip that makes them even better.
But the second-generation AirPods aren’t the best true wireless earbuds Apple makes. Not anymore. That honor now belongs to the company’s Beats by Dre subsidiary and its new Powerbeats Pro earbuds.
The first true wireless earbuds by Beats, the Powerbeats Pro, are better than AirPods. You pay a premium for this quality—$249, compared to $159 for AirPods—and you won’t find the Powerbeats Pro quite as portable as AirPods. But if you want true wireless earbuds that work with your iPhone as effortlessly as AirPods and sound better and last longer, they’re well worth the premium price.
Update: Since this review was originally published, the price of the Powerbeats Pro has dropped to $199. This is a permanent drop, not a limited sale. Take the new price into account when considering the product.
The Powerbeats Pro will look familiar to fans of the incredibly popular Powerbeats Bluetooth earbuds. They have the same angled nozzles with rubberized tips that fit snugly in your ear canal. Four pairs of tips are included, so almost anyone should be able to find a comfortable fit. They have the same flat, forward-facing body (this time slanted upward a little), connected to an ear hook that fits behind your helix, like a tightly-fitted pair of glasses.
It’s a design made to keep the ‘buds in place during athletic activity. Running, weightlifting, CrossFit—whatever it is you do, the Powerbeats Pro aren’t likely to get dislodged. They’re IPx4 water resistant, which basically means you don’t have to worry about sweat or splashes, but shouldn’t submerge them.
In my testing, I couldn’t get them to budge without deliberately knocking them. I ran, I turned cartwheels, I did jumping jacks, situps, and pushups, I stumbled my way through a few shoulder rolls I haven’t attempted since practicing Aikido 20 years ago. Not only did the Powerbeats Pro stay on my ears, they stayed properly fitted into my ear canals.
They’re comfortable enough to wear for extended periods, though as with all earbuds that feature ear hooks, the hooks start to bother me after an hour or two.
Any earbud enthusiast will tell you, a good seal means better sound (especially bass), so the Powerbeats Pro design delivers much better sound quality than AirPods, though they aren’t necessarily the best-sounding true wireless earbuds you can buy. If you’re familiar with the Powerbeats 3, you’ll have a good idea of the acoustics you can expect. Beats made the Powerbeats Pro a little smaller and lighter, and they use a different driver technology, but the overall sound quality is quite similar.
The tight seal means you’ll hear a lot less of the world around you, which makes them perfect for noisy environments where you want to block out sound (busses, trains, planes) and worse for noisy environments where you need to hear to be safe (city streets).
The controls will be familiar to Powerbeats users, too. Instead of tapping as you would on AirPods, there are physical controls mirrored on each side: a volume rocker, and a single multi-function button. Tap once to play/pause, twice to skip forward, three times to skip back, or hold it down to trigger Siri. Touch-sensitive tapping probably isn’t the best interface for a pair of earbuds made for athletic endeavor. The buttons are easy to locate and use, though, with just the right amount of resistance. Each earbud can detect when it is removed from your ears and automatically pause or resume music, just as AirPods do.
They’re also available in four colors, unlike AirPods: black, ivory, moss, and navy. Only the black model is currently available, the others are coming soon. It’s odd (and a little disappointing) that the classic Beats red is nowhere to be found.
AirPods on the inside
Inside, the Powerbeats Pro feature the same H1 chip and sensors as the second-generation AirPods, so it has almost all the same features. You pair them to your iPhone by just opening the charge case near it, and check the battery levels the same way. You can trigger Siri with a hands-free “Hey, Siri” instead of tapping, and it works just as well as it does on the new AirPods. The H1 chip provides a rock-solid Bluetooth connection. I didn’t experience any pausing or skipping, even on a crowded commuter train where there must have been at least 20 other bluetooth devices in the area.
I had no problem triggering Siri, even on a busy street. Just don’t wait for the music to fade as Siri acknowledges that it’s listening. Say “Hey Siri,” and then immediately follow it up with your command, without pausing.
You charge the Powerbeats Pro the same way you do AirPods, with a Lightning cable. They even come with a slick black USB-A Lightning cable. (Wouldn’t it be great if black iPhones did?) The earbuds charge pretty quickly—just 15 minutes will give you almost half charge, and a full charge takes about 90 minutes or so. The case holds another 24 hours of charge, just like the AirPods case. There’s no option for a wireless charging case, though.
Though the base technology is the same as that in the AirPods, you can’t expect AirPods battery life. You can expect double. The Powerbeats Pro are rated for a phenomenal 9 hours of music playback and 6 hours of phone talk time. I didn’t listen to music for 9 hours in one sitting, but it did take several multi-hour sessions before the earbuds ran out of juice. They’ll easily make it through a long flight without having to go back in the case.
Better than AirPods, though there are tradeoffs
The Powerbeats Pro are better overall than the second-generation AirPods, but there are some tradeoffs. At $249, they’re $90 more expensive, for starters. And if you really want wireless charging, it’s not an option.
Part of the reason AirPods don’t sound as good is because they rest lightly in your ears, instead of making a tight seal with rubber eartips. This means more of your environment’s sounds make it through, which can be valuable in some situations and undesirable in others.
AirPods are also much smaller and lighter. The earhooks on the Powerbeats Pro make them too bulky to fit in a tiny dental-floss-style case. The big clamshell case just won’t fit in your pocket. And their stay-put design make them a little cumbersome to take on and off frequently. If you just want to answer short phone calls with your wireless earbuds, the AirPods are much more convenient.
If you want to block outside noise, wear your earbuds during rigorous activity, listen for long periods without recharging, or if you really care about sound quality, the Powerbeats Pro are a better choice. If you need to hear your surroundings, or you put a premium on pocketability and quickly placing or removing your earbuds, or just if price is a critical factor, you’d be better off with AirPods.
Now that Apple’s own Beats subsidiary has officially one-upped Apple’s true wireless headphones, I look forward to Apple returning the serve. Maybe with a pair of noise-cancelling studio headphones?