Powerbeats Pro review: Beats brawn meets AirPods brains in the ultimate sport earphones

Maybe it’s just the endorphins talking, but words like ‘epic’, ‘thunderous’, and ‘invincible’ come to mind when running with Powerbeats Pro. The first-ever totally wireless Beats earphones are a mega upgrade over Powerbeats3 Wireless, and not just because they pack the best features of second-gen AirPods in a versatile, sporty package. Beats has arguably created the best fitness earphones on the market with Powerbeats Pro.

Specs:

  • Beats Powerbeats Pro
  • Totally wireless, Class 1 Bluetooth 5.0
  • Apple H1 chip (like second-gen AirPods)
  • Hands-free voice control with “Hey Siri”
  • IPX4 water and splash resistant rating
  • Up to 9-hour battery during playback, up to 6-hour battery during calls
  • Available in black at launch for $249.95; ivory, moss, and navy colors coming Summer 2019

How do they sound?

The $250 wireless earphones aren’t for everyone. AirPods are less expensive at $159 (and neither is cheap) with a more minimalist design and a pocket-friendly charging case, but Powerbeats Pro aren’t just AirPods for people who can’t comfortably wear Apple’s wireless earbuds — although they’re certainly that.

They also sound better … A LOT better. It’s like comparing an Amazon Echo smart speaker to a HomePod, but not everyone needs or will appreciate the pricier hardware. AirPods that make different choices on price, size, and sound should definitely exist, and we’ve finally got that with Powerbeats Pro.

The soundstage is significantly more expansive. Expect bass-driven sound that you can’t hear from AirPods (without pushing them into your ears), and rich middle and high tones that feel balanced through punchy bass. The in-ear design also creates natural noise isolation that you don’t get with earbuds that sit on your ears without going as far as active noise cancellation.

Relative to AirPods, Powerbeats Pro sound is more comparable to over-ear headphones in terms of detail and dynamics. Volume and clarity that lets you pick out every instrument in a crowded track: percussion can kick and ring, a bass line can vibrate without rattling, and lead tones can stand out from chunky rhythms. Internally, Beats says Powerbeats Pro use a 12mm rigid aluminum linear piston driver that replaces the tympanic driver in Powerbeats3 Wireless for 60% lower distortion and more dynamic range in a smaller casing.

Powerbeats Pro are worth the premium over AirPods if sound quality is high on your list of needs in a wireless earphone. AirPods are most portable, but Powerbeats Pro bring a similar level of portability while still delivering music performance that you can feel through a mixture of bass-driven energy and noise isolation.

The four replaceable ear tips also increase the likelihood that Powerbeats Pro will fit your ears. The next-to-smallest tip is the default, or you can choose a smaller tip or one of two larger tips. AirPods fit my ears without issue, but I opted for the largest Powerbeats Pro tip to eliminate empty space and achieve the best sound for my ears. They also come in black — something high on the wish list for AirPods.

Best sport earphones

As a recreational runner and regular gym attendee, AirPods have served me well with a few limitations. Solid wireless connectivity and compact size are excellent features, but pure volume and total battery life can be limiting factors in noisy environments and longer runs. Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless have the same W1 chip as Apple’s original AirPods for instant setup and fast pairing, but the uncomfortable cord connecting each earpiece is a dealbreaker for me in a world with plenty of truly wireless earphone options.

Powerbeats Pro maintain the same reliable wireless connectivity as AirPods thanks to Apple’s H1 chip first introduced in the second-generation AirPods earlier this year. For AirPods, H1 offers 30% lower gaming latency, 2x faster switching between active devices, and 1.5x faster call connection, and voice-activated “Hey Siri” control. Those same benefits also apply to Powerbeats Pro.

It’s easy to take for granted just how good Powerbeats Pro are at being totally wireless earphones. Powerbeats Pro work just as you would expect with either earphone able to work on its own or both earphones working in stereo with no dropouts or dominant earphone.

That’s simply not true for other similarly priced wireless earphones from major earphone makers that can’t use Apple’s special H1 chip. I started using Bose SoundSport Free wireless earphones for long runs last fall after AirPods battery life proved challenging over several hours at high volumes, and the $200 wireless earphones just can’t compete in terms of wireless reliability. The right Bose earpiece is dominant with the left earpiece reliability dropping out within seconds of initiating playback — a trait that proves distracting during races and just annoying during casual use.

I’ve been testing Powerbeats Pro in lots of environments including at home, at the gym, and in outdoor environments and haven’t experienced a single connection issue. The ability to just take my Apple Watch and Powerbeats Pro and go for a run with Apple Music streaming over LTE is a state-of-the-art experience.

Powerbeats Pro physical controls are also appreciated during high-intensity scenarios like powering through a run or cranking away on the elliptical machine. AirPods let you assign one action to each earphone with a double tap gesture — Siri, play/pause, previous track, or next track — with all other functions requiring voice control or using a paired device. The gesture works well, especially if you assign a different action to each earbud, but it can be limiting.

Powerbeats Pro features the same physical controls on both earbuds so you never lose any functionality, and there’s voice control with “Hey Siri” just like with new AirPods. The volume rocker feels like an elongated button, but it’s actually two buttons with a forward click increasing volume and a backwards click decreasing volume. It’s really nice to be able to quickly turn down the music after a workout ends.

The ‘b’ button on either earphone works like the classic action button on wired earphones: one click for play/pause or answering a phone call, long press for activating Siri, double click to skip ahead, and triple click to skip back. After a couple of years of using AirPods with one action assigned to a specific side, it’s taking some time to relearn the double and triple click gestures again, but the flexibility is useful.

There’s also the double click and hold action for seeking ahead in a track, and the triple click and hold action for seeking back in a track — standard controls that I’d long forgotten about! — which like changing volume simply can’t be done from AirPods without voice control or another device.

Powerbeats Pro maintain voice control with “Hey Siri” which is useful in casual (and for me) private environments, but voice control is especially challenging in situations like going for a run with just the Apple Watch and relying on LTE for relaying and processing a command. A simple task like “turn up the volume” can take several seconds, be misinterpreted, or just fail with voice control, but a button click is instant and always works.

How do they feel?

Powerbeats Pro earhook-style, in-ear design is very different from the wireless earbud approach of AirPods. That’s the trade-off for more endurance and amplified sound. AirPods are easier to take in and out, but Powerbeats Pro erase any fear of losing the earbuds during use.

The adjustable earhooks are optimized for high-intensity situations. I’ve never lost an AirPod during a workout, but I’ve certainly been nervous about it during windy outdoor runs on the local bridge over the water near me. With Powerbeats Pro, there’s no fear about losing the earphones even if you lean over the edge of the bridge to get a better view — wind and all. No need to adjust or reinsert the earbud.

One challenge with the earhook approach is simply crowding the area around your ear to the point of discomfort if you wear glasses, shades, or a hat. My experience has been that the earhook is thin, soft, and flexible enough that it doesn’t become an issue, even testing with both shades and a hat, but your mileage may vary.

I’ve also found that wearing Powerbeats Pro for several hours at a time has caused no discomfort which matches my experience with AirPods, but the same can’t be said for how over-ear headphones wear for me after more than an hour or two.

Can you hear me now?

Beats specifically highlights the call experience with Powerbeats Pro over previous designs including Powerbeats3 Wireless. That’s because Powerbeats Pro leverages the same technology as AirPods to create a great call experience using motion sensors and dual mics for focusing on the speaker and ignoring background noise. Powerbeats3, by contrast, placed the mic on the cable which typically rests on your neck behind while wearing and speaking.

When making a phone call with Powerbeats Pro from iPhone, Apple Watch, or any calling device including Android phones, you can hear the other speaker through both earphones just like with AirPods. That’s simply not true for similarly priced totally wireless earphones. While AirPods and Powerbeats Pro pic a single mic for voice input and use both earphones for sound output, Bose SoundSport Free drop to the right earphone only during calls with the left earphone silent. That’s Apple’s H1 chip at work under-the-hood in Powerbeats Pro.

I tested Powerbeats Pro over a FaceTime Audio call with the iPhone in an outdoor environment. The call quality is comparable to AirPods if not slightly better for the person on the other side of the call, according to feedback from my testing, but the listening experience as the caller is very different. That’s because AirPods have almost no sound isolation as earbuds that sit on your ears.

Here’s a sample from one of my tests with second-gen AirPods, Powerbeats Pro, Powerbeats3 Wireless, and Bose SoundSport Free:

Powerbeats Pro in-ear earphones create an earplug experience that helps mute the noise around you and makes it easier to hear the person on the other end of the line. This is definitely better for the Powerbeats Pro user, although in testing with a recorded call to myself, I did notice that I tended to speaker louder with AirPods to compensate for the noise. With the same amount of noise, I spoke softer with Powerbeats Pro since I didn’t hear as much of the noise around me.

Either way, the listening experience for me on the phone call was best by a lot with Powerbeats Pro. Just powering on and connecting with Powerbeats3 was less than ideal, and the mono earpiece experience with Bose SoundSport Free was not optimal.

Smart features

Powerbeats Pro also include several smart features that make them easier to use than other sporty wireless earphones. They pair to the iPhone with a tap of a button, then automatically pair to the Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac over iCloud. Switching to Powerbeats Pro from other audio sources is fast and reliable which is great for starting your music and kicking off a workout or quickly using for a phone call.

Apple’s new Live Listen accessibility feature also works with Powerbeats Pro so you can use the iPhone as a microphone to amplify external noise including people speaking through Powerbeats Pro.

About the charging case

The charging case for Powerbeats Pro is one of its biggest challenges. The earphone form factor just isn’t as minimally designed as AirPods since it prioritizes other features like stability, and the charging case reflects that. It’s bigger than both the AirPods charging case and Bose SoundSport Free charging case, but the trade-off is that you only need to charge the earphones about half as often.

While Beats isn’t winning the case battle, Powerbeats Pro are certainly winning the battery life war. Powerbeats Pro reliably deliver the promised 9-hour battery life and then some, making it a lengthy process to test running the battery down from 100% to 0%. Compare that to 5-hour battery life for both AirPods and SoundSport Free.

For me, 9-hour battery life hits a threshold that means I can actually leave the charging case at home for day trips or in my bag for longer trips, never needing to pack it in a pocket. Powerbeats Pro are also less prone to disappearing than AirPods by nature of their size, so the need for a protective case aside from charging is reduced.

How’s the pocket fit for the case in running shorts? Here’s a GIF:

In practice, the comparison between the AirPods case and Powerbeats Pro out of the case is the real pocket comparison for me:

Powerbeats Pro don’t power off outside of the case, but they do go into sleep mode automatically when not being used to preserve battery. I noticed a 2% drop in battery during sleep mode after 90 minutes of carrying Powerbeats Pro in my pocket which means it’s practical to keep the earphones in my pocket before a race and still get through a few hours of running if needed without worrying about battery life.

A huge design upgrade

Just how big of a redesign Powerbeats Pro are over Powerbeats3 Wireless is something I didn’t fully realize before they arrived. Internally, they’re packing a smarter chip and a more capable driver, and externally it’s an all-around redesign that doesn’t just stop at cutting the cable between each earphone.

The body of the earphones just looks sharper with a new, angled design and a cleaner Beats logo button. The earphones trade a thinner, longer body for a shorter, stubby body too, and the adjustable earhooks are more attractive and more comfortable.

Removing the cable alone would be a major upgrade. The rubbery cord is an annoyance on the neck, and for me, could never be adjusted to both feel stable and forgiving of neck movement. The new wireless design is fully modern.

Here’s a GIF comparison with my gym and running pal Jacob demoing Powerbeats3 Wireless and Powerbeats Pro:

By the numbers, Beats says Powerbeats Pro are 23 percent smaller and 17 lighter than Powerbeats3 Wireless — a difference not just caused by the removal of the cord.

Fit for casual use too?

Okay, so Powerbeats Pro are clearly designed for intense workout scenarios, but what’s the experience like for casual use? I’ve loved testing Powerbeats Pro during a 5K race, solo runs, and gym sessions, but the music listening experience working at my desk has been just as enjoyable. No discomfort and notably better sound than AirPods adds up to an earphones sweet spot for me.

Even walking around the grocery store shopping and listening to a podcast was more pleasant with the noise isolation eliminating a layer of otherwise unavoidable buzz from a packed market.

Powerbeats Pro are able to offer a much fuller sound than AirPods without the fiddly drawbacks of other in-ear wireless earphones, and the 9-hour battery life rating reduces how often you hear the low battery warning between uses compared to earphones rated for 5 hours of usage.

Powerbeats Pro are pricey, but their package and performance is premium compared to the similarly priced market and inferior semi-wireless and wired earphones with comparable sound.

I’ve used AirPods for almost all listening every day since they launched in December 2016, and Powerbeats Pro are the first wireless earphones to rank higher on my list for my needs. The less pricey, more minimal AirPods should still the starting place when considering wireless earphones for most people, but Powerbeats Pro should absolutely be considered when buying premium wireless earphones.

If sound quality and durability are priorities over charging case portability and lower price, Beats Powerbeats Pro are highly recommended and my new go-to wireless earphones for everyday use — both in and out of the gym.

Beats Powerbeats Pro retail for $249.95 from Apple.com, Best Buy, and Amazon. Black is available for purchase now in the US and Canada with more colors and regions to come.

Missed our hands-on and first impressions + Powerbeats Pro tutorial? Check out both more even more details on Powerbeats Pro:


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