The only earbuds more recognisable than the tortured white teardrops that are AirPods might be Powerbeats. These things look like rubberised hoop earrings glued to plastic boxes, flipped upside down and strung together with a naff wire. Well, at least they used to look like that. Beats just released a new truly wireless model called Powerbeats Pro, and they feel like a revelation. I can’t believe how much I like these earbuds and want to wear them and don’t even feel embarrassed when I do.
The £219.95 Powerbeats Pro are a more rugged, better-fitting and better-sounding version of the AirPods. The design is obviously different, with the inclusion of that familiar ear hook as well as the chunky plastic body that contains the device’s battery and guts. The earbud itself connects to this and rests lightly on the outside of your ear canal, which means there’s no real seal around the rubber bud. (That also means they’re not very good at noise isolation, so a loud train would regularly drown out the sound of my music during my commute.) Surprisingly, once you figure out how to put the Powerbeats on your ear, they sort of disappear. During my week of testing, I would regularly forget that I was even wearing them.
What is it?
Truly wireless earbuds for activities.
Awesome connectivity, very comfortable with great sound.
Bulky case and a big price tag.
A big piece of this effortless design is how well the Powerbeats Pro connect to devices, especially Apple devices. The new earbuds have the same H1 chip that made its debut in the second-generation AirPods, so they sync up seamlessly with your Apple products. You just open the case near an iOS device to see a prompt to connect, and once you do, every device connected to your iCloud account is paired. You simply put the Powerbeats in your ears and, thanks to a proximity sensor, they automatically turn on and connect to the nearby device. The H1 chip also allows for hands-free Siri commands on Apple devices, if that’s your thing. And like the AirPods, you can just use one Powerbeats Pro earbud independently and get all the same features you do when using the pair.
The new Powerbeats work as regular Bluetooth headphones for non-Apple products, too. This requires you to pair them by pressing a little button on the surprisingly bulky charging case while the earbuds are in there and go through the ordinary Bluetooth pairing ritual. After that, they’ll connect to that non-iOS device when you put the buds in your ear just as dependably as they do to iOS devices. The only hiccup I found in my testing was switching from an Android phone to a Mac computer. The Powerbeats always wanted to connect to the Mac, which meant I had to go into the Bluetooth settings on the Android phone to connect. That’s honestly not a big deal because many other wireless headphones require you to do this all the time.
The new Powerbeats share all those connectivity advantages with the new AirPods, too. What makes the Powerbeats Pro especially compelling is the versatile design. Thanks to the more efficient H1 wireless chip and a bigger battery, Beats says the Powerbeats Pro get up to nine hours of listening time. To me, that meant two solid days of regular use during commutes and periodic listening throughout the day, although, the battery drained much more quickly if I used the Powerbeats for phone calls. That said, 15 minutes in the charging case gets you an additional 4.5 hours of listening time, so I never had dead earbuds.
The Powerbeats Pro are also water resistant and sweat resistant, which is a big deal if you want to wear these things to the gym. Apple doesn’t give its products IP ratings, but the Powerbeats Pro did stand up to several long, sweaty runs and a quick round in the shower. I do not recommend swimming in them. That said, any water resistance at all is an improvement over the AirPods which, in my experience, will stop working if you wear them in the rain.
The proximity sensor on the right effectively works as a power switch for the whole earbud, and there’s also a handy volume rocker on the top.
If you do plan on bopping around while wearing your earbuds, the Powerbeats Pro will cling to your head. I didn’t even notice a bounce while running with them, and unlike the AirPods, which fall out of my ears if I get slightly startled, I was never afraid that the Powerbeats would pop off and fall down a storm drain. This comfortable, secure fit surprised me because the Powerbeats 3 always bugged me. Those are tethered together with a cable that would constantly pull at and sometimes dislodge the earbuds. Despite the similarly bulky design, the Powerbeats Pro always feel great because I can’t really feel them at all.
Here’s the kicker: the Powerbeats Pro sound good, too. I wasn’t ready for this, because I think the AirPods as well as the old Powerbeats 3 sound uninspired. The Powerbeats Pro uses a pistonic driver that Beats says reduces distortion and delivers better bass response. There is also a little hole cut into the housing of each earbud to move more air and improve the acoustics. The details of the upgraded design sound a little bit like jargonised marketing to me, but I will admit that the Powerbeats Pro have surprisingly good bass for a set of earbuds. It even hits the low notes that most headphones – not just earbuds but all headphones – miss. There’s one of these on 'Revolution' by Diplo that I typically only hear in speakers, but the Powerbeats Pro can hit it. You expect these Beats earbuds to be a bit bass heavy since the company is known for that, but the Powerbeats Pro deliver clean midrange and bright trebles, too.
Bulky as they seem, the Powerbeats Pro seemed to disappear once I put them on my head.
Did I mention that the Powerbeats Pro cost £219.95? They should be excellent for that price, and they are very close to excellent. However, they’re not the very best-sounding truly wireless earbuds I’ve ever tested. (The £279.99 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless might be.) They’re also not the most versatile earbuds you can buy. (I’d argue that the £149.99 Jabra Elite 65t noise-cancelling earbuds win that prize.) They’re certainly not the prettiest earbuds I’ve ever seen. (Hello there, £279 Master & Dynamic MW07.) But still, the Powerbeats Pro score high marks in all these categories.
The Powerbeats Pro are better than AirPods. And they should be for that price! That said, I can already see how the next generation of these Beats earbuds could get better. The addition of noise cancelling or even better noise isolation would be a welcome improvement. A smaller case with wireless charging would be awesome. (I really can’t overstate how enormous the charging case is, especially compared to the pocket-friendly AirPods case.) There’s also a bit of a learning curve when it comes to putting on the Powerbeats Pro. Navigating the ear hook was a two-handed endeavour for the first couple of days, but eventually, I worked out how to swing the things just right to get them on with one hand. I will admit that the design is less awkward than previous generations of Powerbeats, but if there were some way to get rid of that ear hook, I would personally welcome that change. It still doesn’t want to get along with my glasses. Then again, I’m a nerd.
Did I mention that the case is huge?
Despite the glowing things I have to say about the Powerbeats Pro, I’m still hung up on that £219.95 price tag. That’s a lot of dosh for a set of earbuds, and at the end of the day, the bulkier ear-dangling design is not for everyone. If you’re addicted to AirPods and want a real improvement, the Powerbeats Pro are a great option. If you’re not so rich and want some great wireless earbuds to wear at the gym, I’d still recommend the Jabra Elite 65t. If you’re happy being basic, just stick to AirPods.
Photos: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)