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Beats Powerbeats Pro share many new AirPods features but have better sound

The first true wireless headphones from Beats also have Apple's H1 chip and always-on Siri, but no wireless charging. They're coming in May for $250.

The Powerbeats Pro ship in May in four color options.

Mark Licea/CNET

Apple may make the AirPods, but lest anyone forget, it's the owner of another headphone company, Beats, which now has its own true wireless competitor, the Powerbeats Pro.

Scheduled to ship in May in both the US and international markets, the Powerbeats Pro carry a list price of $250 (£220, $AU350) and are available in four color options. I haven't received a review sample yet, but I did get some hands-on time with them at a Beats preview session at a hotel in New York City.  

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As you can see, they've got the same sporty adjustable ear-hook design as earlier Powerbeats. But it isn't like Beats just snipped the cord off the Powerbeats3 Wireless and called them the Pro. The exterior design has been refined so they should fit more ears securely, though they still might not fit some ears.

According to Beats, they're 23% smaller than the Powerbeats3 and 17% lighter. They're not rated as being fully waterproof, but they are sweat- and water-resistant.

Beats refined the Powerbeats' design for this truly wireless version.

David Carnoy/CNET

One thing that's definitely not compact is the charging case. Although it isn't heavy, it's a good three to four times times the size of the AirPods' charging case. It'll leave a pretty big bulge in your pocket, so you'll probably want to leave it in a bag or locker at the gym. Considering these cost $250, it would have been nice if Beats had thrown in a protective pouch to carry them around in for those times you want to leave the charging case behind.

It's also worth noting that the case doesn't offer wireless charging as the new AirPods Wireless Charging Case does. However, it does charge via an included Lightning cable, which is better than Micro-USB. Beats' earlier BeatsX also charged via Lightning. 

The Powerbeats Pro case compared to the AIrPods case.

David Carnoy/CNET

Changes on the inside

Beats reps told me these guys use new upgraded piston drivers that are supposed to cut down on distortion. In my short listening session, I was pretty impressed. I used a set of large silicon tips -- four different sized tips are included in the box -- and immediately got a good fit with my left ear. However, I had to fiddle around with the ear hook, which is adjustable, to get a more secure fit with my right ear. I'm personally not a big fan of the ear-hook design -- I prefer having stabilizer fins on the inside of my ear -- but these do seem to fit me a little better than previous Powerbeats.  

They sound significantly better than the AirPods, with richer, cleaner sound and bass that's not only bigger but tighter. Of course, a tight seal is crucial to maximizing sound quality with these types of noise-isolating headphones, so if the tips aren't jammed into your ear canals, you'll lose a lot of bass. In contrast, the AirPods have an "open" design and sit more loosely in your ears. They let in a lot more ambient noise as a result.  

Thanks to their larger design (vs. the AirPods) Apple and Beats engineers have been able to incorporate a larger battery. The Powerbeats Pro are rated at 9 hours for music listening compared to 5 hours for the AirPods, and the charging case delivers 15 extra hours of juice. With the quick-charge feature, a 5-minute charge gets you 1.5 hours of playback while a 15-minute charge will get you 4.5 hours. The headphones automatically turn off when you drop them in the case and will go to sleep if you leave them sitting on a table. 

Apple's H1 chip on board

Like the AirPods, these also have Apple's new H1 chip that supports Bluetooth 5. That means Apple users get the same fast-pairing feature and always-on Siri that allows you to activate Siri by just saying "Hey Siri" rather than touching a button. You can ask Siri to raise and lower the volume, and Apple Music users can tell Siri to skip tracks forward and back.

Needless to say, Siri features only work with Apple devices, but there's some good news for Android users: There are buttons on the earpieces that give you control of playback and volume levels. I thought they worked well during my 15 minutes of playing  around with the product.

If you look closely, you'll see that there are optical sensors built into the buds. They detect whether you have the buds in your ears or have removed them, so your music will automatically pause and resume. Like the AirPods, each bud can be used independently of the other, so if you want to go with one bud -- left or right -- you can. 

The 'Moss' colored version of the headphones.

David Carnoy/CNET

The AirPods are great for making calls, and Apple's engineers have brought some of the same technology to the Powerbeats Pro. There are two beaming-forming microphones in each earpiece, along with a speech-detecting accelerometer that helps pick up your voice better -- whether it's for telephony or talking to Siri. And like the second-generation AirPods, these are supposed to do a better job filtering out external sounds such as wind and ambient noise during calls. I wasn't able to test that yet but will as soon as I have a review sample.

With the AirPods starting at $160 for the version with the standard charging case, I do think these are a little too expensive. However, unlike the AirPods, the Powerbeats Pro seems like a totally new product with better sound and features than previous Powerbeats, so it will be interesting to see how consumers respond to them. I'll have a full review with further sound comparisons when I get a final shipping unit.  

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