Beats Powerbeats Pro review: Bulkier than AirPods, but with better sound
Bulky charging case and high price tag aside, the Powerbeats Pro combines all the features that make the AirPods great while delivering richer sound and better battery life in a design that won't fall out of your ears.
I'll lay it right out there: The degree to which you'll like the Powerbeats Pro, Beats' first true wireless earphones, will depend largely on how well they fit your ears. If you get a comfortable, snug fit with a tight seal from one of the four different sized included silicon tips, you'll probably love these headphones and feel OK about dropping $200 on them. End up with something less than that and you may question their worth.
I came close to getting a great fit. I would rate it between a B+ and A-. The issue wasn't one of security; I never had to worry about them falling off. With a few tweaks to the iconic earhooks -- they're bendable -- the Powerbeats Pros were essentially clipped onto my ears. I shot some hoops with them on and I suspect that they'd stay on even if I was capable of, say, a 360-degree slam dunk. (Alas, I am not.)
My little problem: Even with the largest ear tips (yes, they're large but not quite large enough), my ear canal wasn't completely sealed off, so more ambient noise leaked in than I would have liked and sound quality was impacted in noisier environments -- like on the subway or the streets of New York. I was in the minority, however. I had CNET colleagues who were able to get a tight seal and not only really liked the fit but were immediately impressed with the sound.
These did fit me better and more comfortably than the earlier Powerbeats3 Wireless, which -- unlike the Pro -- have a wire connecting the left and right earbud. And, in fact, the Powerbeats Pro have been engineered to be compatible with a higher percentage of ears than past Powerbeats. That's because Beats, which is owned by Apple , refined their exterior design. According to Beats, the Powerbeats Pro are 23% smaller than the Powerbeats3 and 17% lighter. They're not rated as being fully waterproof, but they are sweat- and water-resistant. With an IPX4 certification, they can be splashed from any direction but could fail if sprayed with a sustained jet of water or are fully submerged.
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 $200, 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.
Big sound upgrade from AirPods
Beats says these guys use new upgraded piston drivers that are supposed to cut down on distortion. They sound significantly better than the original AirPods, which isn't that high a bar to clear, but the Powerbeats Pro deliver richer, cleaner sound with bass that's not only much bigger but tighter. As I said, a full seal is crucial to maximizing sound quality with these types of noise-isolating headphones, so if the tips aren't sitting snugly in your ear canals you can lose some bass.
In contrast, the AirPods have an "open" design and sit more loosely in your ears (though the newer AirPods Pro feature a noise-isolating design). They let in a lot more ambient noise as a result. Assuming you get that good seal, the Powerbeats Pro would be much better for, say, listening on an airplane than the AirPods, for instance.
The knock against Beats headphones used to be that they were too bass-heavy and that the bass was boomy and lacked definition. The Powerbeats Pro also accentuate the bass, but I didn't have a problem their bass performance. In fact, the bass is one of these reasons you'd buy this over something like the AirPods or Jabra's Elite 65t (or the Elite Active 65t). But I did notice some treble push -- sometimes referred to as presence boost -- that can make them sound a tad too bright with certain tracks. The BeatsX had the same issue, and while it may not be something regular people will be too perturbed about, audiophiles will probably take issue.
The Powerbeats Pro's sound is going to compare favorably with most other premium true wireless models, which can sound quite decent but ultimately don't measure up to a good set of wired earphones. That said, I thought the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless, which retails for $300, sounded better. It's just a little more detailed and smoother sounding. Likewise, the UA True Wireless Flash by JBL sound as good as the Powerbeats Pro for about $40 less. However, the Powerbeats have some advantages over both, including much better battery life.
Thanks to their larger design compared to 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 an hour and a half of playback while a 15-minute charge will get you four and a half 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 two days of playing around with the product. Each earpiece has the same buttons, so you can control playback from either earpiece.
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 AirPods are great for making calls, and Apple's engineers have brought some of the same technology to the Powerbeats Pro. There are two beam-forming microphones in each earpiece, along with a speech-detecting accelerometer that helps pick up your voice better -- whether it's for phone calls 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 thought they worked as well and maybe even better than the AirPods for making calls because they don't have an open design that allows sound to leak in (that makes them better for noisier environments). Callers said I sounded clear and they didn't have trouble hearing me when I made calls from the streets of New York.
Worth the price?
People have gotten used to spending $300-$350 on a pair of full-size noise-cancelling headphones, but $200 seems like a lot to spend on a set of true-wireless earbuds, particularly with the second-generation AirPods starting at $130 for the version with the standard charging case. However, as I said, if the Powerbeats Pro fit you well, you're going to be quite happy with them.
Yes, their large charging case is a notable drawback. But the combination of incorporating all the features that make the AirPods great while delivering richer sound and better battery life, in a design that won't fall out of your ears, is ultimately a winning proposition. Just make sure you buy them somewhere that has a good return policy in case you're in the small minority that has ears that aren't quite a match for them.
First published May 2019