AirPods vs. Powerbeats Pro: Best wireless earphones to give these holidays
We tested out the second-gen AirPods alongside Apple's new wireless Powerbeats Pro. Here's what we liked and didn't like from each one.
Vanessa Hand OrellanaCNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
ExpertiseWearables, smartwatches, mobile phones, photography, health tech, assistive roboticsCredentials
If you're looking for wireless earbuds to give this holiday season, you may be choosing between Apple's second-generation
and the Powerbeats Pro. At $160, the regular AirPods work great for everyday listening. But the $250 Powerbeats Pro offer some extra bells and whistles that could make them a better pick for certain users.
Apple also has the new AirPods Pro that offer active noise cancellation for the same price as the Powerbeats Pro: you can read our review here.
We tested the second-generation AirPods and Powerbeats Pro to figure out what we liked best (and what we didn't like) from each earphone to help you determine which is right for you. Before diving into the pros and cons of Powerbeats Pro versus AirPods, be sure to check out how the new AirPods compare to the first generation.
At first glance, you wouldn't really know these two earphones are made by the same company. They have completely different designs. While the AirPods are light and small, and rest gently in the ear, the Powerbeats are definitely more clunky and invasive as they sit in further in your ear canal. They have interchangeable in-ear tips and plastic ear hooks that clip around the ear for a more secure fit than the AirPods.
We both agreed that while the AirPods have a more comfortable fit, they don't always stay in place and depending on the shape of your ear, they may not fit at all. The Powerbeats are slightly heavier in the ear, but chances are you will find the right fit with one of the different ear-tips and they will stay put no matter how much you move.
The default eartips for the Powerbeats Pro felt too tight on our ears, but once we changed them out, we were able to wear the wireless buds comfortably for hours at a time.
The Powerbeats come in white, navy, moss and black while the AirPods are only white. The black Powerbeats were great at hiding dirt and smudges. They also looked more discreet despite their size against our dark hair. The AirPods aren't as easy to disguise because of the white tube that sticks out of the bottom.
The Powerbeats are also sweat resistant and water resistant (IPX4) so you won't have to worry about those sweaty workout sessions, rainy commutes or the occasional toddler slobber -- no joke, I found my two-year-old putting an AirPod in his mouth. Luckily both he and the AirPod survived the ordeal.
Both the Powerbeats and AirPods come with a portable case that doubles as a charger and a place to store the buds. But the Powerbeats' 3 by 3 inch case looks massive relative to the dental floss-sized AirPods case. It also feels about 10 times heavier than that of the AirPods and will be tough to hide in most pant pockets.
Lexy: I love the color options and the Powerbeats feel definitely feel more secure, but I still favor the design of the AirPods because they are so light and comfortable that I almost forget I'm wearing them. Plus the case is a lot more convenient to carry around.
Vanessa: I'd rather them have a bit more substance and grip, because I'm always worried about accidentally flicking off an AirPod when I'm brushing away my hair or going about my day. I find myself being more careful about putting them away after each use. With the Powerbeats I can be a bit more careless and they're great for working out. The case is definitely less convenient, but I wasn't as worried about losing them in my pocket if I carried them caseless for a day.
Winner: Tie. This one comes down to fit more than anything else. If you've tried the AirPods and they just don't sit right, you might have better luck with the Powerbeats.
Seamless compatibility with Apple devices, different controls
If you have an
, or Apple device, both will pair automatically as soon as you open the case which is the main reason why you would choose one of these over their competitors. Android users can also pair the buds manually through the
settings and then pressing the button on their respective cases.
They also have the same H1 chip under the hood, which brings Bluetooth 5 support and hands-free
. Take one out your ear to pause the music automatically.
What sets them apart in terms of features is that the Powerbeats have physical buttons while the AirPods have gesture controls (double tap on the side of the buds). You can pause and play songs, skip tracks forward and back or summon Siri if you customize the controls in the Bluetooth settings. (Siri isn't available on Android devices.) The Powerbeats have a physical volume rocker to control audio. The only way to do this on the AirPods sans phone is with Siri. Unlike the AirPods, you can't customize what the button presses do with the Powerbeats.
Only the AirPods can be located with the Find My iPhone app. Again it's only for
, but it may come in handy if you want to see the last location of your buds. But in our experience it was rarely accurate in terms of the last location, and the few times it did accurately locate and ping the AirPods, we had to wait a while to hear a sound and it took multiple tries.
Lexy: They're both similar in this category, so it's hard to choose. I like being able to customize the controls on the AirPods, but the physical volume controls on the Powerbeats won me over.
Vanessa: The physical volume rocker on the Powerbeats is a huge plus and I like the fact that the controls are the same regardless of what side you're tapping. On the AirPods I would forget which side I had programmed for what command. The one downside about the controls on the Powerbeats is that the play-pause button is so sensitive that it would pause or hang up a call with even the slightest graze of my finger. This resulted in me accidentally hanging up on my boss twice in one call.
Winner: Tie. If you like the simplicity of tap controls you can customize, choose the AirPods. Pick the Powerbeats if you prefer physical buttons.
Sound quality and call quality
Apple says sound quality was its top priority when designing the new Powerbeats and they do sound a bit better and clearer than the AirPods. Their closed design also makes it so that they don't let in as much ambient noise and you don't have to rely on cranking up the volume if you're walking through noisy streets. That said, the audio quality on the AirPods sound is not too far behind, and for $250 we expected a bit more from the Powerbeats.
The bass is definitely more punchy on the Powerbeats than it is on the AirPods, as we expected given they are in the Beats family of headphones. We found the Powerbeats sounded best when listening to R&B, electronic music and rock because the default sound profile helped emphasize vocals and give clearer bass than the AirPods. Unfortunately, there is no equalizer app to tune the Powerbeats Pro to your liking, although you can adjust using the EQ in your music app of choice.
In terms of calls, both have great sounding microphones and do a good job at filtering out ambient noise. The Powerbeats may sound a bit clearer, while the AirPods have slightly better voice isolation.
Lexy: The Powerbeats do sound a bit better than the AirPods, but the difference wasn't as significant as I expected considering the price. I do enjoy the sound isolation from the Powerbeats, but for the price I'd rather invest in over-the-ear headphones and keep the AirPods for workouts and casual listening.
Vanessa: To me the Powerbeats are a great happy medium in terms of sound quality and sound isolation. They don't sound as good as a more expensive over the ear alternative, but they still sound better than the AirPods for what I listen to (podcasts, music, calls). They drown out enough ambient noise for me to listen at medium volume, but let in just enough of the street noise for me not to get run over on a jog or during my daily commute.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro just have the edge for music.
Range and battery life
Both earphones maintained a strong connection to each iPhone we connected them to and we didn't experience interference or signal drop outs. In our informal range test, we placed the
down at one end of a football field and walked away with the earbuds. We managed to get a fair distance, almost halfway down the field from the phones before the signal cut out, although the results varied slightly each time we ran the experiment. One time, the Powerbeats got a few steps further while the next time, the AirPods made it a little more.
If you're considering the battery as the combined package; the buds and the charging case, both will give you about 24 hours of listening time according to Apple. But if you're looking at the buds individually, the Powerbeats Pro have a longer battery life, outlasting the AirPods battery by about four hours: They give you nine hours of listening time versus five hours on the AirPods.
They also give you a decent amount of charge in a matter of minutes: Five minutes translates into about an hour and a half of listening time for the Powerbeats, while the AirPods will get you closer to one hour for fifteen minutes of charge. Apple's numbers held true during our own anecdotal testing. The AirPods lasted right on five hours with continuous listening at a moderate volume, while the Powerbeats managed a little more than nine hours with intermittent pauses throughout the day.
Each case has a Lightning port. The AirPods also have an optional wireless charging case that costs extra. It's $200 if you buy it with the AirPods or $70 if you buy it separately. There is no wireless charging option for the Powerbeats.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro will hold a charge longer without the charging case.
The best Bluetooth earphones are...
The Powerbeats Pro have the clear advantage when it comes to battery life between charges, durability and customizable fit. While they sound great, to our ears they're not a significant step over the AirPods -- but the noise isolation is much better thanks to their design. The biggest downside though is price, and at $250 they might not be worth the splurge if you're just looking for some everyday buds.
The base model of the AirPods costs almost $100 less. They're lighter and may be more comfortable for prolonged use, depending on your ear shape. We also liked the customizable touch controls and, of course, the price.
Lexy: After using both for a week, the AirPods are the earbuds I want to keep using because they're a little lighter in my ear. I can wear them comfortably without them falling out when I run or move around, although I know this isn't the case for everyone. They're far from the cheapest Bluetooth earbud option out there, but I'd rather spend a little less than the asking price of the Powerbeats Pro.
Vanessa: Even with both options in my bag, I found myself going for the Powerbeats more often than the AirPods. They're less maintenance when it comes to wearing them and storing them. I'm not constantly touching my ears to make sure they're still in place and I can just stick them in my pocket case-free once I'm done in I'm in a rush. And yes, the case is huge, but I don't have to have it on me at all times because they can survive almost a full day on a charge on their own.