Dr. Dre, the man who boasted about being the first billionaire in hip-hop after selling his Beats by Dre to Apple, can be forgiven for taking it easy these days. He has nothing left to prove to anyone. But Beats, the brand that transcended its origins as a cynical celebrity cash-in and became a cultural icon, has everything to prove. For a long time, Apple had seemingly frozen development of new products inside Beats, allowing its adopted brand to release only minor updates and alternative colorways. You could be forgiven for thinking Beats was a neglected stepchild.
The new Powerbeats Pro put any such worries to rest. They are the most sincerely and comprehensively new Beats product since the Apple takeover, and they are a triumph. The Doctor’s headphone elves have been quietly busy, and the first true wireless Beats earphones happen to also be the best Beats headphones of any size or kind. At $250, they don’t come cheap. However, the Powerbeats Pro deliver numerous advantages over Apple’s cheaper and simpler AirPods, and those upgrades totally validate the Beats price premium.
Upon unboxing the Powerbeats Pro, you’ll have to stifle a laugh at the size of their carrying case. It’s like a regular true-wireless headphones case with a serious case of gigantism. You could probably fit four AirPods cases in the volume occupied by the Powerbeats Pro’s indulgently chunky box. Looking on the bright side, it’s a very robust case, it includes a battery to more than double the earphones’ running time, and it’s still less than half the size of a case for over-ear headphones. And without wishing to get ahead of myself, the sound quality of the Powerbeats Pro is good enough for them to indeed be compared to over-ear portable alternatives.
The design of this new generation of Powerbeats is subtly brilliant. It still has the crossbar section that houses the batteries for each bud, but now it’s much more gracefully integrated into the hard stem that curves up to go over and around the back of the ear. Apple also gradually softened the part that wraps around your ear to make it more comfortable and forgiving to what’s a highly sensitive area of the body. (There’s no fat to protect the cartilage of your ear.) That single, flowing external shape makes the Powerbeats Pro look vastly more coherent and intentionally designed than their chunky predecessor.
It’s still not the most discreet look — for which I’d probably recommend Samsung’s almost-invisible Galaxy Buds — but it allows you to feel more comfortable wearing a pair of Powerbeats earphones outside the context of a gym or an exercise session.
Seating the earbuds into my ears was a bit of a fiddly task at first. They don’t have the AirPods’ streamlined, mindlessly simple shape, and so I have to pay a bit of attention getting them on and off. The advantageous difference from the AirPods, though, is that the Powerbeats Pro have various sizes of in-ear tips, so they have a far more customizable fit. That should mean they have a better chance of matching the people who find the AirPods fall out or don’t fit correctly.
With the new Powerbeats, I do find that if I don’t position them well, the right over-ear hook starts to dig into the back of my ear. (You can blame my physical asymmetry for why it only happens on one side.) I also worried about those hooks clashing with the arms of glasses, but my colleague Chris Welch, who tried the Powerbeats Pro at their announcement, says the trick is to put the earphones on before your glasses and everything is fine. Once you get past those minor stumbles, what you’ll get from the Powerbeats Pro is absolutely phenomenal fit, stability, and comfort.
For their size and shape, these are super light earphones. I wouldn’t quite say you can forget you’re wearing them, mostly owing to the over-ear hooks rather than the buds themselves, but these aren’t too far away from the feathery ease of wear of the AirPods.
My colleague Thomas Ricker has two specific complaints about Apple’s other wireless earphones: he hates the way the connecting cord of the earlier Powerbeats would flap against the back of his neck while running, and when switching to the AirPods, he finds his hoodie catches their protruding stems when he turns his head. The Powerbeats Pro solve both of those issues. Their nicely curved exterior design means they have no aberrant shapes sticking out to catch on things. I very much approve these headphones for use with hoodies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the savvy Beats engineers made a point of perfecting that jogger-friendly combination.
The Powerbeats Pro are, at their heart, exercise headphones, and I put them through their paces. I ran, played basketball, jumped around like a 20-year-old at a metal concert, I lifted weights, I grimaced, I even broke a sweat with the Pros on. But they didn’t. I’m shocked by just how stable these earphones remain in my ears no matter what I throw at them. (Side note: the battery case isn’t water-resistant like the buds, so you should definitely dry the sweat off the buds before tossing them back in there.)
Cognizant of the incompatibility between touch controls and sweaty hands, Apple has wisely stuck to mechanical controls on the Powerbeats Pro. There’s a symmetrical arrangement on each bud: The circular “b” logo is the control for music playback and answering or rejecting calls, and there’s a small volume rocker above that. With the new Apple H1 chip on board, you also get the option to have Siri always listening for your voice commands. You can read more about the H1 chip upgrade in our AirPods 2 review from a few weeks ago.
Being a devoted Android user, I have primarily been using the Powerbeats Pro paired to a Google Pixel 3 XL. Guess what? They work brilliantly together. Keeping up the excellent wireless performance of the AirPods, Apple’s Powerbeats Pro provide a faultlessly stable connection — I’ve had exactly zero dropouts or signal disturbances — and they have the longest connection range of any true wireless headphones I’ve yet tested. Given the Pixel’s reputation for having somewhat questionable Bluetooth performance, I can say you’d struggle to find a device that won’t work beautifully with the Powerbeats Pro. Not that that should be a surprise when Apple’s already on the second generation of its true wireless AirPods champ.
Watching YouTube videos on Android with the Powerbeats Pro, I notice no detectable lag. The automatic sensors that pause and resume music depending on whether you have the earphones in also work as well on Android as they do on iOS. Same goes for taking calls with these earbuds: no latency, no garbling or failure to communicate. In fact, the Powerbeats Pro are so good at things that have nothing to do with workouts that I’m tempted to recommend them as a universal pair of do-everything earbuds.
Their claimed nine-hour battery life off one charge is so good that I’ve never been able to come close to draining them. Even at my most intensive and extended listening, I don’t go beyond five hours at a time, and then when I return to the earphones, they’ve refueled inside their chunky case and are ready to go even longer. Apple claims a total of 24 hours of power between the case and the earphones. It’s almost enough to make me forgive the company for forcing me to carry a Lightning cable around specifically for the Powerbeats Pro. Wireless or USB-C charging really would have been helpful.
But there are two things that prevent me from crowning the Powerbeats Pro as the uncontested best true wireless earbuds.
One is that they don’t quite have the noise isolation to be great commuter headphones. Don’t misunderstand: these have a vastly better seal and isolation than the AirPods and are a real upgrade from Apple on that front. But when I’m wearing them on the London Tube, subtler music like Burial’s Burial gets overwhelmed by the drone of the train’s passage through the tunnel. Jabra’s Elite 65t are far superior in these circumstances, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds also hold their own, and if you’re willing to tolerate a connecting wire, neckbuds like the OnePlus Bullets Wireless do an even better job.
The other small foible, and it’s a highly unusual one for Beats headphones, is that the Powerbeats Pro have a lot of treble energy in their tuning. This is a complicated issue to address because that treble is what gives them my favorite sound of any Beats headphones to date, but it can also be fatiguing if you’re just listening to the Powerbeats Pro in a quiet place and trying to relax. These are not laid-back headphones at all, and you have to know and be comfortable with that right from the beginning.
Why do I enjoy the Powerbeats Pro sound? Well, it’s everything that a sports or workout pair of headphones is supposed to give you. To be stimulating, workout music has to be aggressive and in your face, not veiled or demure. The Powerbeats Pro combine energetic highs with a tight and impactful bass that is full of authority. Music feels dynamic, fast, and, indeed, aggressive through these headphones. Any Apple enthusiasts feeling bass-deprived by the AirPods will find themselves very much at home with the Powerbeats Pro.
The signature Beats bass emphasis is much more refined on the Powerbeats Pro, and it serves only to provide a nice sweetener to vocals and instruments. Male voices sound a little deeper and a little richer than they naturally are, which makes them — and the Pros’ overall sound signature — more pleasant to listen to. If it wasn’t for that extra bit of treble sharpness, I seriously would be recommending these as your go-to headphones for all situations. But I have to also underline the fact that these wouldn’t be as good in their primary use case as sports headphones without those imposing highs.
Sampha’s Process serves up a good illustration of the Powerbeats Pro’s deftness in handling more nuanced and gentler productions. That album also shows off the surprisingly wide soundstage of these earphones. Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Area 52, on the other hand, challenges the Pros with a diverse cavalcade of instruments, including an entire orchestra at times, all interwoven and layered into a fast-paced, complex performance. Like a sports star who happens to also be good at academics, the Powerbeats Pro do a remarkably cogent job of playing back all genres of music.
The Powerbeats Pro are the best Beats product yet. They raise the bar for what can be expected of fitness and true wireless earphones, both in terms of sound quality and battery endurance. They improve on Apple’s own AirPods in tangible ways, and they shame rivals like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless that can’t seem to be able to figure out the whole wireless connectivity issue.
You can go on Amazon or AliExpress today and find true wireless earbuds for less than $30, so the $250 asking price of the Powerbeats Pro is a considerable spend. But none of those budget alternatives will come close to the design refinement, wireless performance, sound quality, or fit and stability of the Powerbeats Pro. Or that nine-hour battery life. Apple took a long time to spit out a truly new Beats product, but now that it has, the wait has absolutely been worth it.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge
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