One of the biggest scores in Apple’s billion-dollar acquisition of Beats by Dre was the company’s streaming service, which was later transformed into Apple Music. But of course, Beats started as a headphone company, and with the announcement of the new Powerbeats Pro wireless headphones, we’re beginning to see the other side of that coin.
Apple will soon have two major players in the wireless earbuds game: The crazy-popular AirPods ($159, $199 with wireless charging case), which pretty much remain the same white hockey sticks they’ve always been in this latest iteration, and the all-new, fully wireless Powerbeats Pro ($250), coming in May. But what are the primary differences between the two? We’ve only spent a short time with the Powerbeats Pro so far, but we’ve lined up the two in a side-by-side specs comparison to help you decide which pair is right for you.
While both come from the Apple family, these two pairs of fully wireless earbuds couldn’t be more different when it comes to design. As mentioned, Apple’s AirPods remain exactly the same as they were in 2016 on their exterior, including their familiar protruding antenna, an unmalleable acoustic chamber that fits just inside your ear canal to let in ambient sound, and, unfortunately for the more active among us, an utter lack of water resistance.
In contrast, the Powerbeats Pro borrow from other sport-friendly Powerbeats models, offering a design that’s much more suited for the gym (or the rain). That includes wraparound earhooks to keep the earbuds in place, multiple eartips to customize the fit, and basic water and sweat resistance; Apple doesn’t release IP ratings for its headphones, but we do know the Powerbeats Pro shouldn’t be submerged.
In general, apart from added durability, we like the fit of the Powerbeats Pro better (in our limited time with them, anyway) because their both more secure and more comfortable.
Features and controls
Design aside, there are some obvious similarities between these two products in the features department — they both come from Apple, after all. A big part of that can be traced to Apple’s new H1 chip, which is employed by both pairs. Thanks to the H1, both pairs allow you to use one earbud at a time if you like, both allow for hands-free Siri commands (for iOS devices only, of course), and we also expect both to offer easy transference between iOS source devices. And thanks to built-in accelerometers, both pairs will pause music whenever you pull an earbud from your ear.
Where they begin to differ is when it comes to controls. The AirPods offer only one way to control them outside of Siri, in the form of tapping on the side of either earbud to do things like play music and skip songs. The Powerbeats Pro take things further, offering a multifunction button for playback control on each earbud, as well as (thankfully) a volume rocker that, in our experience, is among the most useful onboard controls a pair of wireless earbuds can employ.
As mentioned, both pairs offer basic voice controls via Siri as well, but especially because Siri only works for iOS devices, the Powerbeats Pro’s volume rocker is a major step up.
As with virtually all fully wireless earbuds, both the AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro come with a charging case, serving as their respective homes and the only way to juice the buds up. Both cases offer additional charges to provide as much as 24 hours of reserve playback time, but that’s pretty much the only similarity.
Apple’s AirPods have always had one of the most compact and convenient charging cases, and that remains true in the latest iteration. The new AirPods are also available with a wireless charging case (though it pushes the cost from $159 to $199) for added convenience. The Powerbeats Pro’s charging case is much bigger and bulkier than the AirPods case, partly because it needs to account for those large earhooks. This makes it much harder to fit in your pocket.
While the Powerbeats Pro’s bulkier case counts against them, they take all those chips back when it comes to battery life, offering a full 9 hours of playback per charge, compared to the AirPods’ 5 hours. That puts the latest Beats earbuds among the longest-lasting in their class. This also means you’re a lot less likely to need that bulky case when you take them on the road, as they’ve got well over a day’s worth of audio playback for most users.
Both pairs of earbuds also offer rapid charging for as much as 3 hours of battery playback on a 15-minute charge for the AirPods, and 4.5 hours on the same amount of charging time for the Powerbeats Pro. We expected to see a large boost in battery life for the 2019 AirPods, but it appears Apple saved that for its pricier Powerbeats Pro instead.
We honestly haven’t spent enough time with the Powerbeats Pro to make a full judgment yet — you’ll have to wait for our final review. But from the few songs we heard in our initial time with them, we walked away impressed. The sound is clear, bass is full and musical, and overall overall detail seemed like a step up from the AirPods.
The new AirPods, for their part, remain the same as they were in 2016 when it comes to sound performance. If you like their smoothed-over instrumental attack, relatively powerful bass, and generally accessible sound signature, you’ll be happy to hear that — literally. Due to their lack of a tight seal, they’re not able to isolate instruments as well as other earbuds, but on the other hand, that allows you to stay alert to what’s happening around you.
While we’ll have to wait for the Powerbeats Pro to actually be released before we issue a verdict, we’re excited about their possibilities in our initial testing. On paper, they’ve emerged as the more capable, more durable, and more feature-packed option from Apple HQ — not to mention their top-shelf battery life. At $250, they’ll also be among the most pricey wireless earbuds in their class when they’re released in May.
Especially if you don’t opt for the wireless charging case (and frankly, we’re not sure how useful it is since you won’t be charging your earbuds case every day), the latest AirPods may not be exciting, but they are an affordable, tried-and-true option custom-built for iPhone users. In the end, which pair is right for you may come down to how you plan to use your earbuds, and just how active you’ll be when you do.