Both the second-generation AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro are made by Apple, but which one is the better choice for wire-free audio? We test and rate both pairs and pick a winner.
Apple may not have invented true wireless earphones, but it certainly developed one of the most instantly recognizable pairs, and you can argue that the exclusion of a headphone jack on recent iPhones helped force the category into its now-ubiquitous state. It’s easy to forget, however, that Apple makes more than one pair of wire-free earphones. Yes, the AirPods immediately come to mind, but don’t forget that Apple owns Beats, which means it also makes the Powerbeats Pro.
So which pair should you buy? Before we answer that question, we should point out that neither is actually our top choice in the true wireless category-we’ll name some of our favorites at the end of this article. But if you’re dead set on buying a pair of earphones from Apple, we’ll walk you through the major differences between the AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro-and there are many.
Like so many Apple products, the AirPods 2 are immediately recognizable and have thus become something of a status symbol. Apple knows this, which is why you’re paying a premium ($199 for the model with a wireless charging case) for branding. However, the same is true for the celebrity-branded Beats. And at $249.95, the Powerbeats Pro are notably more expensive than the AirPods.
That said, neither of these prices is completely out of bounds for the true wireless category, which carries its own premium over traditional Bluetooth headphones (the kind with a wire connecting the two earpieces). But after testing plenty of true wireless models over the last few years, there’s no doubt that Apple is charging a bit extra for both pairs on name recognition alone.
The AirPods set themselves apart from the rest of the true wireless field with their glossy white finish and their unique stems that hang down from the ear somewhat. The in-ear fit is secure, but there are two major shortcomings in the AirPods’s design: they don’t seal off the ear canal, and they offer no true water resistance.
Most of the true wireless pairs we test tend to have some degree of water resistance, supported by an IPX rating. This is probably because the concept of cable-free in-ears is most appealing to athletes, gym regulars, or anyone with an active lifestyle. The AirPods 2 have no publicly shared water resistance rating, and while Apple reps claim that they should be able to withstand some sweat or light rain, until we see this backed up with actual evidence, we can’t recommend them for anyone who wants to use them in potentially wet or sweaty scenarios (check out our favorite true wireless models for running here). Beyond this, the lack of an in-ear seal is problematic from an audio standpoint, as it makes consistent stereo imaging and bass response very hard to achieve.
The Powerbeats Pro feature a far more sturdy, exercise-friendly design. There’s an actual water resistance rating of IPX4, meaning they can survive reasonable water pressure coming from any direction, so they can be rinsed off and withstand rain, but they can’t be submerged. This rating isn’t terribly high, but it’s good enough that we can recommend them for the gym. The earhooks also loop over the top of the ear and comfortably hug into it a bit, creating an exceptionally secure fit. In other words, the Powerbeats Pro have a clear design advantage over the AirPods 2.
Both models have the Apple H1 chip inside, which purportedly enables faster switching between devices, along with a streamlined pairing process and iCloud sharing capabilities. Thanks to the chip, Siri can always be listening-you choose whether or not to activate this feature.
Each pair includes a well-designed flip-top battery case, but the edge goes to the AirPods here, thanks to their new Qi-enabled case for wireless charging. Both cases hold an additional 24 hours of battery life.
Speaking of battery life, the Powerbeats Pro take the prize with an impressive nine hours of power compared with the AirPods’ five hours. Take both of these numbers with a grain of salt, however, as these times assume fairly modest volume levels, and the louder you listen, the less battery you get.
The AirPods 2 sound good, not great, mostly due to in-ear fit. With no seal of the ear canal, you miss out on accurate bass depth, as well as ear-to-ear balance. It’s possible to have both earpieces in and feeling secure, but with the drivers angled in slightly different directions. This can make a huge difference in the perceived left/right balance, bass response, and overall clarity.
We’re not convinced that the AirPods 2 would necessarily knock our socks off even if the earpieces provided a secure ear canal seal, but without it, there’s little to get excited about here. The drivers are capable of delivering some solid bass depth, but only if the volume is high and the earpieces are more or less perfectly angled.
The Powerbeats Pro, on the other hand, do create a reliable ear canal seal, which means they deliver better audio. The bass here is supremely exaggerated and the highs are sculpted to match the boosted lows. It’s the kind of sound signature that highlights sub-bass, lows, and low-mids in mixes, so pop, rock, hip-hop, and electronic music are going to sound pretty powerful through the Powerbeats Pro. Classical music and jazz will sound far less natural.
Generally speaking, the Powerbeats sound signature is too boosted and sculpted for our taste, but compared with the AirPods 2, they win based on competency alone. You can’t have realistic in-ear audio without an ear canal seal, period. And if boosted bass helps you get motivated while working out, the Powerbeats Pro certainly don’t disappoint in that regard.
And the Winner Is…
As you can probably guess, when it comes down to which pair we’d buy for ourselves, the Powerbeats Pro more or less crush the AirPods. Where the AirPods offer question marks in the water-resistance department, the Powerbeats Pro offer solid answers. And where the AirPods lack an actual sealed-off ear canal design, the Powerbeats Pro seal off the canal and add ear hooks for extra stability. What the AirPods have over the Powerbeats Pro is, arguably, more stylish design and, inarguably, a more immediately recognizable status symbol effect.
What do both models lack? Many of the better alternatives out there have well-designed apps that offer some form of EQ so that you can tailor the sound signature to your tastes. Especially with the Powerbeats Pro and their bass-forward audio, the ability to dial it back a bit or bring out the high-mids some more would be a welcome feature touch. But probably the one thing both models are most sorely in need of is a more reasonable price in line with their performance.
Among our favorite current models are the JBL UA True Wireless Flash, the RHA TrueConnect, and the Jabra Elite Active 65t, all of which come in at lower prices and offer more (or better) features. So if you aren’t committed to an Apple/Beats model and are interested in true wireless earphones in general, there are several options worth checking out. If it’s Apple, Beats, or bust, we highly advise spending more money on the superior Powerbeats Pro.
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