I’m coming to this Powerbeats Pro impressions piece from two years of near daily AirPods use. I picked up AirPods on the first day they were available and used them heavily. Snagging a set of Powerbeats Pro wasn’t quite so easy. Upon release, they were on back-order within minutes. Checking the Apple store app multiple times a day showed availability slipping into early July.
Yesterday while sitting in my favorite Starbucks, I used my Siri shortcut for “Check Powerbeats stock” and the answer returned Available: Today at my closest store. I immediately ordered them for in-store pickup and made the drive to Apple’s Arrowhead location in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
I was pretty excited to get my hands on these, having already read reviews from many of the big tech sites and watched an embarrassing number of YouTube videos comparing Powerbeats Pro to AirPods.
I unboxed them almost immediately while sitting on a plush at the bottom of the escalator, just steps from the Apple store. I never do that, preferring the ritual of the at-home reveal. This time, I figured walking around the mall would give my new acquisition a good shakedown.
The first thing one notices when opening the nearly square black box is the size of the Powerbeats Pro charging case. It is massive, at roughly four times the dental floss-sized roundrect in which AirPods nest.
Pairing was a snap. It’s easy to take for granted the surprise and delight Apple products can bring when they get little details right, but the nearly instant pairing sequence enabled by the Apple H1 chip is indistinguishable from magic.
I was surprised the squishy default ear tips fit almost perfectly out of the box. More on that in just two paragraphs. As anticipated, strapping Powerbeats Pro to my head gracefully proved a challenge the first time (and the 21st time). Once seated though, they didn’t move even with a vigorous head shake.
I was worried being a glasses wearer would make a good fit difficult because of the ear hooks which hold Powerbeats Pro in place. That worry proved unfounded, as the stems of my Ray-Bans slide underneath the ear hooks comfortably. I later learned those ear hooks serve an unexpected bonus function. They lock the stems of my glasses in place and keep them secure during workouts.
One thing that was not a surprise was the sound. Most reviewers said Powerbeats Pro sound a little better than AirPods because they sit more deeply in the ear. I found this to indeed be the case. My first impression, that they sounded nearly identical to AirPods — which is to say only okay — changed when I got home and swapped out those default squishy ear tips for the largest size available.
Like any earphones, the sound improves dramatically if you put a little pressure on them, pushing them into your ears for a tight seal. But I’m not a mental patient, so I won’t be doing that. Instead, the biggest tips sit firmly in my concha, creating a solid plug for optimum low-end.
Audio coming out of PowerbeatsPro is not “blow-away,” to use Apple’s favorite on-stage superlative. The Beats by Dre brand is known for exaggerated bass. Anyone buying these and expecting chest-thumping oontz will be sorely disappointed. The sound is more nuanced, more balanced.
I don’t think many people buy AirPods or Powerbeats Pro for the sound. Their success will be won in form factor. What the former did for tiny and independent casual use wireless earbuds, the latter will do for those with more active lifestyles. It’s telling Apple’s marketing shows athletes like Serena Williams, Simone Biles and LeBron James using them more aggressively than most mere mortals ever could.
The flexible ear hooks keep Powerbeats Pro firmly in place no matter what kind of physical activity you throw at them. My half hour on a rowing machine is nothing compared to watching Ms. Biles tumble through the air. As one AirPod or the other would often fall out during my workouts, the fact Powerbeats Pro stay in place is a key win for them, especially considering their $50 premium over the newest AirPods with wireless charging case.
There is no Qi charging version available in the giant Powerbeats Pro case. You’ll have to plug them into a Lightning cable, say it with me, like a caveman. That’s a miss.
To complete the win-loss-win sandwich, I’ll go back to the aforementioned Apple H1 chip. The original AirPods and Beats X had Cupertino’s first stab at custom silicon in a set of earphones, the W1 chip. The H1 is better in every way. It’s more energy efficient, meaning longer battery life in Powerbeats Pro, as well as the new AirPods.
Most useful, H1 enables hands-free “Hey Siri” support. Instead of tapping an AirPod or touching a button, users can simply summon Apple’s digital assistant by voice. Walking out of the mall, I said “Hey Siri, how long is it going to take me to get home?” I smiled when Siri responded “Traffic is light. It should take 27 minutes.”
Siri didn’t make its usual chirp indicating that it was ready to listen or acknowledging that a request was heard. It was just voice and it was quick. With the promised voice improvements coming to Siri in iOS 13 this fall, we’ll be another step closer to Scarlett Johansson’s character Samantha in the movie “Her.”
The H1 shows speediness in other ways, too. By the time you get Powerbeats Pro situated in your ears, they’re ready to go. Switching devices, say from your iPhone to an Apple Watch, iPad or a MacBook, is near instantaneous. With my aging AirPods, it could take anywhere from 7 to 37 seconds to switch devices. Sometimes removing them from your ears and reseating them was necessary in order to wake them up and spur the switchover. The Apple H1 chip is a huge step forward!
Powerbeats Pro have physical buttons. I was unsure of whether or not I’d like this. That doubt was silly, as the volume rocker is in a spot where your index finger naturally falls and offers a satisfying tactility. Meantime, the ‘b’ button can be used to toggle play/pause in situations where talking to Siri is suboptimal. I’m still not comfortable summoning Siri by voice in public.
The b button also has phone call-related functions I haven’t yet explored, because it’s 2019 and I don’t talk on the phone. The volume rocker and b button are duplicated on both the left and the right earphone. Like AirPods, Powerbeats Pro can be worn and used independently.
With my AirPods, I put them on and take them off two dozen times a day while at work. Putting on Powerbeats Pro is cumbersome compared to AirPods’ one-handed ease. This is likely to change as I wear them more. This is an anticipated trade off.
The Powerbeats Pro case is also cumbersome. Carrying them in a pocket with my wallet, car key or phone is a non-starter. So they’ll be transported in my computer bag. This is a compromise.
Trade offs and compromises aside, I’m pretty pleased with my new Powerbeats Pro. Comparing them to the AirPods my 15-year-old has absconded with, they are more mission-appropriate… For me. That is, they’ll stay on my head while on the rowing machine or doing yard work. Meantime, they give me access to all the generational improvements which come with the new H1 chip—incredible battery life, hands-free “Hey Siri” and snap of the finger quick connections.
The upside is real and none of the trade offs or compromises are dealbreakers. As always, your mileage may vary. I encourage you to give them a try. Apple’s standard 14 day return period offers a can’t lose opportunity to see whether Powerbeats Pro can fit your life, too.