You may have missed it, but AirPods have kind of taken over the world. You can’t take a trip to the local mall without seeing twenty pairs of our new plastic overlords whispering into the ears of younglings. AirPods are everywhere, and there’s a reason for that. They’re super portable, easy to use, and don’t require pressing any buttons or opening any apps to get them to work perfectly. Still, they’re not without their problems, and it seems like Apple knew exactly what those issues were because the new Powerbeats Pro fix basically all of them. So which ones are better? Let’s settle this once and for all.
Editor’s note: after this was published, Apple released the AirPods Pro. This article is only comparing the basic version of Apple AirPods.
Which earbuds are better to wear?
Arguably, the most important aspect of a pair of earbuds is how well they fit. First, they’re lacking the physical clamping force of a pair of over-ears. Second, they’re lacking the large cushioned ear pads that usually help to block outside noise. These two pairs of ‘buds from Apple take two entirely different approaches to this problem. In a classic Apple move, the AirPods try to solve this problem with the design, taking more of a “one-size-fits-all” approach. The design is basically identical to the Earpods that come with your iPhone, but minus the wire. The goal is simplicity, and everyone should be able to take them out of the box and place them comfortably into their ears. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. The AirPods do fit well for some people, but no so much with others. Still, even if you get them to fit they do nothing to block outside noise. So best case scenario, the AirPods only solve one of the two main issues with fit.
That’s where the Powerbeats Pro comes in with an entirely different approach to this problem that it inherited from the Powerbeats3: the earhook. The earhook design might not be all too comfortable for some, but it does solve the problem of how you’re going to keep a pair of wireless earbuds from falling out of your ear. Rather than hoping that these earbuds fit in your ears when you try them for the first time, you at least have some security knowing that at least the hooks will keep them on your head.
The Powerbeats Pro also comes with a few different sizes of ear tips, so you can find the one that fits best for you. Aside from potentially fitting the ears of more people, the ear tips also provide more isolation from outside noises which is a key aspect that the AirPods are lacking. While the Powerbeats Pro isn’t perfect by any means, they do more to solve the issue of fit than the AirPods which is why they win this round.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro
Do the Powerbeats Pro or the AirPods have better battery life?
Once you’ve got them comfortably in your ears, the next most important aspect of a pair of true wireless earbuds is battery life. You could have the best sounding, most comfortable pair of earbuds in the world, but if you can only enjoy them for an hour at a time what’s the point? Both of these earbuds come with quick-charging cases that give you a place to store your earbuds while simultaneously charging them, which is nice. They also both charge via a Lightning connector which is kind of a bummer seeing as USB-C is supposed to be our collective inevitable future.
But that’s where the similarities end because one of these is not like the other. In our testing, we managed to get 4 hours and 7 minutes of constant playback out of Apple’s AirPods when connected to an iPhone X. That gets even shorter if you’re rocking an Android device. Testing them with a Pixel 3, we only got 3 hours and 29 minutes of constant playback which isn’t great considering the median for true wireless earbuds seems to be about 4 hours. As I’m sure you’ve noticed by looking at the graph above, the Powerbeats Pro don’t fall victim to poor battery life. In fact, they’re the best we’ve tested on any pair of true wireless earbuds with a constant playback time of more than 10.5 hours both iOS and Android. If straight up battery life is what you care most about, then get the Powerbeats Pro. It’s a no-brainer.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro
Which pair of earbuds is easier to connect to?
Bluetooth connectivity is paramount with true wireless earbuds. It should be obvious, considering there are no wires to connect the earbuds to your source device or even to each other. To be fair to everyone else making true wireless earbuds, this is a tough problem to solve. Bluetooth is inherently not great, but Apple managed to mostly solve the issue with a combination of the new Bluetooth 5 and an entirely new and proprietary hardware chip that’s in both the new Apple AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro.
The new H1 chip in both of these earbuds does more than just pop up a pretty card so you can pair easily. It also helps to maintain a stable connection between both earbuds and helps with power management as well. But it’s the main reason why you’ll rarely experience any dropped connections or stutters while using the AirPods or Powerbeats Pro (at least on iOS devices). On Android, we still experienced occasional stutters, but the connection never dropped and it always resolved itself before we needed to reach for our phones to enter settings.
Then there’s the actual method by which these headphones transmit audio, which is via the AAC codec for both of these. Again, if you’re on an iOS device then you have nothing to worry about thanks to that lovely little H1 chip in there. However, if you’re on Android then you’ll likely experience some latency issues as well as the introduction of a small amount of audible noise. Android just hasn’t yet figured out AAC according to our testing here at SoundGuys using multiple phones. Because they both feature the newest chip in Apple’s arsenal, have similar connection strength, and similar issues with Android this round is a tie.
Who has better features? AirPods or Powerbeats Pro?
Deciding which of these has the better features is probably the easiest thing to decide because it basically comes down to a side by side comparison. They both have quick charging, hands-free “Hey Siri” support with iOS devices, auto-pairing and staying connected to the devices on your iCloud account, and even ear detection so the music stops when you take them out. But there are two more useful features that only the Powerbeats Pro have. For one, they automatically go to sleep if you’re not wearing them and haven’t put them back in the case.
The AirPods on the other hands needs to be placed back in the case after every use. The Powerbeats Pro won’t last forever outside of the case either, but at least if you forget to toss them back in after your workout they’ll just enter sleep mode so you can still have some juice left the next time you need them. And secondly, the Powerbeats Pro are IPX4 sweat resistant, so you can actually use them at the gym. Unlike the AirPods which, despite their popularity at every gym I’ve gone to in the last year, are a ticking time bomb when it comes to sweat damage.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro
This one is obvious, the AirPods are easier to use
It may seem like a landslide victory so far, but there is one area that the AirPods blow the Powerbeats Pro out of the water in, and that’s usability. They’re simple, easy to use, and most importantly they’re small and portable as hell. The one major issue with the Powerbeats Pro is the charging case, which is huge and too bulky to comfortably carry in anything smaller than a fanny pack. The AirPods case, on the other hand, is no bigger than a Zippo lighter and its rounded edges and smooth aesthetic make it just as portable and easy to carry. Placing them back in the charging case is also much easier with the AirPods, as the Powerbeats Pro requires just the right alignment and angle before the magnets stick in place. With the AirPods, as long as you have the right earbud in the right slot, it’ll find its way in without too much assistance.
Winner: Apple AirPods
Okay, let’s talk sound
With all of the talk about battery life and extra nifty features, it sometimes gets lost that these are both still headphones. That means that they should, at the very least, not sound like crap. Unfortunately, because of how they isolate, the AirPods don’t pass that test. You can tell at a glance in the two isolation graphs above which pair of headphones do better at blocking more outside noise. As we mentioned above, the fit is very important and if you care about bass response at all then you’re going to want to go with the Powerbeats Pro since anything that the AirPods can offer is going to get lost in all the other sounds you hear when you’re out and about.
You can tell by the frequency response graphs that the AirPods try to make up for that by adding a little extra emphasis to the lower notes, but because of the lack of isolation, it really doesn’t matter. Even with the minimal push in the lows that the Powerbeats Pro exhibit, they still provide a better low-end experience thanks to them actually fitting in your ears.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro
Arguably, the most important factor when it comes to buying anything is the price. Here, the AirPods win by default just because they’re less expensive. If you opt for the wireless charging case, however, you’re looking at spending $199, and at that point, you might as well spend the extra $50 to go with the Powerbeats Pro which is better in basically every way. That said, if you don’t go with the charging case you can get the new AirPods for $159 which is quite a bit cheaper.
Winner: Apple AirPods
Should you buy the AirPods or the Powerbeats Pro?
If you can’t tell by now, we wholeheartedly recommend the Powerbeats Pro over the AirPods. It offers a better experience in almost every category and is better in every way that counts. That said, there’s a reason the AirPods are everywhere. They’re insanely convenient and easy to use for everyday use. While the Powerbeats Pro are better, the AirPods are in a niche of their own.
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