(Pocket-lint) - When Apple bought Beats by Dre for $3bn back in 2014, both companies had something to gain. Apple got entry into the lucrative, emerging fashion headphones market, while Beats got access to the brains in Apple's tech development team.
Up until 2019, that saw Apple tech find its way into Beats-designed headphones. With the Powerbeats Pro, however, Beats president Luke Wood told us that this is the first true joint project where everything - internal and external - was designed together with Apple.
Perhaps more significantly, the Powerbeats Pro was Beats' first pair of true wireless earphones. It was one of the last major audio brands to enter the space, but the wait was well worth it. Read on to find out why.
Designed for everyone's ears
- Sculpted/light build
- Flexible over-ear hook
- Water/sweat resistant
- Navy, Ivory, Khaki and Black colours at launch
Glance at it for a couple of seconds and you'll immediately see the similarity between the Powerbeats 3 and the Powerbeats Pro. Look closer, or even put the Pro earbuds on your ears, however, and you'll feel you're wearing a completely new pair of in-ears.
The housing has slimmed down a lot in size and weight, but more importantly, there are softer angles and contours around the plastic to ensure that they're far more comfortable to wear. Even the plastic protrusion is re-angled and features the drivers at the ear tip to ensure it doesn't press against that slight ridge within the ear. This protrusion also has a slim, pill-shaped shiny 'window' on it which covers the ambient light sensor, which allows the earphones to detect when they're in your ears.
Then the over-ear hook has been redesigned and re-angled too, making sure it grips more comfortably to the ear, but without ever tugging or digging in and becoming uncomfortable to wear.
The Pro earbuds feel light and are well fitted without feeling too snug or stretching the ear at all. It's genuinely a masterpiece fit.
More often than not, when you wear sports earphones with over-ear hooks, you're aware that they're on you; you either feel the hook digging in slightly to the top of the ears, or you feel the cable running behind your neck tapping you lightly as you run. With the Powerbeats Pro they feel practically weightless, and there's no cable brushing against the back of your neck. It's a very freeing experience.
Another reason Beats redesigned the contours and angles was for those sweaty workouts, to ensure that no excess sweat sticks or sits on them. The angles and gaps help create channels for any light splashes or perspiration to work through and filter out the other side.
Even the silicon ear-tips have been redesigned to create a nicer seal in the ear - one that's comfortable and sits in exactly the right place. This not only means a comfy fit, but the seal is absolutely key for good sound. Anyone who's been running with in-ears will know that as soon as that seal isn't sitting right, you lose all the presence in the music and end up listening to tinny, quiet songs. With the Powerbeats Pro that is never the case.
So much so that even more than half a year after first reviewing them, the Powerbeats Pro is still our go-to pair of in-ears when we're working out or running. They're genuinely the most comfortable and secure earphones we've tested so far.
That's not all either. Both of the Powerbeats Pro earbuds offers the exact same selection of controls. You get a volume rocker on both, as well as a button to play/pause or skip tracks, meaning it doesn't matter if you use the left or right. Not only does that mean you don't have to remember which controls are on which earphone, but also you can be right or left handed and have all the same controls if you're using just one earbud for phone calls.
On the undersides, you'll find a two round contact points, which line-up with the charging contact points in the hardshell case that comes included in the box. Thanks to sharing the same H1 chip as the AirPods, the case works the same was as the AirPods one: open it up for the first time and it launches pairing mode, ready for connecting with your phone.
The case itself is on the large side, however. But understandable so. With the design of the Powerbeats Pro, it was necessary to create something big enough to hold earphones, but also to contain a battery large enough to fully charge these earphones twice over.
- H1 Chip
- "Hey Siri" support
- iCloud pairing across devices
By implementing the same H1 chip that's inside the AirPods, Beats has enabled some advanced features, like the "hey Siri" wake up. But it also helps keep the connection strong between the two earphones. But there is more that makes a big difference.
Firstly, using some external microphones and accelerometers, the Powerbeats Pro uses beam-forming to ensure that it's always picking up your voice during phone calls or video calls, and cancels external noise.
Secondly, the H1 chip is a great battery optimiser, enabling Beats to claim up to nine hours of music playback outside the charging case. That was ridiculous for a pair of wire-free earphones at the time of launch, but has since been seen in a few other in-ears, like the MW07 Pro and Melomania 1, for instance. Combined with the battery in the case, that's up to 24 hours of music away from the Lightning cable between charges.
To help keep battery use to a minimum, there are sensors to detect when the earphones are removed from the ears. On the underside of each earbud there are optical sensors, which can detect when they're covered by your ears. Meanwhile accelerometers detect when you move the buds, to pause the music. If they're held in the hand, away from the ears and charging case, they switch to low power mode to conserve even more battery.
We've been really impressed with the longevity of the Powerbeats Pro too. They were so far and above any other wire-free earphones in terms of longevity that it was almost unbelievable. Nowadays, they're one of a few different pairs offering much better longevity than previous generations.
Taking these earbuds out for a 40 minute run, the battery indicator on the iPhone showed it had only dropped by a few per cent after. What that meant in our typical work week was that we were able to go out for three 40 minute runs - and even head to London from North Wales on the train (three hours each way) - and still had battery left over without even needing to consider charging.
Like the previous wired versions, there is fast-charging tech built into the Powerbeats Pro. Just five minutes docked in the charging case is enough to give you more than 90 minutes of playback.
For Apple iPhone users you get the benefit of easy connection and pairing thanks to that H1 chip. An attractive pop-up window appears on screen to connect the earphones as soon as you open the case lid, and once paired it's automatically paired with all other Apple devices connected to the same iCloud account.
While Android/PC users don't get that iCloud/instant pairing, you do still get all the other primary benefits of the Apple tech inside the earbuds. You still get that beam forming for voice calls, great sound, battery life and connection. So there's some convenience missing, but these still look like a great pair of long-lasting wire-frees for Android users - especially if you're active.
- Piston style aluminium drivers
- Bass reflex vent on the back
As well as reshaping the externals, the sound mechanics have been changed up too. On the outside, you'll see tiny pin holes near the ear tip, as well as a small grille on the back of it. Combined, this acts as a sort bass reflex, similar to what you get in a pair of high-end speakers - there to ensure you don't end up feeling too much pressure in the ear at any time.
Adding to that, Beats opted not to use a traditional style speaker/driver. There's no "skin" stretched over a driver that can become fatigued and lose its quality over time. Instead, the engineers implemented a piston-style aluminium driver that moves up and down inside the earphone. This mechanism means more reliable, consistent and precise control over sound, minimising distortion and increasing range.
We've listened to a variety of different songs during testing and the result is genuinely great for an earphone in this price category. At the low-end of the frequency range - like low bass guitar notes - there's plenty of impact, but in a tight and controlled manner. Similarly, both treble and baritone vocals sound clear and dynamic, while songs with plenty of reverb are given an openness of, without ever feeling like one aspect was giving way to the other.
One example was Karma Police by Radiohead, which starts of with some nice quiet acoustic guitar and vocals, before introducing the heavier drums and bass kick in. What we love is how the acoustic guitar remains present, clear and full of its original characteristics, even while the heavier rhythm was driving it on top.
Nine months later, and the sound is just as good as it was when we first listened. That's after dozens of runs, sometimes in rain and cold conditions.
There is one element that's not as strong on these as some other in-ears, but it's by design. Noise cancelling isn't strong at all. They cancel more of the ambient noise around you than the original or 2nd generation AirPods, but they still leave you quite aware of your surroundings.
A lot of the time, this isn't necessarily a bad thing: you hear oncoming cars when you're out running in the dark. It's great for being aware of traffic. On the other hand, when you're sitting on the train and you can still hear the subtle droning of people chattering and the engine noise, it can be tempting to turn the earphones up much louder than is healthy to do so to drown them out.
On the whole, we don't think there's a more complete pair of wire-free earphones than the Powerbeats Pro. They offer incredible battery life, enjoyable sound, and a fit that's both comfortable enough to wear for long periods and secure enough to take it on your most extreme workout sessions.
Although the asking price might seem high, we think it's fair. The Powerbeats Pro is priced above the AirPods, but offer much longer battery life outside the case and better sound. Plus, they're still a good £50-£100 cheaper than the competition from Bose, Sennheiser, B&O or Master & Dynamic.
Granted, the Powerbeats Pro don't offer the noise isolation levels of some others, and perhaps don't sound quite as premium, but there's not enough in it to warrant spending the extra - unless you're all about sound, and noise cancelling is the most important thing to you.
This review was first published as a preview on 17 April 2019 and has been updated as a full review.
Alternatives to consider
If noise cancelling is a big deal to you, then you'll get similar performance and features from the AirPods Pro, but with ANC thrown in. We're not sure we'd recommend those as good running or workout earphones, but they're fantastic all-rounders.
Bose Soundsport Free
Bose is possibly the only other company making high-quality wire-free sports earphones. These are more expensive than the Beats pair, but make for a great running companion with that classic Bose sound profile - which is perfect on those long runs.