Powerbeats (2020) full review
Apple has updated its popular Powerbeats sports wireless headphones for 2020, pitching them somewhere between the Powerbeats3 from 2016 and the current Powerbeats Pro. They offer the earbud design, H1 chip and (allegedly) audio performance of the latter at a more affordable price tag than either.
How well do they live up to this billing? Macworld's full Powerbeats (2020) review includes in-depth testing of their audio quality, battery performance, ease of use, new features and much more.
The Powerbeats have quite a chunky design - no slimline earbuds these. There's a solid receiver unit on each side, with the in-ear portion projecting from one side and a large curved piece that tucks over your ear. The whole thing is finished in a single colour, either black, white or red, so we've lost the possibly less tasteful but sportier-seeming two-tone designs (such as black and lime-green) from the last generation.
They stick out from your ears quite a long way, and the ear hooks push your ears forward a little too: a glance in the mirror put this reviewer in mind of the BFG.
The 2020 Powerbeats are rated IPX4 for water/sweat resistance. This very much falls into the splash resistance rather than immersion-proof end of the spectrum but is a step up from the previous generation, which was not IP-rated at all.
The headphones receive audio wirelessly but there is a cable, designed to both keep the earpieces connected so they're harder to lose, and to allow you to drape them around your neck if you want to look like a casual dude (or if they've just fallen out of your ears and you're styling it out). This cable is not removable.
You may have just counted two separate ways in which the Powerbeats counter the perils of gravity: a neck cable and over-ear hooks. You can add to that a very high security of fit, at least in my ears using the default buds (four sets are included, so you ought to be able to achieve similar results). This meant that in my testing neither the cable nor the hooks had to support any weight: I'm fairly sure that the buds alone would have supported themselves in my ears quite happily, even when running.
In other words this is not just a belt-and-braces design, but belt-and-braces-and-unusually-tight-trousers. On the one hand that's excellent news, as the chances of these things escaping the ear area are vanishingly small, but it also means you may well be living with the everyday annoyances of a neck cable and ear hooks unnecessarily.
Your feelings on this subject may differ, but I hate ear hooks, which are nearly always hard to put on and uncomfortable. In this case they're not super-uncomfortable but they are very hard to put on, because the tight-fitting earbuds themselves call for a twist to insert (exactly like the AirPods Pro) and it's difficult to combine this with a hooking-over action.
Neck bands and cables are less of a bugbear for this reviewer, and would be my preference if presented as an alternative to the hooks. But again, this isn't the most user-friendly example; it's so thin and light that it doesn't hang down properly on your neck, but instead sort of dances about and tickles it.
Beware also that you don't apply a twist to the cable before inserting the ear buds, which is easy to do by mistake: I did so on my first run and the result was that the wire got bunched up on the right side and pulled annoyingly on my left ear, especially when turning my head to the right. Even once I worked out what had happened, I was reluctant to fix it because removing and re-inserting an earbud is a non-trivial hassle.
There's a power button on top of the left bud - press and hold to turn on or off; hold for longer to reset, which I did once by accident, although re-pairing is very little hassle - and a volume rocker on top of the right.
The right earbud also has a play/pause button (again, it's a physical press-in button, not touch) built into the Beats logo on the side. This one is easy to miss: it looks exactly like the logo on the left bud, which does nothing.
The top buttons are placed rather awkwardly, and you may find, as I did, that you hit them accidentally when putting the buds on or taking them off, since they're where your fingers would instinctively go. At first, I kept blasting up the volume by mistake, although this became far less common as I got used to the headphones.
There are no controls on the cable, which is a change from the Powerbeats3. It was always a little inconvenient having to reach slightly behind you to get to these controls, so I can understand why they were ditched.
How easy are the Powerbeats to use?
The Powerbeats feature the Apple H1 chip used in the Powerbeats Pro and both of the 2019 AirPods models. Like the W1 chip (used in the Powerbeats3 as well as the 2016 AirPods), the H1 is designed to make your life easier when setting the headphones up with an iPhone, and this was indeed a breeze.
They're not quite as easy to set up as a pair of AirPods, because you have to press a button before they're recognised, rather than just bringing them close to the iPhone. But it's still a pleasingly frictionless process: a single button press followed by an onscreen tap.
The Powerbeats connect via Bluetooth and can pair with non-Apple devices too, although it won't be quite so easy to do so.
There's no ear detection, so you can take the Powerbeats out and the iPhone will carry on directing audio to them. I forgot this, and couldn't work out why there was no sound when I was looking at Twitter on my iPhone hours later, but this will probably only affect forgetful people who are used to AirPods.
The Powerbeats offer excellent audio quality and power.
It's Macworld practice to always test headphones for several days as a minimum, because it often takes this long for the drivers to loosen up. This proved to be time well spent in this case, because the Powerbeats felt underpowered at first, with decent warmth and detail but little punch when tackling the bass-heavy bangers that are so key for exercise. Happily they upped their game.
Far from a weakness, bass is now the trump card. Playing 'One Minute to Midnight' by Justice at a highish volume delivers a kinetic thump right into the brainstem. (You never get it in the pit of your stomach, but that's not something to be expected from in-ears.) The fuzzy warmth of that track's bassline was well presented too.
Jazz actually works well: it's warm and rich and there's plenty of deeper stuff to enjoy. The Powerbeats are capable of tackling the mids and high frequencies of quieter classical music too, and on one Glenn Gould recording I was able to pick up a bit of comparatively discreet humming that I hadn't noticed before. They even made me feel like I was in the room with the speakers when listening to a podcast. But bass is what most impressed.
The Powerbeats don't feature active noise cancellation (ANC - the powered tech where headphones like the AirPods Pro monitor ambient sound and play the opposite waveform to cancel it out), but the fit is good enough that you get noticeable passive isolation. That's simply the effect of plugging the ear canal.
It's not as effective as ANC, but with the earbuds in, a fair bit of the outside world is blocked out. The main thing I was aware of when running was the sound of the wind, which appears to hit a pitch that pierces the insulation. But most other noise (including the chatter of children when wearing the Powerbeats indoors) was muffled.
The Powerbeats 3 had a claimed battery life of 12 hours; one of the bigger upgrades for this generation is a claimed life of 15 hours. That's a major jump, and wholly justified in testing.
The very first run with the headphones lasted 41 minutes and saw them drop just 4% in battery level, from 50% to 46%. That would extrapolate to a full life of just over 17 hours.
Following a full charge, and playing at a variety of volumes - but mostly high enough to produce that excellent heavy bass effect - the headphones lasted 17 hours and 27 minutes before giving up the ghost.
They charge using a small (21.5cm, tip to tip) bundled Lightning/USB-A cable. This plugs into a Lightning port on the underside of the right bud.
Fast Fuel feature
The Powerbeats, like the previous-generation models, have a quick-charge feature called Fast Fuel, designed for those who discover their headphones are out of juice just before they need to leave the house. The makers claim that a five-minute charge will be enough for an hour of use.
They didn't manage quite that much in testing, unfortunately: the first time they lasted 36 minutes from a five-minute charge (using the 10W adapter from an iPad), and the second time they lasted 46 minutes. Either way, that's enough for a moderate run but won't get you through a marathon.
Aside from Fast Fuel, the 2020 Powerbeats support Audio Sharing, an Apple feature that lets you output the same audio from a single iPhone to two sets of headphones. This works with any H1- or W1-equipped chip, so this isn't an upgrade on the Powerbeats3.
Thanks to the H1 chip, the 2020 'beats support Bluetooth 5.0 (up from 4.2 with the W1 chip) and the makers claim 30 percent lower latency than with the W1. The wireless connection was consistently reliable in testing. The H1 also delivers better talktime performance.
Finally, the H1 chips also means the headphones support Hey Siri. Speaking the trigger phrase out loud triggers Siri and allows you to turn up the volume, stop or start playback and similar simple actions on the headphones themselves, as well as reading messages etc on the connected device. You can also press and hold the Beats button on the right earphone to trigger voice controls.
(For a detailed overview of the differences between the two chips, see Apple W1 vs H1 chip.)
That's not cheap by any means, but it's not particularly high either: browse Macworld's guide to the best wireless earbuds and you'll see alternatives as low as £50/$50, but several are over £200/$200.
It's also a lot less than the Powerbeats Pro, which are £219.95/$249.95, and even undercuts the previous generation of Powerbeats, which were £169.95/$199.95.
The Powerbeats (2020) are a classy pair of Bluetooth headphones that will suit runners with a penchant for bass-heavy music. They're good value for money, too.
They fit snugly, resulting in solid passive noise isolation and very little chance of them falling out of your ears; this is backed up by both ear hooks and a neck cable which might even be overkill, and do make the headphones difficult to put on and take off.
Audio quality fulfils all the promises and the Powerbeats are particularly good at delivering that essential bass punch. But they're not one-trick ponies, and gentler tracks were still rendered with warmth and detail.
Finally, battery life is excellent, and while Fast Fuel wasn't quite as effective for us as the manufacturer predicted, it remains a useful option for quick-charge emergencies.
For a wider look at the range, read our guide to the best Beats headphones.