Neckband-style Bluetooth earphones feels old-school in 2020, but Beats and Apple do enough to ensure that the new Powerbeats feel thoroughly modern. The $149 in-ears have a gym-friendly build and utilize Apple’s H1 chip to help streamline the pairing process on iOS devices. Much of the features here are similar to those in the true wireless Powerbeats Pro, but the inclusion of a neckband means longer battery life. As for the audio performance, the Powerbeats deliver the serious bass thump you expect from Beats, combined with boosting and sculpting in the highs. They’re also easy to operate and have an exceptionally secure in-ear fit, making them a solid choice for exercise, though there’s no shortage of strong competition in this price range.
Available in stylish matte black, red, or white models, the Powerbeats are neckband-style in-ears. Internally, each earpiece houses a 12mm dynamic driver. They ship with four pairs of eartips, in small, medium, large, and a double-flange pair. We found the fit to be exceptionally secure, thanks to adjustable hooks that comfortably grip the ear and keep things locked in place.
That said, you might find the earpieces a little bulky, especially if you wear glasses (or sunglasses while you exercise). There’s the potential that the hooks might interfere a bit with how your glasses normally fit. I wear a fairly chunky pair of glasses, and there was still room for the temples of the frames behind my ears, but they did sit atop the hooks slightly, so it’s a least a minor consideration.
More than once, I found myself wishing for a cable cinch to manage the neckband’s slack. If you’re wearing a hoodie or a collared shirt, the neckband has the potential to sit awkwardly, and while most neckband-style in-ears remedy this with a built-in band management cinch, there isn’t one here.
While they are sweat-resistant, the Powerbeats have an IP rating of IPX4, which is on the low end of the scale. They can handle light splashing and a damp cloth wipedown, so they’ll be fine for workouts, but they can’t handle water pressure or being submerged, so using a faucet to clean them isn’t recommended.
Each earpiece is emblazoned with the Beats logo on its outer panel—the right ear’s is also a button that handles playback, track navigation, call management, and can also summon Siri. There’s also a dedicated rocker-style volume control on the top panel of the right earpiece. The left earpiece houses a dedicated power/pairing button.
The included lightning-to-USB-A cable connects to the port on the right earpiece. There is some irony in the fact that the earphones cannot charge via many Apple computers since the cable isn’t USB-C. In addition to the cable and eartips, the Powerbeats ship with a black nylon drawstring pouch.
The Powerbeats are compatible with Bluetooth 5.0, and support AAC/SBC Bluetooth codecs, but not AptX. The earphones are powered by the Apple H1 chip, which allows for a streamlined pairing and setup with Apple devices, fast switching between iCloud devices (if you pair to multiple devices), and also helps facilitate voice access to Siri. You can also program Siri to read you messages through the Powerbeats without having to unlock your phone, and Siri will listen for you to respond.
Speech detection for Siri is solid. Say, “Hey Siri,” and you’ll get a vocal prompt for further commands. If you’d rather turn the mic off, you can still summon Siri by holding the right ear’s logo button down for three seconds. However, there is no settings menu for the Powerbeats like there is for the Apple AirPods Pro, which have multiple adjustable factors you can control.
Android users can also use the Powerbeats and connect them too the Beats app, but it’s mainly for maintenance. Other than firmware updates, the app provides only basics, like naming the earphones and battery status, but nothing like adjustable EQ.
Beats estimates the Powerbeats battery life to be roughly 15 hours, but your results will vary with your volume levels.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Powerbeats deliver the serious signature thunder Beats is known for. The lows here are powerful, but also well-matched with high-mid and high frequency sculpting to keep things balanced. At top, unwise listening levels, the drivers don’t distort, and at more moderate volume levels, the Powerbeats still deliver a boosted bass experience. In fact, you can argue that the in-ears excel at powerful bass depth at low to medium volume levels, a nice trick thanks to the extensive DSP (digital signal processing) at play here.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the Powerbeats’ general sound signature. The drums on this track sound big and thunderous, as we’d expect, but they manage not to venture into completely unnatural territory. It’s certainly not an accurate sound signature we have here—there’s far too much bass depth for that—but the lows sound rich and full, not overpowering. Callahan’s baritone vocals get a pleasant low-mid richness that is well-matched with some treble edge, and there’s plenty of boosting and sculpting in the highs, which brings out not only the attack of the acoustic strums, but even the tape hiss. The end result is a scooped sound signature with bright highs, thick lows, and a midrange that sometimes is less obviously part of the mix.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives plenty of high-mid presence, allowing the attack to keep its punchiness. Vinyl crackle and hiss are pushed forward in the mix, well past their typical background status. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with serious added bass depth, and the drum loop also gets some added thump. The vocals on this track are clear and easy to hear despite the boosted lows, but there’s definitely some added sibilance in the mix that some listeners might not love.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get an extra coat of bass, and it doesn’t sound ridiculous, but again, if you’re in search of an accurate sound signature, this isn’t it. The lower-register instrumentation moves out of its subtle anchoring role and into something a little more powerful, but the higher-register brass, strings, and vocals also receive plenty of boosting to match. So once again, the result is rich and bright, with a midrange that feels tamped down somewhat.
The dual beam-forming microphones offers solid intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 8, we could understand every word we recorded. There was typical fuzzy Bluetooth distortion around the edges, which is more or less par for the course with wireless in-ear mics. However, the signal was very strong, so even if the mic’s transmission isn’t crystal clear, you won’t have to contend with a faint signal.
If you’re after some in-ears that will definitely stay in place during exercise and can handle getting sweaty, the Beats Powerbeats won’t disappoint. On the audio front, they deliver a bass-forward, bright sound signature that will appeal to plenty of listeners. Add in the ease of operation and Siri access for Apple users, and you have a solid pair of earphones that easily earn their $150 price. For less money, we’re fans of the $100 neckband-style Jaybird X4, while the same-priced, cable-free JBL UA True Wireless Flash and the $200 Jabra Elite Active 75t are both strong exercise-focused options. But we’re seeing fewer neckband-style in-ears, and if that’s your preference—along with big bass—the Powerbeats are a strong, fairly priced choice.