Apple currently makes two sets of earphones that include their new W1 chip: AirPods and Powerbeats3. The W1 chip enables instant pairing over Bluetooth and automatic pairing to iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch over iCloud. Beats Solo3 also have the Apple-designed chip but are on-ear headphones, and BeatsX earphones will have the W1 chip but won’t be available until February.
AirPods and Powerbeats3 include the same benefits of Apple’s W1 chip, but their specs and form factors are very different. Check out our hands-on comparison below:
- Price: $159
- Battery life: 5 hours + 24 additional hours from charging case
- Power: Charging case + Lightning cable
- Form: Wireless, no cord
- Price: $199
- Battery life: 12 hours
- Power: micro USB cable
- Form: Wireless, neck cord with playback controls
A box of AirPods includes the left and right earphones, a plastic charging case which doubles as a convenient carrying case, and a standard USB-A to Lightning cable (you’ll need an adapter or USB-C to Lightning cable to charge from the MacBook or MacBook Pro).
The packaging for Powerbeats3 includes the Bluetooth earphones, a rubber case that can carry the earphones, and a short USB-A to micro USB cable. You also get three additional ear tips in different sizes with Powerbeats3. Neither set comes with the necessary power brick for charging.
Each AirPod has its own battery and charges individually in the portable charging case. Apple promises up to 5 hours battery on a single charge and 3 hours battery after just 15 minutes of charging.
The charging case that comes with AirPods charges over Lightning just like the iPhone. Apple promises over 24 hours of battery for the charging case so you can power AirPods for beyond a full day.
Powerbeats3 include Apple’s custom W1 chip but not Apple’s proprietary charging port. A micro USB port is found directly on the left earphone housing to offer up to 12 hours of battery life on a single charge.
No separate charging case required but you’ll need to totally recharge to match AirPods battery life. Powerbeats3 also has a fast charging feature that offers up to 1 hour of battery after a 15 minute charge.
Powerbeats3 wins in the battery life department with up to 12 hours of continuous use on a single charge, but AirPods can last beyond a full day with breaks in between uses thanks to the separate charging case battery.
Both earphones are ‘wireless’ because they use Bluetooth to connect to sources, but AirPods are ‘truly wireless’ as they lack the cord that connects the left and right channel on Powerbeats3. It’s too bad the headphone industry wasted the term ‘wireless’ on corded Bluetooth headphones!
In theory, Powerbeats3 are probably more ideal if you’re concerned about losing an earbud during a workout or exercise. An ear piece secures the earphone in place, the neck cord can adjust to fit loosely or tighter, and Powerbeats3 can rest around your neck with that wire when not in use. AirPods rely on a good fit to stay in place with gravity being enemy number one.
In practice, Powerbeats3 can be more cumbersome than AirPods and actually distracting during workouts. The ear piece can conflict with my glasses, the earphone angle makes putting on Powerbeats3 require more effort than AirPods, and the neck cord can catch when looking left or right unless loosened more than what may otherwise feel secure.
AirPods rely on specific ear size and shape for stability where Powerbeats3 are more one size fits all, but AirPods performed without issue in my own testing during multiple physical activities including a 2.6 mile run and several minutes of elliptical use. Zero issues with AirPods falling out and no adjusting that is often needed with corded earphones.
Powerbeats3 does include playback and volume controls on the neck cord, although access and orientation is difficult to make out during use. AirPods will auto-pause when one earphone is removed and play again when it’s put back in place, and a double tap gesture activates Siri for all other commands. This gesture takes some getting used to but works well even through gloves or winter caps with practice.
I’ve decided that no earphones actually look good on their own
AirPods are also better suited for casual use. There’s no on/off mode to toggle where Powerbeats3 must actively be turned on and off between uses. AirPods are also ear bud style so you don’t plug your ears and lose ambient noise which is ideal for walking outside or through the grocery store. You can also use just one AirPod at a time if you want; Powerbeats3 are not designed well for single earphone use as the other earphone dangles and pulls on the cord.
Powerbeats3 do objectively beat AirPods in one department though: sweat and water resistance. After being concerned that AirPods wouldn’t fit comfortably in my ears (EarPods don’t) I’ve decided after testing that AirPods are more ideal than Powerbeats3 for me in most cases including workouts.
I do sometimes run during rain and windy weather, however, when AirPods could be damaged or more likely to disappear. I’m not worried about sweat being an issue (I’ll update if I discover otherwise), but I do plan on keeping my really bad, no good corded Bluetooth earphones around for bad weather workouts.
Personally, I wasn’t sure which W1 earphones I’d choose. AirPods are clearly better at wireless and Powerbeats3 seem better suited for physical activity. I’m totally sold on AirPods being great at both for me after testing, but your experience could vary based on needs and fit.
Another upcoming W1 earphones option is BeatsX ($149, 8 hours battery, Lightning charging, optional wing tips, neck band style) although that model isn’t shipping until February (when a lot of AirPods supply is promised).
AirPods are available for $159 from Apple, Best Buy, and other retailers, although supply hasn’t caught up with demand so ship times are several weeks out if you can’t find in-store inventory. Powerbeats3 are available for $199 from Apple, Best Buy, Amazon, and other retailers from $199 (Powerbeats2 are also available without the W1 chip and up to 6 hours battery life).
[Note: A few readers have pointed out that I didn’t mention sound. I’ll say this: these are earphones. The price is in the wireless features. If you’re looking for excellent sound quality, look to headphones. You can probably buy similar sounding earphones that aren’t wireless for $30-$60. AirPods and Powerbeats3 are very similar in quality: one is an earbud, the other is an earplug.]
For more on AirPods, check out Jeff’s top features video below:
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