Six weeks after the launch of the iPhone 7 I wrote that life without a headphone jack was a confusing mess of adapters and a lack of cohesion between Apple products. That piece, however, was written before W1 earbuds hit the market.
Now, Apple has three pairs of W1 earbuds available and my opinions have done a total 180…
Sure, when I wrote that piece the Beats Solo3 were on the market, but I already had a pair of Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones that I religiously use while at my desk and I’m not a fan of lugging around on-ear headphones in my bag.
That meant that I would often carry around Lightning headphones, the Lightning to 3.5mm adapter, and 3.5mm wired headphones. This may sound rather excessive, but the fact of the matter is, I didn’t want to be caught in a situation where I wouldn’t have the proper headphones to use.
Thus, W1 headphones have been a savior to me. In my quest to compare all three of Apple’s W1 earbuds options, I’ve gotten my hands on the Powerbeats3, AirPods, and now BeatsX.
My colleague Benjamin Mayo already broke down a lot of the difference between Apple’s W1 headphones, but read on for my personal experiences and testing. I’ve been using Powerbeats3 since late-November, AirPods since mid-December, and BeatsX for about a week.
AirPods are obviously a mixed bag when it comes to fit, while BeatsX and Powerbeats3 are more traditional in design and tend to fit a larger portion of the market. The AirPods use Apple’s classic ear-conforming design, while BeatsX and Powerbeats3 use the more standard in-ear design.
AirPods don’t fit everyone and there’s no way around that. I’d also argue, though, that BeatsX and Powerbeats3 aren’t a good fit for some people.
I will say that the BeatsX and Powerbeats3 are more versatile in their fit seeing that you get a handful of different sizes of tips with both. With AirPods you’re stuck with one design, save for some third-party solutions. Nevertheless, earbuds are personal; you should try all of the available options and determine what fits you best.
Personally, I’ve found the AirPods and BeatsX to both be a very good fit for me. I’ve always been a fan of the EarPod design and the AirPods are only an improvement here because of the lack of a cord pulling on them. BeatsX also fit me well, though you can definitely tell the effect of the wire pulling on them.
As far as Powerbeats3, I’ve never been a fan of the ear-hook design and these don’t change that belief. I just don’t find them comfortable nor do the ear-hooks add a noticeable level of security for me.
In terms of fit, here’s how I’d rank Apple’s W1 earbuds:
In addition to fit, design is something that differentiates these three earbuds. The AirPods, of course, feature a completely wireless design, while the BeatsX and Powerbeats3 have a wire connecting each earbud.
Though the BeatsX and Powerbeats3 are often lumped into the same category because of the connecting wire, there’s a notable difference in execution here.
The Powerbeats3, largely because of the wing-tip design, feature a much shorter connection cable with the option to adjust the length based on your personal preferences. The BeatsX, however, have two battery packs and a volume/playback control button on the cable, thus meaning it’s a long and heavy cable. As Jeff noted in his hands-on, the cable on the BeatsX is easily around 3 feet in length.
The long cable is an annoyance to say the least, though Apple makes up for it to a certain extent with the magnetic connection between each earbud and the flex cable used.
AirPods, however, are the true star of the show. The design of both the earbuds themselves and the accompanying charging case is insanely impressive. They really are completely wireless and I didn’t realize how big of a difference that is from traditional “wireless” earbuds until now.
W1 earbuds ranked by design
Obviously one of the biggest selling points of these headphones is the W1 connectivity. Despite the BeatsX, Powerbeats3, and AirPods all using W1, I’ve noticed some differences in their performance.
The BeatsX and Powerbeats3 largely perform the same. The W1 brings some benefits to the connectivity process, including syncing between devices and the new pairing pop-up on iOS. Some of the long-standing Bluetooth flaws still apply, though. You still have to hit the pair button every time, I still regularly have to dive into Settings to manually connect them, and specifically with the BeatsX, I’ve had issues with the connection dropping 15-20 seconds after the initial pair.
AirPods, however, are a completely different story. Take them out of the case and boom, they’re paired. Almost every time. It’s an experience that makes wireless headphones almost as seamless as wired headphones. The only issue I’ve regularly had with AirPods pairing is Mac connectivity, but Bluetooth as a whole on the Mac is buggy so it’s hard to attribute that to AirPods completely.
Ranked by pairing:
- Tie: BeatsX and Powerbeats 3
Here’s an area where the Beats offerings, in my opinion, set themselves apart. While AirPods sound noticeably better than wired EarPods, I prefer the BeatsX and PowerBeats3 for a few reasons.
First off, sound isolation is light-years better with the BeatsX and Powerbeats3 than it is with the AirPods. This is largely due to the in-ear design, which does a much better job of blocking out external sound than the AirPods design.
Additionally, also likely due to the in-ear design, the BeatsX and Powerbeats3 get much louder than AirPods. I can turn AirPods up all the way, which isn’t good for the earbuds or your ears, and still wish they would get louder. BeatsX and Powerbeats 3, especially with the improved isolation, get much louder without going near the top of their range.
In terms of actual sound quality, the BeatsX and Powerbeats3 are largely the same, though the Powerbeats have a slight edge here due to their larger size. As early reviews noted, both still feature the classic bass-heavy sound, but I’ve found it to be slightly more balanced than the pre-Apple Beats products.
As far as AirPods are concerned, the sound quality is solid and notably better than traditional EarPods, but nothing that will blow you out of the water. You get more bass than normal and a relatively balanced sound, but everything still sounds a bit hollow.
Obviously, one of the tradeoffs for a completely wireless design is sound quality and personally, I’m willing to make that tradeoff.
W1 earbuds ranked by sound:
Battery life & Charging
The BeatsX and AirPods both use Lightning to charge, while the Powerbeats3 are lagging here by still using microUSB. Why the Powerbeats3 don’t feature Lightning connectivity is a mystery, but in a world of Lightning and USB-C being the trend, microUSB is a huge downfall.
In terms of actual battery life, Powerbeats3 technically take the lead here with 12 hours of battery life per charge. The BeatsX feature 8 hours per charge, while the AirPods offer up 5 hours.
There are few things worth noting here. The BeatsX include a feature called Fast Fuel, which gives the earbuds 2 hours of playback in 5 minutes of charging, which is crazy impressive and real-world usage is true to the claims in my experience.
AirPods, however, again really standout. Even though you only get 5 hours on a charge, the accompanying AirPods case holds 24 hours of battery life. In my usage, the AirPods have been by far the most reliable in terms of battery life. Putting them back in the case after every use ensures that you’ll almost always have a full 5 hours of juice. I generally have to charge the case every week or two and it’s not a hassle at all.
Ranked by battery life:
- BeatsX (Lightning charging + Fast Fuel)
- Powerbeats3 (microUSB???)
This is an area where AirPods could really be improved. Apple’s truly wireless earbuds rely almost entirely on Siri for control, which given the nature of Siri in this day and age, isn’t necessarily a good thing. You can’t change the volume or skip tracks by using on-ear controls. It all runs through Siri or through the device to which they’re paired.
The BeatsX and Powerbeats3, though, feature the classic on-cable controls allowing you to play/pause content, skip to the next track, adjust volume, and invoke Siri.
One thing I’ve been doing a lot more of in the new year is hitting the gym and I’ve given all three of Apple’s W1 a spin over the past few months. As Zac noted, AirPods are a great workout pair of headphones and I agree.
Because of my distaste for the ear-hook design, and this is very much a personal preference, I find AirPods to be far and away the best workout headphones. AirPods fit my ear nearly perfectly and not having a wire dangling around my neck while running is one of the best things ever.
BeatsX aren’t the best for working out in my testing. The crazy-long wire is just not great for that much movement as the long wire tends to pull the earbuds out of your ear when doing more intense workouts like running.
The Powerbeats3 are, of course, designed with working out in mind and are sweat-resistant and there’s something to that. Nevertheless, I think AirPods reign supreme in this area because of their truly wireless design.
One of the biggest selling points of AirPods is how music automatically pauses when you take out one of the earbuds and resumes when you put it back in. This is something that every pair of wireless earbuds on the market should feature.
On the other hand, it can get tedious keeping track of the little AirPods, though a new feature in iOS 10.3 aims to fix that.
AirPods will also likely be continually updated with bug fixes and performance improvements. Apple has already pushed one update to its truly wireless headphones and that’s likely not the last. It’s unclear at this point as to the level of support BeatsX and Powerbeats3 will receive.
BeatsX and Powerbeats3 are easier to find right now than AirPods, which are still largely sold out and backordered. BeatsX and Powerbeats3 are both available for near immediate shipping.
I haven’t had a chance to try out the Beats Solo3, but Jeff spoke fondly of them in his hands-on, which can be read/watched here. If you want a pair of W1 headphones, these are your best/only option. Personally, I’m a fan of the Bose QuietComfort 35s for on-ear, noise-cancelling headphones.
Lastly, don’t expect to wear AirPods and not be asked about them. Especially at the gym. People have stopped me multiple times to ask me what they are and if I like them.
If you haven’t been able to tell throughout this post, I love AirPods. I really do. I think they’re one of the best products Apple has released in a long time. The seamless connectivity between Apple products, the carrying case, and the truly wireless design are all the best there is on the market.
There are some things that could be improved with AirPods. For the purpose of pleasing the market, the inclusion of wing-tips would be beneficial, while the continued improvement of sound quality would also be nice. As for controls, it would be really nice for on-ear controls for skipping songs and volume adjustments.
Let’s say AirPods don’t fit your ears, which is a possible scenario. In this case, I recommend the BeatsX. The in-ear design coupled with Fast Fuel and Lightning charging put them ahead of Powerbeats3 in my opinion.
In a broader sense, I now have absolutely no issue with the iPhone 7 ditching a headphone jack. All of those things I complained about last fall are no longer issues, as I suspected would be the case once W1 earbuds were more plentiful.
I never intend on using a pair of wired headphones again and I know that sounds very much like a sweeping declaration, but I’m assuming I’m not alone in saying that.
The iPhone 7 and Apple’s W1 chip have pushed the market towards wireless at a record pace and I’m personally all for it. What are your thoughts? Let us know down in the comments.
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