Powerbeats Pro Review: with an Android Phone

Powerbeats Pro Review: with an Android Phone

Powerbeats Pro

TL;DR Excellent sounding and superb fit; but some significant connectivity and synchronisation issues alongside an atrocious case.

I’ve been using these new headphones for a couple of months or so now, and think that I’ve used them enough to put together some sort of review about them.

The first thing to say is that the sound is really good. They probably should for £219, but it’s far better than other in-ear bluetooth headphones I’ve tried.

The second thing to say is that these headphones sit in my ear like few other in-ear headphones I’ve worn. They’re obviously designed for sport, and these are just not going to fall out of your ears. The hook that wraps a round your ear, and the way they almost “screw into” your ear mean that they’re just not going anywhere. I don’t find they’re too invasive either, but then I’m used to in-ear buds that go reasonably deeply into your ear.

The third thing I’ll say up front is that I’m using these headphones almost exclusively with an Android phone – namely my Pixel 2. When I bought the headphones, I was using Android 9, but closer to publishing this review, Google pushed out Android 10, and I duly upgraded at the first opportunity.

From an overall perspective, the headphones work fairly well. You pair them like any other set of headphones, which isn’t as easy as it is in iOS, where opening the case puts a prompt up on your device’s screen. But you generally only have to pair once (see provisos further down) so this isn’t a real hardship.

The headphones come in a box with a load of rubber tips, which means that if the default set don’t work for you, you should be able to find some that do. I should note that the design of the dreadful standard earbuds that come with Apple devices absolutely don’t sit well in my ears. They fall out. The same, I assume, would be true of Apple’s wireless Earbuds. I’ve not tried, because in-ear headphones aren’t something a shop is happily going to let you try out. But the design is wrong for the shape of my ears, based on my experience with the low quality headphones Apple ships with everything from cheap iPods to pricey iPhones.

None of that is true of the Powerbeats Pros.

I’d previously been using Anker’s Zolo branded Liberty+ wireless headphones. These worked OK, but on occasion, one would slip out of my ears. Although they have physical buttons, you had to push hard.

I’ve also used a pair of cheap Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 and Beyerdynamics Byron BT in ear headphones. These both use a cable around the back of the neck. Each has its own problems, to the extent that most recently I’d ended up using Google’s wired USB-C Earbuds. While that meant a wire running from your head, they work very smartly with Google Assistant. (Google’s wireless Pixelbuds, on the otherhand, are not well reviewed. Perhaps there will be some better headphones announced with the upcoming Pixel phone refresh.) The earphones were decent if not truly excellent, but the plastic loop design of them held them into my ears solidly.

The best Bluetooth headphones I’ve used are my over the ear Sony WH-H900 headphones, bought via an Amazon Truck offer. These offer superb noise cancelling, wonderful sound, and have a battery that lasts an eternity. The only reason not to wear these year around is that they’re too big for that. But I’m certainly happy to wear them at home or on long plane or train journeys.

The Powerbeats Pros are not noise cancelling, although they do manage to isolate a fair amount of sound. On a busy and noisy London tube, you can hear everything – aside from a few podcasts where the podcaster has neglected to raise their levels to a preferred -16 to -18 LUFS (Many podcasts are bad or inconsistent about outputting to appropriate sound levels. Radio stations note – just because internal rules specify lower levels for broadcast, that’s because processors in the output chain pull the sound levels up before broadcast. That doesn’t happen with podcasts. So if you make them quiet, they sound quiet).

There are excellent hardware buttons replicated on both sides, with a neat little volume rocker and a very light-touch button to pause, fast forward or long-press. A triple press theoretically does a rewind, but that’s a bit harder to consistently invoke in my experience.

It’s worth noting that the Powerbeats Pros do work with Google Assistant. While they’re undoubtedly built for working with Siri on iOS devices, a long press of the button when paired with an Android phone will bring up a prompt to choose an assistant on first press (Google Assistant or Alexa were offered in my case). I chose Google Assistant, and from then on it works nicely. You do need to press a button to invoke an assistant – whereas Siri can be invoked handsfree with an iPhone. And it doesn’t work as well as something like the Google Earbuds which will offer read back texts to you and let you respond to WhatsApp messages.

One major issue with the Powerbeats Pros is the size of the case.

It’s enormous.

And although the edges are rounded so that if you put the case in your pocket, it won’t dig in, this case is frankly too big for trouser pockets. If you’re taking your headphones out for a run, not bringing your case might not prove to be a problem, but for any other time, you’re going to have to find a bag to place the case. The problem is that you might need the case if you run into any connectivity issues, since that’s really how you reset the earphones.

That case also acts as a charger, and magnets should help you align each headphone to sit properly in the case. This basically works some of the time, but I have had problems with this, with one headphone or other not making proper contact and therefore not charging. Indeed, the headphone would inadvertently stay connected to my phone meaning it would then flatten over the next few hours. Of course you won’t discover this until you next use them, or realise something’s wrong if someone calls you.

The fact that there’s only a single LED on the front which somehow needs to convey the overall power of the case itself, and the fact that each earphone is charging, doesn’t really work. I would suggest that Apple/Beats needs three different LEDs – one to show the power level of the case, and another two to indicate both the connectivity and the charging status of each headphone.

Beyond that, I think overall, the case needs a redesign. There must be a way to make something slimmer, with more certain docking, and still maintaining the battery size. The case, is charged via a Lightning cable which feels very backwards in 2019. Sure, that works for iPhone users, but it’s an odd choice. USB-C all the way for me.

The size of the case, and the looseness of connection means that even if you carefully put the earphones back in the case, once you place said case in your bag, the headphones may get knocked out of position and connect to your phone.

I particularly found that they reconnect when you’ve got the case on charge. Seating and reseating the headphones in the case only sometimes fixes the issue. As often as not, I end up turning off Bluetooth on my phone while they’re on charge!

Which brings me to another Android-specific problem. You don’t get battery life details in Android. When you open the case and have an iOS device, a pop-up tells you how much charge each headphone has (this could be different if you’ve only worn one headphone, or more likely, you failed to seat one headphone properly in the case), as well as the charge left on the case itself. Theoretically the headphones last nine hours, with the case extending this to 24 hours. I’m not 100% sold on this number, although I couldn’t disprove it either. A third-party Android app called AirBuds Popup does give you some of this functionality. I’ve found it most useful to alert you to the fact that your headphones have connected to your phone when you didn’t want them to.

Other wireless headphones I have, happily report their battery levels, but these don’t. Some of the problem is possibly Google’s, although a recent announcement by them suggests that “Fast Pair” is coming to a lot more headphones soon in the latest version of Android. Unfortunately, Powerbeats Pro headphones don’t appear on the list at time of writing.

I’m lucky in that I also own an iPad, so I can use that to check power levels when I’m at home – although it’s less useful when I don’t have an iPad with (i.e. most of the time I’m not at home). I do have a work iPhone, so that’s some help. But clearly it would be most useful if I could see power levels within Android.

But perhaps my biggest frustration in usage has been the occasional loss of synchronisation between the two earphones. What I mean is that there is some kind of Bluetooth signal interruption, and when connection is restored, you get a very odd echo effect with one earbud very slightly out of sync with the other. This will either right itself eventually – although that may take minutes to do so – or you can do it yourself by pausing what you’re listening to, waiting for around five seconds, and then restarting the audio. When you’re listening to podcasts, it can be particularly annoying. With music, the effect isn’t as noticeable.

In addition, occasionally you end up losing signal in one of the earphones altogether. This seems most likely to happen if some audio has finished playing and you wait several minutes before starting another piece of audio. The only real way to sort this out is to return the earphones to their case, close the case, and then open it again with both headphones reconnecting to your phone. Oddly, you may find that although audio has stopped in one earphone, the control button to play and stop still works!

Now, I should note that most of my problems came with Android 9. Since upgrading to Android 10, the synchronisation problems seem to have been significantly reduced. With the new version of the OS, when there are signal issues, they almost instantly right themselves without the synchronisation problem re-emerging in most – but not all – cases.

I can’t say for certain whether these are issues with my particular pair of Powerbeats Pros, or my phone – I’ve never been 100% convinced about the Pixel 2’s Bluetooth capabilities. It took various firmware upgrades before it talked to my kitchen radio’s Bluetooth mode for example. It’s frustrating either way.

In general the headphones have good range. Both my phone and the Powerbeats Pros are Bluetooth 5.0, which means range should be OK.

And they pass the cycling test, which means I can put my phone in my back cycle jersey pocket and I don’t lose signal to the headphones – human bodies can be very effective Bluetooth signal blockers (Incidentally, for the health and safety conscious reader, I can assure you that I only cycle to podcasts and not music). And in general, I can walk around my home without losing signal anywhere.

There can be interference issues with the Bluetooth connectivity in busy parts of city centres. You might look one way at a set of traffic lights, and lose connectivity in the “furthest” earphone from your phone. It’s very frustrating, and I assume due to lots of competing radio signals in urban environments. On the other hand, if you’re out in a country lane nowhere near anything (or anybody), connectivity is much more solid.

One thing I am aware of is that using my Powerbeats Pros with an Android device means that I might miss firmware upgrades. These seem to need to be delivered via iOS [See below]. Even more confusing is the current firmware version. If I check via an iPhone, it reports a firmware version of 1E205 which is what this user on Reddit reported theirs were. However, someone else reports 14.302250098000000.4 which seems to be a different kind of measurement system altogether.

[Update – December 2019: The way to sort out Powerbeats Pro firmware upgrades is to install the Beats Android app which lets you manage firmware updates. Using this, I was fairly painlessly able to upgrade my firmware. The new firmware may have improved some of my issues a little, but I’m not certain. I still suffer from sound going out of phase, particularly in areas that I believe have high “Bluetooth traffic.”]

Overall then, I’m a little mixed over these. The headphones actually sound great. They’re as good as any Bluetooth headphone could be, at least without using some specialist codecs like some Sony headphones use. There isn’t an overwhelming bass which suits me, but music sounds excellent.

They don’t fall out of my ears. They’ve not been close to it. And overall range seems good.

The hardware buttons are really good, meaning that it’s easy to control your audio when you’re using them.

And yet for me, there have been these connection issues which are frustrating. Android 10 seems to fix the main issue – at least on a Pixel 2. Would a new phone improve things further, with better Bluetooth capabilities? That might be akin to using a “hammer to crack a nut.” And perhaps too a firmware update from Apple might improve things? It just depends how important Beats considers its Android users.

Maybe it’s just me?

And there’s no doubt that the case is just bad. If a third party could design a replacement for it, I’d jump at it. It’s just bulky and doesn’t hold the headphones firmly enough.

All of this means that I can’t honestly recommend these earphones, despite all the good things about them, especially if you’re an Android user.

I will persevere – they are not cheap after all – and I do love the form factor of the headphones themselves.