Beats by Dr. Dre makes so many different headphone, earphone, and speaker options at this point, it’s taking some time to test them all—hence, here’s a semi-belated look at the Powerbeats ($149.95 direct). This exercise earphone pair has all the features you should expect from a sport-focused pair, including a sweat-resistant design and a very secure fit. Like nearly all Beats earphones, the Powerbeats also feature throttling bass response. Throw in the inline Apple iOS device remote control and microphone, and the Powerbeats offer a pretty complete package, though the price is high compared with the worthy, more-affordable competition including our Editors’ Choice, the Sony XBA-S65.
The Powerbeats, like just about all Beats products, come in red, black, or white. Our white pair features the signature Beats red cable (though not the flat cable we’re used to seeing) and a dash of (gasp!) light green on the earpieces. A flexible over-the-ear fin helps keep the Powerbeats secure, so the in-canal earpieces aren’t suddenly pulled out of place during exercise.
Unlike most earphones, the Powerbeats don’t really seal off the ear canal tightly. It’s a design choice, to allow a bit more ambient sound in—a safety precaution for joggers and other athletes who need to be aware of their surroundings. The Powerbeats also project sound outward—this is not a case of the earphones leaking audio, but actually pushing audio out, via miniature speaker grilles on the earpieces. I’m not sure if your fellow gym buddies will appreciate this design element.
The inline microphone and remote controls are located along the left ear’s cable, around mouth-level. Call clarity is decent—your call partners should be able to understand you well, and you them, but we’re dealing with cellular audio fidelity here, so don’t expect any improvement over a typical mobile phone call.
The Powerbeats ship with three pairs of ear tips in various sizes, a shirt clip, an extension cable, and a small, durable zippered protective case.
During exercise, the overall fit of the Powerbeats is definitely stable, but I don’t love how much difference there can be between the angle and positioning of one earpiece in your ear canal compared with the other. In testing, it often resulted in one ear being louder than the other, and caused me to fiddle with the fit to get the audio sounding the way I wanted it to.
Once I was able to get equal volume from both ears, the Powerbeats performed in a typical Beats by Dr. Dre manner: There’s a lot of booming bass here. At top volumes, the Powerbeats seem to come close to distorting, but manage to deliver deep bass tracks pretty cleanly—the Knife’s “Silent Shout” is delivered with a thunderous low-end presence. When you lower the volume to a level that doesn’t pulverize your brain, the low end is still intense, and any hint of impending distortion immediately disappears.
Another characteristic of the Beats sound signature is super-tweaked highs. It’s the way Beats attempts to counteract the throttle of boosted bass. Without the tweaked highs, things would sound like a muddled mess, but occasionally, I noticed that the high-mids seemed to be taking a backseat in the overall mix. This isn’t a good thing, as vocals, and sibilant sounds that help us understand what singers are saying, live in this high-mid frequency realm, along with many percussion and stringed instrument sounds.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the attack of the kick drum loop is delivered with plenty of punch, and the sub-bass synth hits pack a nice low, resonant presence. On this particular track, the vocals stand out nicely, too, but on other tracks from the same album, like “Lift Off,” the vocals blend a bit too much with all the other midrange frequency content.
On classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the exaggerated lows can sometimes make the lower register strings and percussion sound a bit too boosted and almost amplified. This can make instrumental music sound more exciting, in a sense, which might be good if you actually listen to instrumental music while you exercise, but this is not a pair that will appeal to audio purists, if that wasn’t already apparent. The extra brightness can also make the higher register strings sound occasionally harsh. In other words, the Powerbeats are better-suited for modern pop, hip hop, rock, and R&B mixes that often feature deep bass frequencies as a primary element of the mix. Classical and jazz fans won’t likely enjoy what the Powerbeats have to offer.
The Powerbeats can’t quite match the overall value and performance of the aforementioned Sony XBA-S65. And if you think you’d prefer an on-ear option, the Polk Audio UltraFit 2000 provides a solid audio experience at a very reasonable price. Finally, if you’re looking for a cheap-as-it-gets, exercise-friendly pair, the MEElectronics Sport-Fi S6 should do the trick, but you get what you pay for. At $150, the Powerbeats feel slightly overpriced for what they offer. I’m not crazy about the potential for inconsistent fit between ears, but as an exercise pair, they deliver two important things: A fit that won’t fall out while during periods of heavy movement, and an exciting, bass-heavy frequency response to help motivate.
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