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Deciding between Apple or Beats headphones is like trying to choose a favorite child — near impossible. That being said, both are noteworthy opponents who have put out stellar-sounding mid-range offerings (like the Studio Buds) and more premium stand-outs (AirPods Max). But you’re not here to have us tell you that both can deliver great performance depending on what you’re looking for out of your listening experience. Yawn.
No, you’re here for the editors’ favorites, the creme de la creme of audio technology, the headphones and earbuds we actually keep using after-hours. We’ve put all of these picks to rigorous testing, and while the true wireless competition is fierce out there right now, you’re in good hands.
While Beats is technically owned by Apple (so in the end, the winner is still somehow Apple), we’re still deciding based on qualities like tech-y features, comfortability and wear, and most importantly, whether these actually sound any good. Some of the proprietary tech, like Apple’s much-loved W1 and H1 chips, are available for both. Other qualities, like an emphasis on room-shaking, booming bass, are highlights of the Beats brand. Here are our definitive favorites.
Beats Powerbeats Pro vs. Apple AirPods: Which Earbuds Sound Best?
The Powerbeats Pro wireless earphones were developed for those who loved the look and feel of original Beats by Dre headphones, but wanted advanced functionality and a more ergonomic fit. Apple AirPods had already been consistently ranking as some of the best true wireless Bluetooth headphones on the market, with a lightweight, comfortable design and pretty decent audio quality. So how do the two stand up years later?
While Beats has always been a brand that knocks it out of the park in the marketing and aesthetic department, their weak spot has always been a lack of advancement in audio tech. The Powerbeats Pro is the answer to those criticisms, with a linear piston driver that delivers a better acoustic response and little distortion in the bass. It’s quite balanced across lows, mids, and highs, with a crisp, finished sound.
AirPods came out the gate sounding great, with ample amounts of bass to rival the Powerbeats Pro, and a decent midrange and treble. We’ve listened to rock, pop, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, as well as podcasts and audiobooks, and never had any complaints about audio clarity. But since they don’t create a tight seal the same way a gummy-tipped earbud would, AirPods don’t have any sort of noise cancellation, and let a fair amount of ambient noise leak in.
In terms of fit, the Powerbeats Pro doesn’t have ANC, but an ergonomic shape that nests comfortably in the concha bowl of the ear and blocks out some noise. Each pair of earbuds comes with four sizes of ear tips and an adjustable earhook for further customization. They’re particularly beloved by gym rats and runners, since the buds are also sweat and water-resistant to boot.
What tips the Powerbeats over the line is battery life — while both earbuds get up to 24 hours of playback with their respective charging cases, Powerbeats has nine hours of listening time off a single charge, while AirPods only get a measly five (which have spawned many did your AirPods die? memes).
WINNER: Beats Powerbeats Pro
Bottom line: if you’re still WFH, or mostly listen to music or podcasts in quiet spaces, the regular AirPods are a fine choice. But Powerbeats Pro get you more hours of audio, and remain an essential for frequent travelers or fitness obsessives who really like to pound the pavement.
Beats Studio3 vs. AirPods Max Headphones
While Apple had to work out the previous kinks with their earbuds to pull off something really special with their first entry into the headphone competition, AirPods Max, Beats had the privilege of years of headphone crafting when they released the Beats Studio3. The AirPods Max certainly generated a lot of attention when they first came out (mostly due to their steep price point), but do they have enough key features to beat out the Beats Studio3?
First off, the Studio3 headphones impressed us by not catering just to bass-heads with this latest model, keeping a fairly well-balanced sound quality. Pop singles like Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” sounded crisp, but other genres felt just as immersive. The Beats Studio3 relies on its ANC to do lot of the heavy lifting for their clear audio, though. The brand says that the headphones can calibrate audio in real-time, but I didn’t find that much of a difference between musical genres other than ambient noise being well-reduced.
Apple promotes a similar feature with their AirPods Max, with each ear cup having an inward-facing microphone and a 10-core processor. This allows for a feature Apple calls “Adaptive EQ”, in which the AirPods Max makes micro-adjustments several times per second based on your volume level and the kind of track you’re playing. While some audiophiles will miss an adjustable EQ, this feature is truly dynamic, and the standout quality of the AirPods Max.
Besides sound quality, the ear cups on the Studio3 headphones were comfortable enough to wear for hours, and had pretty intuitive controls. The left ear cup has a press and pause button and volume buttons fast control of your tunes, including Siri control. AirPods Max is also streamlined, using only two buttons: a larger version of the Digital Crown volume adjuster (originally on Apple Watch), and one to toggle ANC on and off.
The AirPods Max are also just excellently-built, with a stainless steel headband frame that smoothly glides if you need to adjust the headphones’ fit. This is a big upgrade over Studio3’s plastic band that clicks into place. Both have similar battery life, the Studio3 lasting up to 22 hours per charge and AirPods Max giving you 20 hours of listening time.
WINNER: AirPods Max
While they’re a big investment, the AirPods Max has some worthwhile smart audio, are convenient to use, and have a simple, comfortable design. Studio3 headphones are a worthy contender with powerful ANC, but fall just short of greatness in terms of premium sound.
AirPods Pro vs. Beats Studio Buds
The Studio Buds are the latest addition to the Beats family of wireless buds following the Powerbeats Pro, and we were eager to see whether they would improve upon any of the features of their predecessor. The AirPods Pro similarly had a smattering of new audio features and a sleek, compact design compared to the regular AirPods. So how did they fare?
Both the Studio Buds and the AirPods Pro have a gummy-tipped design that felt genuinely comfortable to wear after hours, but the Studio Buds stand out with a redesigned mold that relieves some of that “pressurized” in-ear feeling. The Studio Buds are also a feathery 5.1 grams, even lighter than the AirPods Pro (which already felt pretty weightless).
Unfortunately, we wish the Studio Buds could improve upon their lackluster ANC (which we couldn’t even tell was on), compared to AirPods Pro additional microphones that filtered out most unwanted noises. But Beats worked especially hard on crafting a dual-chamber acoustic design and custom drivers for overall clearer sound, and stereo remixes sound especially balanced, like The Mamas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love”.
Apple has that new spatial audio feature, though, that brings theater-like sound exclusively to AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, for three-dimensional sound that follows the movement of your phone. It’s a neat feature, but ultimately a little superfluous, and nothing you’d use for everyday music listening.
While both tout the same amount of battery life with the charging case (24 hours), the Studio Buds eke out the AirPods Pro with five hours of battery life in ANC mode, but up to eight hours without it. The AirPods Pro have 4.5 hours of listening time with active noise cancellation, but you only get five hours without it.
WINNER: Beats Studio Buds
There are a few drawbacks to Studio Buds’ ANC functionality, but these earbuds aren’t meant to provide the best quiet environment — they’re meant to comfortably last for hours on end. For long layovers and flights, listening to music all day at work, you won’t get interrupted with the Studio Buds like you would with AirPods Pro.