Beats By Dre Powerbeats 3 Wireless Headphones Review
The Powerbeats 3 are the best Beats yet
For such a newcomer to the industry, Beats By Dre has enjoyed a meteoric rise on its way to becoming the dominant consumer headphone company. But while even audiophiles recognize Beats' marketing wizardry and stylish designs, the conventional wisdom is that Beats headphones just aren't that good.
At least as far as the new wireless Powerbeats 3 (MSRP $199.99) go, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong.
There are three things you want in a good pair of wireless in-ears: they should sound great, they should have good enough battery life and controls to not be a nuisance, and they should stay in your ears. The Beats Powerbeats 3 ace all three tests with flying colors.
While they're definitely designed for gym rats and runners more than commuters, if you're looking for the ultimate wireless running headphones, it's hard to argue against these Beats. The only outstanding question? The price tag, which may be a bit steep. But if you're like me and you're sick and tired of in-ears that fly out of your ears halfway through your run, the Beats Powerbeats 3 are worth every penny.
About the Beats Powerbeats 3
The Beats By Dre Powerbeats 3 wireless are the latest wireless in-ear monitors from the Apple-owned Beats brand. Design-wise, these are your typical Bluetooth earbuds, in that they have two separate buds with a wire running between them that you can cinch behind your head as opposed to "truly wireless" earbuds that lack the wire and overcomplicate things.
As with other wireless headphones, the Powerbeats 3 run off of an internal, rechargeable battery. Beats claims you can get 12 hours of continuous play, which tracks well with our experience. More importantly, you can charge them for five minutes and get an hour's worth of playtime, which is indispensable if you're like me and you go for late-night runs; there's nothing worse than finally building up the motivation only to realize your headphones are dead.
For wireless connectivity, the Powerbeats 3 boast class 1 Bluetooth and compatibility with Apple's W1 wireless chip. Class 1 Bluetooth has a range that is supposed to be 10x further than Class 2 devices. In short: it's awesome. In our office, the Powerbeats 3 stayed connected from 100 feet away, and that's with 49 active networks in our area (Cambridge, MA loves their Wi-fi). Your range will dip a little if you don't have line-of-sight, but we didn't have any issues 75 feet away through two walls, either.
The W1 chip also allows for easy connectivity with newer Apple smartphones, like the iPhone 7. The process of connecting most Bluetooth headphones can be a bit confusing to novices. With most sources you hold the power button for five seconds and go through the usual pairing process. With the W1 chip you just need to hold the button for one second near your iPhone and an on-screen prompt will connect right away. If you have multiple Apple devices on a single iCloud account the Powerbeats 3 will automatically connect to those, too, which is a nice touch.
What We Like
The Powerbeats 3 sound great, as long as you get a good fit
As with all in-ear headphones, getting a good fit is crucial to how your music is going to sound. In-ear headphones don't have enough power to create a compelling soundscape without sealing most of your ear canal. If you don't get a good seal the headphones will sound tinnier than they should, won't block outside noise, and will have a very weak bass response.
For me, the default tips worked best on the Powerbeats 3, but there are large and smaller options available. They're standard tips and not fancier Comply foam tips, which is a bit shame given the high price tag, but you should be able to find a workable solution at least.
If you do, you're in for a treat. While most people expect the sound quality on in-ear headphones to merely be good enough, the Powerbeats 3 are among the best in-ears we've tested. There's nothing here that will compel audiophiles to give up their favorite cans, but in our lab tests and listening sessions we found a rich response in the mids and highs, and with a proper seal there's a nice meaty low-end that gives songs from Ultralight Beam to Starboy the impact you'd want while working out, while sample-rich tunes like Ezzy's Goodbye come through without any distracting distortion added.
One side-note to that is that if you boost the volume all the way up, the clarity does take a hit. I noticed it both on the low-end with some pop music like The Great Unknown by Jukebox The Ghost, where the low-end feels a bit more muddled than usual. I also heard more distortion on the high-end, which can get pretty messy. In particular the 30 second stretch from 1:05 to about 1:35 in London Calling by Michael Giacchino.
The ear-hook design means they stay put while running
While the earhook headphone design hasn't been as popular in the past few years, Beats has wisely stuck with it. I've worked out in all manner of headphones over the years, and nothing has been as frustrating as wireless in-ears that rely on the flared tips that barely sit inside your ears. They always seem to come loose at the worst times, and even making a simple control shift like turning the volume up or skipping a track causes them to fall out.
With the Powerbeats 3 that's not really an issue, because the hooks keep everything nice and secure. The hooks are just long enough to hook around your ear without feeling cumbersome, and they're posable so you can adjust them to however big your ear may be. The design may be a little more chunky than the competition, but once they're in place they don't go anywhere.
The W1 chip and Class 1 Bluetooth solve wireless earbuds' biggest problem
It's hard to believe, but connectivity is still a major pain point with wireless earbuds. While the Bluetooth working group has been advancing the Bluetooth standard over the years, even pricey wireless earbuds still involve a complex pairing processes and run the risk of dropped connections and static-laden interference.
As we detailed in the section above, the class 1 Bluetooth radio allowed for about 100 feet of working range with line of sight, and that's through three walls with open doors. With walls and doors in the way we still got 60-75 feet of range (with just a laptop, not the W1-sporting iPhone 7), so you can pretty easily put these on and clean your apartment without worrying about dropped connections.
The initial pairing process was also painless on our iPhone 7 Plus. It took all of five seconds to get the Powerbeats 3 paired up, and less than a minute with a Windows PC and an Android phone.
The battery life is absolutely stellar
With most wireless earbuds you can get through a few days at a time without worrying about your battery running dry. With the Powerbeats 3 you've got 12 hours of continuous playback before the battery gives out, and you can get a single hour's playtime with 5 minutes of charging. For a lot of people, that's a week's worth of workouts and maybe a couple days of commuting without needing to recharge.
What We Don't Like
Pick one: Skull-splitting volume or clarity
While we don't condone playing your headphones at super-loud volume (seriously, please stop for your own sake), we know that people care about it. A lot of the early negative reviews about the Powerbeats 3 are directly related to the headphones' perceived lack of volume compared to the Powerbeats 2. In my experience the Powerbeats 3 can get plenty loud, but at peak volume there's a lot of distortion and the high-end can get painful to listen to.
I notice it especially on something like All I Know from The Posterz or Jay-Z's Public Service Announcement, where Jay has a slight whistle to his "S" sounds when he says "Allow me to reintroduce myself..." It's a high note that gets clipped at max volume, and it's not great. It sounds fine a few clicks down, but then the bass end loses a little bit of its oomph.
It's not a constant problem, though. On a song like Da Rockwilder I didn't have any issues at max volume, with a really enjoyable bass line and highs (like the rain falling at the beginning of the song) that were tolerable without seeming clipped. The bass can actually get to be too much on some songs, too. The bass line on Growing Pains is pretty intense, for example, and caught me totally off guard when I first heard it at max volume.
The headphones do require a little bit of adjusting to keep a secure fit
One of the things people rarely talk about with wireless earbuds: it's not always clear how you're supposed to wear them. With most wired earbuds they just go in your ear. But with wireless ones that use fins or hooks, they often have to rest at a particular angle. With the Powerbeats your best bet is usually to have them so the bar is parallel to the ground, though you can twist the bar a bit in either direction to get a better fit, almost like tightening a screw.
The only issue is sometimes you can get a secure fit and the Powerbeats will ever-so-slightly shift out of position. It's super minor, but sometimes this means your songs will sound less bassy. This happens with most earbuds to some degree, and with the earhooks the Powerbeats will at least not fall out, but it's a thing you may have to adjust once or twice during a run.
The earbooks do pinch your ears a bit
For long listening sessions, the Powerbeats 3s' earhooks can get a tiny bit uncomfortable if you're listening to them for more than an hour at a whack, because they do put a little bit of pressure on your ears. You can pose them to mitigate this, but that isn't necessarily clear when you first put them on and the manual doesn't mention this.
Even so, I did feel a bit of fatigue between the weight of the chunky bar and the material on the earhook. It goes away after a minute or two, so just give yourself a break now and then.
They're expensive, even by wireless standards
There's no getting around this one: at nearly $200 the Powerbeats 3 Wireless are expensive. Most high-end earbuds live in the $100-120 price region, though some of our other favorites check in at under $100. Stepping up to $200 for headphones that you may not want to necessarily wear in the office or on the train because of how large they are is going to be a non-starter for a lot of people.
Should You Buy Them?
Yes--especially if you want wireless earbuds for running and working out at the gym.
Wireless earbuds have blown up in the past two years, for a number of reasons. But despite the immense popularity, there are still some longstanding issues that hang over most 'buds on the market: finicky pairing, dropped audio, clunky ergonomics, and poor battery life. Even expensive models have these problems, to the point that I wondered if we'd ever see a truly great pair of wireless earbuds.
I'm not sure the Beats Powerbeats 3 Wireless quite get there, but they drastically mitigate all of these major pain points; they're easy to pair, they sound great under most circumstances, they're water-resistant so you can use them in the rain or snow, they won't fall out of your ears during a workout, and the connection quality is second to none. They're the first pair of wireless earbuds I've used where I didn't feel like I was making a major sacrifice just to clip one wire.
In short, these are the best wireless earbuds I've ever used for working out, especially for running. While I'd still opt for a pair of wired headphones if I just needed earbuds for the train, for workouts these are already at the top of my wishlist.
The one major downside: the price. At $200 these are simply going to be too much for many headphone buyers, and that's understandable. Something like the JLab Audio Epic2 Wireless Bluetooth earbuds are a reasonable approximation and are only $100, going with the same earhook design as the Powerbeats 3.
But if the price is doable and you're sick of wireless earbuds that are more trouble than they're worth, give the Beats Powerbeats 3 a try. You shouldn't be disappointed.
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