But it is time to focus up (as Ted Lasso would say) because there are good reasons that the $199 Beats Fit Pro, not the $179 AirPods, may be your next Apple earbuds.
For an up-to-date comprehensive overview of the Apple earbud landscape, consult a mega-chart I created to compare features found on Apple and Beats audio products (including recently discontinued ones of historical interest).
AirPods Under the Hood
With the Beats Fit Pro, you won’t get the iconic AirPods look. They have a more understated appearance, similar to that of the Beats Studio Buds, released in June 2021.
But the Fit Pro buds are essentially AirPods under the hood, more so than the Studio Buds, which used an oddball MediaTek TWS chip that limited their Apple-centric capabilities. The Fit Pro buds use the H1 chip that is standard on all AirPods models, enabling such features as audio sharing, one-touch pairing, auto-switching among Apple devices, and hands-free Siri access.
The Fit Pro buds also boast other advanced AirPods features, including:
Adaptive EQ to fine-tune playback based on how the earbuds are positioned in the ear
Spatial audio with head tracking
A new skin-detection feature from the third-generation AirPods that improves how playback automatically pauses and restarts when the earbuds are removed and reinserted
The Fit Pro buds depart from the AirPods aesthetic in obvious ways. They’re available in purple, gray, white, and black, for one thing.
They also dispense with the AirPods classic downward-pointing microphone stem, incorporating a subtler bulge similar to that on the Studio Buds. That’s where you’ll find a physical button to deal with phone calls and music playback, as with the Studio Buds. This button is quite different from the force sensor squeeze controls found on the third-generation AirPods’ stem (and on the older, pricier AirPods Pro). I love the force sensor, and I find the Beats button a bit clunky and too easy to engage accidentally, but I’m getting used to it.
That stem absence makes the Fit Pro buds incredibly compact (and thereby easier to lose, so be careful). Beats claims to provide its “smallest enclosure ever” even though the Fit Pro cram in 30% more components. The charging case is reasonably sized but a bit bigger than that of the third-generation AirPods.
In a nod to athletes, Beats added flexible, curved “wingtips” to the earbuds so they stay firmly seated during even frenetic workouts. My tips delicately fit within the cupped areas of my ears called the cymba conchae, adjacent to the ear canal, and no amount of head-shaking could dislodge them.
Beats could have offered interchangeable wingtips in various sizes, as other earbud makers have done. Instead, it made them one-size-fits-all and incorporated them into the button bulge. The company claims to “deliver the optimal flexibility for earbud stability and comfort on any ear shape or size.” We’ll see if that’s true now that Fit Pro buds are broadly available.
I find the wingtips to be a bit uncomfortable, but I think I will get used to them.
The Fit Pro buds stay firmly wedged in my ears for another reason: they include silicone ear-canal tips similar to those on the Studio Buds and AirPods Pro for creating a good seal and passive noise cancellation. As with the other models, the Fit Pro buds include three ear tip sets in several sizes for the best fit. The H1 chip enables the now-familiar ear tip test to ensure a good fit. The third-generation AirPods have none of this.
Certain Fit Pro audio features borrowed from the AirPods Pro also give them an advantage over the third-generation AirPods.
These include active noise cancellation for blocking out external sounds in tandem with the passive cancellation provided by the silicone ear tips and the complementary transparency mode for letting in external audio so you’re more aware of your surroundings. You activate these modes with long presses on either mechanical button. When neither mode is enabled, the Fit Pro buds default to Adaptive EQ.
Transparency mode works pretty well, but I find the Fit Pro’s active noise cancellation mediocre. It doesn’t really cancel out background noise, such as the running water from the kitchen faucet as I wash the dishes or the loud hum inside the family car when I’m riding shotgun as my wife drives. Such background noise just becomes more subdued.
But the Fit Pro’s active noise cancellation is better than nothing and thus better than the third-generation AirPods. It lets me use the Fit Pro buds in noisy surroundings, such as on a bus or train, where the AirPods would be all but worthless.
It’s also worthwhile to highlight categories in which the third-generation AirPods have an edge.
MagSafe is one example. The charging case for the third-generation AirPods adds magnetic adhesion to the previous wireless charging capability. The Fit Pro’s charging case lacks wireless charging, forcing you to charge via a USB-C port built into the case.
Moisture protection is another. The Fit Pro buds boast an IPX4 rating to shield against sweat and water splashes, as do the third-generation AirPods. However, the Fit Pro’s charging case lacks this protection, while the third-generation AirPods case can withstand moisture.
Plus, there’s Find My support. As with other Apple-manufactured audio products, you can make the Fit Pro buds beep if you misplace them. You can also pinpoint them on a map with their current position if they are turned on and within Bluetooth range, or their last-known position if they are out of range or their batteries are dead.
But the third-generation AirPods support the more sophisticated Find My network features that have trickled down from higher-end AirPods products. Nearby Apple devices can help locate them, like an AirTag, so they are easier to retrieve. A proximity view on the iPhone screen does a more precise job of guiding you toward an errant earbud. And you can set up separation alerts in case you leave your AirPods behind. (That said, I’ve struggled to get the proximity view working reliably on my iPhone 13 Pro Max, which hasn’t been a problem for me when tracking down AirTags.)
The Beats Go On
If deviating from the iconic AirPods aesthetic isn’t a dealbreaker, there is a strong case to be made for the Fit Pro earbuds. Exterior appearances aside, the Fit Pro buds feel like Apple products through and through, thanks to the H1 chip found in all AirPods models. Their wingtip design ensures they’ll stay in your ears during workouts, and while their charging case lacks moisture protection and MagSafe, neither of those is a dealbreaker. They include customizable ear tips and provide both active noise cancellation and transparency mode.
At $199, they’re only $20 more than the third-generation AirPods, which are less capable in many ways. In fact, the Fit Pro buds come close to feature parity with the AirPods Pro—for $50 less.
So if you have been planning to plunk down money for either the third-generation AirPods or the AirPods Pro, give the Beats Fit Pro a hard look first. You might find them to be a better option.