I tried the Amazfit PowerBuds Pro, a $150 AirPods alternative with some surprising features

 I tried the Amazfit PowerBuds Pro, a $150 AirPods alternative with some surprising features

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Amazfit's PowerBuds Pro cost less than AirPods Pro, but not significantly less -- and in my tests they didn't sound as good or work as well. (Photo: Amazfit)

Amazfit’s PowerBuds Pro cost less than AirPods Pro, but not significantly less — and in my tests they didn’t sound as good or work as well. (Photo: Amazfit)

Like the idea of noise-canceling earbuds but don’t want to shell out $250 for Apple AirPods Pro? I don’t blame you; that’s a big chunk of change for a couple pieces of plastic, no matter how sophisticated they might be.

That’s why I’m constantly on the lookout for less-expensive alternatives. There are tons to choose from, but very few actually raise the bar in terms of features.

Related reading: 5 AirPods Pro alternatives, all priced under $100

Here’s one that does: The Amazfit PowerBuds Pro look like AirPods on the outside, but inside they pack some interesting capabilities: adaptive active noise-canceling (ANC), heart-rate monitoring, hearing protection and even posture monitoring. All for $150. (And as it happens, Amazfit is currently bundling its Band 5 fitness band, a $40 value, at no extra charge. If you buy the PowerBuds Pro at Amazon, you don’t get the freebie.)

So here’s the question: Is this jack-of-many-trades a master of none? Or is it a worthy Apple challenger offering more for less? (OK, that’s two questions. I’m bad at math. But good at earbuds, so read on!)

$150 at Amazfit

Powerbuds Pro: Features and fit

There are certain key features I look for in modern-day earbuds, most of them present in the PowerBuds Pro: ANC, transparency mode (so you can let outside sound in), in-ear detection (which automatically pauses/resumes playback when you remove/re-insert an earbud) and a sweat-proof design.

What’s missing? The case supports USB-C charging but not wireless. I’ve tested $50 earbuds that include that option, so it should be on the menu here. Another case-related gripe: I found the earbuds annoyingly difficult to pluck out. They’re a bit slippery, and the lid doesn’t open far enough to let you get a good grip.

As for fit, my ears are decidedly average, at least in size, meaning most earbuds’ stock “medium” ear tips fit me perfectly. Not so with the PowerBuds: Out of the box, the ‘buds felt loose and didn’t make that all-important seal until I switched to the large tips. (You actually get four sizes to choose from here; many earbuds come with just three.) That’s not a big deal, just something I noticed.

Amazfit’s companion app is called Zepp, for reasons that defy logic, and because it’s also used for the company’s smartwatches and other products, it can feel a little overwhelming if you just want to tweak earbud settings. On the plus side, it lets you tweak a lot of them, including four different ANC modes and an equalizer.

Buy the PowerBuds Pro from Amazfit and you'll get the Band 5 fitness band at no extra charge. (Photo: Amazfit)

Buy the PowerBuds Pro from Amazfit and you’ll get the Band 5 fitness band at no extra charge. (Photo: Amazfit)

PowerBuds Pro: Sound and performance

When testing earbuds, I listen to a wide variety of music. There’s one track in particular that tells me a lot: The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” About 30 seconds in, a second guitar joins very subtly on the left. Good earbuds bring out those plucks with rich distinction; on the PowerBuds, I could barely hear them.

Indeed, while I tend to be fairly forgiving when it comes to audio, I found the overall quality here to be on the muddy side, perhaps because it’s so bass-heavy (even with the equalizer set to “Pop”). Make no mistake, this is highly subjective; my “mud” might be your “awesome.” Lots of folks love bass-forward sound. I was hoping for better balance.

I was also hoping that the posture-monitoring feature — confusingly referred to here as “cervical protection” — would play a little chime or something if I wasn’t sitting up straight. However, although you can perform a posture calibration within the companion app, the only warning you get is “if you’re in a fixed position for more than 40 minutes.” That seems an awfully arbitrary number, and you can’t adjust it. To me this feature is half-baked and not very useful.

Related reading: 5 AirPods Pro alternatives, all priced under $100

The PowerBuds do cater nicely to runners; they’re able to automatically detect when you start your workout save basic stats: distance, pace and total time. You can also sync that data to third-party apps like Runkeeper and Runtastic. While you’re running, you can tap an earbud to hear speed, heart-rate and other stats.

Unfortunately, while I did hear a run-detection chime in the earbuds about a minute into my test run, the recorded pace and mileage data was way off. (Example: I know for a fact my run was 1.6 miles; the earbuds recorded 1.1 miles.) Later, after syncing the earbuds to the app, I couldn’t find any heart-rate readings.

Meanwhile, ear-detection stopped working correctly after the run. I removed a single earbud; the music paused for a moment and then started again. Then it paused again and restarted again, over and over. I made sure I was holding the earbud by its stem, not blocking any sensors or anything.

PowerBuds Pro: The verdict

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not wild about the PowerBuds Pro. There’s a lot of promise here, but the execution is flawed in several important areas. The earbuds don’t sound particularly good, and certain features just don’t work properly.

On top of that, $150 feels steep compared with, say, the Soundcore Life P3, which is roughly half the price but offers better sound and wireless charging. And I could name half a dozen other earbuds I think deliver better bang for less buck.

That said, Amazfit gear does go on sale pretty often. If you’re able to find these for $100 or less, and if Amazfit is able to work out some of the kinks (many of which could indeed be addressed with software updates), then I’d take a look.

Looking for more earbud options? Here’s my roundup of five AirPods Pro alternatives priced $100 or less.

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