It’s clear that the future of headphones is wireless, and Apple has a pair of wireless headphones for everyone — if you’re willing to pay.
Its latest model of headphones is the Beats Studio 3, a big pair of great-sounding headphones that go over your ears and come with a big price tag to match at $449.95.
It’s the most expensive base-model pair of headphones Apple-subsidiary Beats makes.
It’s also the only pair of Apple headphones with noise-cancelling that blocks out the world around you. And like most Apple products, it works best if you already own tons of other Apple gear.
Apple no longer includes headphone jacks on the iPhone, and other manufacturers are rapidly following suit. The bottom line is that unless you want to deal with dongles, your next pair of premium headphones will likely connect to your phone and/or computers over Bluetooth.
But Apple’s wireless headphones are different from other wireless headphones, at least if you’re an iPhone user. Last year, it introduced a chip it called W1, which allows Apple headphones to quickly and easily pair with iPhones and iPads. Pairing two devices over Bluetooth can be finicky, but newer Beats will automatically find a nearby iPhone and pop open a big “connect” button. Simple.
If you want this easy-pair experience, you’re stuck with Apple or Beats headphones. But if you walk enough tech and finance offices, you’ll see that there are a lot of keyboard warriors that need to block out noise to focus — and many of them are wearing Bose noise-cancelling headphones, which are typically seen as the noise-cancelling market leader.
One way to look at the new Beats Studio 3 is it’s a direct challenger to high-end Bose models like the QC35. Apple wants to peel off Bose fans who need serious noise cancelling but want to more easily use them with their new iPhone 8.
So how do the Beats Studio 3 hold up? Are they worth their money? Are they for everyone or just Apple users?
Let’s take a look:
The top feature on the Beats Studio 3 is noise cancellation. Apple calls their technology 'adaptive noise cancelling,' or ANC.
The Beats Studio 3 are the only pair of noise-cancelling headphones Apple makes.
In a nutshell, adaptive noise cancelling uses tiny microphones to listen to the world around the headset and then 'subtract' that noise from what you're hearing. Boston-based Bose is generally acknowledged as the leader in active noise cancelling headphones.
The end result is a quieter experience. When you slip the Beats Studio 3 on your ears and turn them on, you can hear everything get quieter as the noise cancelling kicks in. If you don't turn on music or other audio, you can use the noise-cancelling feature by itself.
The noise-cancelling isn't perfect. At the Business Insider offices, where I did most of my testing, it didn't create complete silence. I could hear my coworkers on the phone or laughing, although it sounded like they were far away. On the subway, I heard trains pull into the station, but my ears were saved from loud screeching.
Most sounds were definitely muffled. Wearing the Beats Studio 3, I couldn't hear my fingers typing on my keyboard, for example. It's definitely good enough if you just want a slightly better way to block out the world around you.
Unlike the Studio 3's closest competitor, the Bose QC35, Beats doesn't offer noise cancelling on the headphones' mic while making calls, which is a very attractive feature.
The sound quality on the Beats Studio 3 is good -- certainly an upgrade over the earbuds that came with your phone, or a cheap pair of headphones, but perhaps not up to the standards of a audiophile who really cares about the equipment used to enjoy music.
I tested the Studio 3 with hip-hop, punk, and jazz songs streamed through Apple Music. Most of the time, I paired the headphones with my iPhone over Bluetooth, but at times I listened through a wired connection to my laptop.
I also listened to a few high-quality MP3s downloaded from Bandcamp. I didn't hear any difference.
The Studio 3 performed best at hip-hop -- on the song 'Bodak Yellow,' bass was loud and Cardi B's vocals were clear. It sounded like I was hearing it played on a big sound system.
Performance was less distinguished for rock and jazz, though. The Beats Studio 3, like other headphones with noise cancelling, doesn't create a 'soundstage' effect where you feel like you can hear where individual instruments are coming from.
Podcasts were fine.
Ultimately, the sound quality on the Beats Solo 3 is good-to-great. For 95% of people it will be satisfactory. For the remaining 5% who are looking for the best possible audio reproduction, I'd recommend looking at other headphones -- probably without active noise cancelling.
The Beats Studio 3 has Apple's W1 wireless chip built-in. Basically, for iPhone, iPad, and Mac users, this means that pairing the wireless headphones is easier than for other Bluetooth devices.
You press the button at the bottom of the right ear cup, and you'll see a pop-up on your phone's screen: 'Connect.' Then you're done. To switch the headephones over to a Mac or your Apple Watch is as easy as flipping a switch inside a menu.
The increased ease of pairing with Apple's W1 is so major that I personally don't recommend non-Apple headphones to people who want to use wireless headphones with an iPhone. You just pick up your headphones and go. If you're going to be using wireless headphones on a daily basis with an iPhone, you really want to have Apple's new quick-pairing system.
For non-Apple phone users, the Beats Studio 3 can be paired through your gadgets through Bluetooth, like other wireless headphones, or plugged in through a headphone jack. But that eliminates one of the biggest reason to pick the Beats over similarly priced models from companies like Sennheiser and Bose.
The Beats Studio 3 are great-looking headphones. Apple sent me the white version to test out, with gold accents, and I thought it looked really attractive on my head. It looks like how you'd want a $449.95 pair of headphones to look: premium and modern.
However, I never received a single compliment on their looks. I think there are a few factors why. First of all, the overall design is nearly identical to previous versions of the Studio 3, so it doesn't necessarily look like a new product.
Second, at least in New York, Beats are some of the most common headphones you see on the streets. They're everywhere. If you want a pair of headphones that stand out, the Studio 3 aren't for you, at least in the four main colours it comes in.
However, Apple may in the future release a cosmetically different version of these headphones as a collaboration with fashion brands like Balmain, for example.
The Studio 3 can be worn for long periods of time -- say, a 6-hour work session, or a 4-hour plane ride.
Two hinges on each side allows the headphone band to expand to a variety of head sizes. I've got a big noggin (I wear a 7 3/4 baseball hat) and there was still ample room to continue to expand the headband even farther.
But at times, it can feel like both sides of the headphones are pressing in on your head, even if the headband is properly expanded. This is mostly a non-issue, and it does help the headphones stay attached to your head.
The earpads use a kind of fake leather that does a great job of repelling sweat. It's soft and supple. But it doesn't breathe particularly well, and after long listening sessions I found I had sweaty ears.
Beats headphones also clearly have a right ear and a left ear. The fact that it's not symmetrical allowed the design to grip your head slightly better as the cups are slightly askew.
One thing about Beats headphones that I'm always surprised by is their durability. I throw them into my bag on a regular basis, without a case, and they rarely get scuffed or dinged.
In addition, I haven't had any problems with the headband on Beats headphones breaking -- unlike Samsung's headphones -- or the hinges giving out.
If you're using Beats for your daily commute, you can expect them to a while and handle the abuse you dish out.
Like other Beats headphones, the controls on the Studio 3 are high quality, simple, and easy to use.
The 'B' on the left ear cup is a play-pause button. Press it once to stop a song from playing. Pressing it twice skips the current track and pressing it three times goes back one song.
It's also the button you can use to pick up phone calls or summon Siri on an iPhone.The ring around the B contains also volume up and volume down buttons.
On the right ear below the B is the power button, which you hold to connect your wireless headphones to your phone, or press to turn them off and save the battery. You'll press this button a lot -- think of it as a wireless replacement for the headphone jack.
However, one day after arriving to work to find that my headphones had run out of battery overnight, I wished that the headphones had an on-off switch, so I could be sure that battery isn't draining while I'm not using them. You can turn off ANC by pressing the power button twice, but in practice it's tricky to know when ANC is turned on or off. It's usually on.
It's also annoying that the Beats use a MicroUSB cord to charge. The cord is included, and it's a common connector -- most Android phones have one -- but it's not the same connector as an iPhone, which is slightly annoying for someone committed to Apple's ecosystem. Apple's AirPods and the BeatsX headphones use the iPhone's Lightning connector to charge.
Beats says the Studio 3 headphones get 22 hours of battery life with adaptive noise cancelling turned on, and 40 hours with it turned off. Of course, most people will listen to them with ANC turned on.
In my testing, I charged the headphones twice over the course of a week in which I used them nearly every day for at least a few hours. The battery life is good enough that you won't have battery anxiety and you don't have to charge them every night.
Only once did the battery disappoint me. Apparently, the ANC was on overnight as they were plugged into my laptop at work. When I showed up the next day, the headphones' power meter was flashing an angry red.
However, they do charge quickly -- 10 minutes plugged and they were good to go for most of the day, until I gave them a full charge overnight.
The 40-hour ANC-free battery life is the same as the next model down the Beats lineup, the Solo 3. But because it's tricky and unusual to turn off noise-cancelling on the Studio 3, it effectively has half the battery life as the Solo3. The Solo3 battery is also better than advertised -- sometimes I can go weeks without recharging them.
If battery life is your top concern, there are better options for wireless headphones.
I used the Studio 3 to go for a run paired to an Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE. I haven't used them for exercise since then.
Although Beats endorser LeBron James can warm up, work out, or perform incredible feats of athleticism with Studio Beats on, you're probably a little bit smaller than the king. They're just a little too heavy for most people.
You'll want to find a different pair of headphones for working out, although the Studio 3 can fill-in in a pinch. Even the slightly lighter Beats Solo 3, shown above, is a superior workout sound system.
For Android users, I'd recommend looking at other headphones brands if you're looking for a pair of over-ear headphones with noise cancelling.
Although the Beats Studio 3 is a fine pair of headphones, there's a chance you could get better bang for your buck, especially since you don't get the benefit of Apple's easy pairing. Brands like Sennheiser, Samsung, Bose, and Audio-Technica all make noise-cancelling wireless headphones in a similar price range.
But if you like the Beats look, they work just fine with Android phones, and they will still sound great.
The Studio 3 are the wireless noise-cancelling headphones I recommend for iPhone users. The easy pairing enabled by the W1 chip is just too big an advantage to overlook.
But if you don't need noise-cancelling, then you should take a look at other Apple or Beats headphones with the W1 chip. They're often less expensive, and can be lighter or have better battery life.
Take Apple's AirPods, for example. They're wireless earbuds, not big over-ear headphones, but they pair easily and they're under half the price of the Studio 3 at $US159.
I own the Beats Solo 3, which are on-ear headphones. The cup is slightly smaller and rests on your ear, not over it. They don't have noise-cancelling, but they have a longer battery life, are significantly lighter, and they can be less expensive -- you can buy them online for as little as $299.
There are also tons of less-expensive headphones that will play your music and podcasts for as little as $30. But there's an easy justification for expensive headphones if you know you are going to wear them for scores of hours every week.
Bottom line: If you want both noise-cancelling and Apple's W1 chip, the Studio 3 are the only game in town.
This is what Apple's current-generation wireless headphones lineup looks like now. Sometimes these models go on sale: