Apple made it a point to push the world toward wireless audio with the iPhone 7, but it has yet to launch a pair of headphones with genuine mass appeal.
The Beats Solo 3 Wireless are perfectly solid, but cost a hefty $A300.
The Powerbeats 3 Wireless are strictly aimed at the gym.
The BeatsX, the latest wireless earphones from Apple’s juggernaut subsidiary, aren’t a no-brainer either. But they do get closer to that status than the rest. For $A199.95, they lap the AirPods in every area that counts, while using the same fancy wireless tech that’s become those earbuds’ biggest selling point. They also cost about $30 less than AirPods.
Right now, all of this makes them the best buy among Apple-made headphones. Here’s a closer look.
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The BeatsX are a 'neckband-style' pair of in-ear headphones. This kind of design has become increasingly fashionable among audio companies in recent years, but Beats' take is thinner, lighter, and more flexible than most of its peers. They're more than comfortable enough to leave wrapped around your neck all day.
I wouldn't call the neckband shape normal at this point, but it's more ubiquitous than the fully wireless design used by the AirPods and others.
You won't get too many stares -- especially since the earbuds themselves are nice and small. But even if you do, the neckband shape is more practical than it looks. You never have to deal with tangled cords, and you never have to go through the process of carefully pulling tiny earbuds out of a tiny case.
If you need to take a call, you have the earbuds right there. When you're done, you just take them out. It helps that the back of earbuds magnetically stick together, which erases what little chance this design had of getting unruly.
The trade-off with that light weight is that you have to deal with cheaper-feeling plastic and rubbery material. That's easier to swallow here than with the $300 Solo 3 Wireless, but it keeps the BeatsX from feeling capital-N nice.
You'll also hear a little bit of cable noise any time you rustle the cords reaching for the built-in remote or power button. That's annoying.
On the plus side, they do have that remote, which makes it easy to adjust volume and change tracks. Beats says the whole thing water-resistant, too, so you can take them to the gym without too much worry. (Though they're not outright sweatproof.)
And while the materials feel inexpensive, they don't come off as flimsy or loosely put together. If my month of daily testing is any indication, they should prove durable. They're bendable enough to fit into a small carrying case, too -- though the one Beats puts in the box is a dust magnet.
One area where Beats nails it is noise isolation. Once you find the right fit, the BeatsX's eartips create a tremendously tight seal. That means they let in very little outside noise when you have the music playing. If you don't want or need to shell out for full-on noise-cancelling headphones, this is a fine alternative.
Beats puts four different-sized sets of tips in the box -- plus a couple of 'winged' tips that help keep the earbuds in place while running -- so getting comfortable shouldn't be hard. The rubbery material used on those tips is soft, so it isn't a struggle to keep the earpieces in for hours at a time. Again, this is a more relaxed fit than it looks.
The earphones charge over Lightning, not the more widely used microUSB or USB-C. This makes sense: The BeatsX is an Apple product, and it very clearly works better with Apple devices. (More on that in a sec.) But if you're an Android owner without Lightning cables sitting around, you'll have to be more careful not to misplace the one in the box.
Like the AirPods and the other recent Beats headphones, the BeatsX utilise Apple's W1 wireless chip. This chiefly makes it very simple to pair the earphone to an iOS device.
It's not instantaneous the way it is with the AirPods, but it's still a breeze to pair: You just hold the power button, watch a card pop up, and hit the big 'Connect' button.
I did have at least two instances where I had to turn the Bluetooth toggle on and off to get my iPhone to recognise the BeatsX, but it wasn't a recurring problem. Not once was I forced to dig into my Bluetooth settings or wait more than a couple seconds for the prompt to show up.
As with every other recent Apple headphone, the BeatsX aren't as convenient with Android or Windows devices. They will still work, but you have to pair them like any other Bluetooth headphone. Again, it's an Apple thing made to coerce you into buying other Apple things. This is what Apple does.
Also included in the BeatsX is a Class 1 Bluetooth radio. That sounds obscure, and it is, but combined with the low-energy chip it helps the earphone keep a rock-steady connection at nearly all times.
Once I had everything up and connected, I did not have one instance of the connection dropping or getting choppy. Whether I had my phone buried in my pocket, or I was out on a jog, or whatever else, Bluetooth was just not a problem here.
The Class 1 module also helps the BeatsX stay connected from farther away. I had to deliberately walk a few dozen feet away from a connected phone to get things to drop out. The Solo 3 Wireless has these same benefits, but again, it costs more.
The other thing ostensibly helped by the W1 chip is battery life. The BeatsX usually lasted around seven hours on a charge on average. That's good for a neckband-style earphone, but not spectacular.
It was a somewhat similar story with the Solo 3 Wireless -- those cans last roughly 40 hours a charge, which is excellent, but not unprecedented. However, they get that much juice in a design that's thinner and lighter than most others with the same longevity.
This seems to be what's happening with the BeatsX, too. There's only one little plastic capsule for the battery here; the rest is either other electronics or simple cable. In that light, the BeatsX is a little more impressive -- it lasts long enough, but is comfortable throughout.
The other nice aspect here is charging: Beats says you can get two hours of battery life in five minutes of charging, and in my testing I found that to be largely true. Refilling the whole thing takes a little under an hour. All of this furthers the idea of the BeatsX being very friendly to those on the move.
The BeatsX do lack some of the AirPods' niftier features, though. They don't automatically pause your music whenever you remove an earbud, for instance.
But they do beat the AirPods where it counts the most: sound quality. This is still a pair of mid-range Bluetooth earphones, so they'll never be precise enough for audio enthusiasts. But, relatively speaking, they're fine, with a sound that's full and fun.
Beats has quietly turned a corner over the past few years when it comes to audio quality, and that continues here. The loose, sell-out-everything-for-bass style of the older cans is out -- now, the low-end still comes first, but it's more hearty than overwhelming.
That's good news for fans of hip-hop and electronica. The low-end boom of a rap track like Run the Jewels' 'Call Ticketron' is immense, but it's not blobby, and it doesn't spill into the vocals or high-mids. It's more controlled than that of the AirPods, too.
Things are a bit less pleasing with songs that aren't as bass-first. The bassline in a song like Radiohead's 'Present Tense' feels stronger than it should be, while the cymbals in a punk track like PUP's 'DVP' just aren't as present as they'd be elsewhere. But you don't buy Beats for perfect tonal accuracy. And the treble, while not the smoothest I've heard, isn't harsh. For what it is, the BeatsX do their job well enough.
Beyond that, there's enough detail and width to make the whole thing not feel cheap. You'll hear more of what's happening here than you would with the AirPods.
But again, this is a Bluetooth headphone, and a not-premium one at that -- everything sounds just a bit duller and bunched together than it would with a good wired pair. The BeatsX are still fine, but this is just part of the all-wireless future we've agreed to.
The BeatsX are easy to set up, easy to wear, and virtually free of connection problems. And while I've certainly heard better, they still get you a bass-heavy sound without going overboard.
If that's your style, and you're an iPhone owner suddenly in need of new wireless headphones, I can't see the BeatsX being a disappointment.
And though they aren't truly wireless like the AirPods, the BeatsX sound sharper, last longer, and use the same W1 connection tricks, all without looking like small cigarettes. There's no case to fiddle with when you put them away, no risk of dropping and losing them, and no need to talk to yourself whenever you want to up the volume.
For most, they are the Apple headphones to buy today.