Beats headphones tend to put audiophiles into a bit of a lather. Listen to audio experts, and they'll opine endlessly about how the audio quality on them is “terrible”, how they're just a “brand”, how people who buy them really should buy something else.
And yet people do continue to buy them, in enough numbers for Apple to buy the company for US$3 billion. This, of course, only fuels the audiophiles' complaints further, as they deride Apple as a company that's all brand and design, and no substance.
I think all this is largely nonsense, driven by a sense of purism that also encourages people to pay ridiculous sums of money for “premium” optical cables that make zero difference to sound quality. If the “Beats sound” was awful, people wouldn't choose to buy them. No amount of cool branding can make people buy headphones that sound terrible, and no amount of sneering at people will make them think the audiophiles are right.
BeatsX review: Sound quality
That said, the first time I put BeatsX on and listened to someone else's music, it's safe to say I thought that these might be the headphones that proved the sceptics right. They sounded muddy, slightly distorted and generally bad.
Heavy rock sounds either limp or slightly distorted on the BeatsX. The sweet spot seems to be club tunes from around 2008. Mason Vs Princess Superstar's seminal “Perfect (Exceeder)” sounded excellent. The issue is that the BeatsX are tuned to emphasise bass and treble over the mid-range.
In short, whether BeatsX are right for you depends on the kind of music you listen to regularly. In a set of headphones at this price range, that's not ideal, but it's also in keeping with Beats' overall philosophy. And there are other things about BeatsX that lift them up a long way in my estimation.
BeatsX review: features
When Apple bought Beats, I wondered how long it would be until Apple's industrial designers got involved with headphone design, and I suspect the correct answer is “until now”. The BeatsX show a lot of the attention to detail in the overall user experience that has made Apple hardware popular over the years.
First, there's the inclusion of Apple's W1 chip. BeatsX aren't the first Beats headphones to include the W1 – that honour went to the Solo3 – but they're a great reminder of what the custom chip can do.
There are three main areas where W1 helps. First, it makes the pairing and Bluetooth management process incredibly smooth. Turn on BeatsX, hold them close to your iPhone, and a dialogue appears onscreen asking if you want to pair. Say yes, and it's done.
What's more, BeatsX are now paired with all the Apple devices associated with your iCloud account, with no additional action required on your part. And switching from one device to another is smooth and glitch-free, something that isn't the case with other Bluetooth devices. Basically, the inclusion of W1 brings that Apple level of “it just works” to Bluetooth audio. In fact, I don't think I can imagine going back and buying a set of headphones that don't include W1 now.
BeatsX review: Attention to detail
There are many other areas where Apple's attention to detail come to the fore. For example: for anyone who struggles with keeping in-ear headphones in, Beats includes a small set of “bat wings” that fit over each ear piece to help keep them in. These work well, but what's impressive about them is the attention to detail in how they work.
First, you can fit them without removing the in-ear tips themselves, which makes them much less fiddly to use. Second, thanks to small cutouts on the part that fits over the tips, they can only fit one way, which means you can't snap them on the wrong way around. It also means that they don't move around once fitted.
That isn't the end to the small details, though: Apple leaves its mark even on the packaging. As with most in-ear headphones, the BeatsX come with a selection of buds of different sizes, all wrapped in a blister pack. This, though, is an Apple blister pack, which means no shredding the packaging to open them, and reusability. You can slide back the cardboard after you've opened the pack, allowing you to keep your spare attachments safely stowed away.
Small details all, but finding this level of attention to detail breeds confidence in the quality of the product. BeatsX are the first Beats headphones to include a Lightning port, which means you can charge them using the same cable as your iPhone. Battery life is acceptable, but not stellar. Apple claims around eight hours on a full charge, which means heavy users like me will charge them every evening when they get home.
That's poor compared to Solo3, which I can happily use for a week between charges, but it's comparable to most headphones in this class. There's also a neat fast-charge feature, which gives you a couple of hours of playtime from only five minutes of charging.
The heads are also magnetised, so when they sit around your neck they make a satisfying “click” and attach to each other, making it harder to lose them. The overall design is also excellent: rather than a solid bar that can slide uncomfortably around your neck, the BeatsX has two small, discreet thicker elements on the cable that sit either side of your neck. These serve the double purpose of housing the battery and electronics, and add just enough weight and balance to the headphones to make them feel comfortable. Unlike most headsets of this “round the back” type, I found them so comfortable and discreet I usually forgot they were there, and not once did I have to retrieve them from the floor.
BeatsX review: Verdict
After my first listen, I was prepared to bury the BeatsX under a hailstorm of criticism. Yet after using them for a couple of weeks, they've become my headphones of choice. Yes, I would prefer it if the sound was a better, although for the majority of music I listen to they're fine.
But the overall experience and convenience of the BeatsX more than make up for their below-par sound quality. The best headphones are always the ones you want to wear, and I have ended up wanting to wear the BeatsX more than any other pair I own.
If sound quality is the most important thing to you, then don't buy them – but you're probably not going to buy Beats anyway. On the other hand, if you want a set of convenient, beautifully designed Bluetooth headphones with Apple-level attention to detail, then you'll love this product.