Like 'em or hate 'em, Apple's AirPods have been the talk of the headphone world ever since they were announced alongside the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus back in September 2016. But there's another Apple wireless headphone from the company's Beats by Dre subsidiary that's also received its share of buzz: The BeatsX ($150, £130, AU$200). And like the AirPods, the BeatsX was also delayed, but it's officially available as of February 10.
The BeatsX employs Apple's new custom low-power Bluetooth chip, the W1, which is also found in the AirPods, PowerBeats3 Wireless and the Solo3 Wireless, and allows for automatic pairing with Apple devices updated with the latest versions of its operating systems (iOS 10, MacOS Sierra and WatchOS 3). But among that trio of new Beats models, the BeatsX is the only truly fresh model, and the first one designed with the help of Apple's design and engineering teams. (The PowerBeats3 Wireless and Solo3 Wireless just updated the previous models in their respective lines with Apple's new wireless chip.) Another bonus: the BeatsX is the only one that charges with a Lightning cable.
Ultimately, the BeatsX is a fresh take -- or really Apple's take -- on the neckband-style wireless headphone that LG made so popular with its Tone headsets and has been copied in recent years by an assortment of other companies. As in the past, Apple and Beats haven't reinvented the mousetrap so to speak, but they have built a better one.
The BeatsX's neckband -- Beats calls it a Flex-Form cable -- has two wires running through it that are made of nickel titanium alloy or nitinol, which was developed by the US Navy in the late 1950s and is very malleable, durable and lightweight. The key to it here is that it gives the band just enough rigidity and allows you to roll up the headphone so it fits it in an included compact carrying case. You can't do that with an LG Tone headset. (Side note: the soft-to-touch rubber carrying case is a bit of a dust magnet.)
It's also worth noting that the cable is anchored to your neck with two equally weighted bulges in the cord, one of which houses the battery and the other the headphone's electronics. This really isn't any different from what you find with other current neckband-style headphones , such as Skullcandy's affordable Ink'd Wireless, but the BeatsX's design is decidedly slicker and seemingly more durable.
The lightweight magnetized buds, which house 8mm drivers, adhere to each other, so you can pin them together when they're not in your ears and wear them like a pendant. Like other neckband-style headphones, these are designed to be worn around all day and they're light enough to make you forget you're wearing them (when they aren't in your ears anyway). The only design gripe I have is that the cords may seem a little long to some people -- by that I mean people with smaller necks.
In the box, you'll find four different sizes of eartips and a couple of sizes of fins to anchor the buds in your ears. You can opt to use the fins or not, but if you're doing anything active, like running, you'll want to use them; they work well and fit comfortably. The headphones are water-resistant, according to Beats, but are not waterproof.
I got a pretty tight seal with the medium tip but ended up opting for the larger one because it offered the best seal. Like other in-ear noise-isolating headphones, it's crucial to get a good seal to maximize sound quality and bass response.
To its credit, Beats has been trying to get away from its earlier reputation as a company that made uber-popular headphones that sounded mediocre thanks to their loose, bloated bass and lack of detail. The BeatsX has more bass and overall bigger, slightly richer sound than the AirPods, but they can't be accused of having too much bass. As always, whether one prefers that deeper sound to that of the AirPods is totally a personal preference.
I liked their sound, especially for a Bluetooth headphone of this type (they sound very good for a neckband-style Bluetooth 'phone). Ironically, however, my quibbles are with the treble, not the bass. Some may find this headphone has a touch too much sizzle. We audio reviewers sometimes refer to this as sibilance, and it's most noticeable with high-hat strikes and tambourine shakes but also creeps into the upper mids (there's a bit of a harshness to the vocals of The Veronicas' "You Ruin Me" track, for example).
Like the PowerBeats3, the BeatsX has an integrated microphone and Beats has redesigned the RemoteTalk button to make it more tactile and responsive (it's definitely improved). I had no problems making calls -- sound quality seemed quite good and callers said they had no problem hearing me, though they lack the vibration feature of the LG Tone models. I'm not quite ready to declare the BeatsX better or worse than the AirPods at making calls, but I will say that since this is a noise-isolating headphone, it's a little easier to hear people in noisier environments. (We'll be doing some further testing on call quality comparisons).
I tested the BeatsX with an iPhone 6S , MacBook Air , Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. As I said, the headphone incorporates Apple's new custom low-power Bluetooth chip, the W1, which allows for automatic pairing with Apple devices. To pair, you just turn on the BeatsX -- the power button is on the right bulge -- and hold the BeatsX near your iPhone (it will also try to pair with other nearby iPhones, which is a small problem). That should automatically pair the headphone to your Apple Watch, iPad and Mac -- anything registered to you on your iCloud account -- and once I went through the initial pairing process I was able to switch among my Apple devices with minimal hiccups. (Translation: like the AirPods -- and any other wireless product -- do not expect completely glitch-free operation.)
BeatsX also works with non-Apple Bluetooth devices, but you have to pair it the old-fashioned way, which is still pretty simple.
The headphone delivers up to eight hours battery life at moderate volume levels (even with non-Apple devices), which is decent for this type of headphone, though not exceptionally good. But the good news is that if you give the headphone a quick five-minute charge via its Lightning port -- yes, I said Lightning, not MicroUSB -- you get two hours of usage. I tested this, running the BeatsX all the way down, then charging it for five minutes. After I reconnected, the battery life indicator showed 27 percent. Beats markets this quick-charge feature as "Fast Fuel."
Sound quality shootout
At $150, this headphone isn't cheap, but it is the least expensive wireless model from Beats and costs slightly less than Apple's AirPods, sounds slightly better, and delivers longer battery life.
The wired Bose Ultra clearly delivered superior sound (it just has a smoother tonal balance and smoother, more detailed sound, with tighter bass). The Bose SoundSport Wireless has more bass and I liked its sound better overall; it's a tad more comfortable to wear. However, I preferred the BeatsX's more discreet design (the SoundSport Wireless' buds really stick out). The Bose does have a semi-open design that allows more sound in than the BeatsX -- again, a personal preference decision.
The Jaybird X3 and Powerbeats3 Wireless offer comparable sound to the BeatsX. The Jaybird X3 costs $20 less than the BeatsX and is also an excellent wireless sports headphone (though not quite as comfortable as the Beats X), while the popular Powerbeats3 Wireless delivers more battery life (13 hours) but may not fit everybody's ears as well as the BeatsX and is $50 more expensive.
AirPods' DNA in a different body
If you're trying to decide between the BeatsX and the AirPods, there are plusses and minuses to each. With the AirPods you're getting a set of cord-free, totally wireless earphones that offer maximum untethered freedom. But on the downside, a lot of people don't like how they look, and they have an open design (a plus for those who don't like eartips jammed in their ears), which makes them hard to use in noisier environments like the streets of New York. Also, the AirPods fit more securely in some people's ears than others. (Plenty of folks are able to run with AirPods but they don't stay in my ears when I run with them.)
Though not without its faults, the BeatsX gives you most of the "magic" features of the AirPods (for users of Apple products anyway), including Lightning charging and effortless syncing. This all comes in a wearable design that rolls up into a compact carrying case that's arguably harder to lose than the AirPods' smooth plastic dental floss-size case. It may not be the ultimate neckband-style wireless headphone, but it's a fresh take with a lot of appeal.