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Beats Flex review: Not true wireless earbuds, but a good $50 AirPods alternative

While they're "wired-wireless" headphones, the second-gen BeatsX sound better than the AirPods and have better headset performance for voice calls.

The in-line microphone was moved down the cord on the left side. 

David Carnoy/CNET

Over the last few years, I received a trickle of email asking me when Beats' might release an upgraded version of its once-popular BeatsX neckband-style headphones. Truth be told, I didn't think I'd ever see a version 2.0, but now it's arrived with a new name -- the Beats Flex -- and a much-cheaper $50 (£50, AU$80) price tag, which is half of what its predecessor had been selling for. 

With the new iPhone 12 models no longer including wired EarPods headphones in the box, the Flex instantly becomes an affordable, Apple-friendly wireless alternative to the AirPods, which start around $130 for the standard version with a wired charging case. The good news is they sound better than both the original BeatsX and standard AirPods. They also work well for making calls and have better battery life than the original. The bad news? Their design is passe in a world now dominated by true wireless earbuds.

Like

  • Price is right
  • Improved sound, voice calling and battery life
  • Rock-solid wireless connection
  • Auto-pause magnetic buds
  • Easy pairing with Apple devices
  • Android app for Android users

Don't Like

  • They have wires
  • No carrying pouch included
  • No official water-resistance (no IPX certification)
  • Ear tips don't have integrated wings to lock buds in your ears.

Yes, these are "wired wireless" headphones -- with a cable connecting the left and right earbud -- at a time when budget true wireless earbuds are widely available for $50 or less, some of which are surprisingly good. For a lot of people that pesky wire is a dealbreaker, and I personally hadn't regularly used a neckband-style headphone for a couple of years, so it was a bit of an adjustment to go back to it.

But some people like the concept. You can leave the earbuds dangling from around your neck, wearing them like a pendant. Gone is the fear of losing an AirPod by dropping it. Going from listening to not listening to the earbuds requires simply lifting them to your ears -- or pulling them out. And forget about having to drop them in a charging case when you're not using them.

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While the Beats Flex looks similar to the BeatsX, there are a couple of notable design changes. For starters, the inline microphone and control module has been removed and incorporated into a module lower on the left side of the cord to match the position of the battery and power module on the right side of the cord. As a result, the earphones feel better balanced and you don't have that impulse to pull the microphone closer to your mouth when you're making calls.

The buds, which are lightweight and generally comfortable to wear, magnetically clasp together. Your music automatically pauses when they're clasped and unpauses when you pull them apart. Some people have complained that the BeatsX's magnets weren't strong enough, but the Flex's buds adhere together nicely, so the magnets appear to be stronger. 

Some of the other key upgrades include new acoustic drivers for improved sound, an upgraded microphone for improved voice calling and 12-hour battery life, up from 8 hours. And get this: The Flex is the first Apple headphone to have USB-C charging, with a 10-minute charge giving you 1.5 hours of playback. (All other current beats products use Lightning or Micro-USB charging.) Beats calls this fast-charging feature Fast Fuel, but many headphones offer a quick-charging feature. And like the new iPhones, there's no charger in the Beats Flex box either, so you'll need to have a USB-C charger on hand, too. 

beats-flex-microphone

The new microphone.

David Carnoy/CNET

You get four different-size ear tips to help you get a tight seal, which is crucial for optimizing sound quality (you do have to push the buds into your ear canal). I wish the earbuds included a fin or wing like the BeatsX did so you could lock them in your ears as you can with Jaybird's X4 or Tarah earphones, which are currently on sale for around $50 as they're phased out. (The Flex sounds better than those models and it has better voice calling capabilities and battery life. But the Jaybirds, despite having larger buds, do fit better.) 

I think Beats, after including basically the same ear tips for years, could get a little more innovative in that department. That's my biggest complaint, although I was also a bit disappointed the Flex doesn't come with any sort of carrying pouch like the BeatsX did -- you just have to kind roll it up and put it in your pocket or bag. 

One other thing: These aren't sweat- or water-resistant -- they have no IPX rating. That's also true of the standard AirPods, which plenty of people wear while running and working out without ill effect. The Flex should be OK for light workouts -- I worked out with them at the gym but didn't sweat much -- but Beats would steer you toward its Powerbeats Pro if you really want true sports earbuds.

The Beats Flex has Apple's older W1 chip, not the H1 found in the second-gen AirPods, AirPods Pro and the Beats Solo Pro. Still, the W1 gives you Apple's easy-pairing feature with any of your Apple devices that are synced to iCloud. It also allows you to switch between Apple devices, check battery status or use Audio Sharing with a friend using Beats or Apple headphones (with the W1 chip). Meanwhile, the Beats Flex is surprisingly Android friendly: the app for Android offers additional features including quick pairing, battery levels and firmware updates.

beats-flex-gray-and-blue

The gray and blue versions will be available in early 2021.

Apple

The Flex sounds better than the BeatsX and the standard AirPods: You get a little cleaner sound and more bass than the AirPods, mainly due to the Flex's noise-isolating design. I liked the BeatsX's sound but it has a little treble push -- sometimes referred to as presence boost -- that could lead to some listening fatigue. The Flex is more balanced sounding, and while the earbuds don't produce as much bass as the Powerbeats Pro or sound as dynamic, they're smoother-sounding and they seem open, with a fairly wide soundstage.

I also found them good for making calls. The people I talked to said I sounded clear and the noise reduction outdoors in noisier environments was good. You can answer and end calls with the button on the left module, where there's also a rocker switch for volume control. While playing music, tapping the universal control button twice skips tracks forward. I don't know if the Flex quite measures up to the AirPods for making calls but it's close.

While I can't say I'm personally ready to go back to wires, the Flex is a solid neckband-style style pair of earbuds that I mostly enjoyed using. If they'd come out at $100 or even $75, they would've been a hard pass from me. But at $50 they're worth considering, especially if you want Apple-friendly earbuds and don't want to shell out more for AirPods.

Beats Flex key specs

According to Beats:

  • New acoustic drivers
  • Magnetic earbuds automatically play music when they're in your ears and pause when they're attached around your neck.
  • Upgraded built-in microphone helps reduce wind noise.
  • USB-C charging
  • 12 hours of listening time
  • 10-minute Fast Fuel charging gives you 1.5 hours of playback.
  • On-device controls allow you to adjust volume, manage music, take calls and activate your voice assistant.
  • Beats app for Android users
  • Price: $50 (£50, AU$80).
  • Four color options: Beats Black, Yuzu Yellow (available now); Smoke Gray and Flame Blue (available early 2021)