Beats Studio Buds review: Apple's surprise hit gets slight improvements
Studio Buds leave out some features in the step-up Beats Fit Pro and new AirPods, but they just got some small upgrades and remain appealing options for iOS and Android users.
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David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Lightweight and discrete, they offer a comfortable fit with active noise canceling and transparency mode
Slightly better sound than AirPods Pro and Powerbeats Pro
Physical control button
Similar experience for iOS and Android users, except iOS users get hands-free Siri
With no onboard W1 or H1 chip, some key features are missing for Apple users
No in-ear detection sensor
Editors' note: In January 2022, Beats updated the firmware of the Beats Studio Buds, adding a few new features, the most important of which is that Apple users now get "instant pairing" with all their iCloud devices from a "single tap." This is not the same as the automatic pairing found on the step-up Beats Fit Pro, as well as the Apple AirPods Pro, AirPods 2nd Generation and AirPods 3rd Generation. The Studio Buds are automatically added to your list of Bluetooth devices available to you on your iCloud devices. But you have to click on the Studio Buds in the Bluetooth menu to pair them to that specific device. (The Studio Buds do not pair to two devices simultaneously.) With the January firmware update, the Studio Buds' "b" button can also be customized to control volume, either within the iOS/macOS Bluetooth menu or the Beats app for Android.
The Beats Studio Buds are a little unusual for an Apple product -- yes, Apple owns Beats, for those who might have missed that 2014 acquisition. Unlike Apple's own mega popular AirPod headphones, these new Beats noise-canceling true-wireless earbuds are being targeted at Android users, too. (If they sound like old news, thank a steady stream of recent leaks, up to and including LeBron James.)
Beats says they offer a "universal" user experience for iOS and Android, and while that's not completely true, it raises the question, is that a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what side of the OS fence you're on. While these are excellent earbuds that arguably sound better than the AirPods Pro, they're missing some features that Apple users have come to know and love in the AirPods and even other Beats headphones.
At $150 (£130; AU$200) and sometimes less during flash sales, they basically cost around the same as the AirPods 3rd Generation but they have active noise canceling and a transparency mode like the AirPods Pro. They come in three colors at launch -- red, black and white -- and like other Beats headphones, they could very well come in plenty of other colors in the future.
The first thing you'll notice about the buds is that they look kind of like the once-rumored stemless AirPods. They're discrete-looking in your ears and also quite lightweight, weighing just 5.1 grams. Overall, I thought they were really well-designed, with a physical universal control button on each bud that I prefer to the touch controls you'll find on a lot of true-wireless earbuds these days. You tap and hold a bud to toggle through noise canceling on, transparency on and noise canceling off (you can also program that gesture for one bud to access your phone's native voice assistant). And there's the usual single tap to pause/play tracks and answer/end calls and double-tap to advance tracks. However, there are no volume controls on the buds.
Beats says it's redesigned the silicone ear tips and I got a tight seal with the largest ear tip and the buds stayed securely in my ears. I found them as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro and I also thought they sounded a little better than both the AirPods Pro and Powerbeats Pro. But more on that after I finish talking about their design and features.
I had no issue with them staying in my ears while running with them but you may get a little slippage as you sweat -- they are IPX4 splashproof -- and sometimes it can help to use foam ear tips, as I do with the AirPods Pro. (Ultimately, foam tips offer a bit more grip.) They also fit my ears better than the Powerbeats Pro, which I have trouble getting a tight seal with unless I use my own XXL large ear tips. But I can see how some people would like the Powerbeats Pro's ear hook for sporting activities because it gives you some reassurance that the buds won't fall out of your ears.
As I said, these were designed with both iPhone and Android users in mind. For starters, the case is nice and compact -- it's just a little bigger than the AirPods Pro's case -- and it has USB-C charging instead of Lightning charging. Yes, you heard that right: USB-C. (A short USB-C to USB-C cable is included, but no charger is included.) Moreover, the experience using the buds with Apple and Android devices is similar for both platforms.
There's a one-touch quick pair feature for both iOS and Android; the Beats app for Android also allows you to check battery life, switch from noise canceling to transparency mode (or turn it all off) and get firmware upgrades. The app's feature set is pretty limited -- for instance, there are no EQ controls for tweaking the sound profile if you care about that. But Beats says these are the first product to support both Find My in iOS and Find My Device on Android. It'll show the last known location of the buds or play a chirping sound if they're close by and you just don't see them.
The only thing Apple users get that Android users don't is hands-free Siri, which means you can give voice commands by saying, "Hey, Siri." With Android, you have to use your phone's native voice assistant by tapping and holding one of the buds.
No H1 or W1 chip
Here's the rub to all this. One of the reasons the experience is so similar for Apple and Android users is that the Beats Studio Buds don't have an H1 or W1 chip -- the not-so-secret sauce in other Apple and Beats headphones, including the step-up Beats Fit Pro ($200), that allows them to tap into the Apple ecosystem. That means there's no iCloud pairing across all your Apple devices, and thus no auto-switching. Here's how Apple describes it: "When your other iOS and iPadOS devices are signed in with the same Apple ID as your iPhone, your AirPods seamlessly connect to whichever device you're listening to (on supported AirPods and Beats headphones)."
That's a killer feature for Apple users, the equivalent of multipoint Bluetooth pairing, one of the best conveniences of higher-end wireless headphones. That it's not available with the Studio Buds may be a deal-breaker for some people, especially if they're used to the feature on earlier Apple or Beats models. And while Beats updated to the Studio Buds' firmware in January 2022 so now Apple users now get "instant pairing" with all their iCloud devices from a "single tap," the Studio Buds don't pair simultaneously with two Apple devices (you have to manually switch between devices by tapping on the Studio Buds' Bluetooth menu). Practically speaking, this means the audio doesn't automatically switch over to your iPhone when a call comes if you're using the Studio Buds with your Mac or an iPad. But at least you can pair the buds with one of your iCloud devices and it will be listed in the Bluetooth menu of all of them.
While there is no multipoint Bluetooth pairing that would allow you to have these simultaneously connected to two devices, such as a PC and phone, you can pair them with multiple devices and manually switch between them using the Bluetooth menu. It works, but it's not a terribly magical experience.
The other thing that's missing is spatial audio for movie and TV watching. That's Apple's virtual surround feature and it's pretty cool if you haven't tried it already. These have no gyroscopes or accelerometers for the head-tracking that's required for spatial for video. They do work for spatial audio for music in Apple Music, but that's not a big deal because all headphones do.
Last but not least, these do not have in-ear detection so your music won't automatically pause when you take them out of your ears and resume when you put them back in. On a more positive note, you can use either the left or right bud independently, a feature that some people find important when chatting on the phone or listening to podcasts.
Battery life is rated at five hours at moderate volume levels with noise-canceling or transparency mode on and eight hours with it off. The noise-canceling battery life number is in line with the AirPods Pro and you can get two additional charges from the charging case, which doesn't have wireless charging (in case you were wondering). If totally depleted, the buds and case take about two hours to fully charge -- and you get one hour of playback time from a five-minute charge in the case. Beats calls this feature Fast Fuel.
As noted, the Beats Studio features active noise canceling. And while these do have decent muffling capabilities when it comes to noise cancellation, it's not up to the level of the AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM4 or Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. They didn't muffle the noisy HVAC unit in my apartment as well as those models did, nor were they as successful at muffling New York street noise.
However, transparency mode -- that's the mode that allows ambient sound to leak into your ears, so you're not cut off from your surroundings -- is better. The sign of a good transparency mode is that when it's engaged, you should hear the world as if you weren't wearing earbuds. That's how the Beats Studio Buds' transparency mode sounds (natural), so it's at least in the ballpark of the excellent transparency mode of the AirPods Pro though maybe not quite it's equal.
Voice calling was also good: I went back and forth with these and the AirPods Pro in the streets of New York, and callers told me they thought the BeatsStudio Buds were comparable to the AirPods Pro for headset performance, with good noise-reduction capabilities. They have three microphones in each bud, including a beamforming mic in each to home in on your voice. Callers said they could hear me clearly even as traffic passed by.
These are equipped with Bluetooth 5.2 and I didn't have any issues with wireless dropouts or Bluetooth glitching, so all good there.
As I hinted at earlier, I thought the sound was good, though not as good as the sound of the step-up Beats Fit Pro, which are a little more articulate and dynamic. That said, the Studio Buds bass is relatively well-defined and the overall sound is well-balanced, with nice detail in the treble and natural sounding mids where vocals live. Beats engineers spent a lot of time creating the custom 8.2mm drivers for these and I think the sound is slightly clearer and more detailed than the AirPods Pro's sound. While I can't say they sound fantastic, they do sound a little smoother and better balanced than the Powerbeats Pro.
With its hip-hop roots, Beats has a reputation for having bloated bass, but that's not the case here. In fact, while the bass goes pretty deep, it doesn't have quite the energy or kick as some higher-priced earbuds like the Sony WF-1000XM4. Also, the Sony sounds a little more open and just has a slightly bigger, more refined sound and killer noise canceling. But I think most people will be pleased with the sound the Beats Studio Buds deliver and some will like the fit better than the Sonys, which cost over $100 more.
Beats Studio Buds: Final thoughts
As I said at the outset, these are a little bit of an unusual product for Apple in that Beats is catering to both iPhone and Android users. Google's Pixel Buds A-Series at $99 are a touch behind in sound quality and don't have active noise canceling, but they may be a better value for Android users. You also have the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus selling for around $100 now. But with all the little corners cut here and there -- no H1 or W1 chip, no in-ear detection -- it feels like there's probably some room for discounts on these Beats. A few months from now you may well see them selling for $20-$30 less.
I did really like them overall. As I said, they fit my ears well, they're small, and have good sound and call quality. The case is good, too. It's a shame Apple created a bit of a downgraded experience for its own users by not including a couple of those key differentiating features you get with the AirPods and other Beats. Maybe Apple didn't want these to compete directly with the AirPods 3, but at least we've seen some good discounts on the Studio Buds that make them an enticing option, particularly when their price dips to closer to $100.