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Beats Studio Buds review: Better sound than AirPods Pro but missing some key features

Geared toward iOS and Android users, the new noise-canceling $150 Beats Studio Buds deliver good sound quality and voice-calling capabilities in an excellent design. But Apple users may not be thrilled with what got left out.

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. 

8.0

Beats Studio Buds

Like

  • 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
  • USB-C charging

Don't Like

  • With no onboard W1 or H1 chip, some key features are missing for Apple users
  • No in-ear detection sensor

At $150, they basically cost the same as the standard AirPods 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. They're coming to the UK this summer for £130, then they'll hit Australia for AU$200. 

Stemless AirPods?

The first thing you'll notice about the buds is that they look kind of like the 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.

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The buds are IPX4 splashproof like the AirPods Pro.

David Carnoy/CNET

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.

beats-studio-buds-red-streets-of-nyc

Testing the noise canceling and call quality in the streets of New York.

David Carnoy/CNET

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 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.

beats-studio-buds-case-vs-airpods-pro-case

The case is only a little bigger than the AirPods Pro's case and much smaller than the Powerbeats Pro's case. 

David Carnoy/CNET

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.

Read more: Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds for 2021

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.

Performance evaluation

As noted, the Beats Studio feature 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.

beats-studio-buds-red-close-up-microphones

The buds have three microphones in each earbud but don't have an ear-detection sensor.

David Carnoy/CNET

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. The bass is 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 overall slightly clearer and more detailed than the AirPods Pro's sound. And these just 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 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. 

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The buds come boxed in eco-friendly packaging.

David Carnoy/CNET

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. Who knows, maybe Apple didn't want these to compete directly with the rumored AirPods 3 possibly coming later this year. I guess we'll find out soon enough.