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Apple AirPods vs BeatsX: Two smart sets of earphones battle it out

Ian Betteridge
26 May 2017
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Apple AirPods and BeatsX are close in every way, but which one of them is the best to buy?

Apple’s AirPods attracted a huge amount of attention on their launch in 2016 but, thanks to delays in shipments, they were beaten to market as the first headphones with the W1 chip by two models from Apple-owned subsidiary, Beats: the Solo3 and BeatsX.

Now that AirPods are more widely available – the shipping date is still an average of several weeks, but you can at least get them – it’s worth looking at whether you should buy them or BeatsX. Both have merits but, as we shall see, one pair wins out.

Style, design and fit

Like smartphones and smartwatches, headphones are as much a statement of your personal style as a functional item. Yes, you want good sound, but you also want them to look good.

AirPods and BeatsX take different approaches to answering the question of what makes a good-looking pair of headphones. AirPods are unique, and probably the most recognisably-Apple product I’ve seen for years. There’s no physical connection between the two pods, each sits individually in your ears. The white plastic design is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the conventional wired iPhone headphones.

There are no physical controls on the AirPods but you can pause the audio by tapping on a pod and invoke Siri by double-tapping. I had constant problems with this initially, until I worked out how to tap “correctly”. However, cleverly, the audio also pauses if you remove one of the AirPods from your ear, which makes up for the awkward tapping issues.

BeatsX, on the other hand, are more conventional in design but still stand out. They have an in-ear neck-band design where the two earpods are connected via a cable that wraps around your neck. There are two plastic blobs, which sit either side of your neck, containing batteries, the on/off button, and a Lightning port for charging. Also on the left is a set of physical controls in a small plastic lozenge that also houses the microphone.

BeatsX offer a superior fit to the AirPods, particularly if the size or shape of your ears deviates from the supposed norm. As a true in-ear design they sit within the exterior meatus of the ear. This results in louder audio than the AirPods, which sit on top of the exterior meatus instead. It’s a setup that also gives better audio isolation and makes BeatsX less likely to fall out of your ears if, for example, you’re exercising.

Overall, the design of BeatsX is less advanced but more useable than the AirPods. Style is a personal thing and AirPods may appeal to you on this count, but the design and fit of BeatsX are more practical.

Battery life

Apple gives a rough guideline of five hours battery life for AirPods, while Beats claims BeatsX should deliver around eight hours of use. In both cases, I think these estimates are fair: both are, realistically, the kind of device that you use most during the day and charge overnight.

However, five hours isn’t the end of the story for AirPods. They come with a nifty little charging case, shaped like a stubby TicTac box, which flips open to hold the earphones and incorporates its very own battery. The case combined with the AirPods delivers around 24 hours of continuous use, which means you can happily take the AirPods away for a weekend or even a week with lower use without having to worry about topping them up.

Both AirPods and BeatsX charge via a Lightning connection, so you can top them up using the same cable as your iPhone, which is one less charger to carry around with you.

Overall, the clever case means AirPods offer superior battery life. How important this is to you will depend on how you use them, but the ability to take AirPods away for a weekend or more without having to worry about charging is a major plus point.

Bluetooth connectivity

Both BeatsX and AirPods use Apple’s W1 chip, which increases the range and reliability of Bluetooth connections, and helps increase overall battery life. My very simple test for range is to put my phone in the living room and walk out through the garage on the side of the house until the audio starts to break up. In both cases the connection lasted until I walked into the garage, at which point the exterior wall started to defeat the Bluetooth connection. The AirPods maintained connection for an extra metre. This essentially means you’re getting very good connectivity that will work well in all real-world cases.

The addition of the W1 also means you gain the advantage of “smart” Bluetooth pairing and connectivity if you’re using a macOS or iOS device. AirPods are the easiest: all you need to do to initially pair them with an iOS device is flip open the top of the case next to your phone. A screen pops up offering to pair and away you go. BeatsX needs to be paired as normal through the Bluetooth preferences but that’s not exactly difficult.

In both cases, once paired with one device, the earphones are paired with all the devices using your iCloud account, including iPads and Macs and now Windows PCs. This is a great feature, and it means you can quickly switch between using your BeatsX or AirPods with an iPhone on the move and then on to the Mac at work. Best of all, switching is easy; there’s no need to disconnect your phone from the earphones before connecting on the Mac.

Bluetooth connectivity, then, is a draw. Both devices offer good range and reliability, and the same level of ease of connectivity. AirPods have a better first-use experience for pairing, but BeatsX isn’t exactly difficult.

One small feature which AirPods have too, is the ability to find them with your iPhone’s “Find my phone” app. Because AirPods don’t have LTE or GPS, this is limited purely to locating them via the strength of their Bluetooth signal, so it’s not that accurate, but it does at least reassure you that you haven’t left them on the train rather than your house.

Sound quality

The sound quality of Beats headphones is always a controversial topic of discussion. Unlike a lot of headphones and earphones, Beats are tuned specifically to have heavier bass and, to my ears, high frequencies. Middle is generally a bit lacking – recessed, I believe the technical term is. There’s no attempt here to achieve some kind of purity of sound.

The result is a tuning that’s optimised for certain types of music, making those genres sound better while making other kinds of music sounds worse. If you’re a fan of complex prog rock, this is not the sound for you. Late 2000’s techno? You’ve found your audio heaven. 

BeatsX are no exception to this rule but even given this they have one major advantage over AirPods: the in-ear design means less audio leakage, better bass and less need to crank up the volume to unsafe levels. By comparison, AirPods sound quiet unless you crank the volume up, at which point you’ll be getting annoyed looks from anyone sat around you, who will be hearing the “tsssk, tsssk, tsssk” of every hit of a snare drum with excellent clarity.

As well as sound going into your head, there’s also the sound coming out of your head to consider. Both AirPods and BeatsX have microphones built-in but the ones on AirPods are significantly better. In a quiet room, someone you’re talking to at the other end of a call will hear you perfectly well in both cases but outdoors I found BeatsX really took a hammering from the breeze, to the point where the person you’re calling can’t hear you at all.

Overall, the winner depends on how you’ll use the headphones. I wouldn’t recommend AirPods if you spend a lot of time listening to music, but they’re fine for occasional use or use with podcasts and spoken word. AirPods have a big advantage with their better quality microphones, but for music BeatsX are the best bet.

Conclusions

So which should you buy? The BeatsX are marginally cheaper, but the difference is small enough not to matter. BeatsX, to my ears, have an edge in sound quality, but bear in mind that it’s the “Beats sound” so lacks a little in the middle. BeatsX are also likely to be harder to lose, although if you do misplace them you can’t track them down with your iPhone, as you can with AirPods.

AirPods have the advantage in battery life, at least once you factor in the incredibly cool case. They’re also marginally easier to pair and have a slight edge in terms of Bluetooth range – although in both cases, thanks to the W1 chip, you can walk a long way from your phone before the signal drops off.

That leaves the major factor of design and here personal preference comes into play. BeatsX are a more traditional headphone design and one that’s been executed extremely well. They’re light, comfortable, easy to wear, have physical controls and the attention to detail is fantastic. AirPods are a more adventurous design that comes with some benefits but aren’t as practical for day-to-day use.

Overall, I think BeatsX offers the best balance of sound, performance, convenience, smart design and price. There are two exceptions to this. First, if you’re someone who uses the microphone a lot – for example, using the earphones to make a lot of phone calls. And second, if you just hate the “Beats sound” with its emphasis on bass. Otherwise, BeatsX should be your first port of call.

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