This winter, I tried out nearly two dozen pairs of wireless headphones for a series of reviews, all of them running Bluetooth 4.0 or 4.1. From my testing, I had two main takeaways: (1) Wireless headphones can be a tremendous convenience — getting rid of that dangling wire feels great, whether you’re riding the subway, working out, or just cleaning up around the house; (2) getting wireless Bluetooth headphones to work can be a tremendous pain in the ass.
Pairing, across the board, was a chore. Certain headphones would simply stop being recognized by certain devices, and determining whether it was my headphones or my laptop or my phone causing the problem was a fun exercise in restarting each device and waiting. And while every set I tested worked great while I was inside, as soon as I stepped out the front door, I’d experience audio breakup — without the walls to bounce the Bluetooth radio signals off of, and with my water-filled body (don’t judge) blocking what signals could stretch from my phone to my headphones, I experienced signal loss unless I placed the phone in a shirt or jacket pocket directly next to my headphones.
When Apple erased the 3.5mm headphone jack from its new iPhone last September, it promised frustrated consumers that the jack would be replaced with something better than standard Bluetooth: headphones using its new, proprietary W1 chip. The W1 chip has been available in Beats Solo 3 Wireless (on-ear headphones), Power Beats 3 (workout headphones), AirPods (Apple’s no-wires-at-all earbuds), and now the Beat X earbuds (just regular old earbuds), available for sale today at $149.95. And, thanks to the W1 chip, Apple has indeed delivered on something better than Bluetooth. The downside? It’ll only work with Apple products.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the headphones themselves. The Beats line may be hugely popular, but it has a bad reputation among audiophiles for being overpriced for the amount of sound quality you get. The Beats X bucks that trend, with its 8mm drivers ditching Beats’ usual bass-heavy sound profile for something that feels richer along every bit of the audio spectrum. You can still get that good rumble going on, and deep-bass kicks still punch nicely, but it’s not as overpowering as other Beats headphones I’ve used, allowing you to hear the full range of every song. It comes with a variety of earbud tips to ensure a proper fit, and even comes with some winged options to help them lock in if you plan to use them while working out (they’re water-resistant but not waterproof, which should be fine for all but the sweatiest of people).
The Beats X also benefit by being charged by a Lightning cord instead of a micro-USB cord, like nearly every other wireless headphone on the market. This means you can quickly top off your headphones with power in just a few minutes. The claim is one hour of playtime after five minutes of charging, and while I wasn’t able to really nail down the accuracy of that claim, I did find that after running them dry, I was able to charge them while taking a shower and have them last my entire 75-minute commute — something I have not experienced with other wireless headphones. Fully charged, they get eight hours of battery life — a good amount, though other wireless headphones can exceed that.
But when it comes to pairing and performance outside, the Beats X really shine. Like other headphones with the W1 chip, you just turn them on and hold them next to an iOS 10 device (an iPhone or iPad works) and they’re paired. That pairing is also shared with any other devices you share an iCloud account with, and it’s easy to switch between devices, much more so than with traditional Bluetooth. When using them indoors, I found I could go much farther before audio started to cut out; casual testing showed them with about a 30-foot range. I experienced almost no audio breakup at all outside, without needing to keep the phone as close to the headphones as possible. I even was able to keep my iPhone in my bag without glitches, something that would render other wireless headphones useless.
Technically, the Beats X can also work with any Bluetooth-enabled device, but I’d recommend against buying them unless you’re running something on iOS. Right now, only Apple and Beats products have the W1 chip, and there’s no indication that’ll change. My hope is that eventually Apple will license out the W1 chip, or other manufacturers will find a standard to match it, because the tech is miles ahead of where Bluetooth is right now.
I’ve enjoyed the AirPods; rumors of them flying out of your ears at the slightest provocation haven’t been true for me. But the sound remains average, and I still worry about misplacing one of them in my pocket if I’m being careless or am in a hurry. If you’re going to get a pair of headphones with a W1 chip inside — and if you’re an iPhone user who wants that wireless lifestyle, I think you should — I’d recommend the Beats X as your headphone of choice.