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With BeatsX, Apple takes the best of Beats by Dre's line of minimalist earphones in-ear monitors wireless, incorporating the new W1 chip, top-notch materials and unique Flex Form neck strap into a consumer-friendly design.
BeatsX represents the continuation of Apple's headlong charge into a world free of wires. Started with Powerbeats3 last year, the latest model pushes Beats by Dre's signature sound further downmarket, making it more accessible to iPhone 7 customers looking for a more dynamic — and available — alternative to AirPods.
In many respects, BeatsX is a wireless evolution of Beats by Dre's urBeats, the tiny in-ear monitor serving as an entry-level device to the firm's flagship over-the-ear headphones.
Both BeatsX and urBeats feature a similar bullet-shaped design with RemoteTalk control and flat cabling. Whereas the old wired version houses its driver in a metal casing, BeatsX makes do with an updated plastic composite shell. The change equates to weight savings, but more importantly allows for the integration of magnets that snap one earbud to the other for necklace-style wear and easy storage.
The new wireless iteration sports an updated ear tip arrangement that sits slightly askew of the main driver housing, offering a more ergonomic fit that doesn't dig in to a user's pinna, or outer ear. Like other IEMs, Apple provides a selection of four interchangeable silicone ear tips for a more customized fit. Two pairs of "wing tips" are also included for extra security.
A medium dome tip come fitted to the device out of the box, while a separate packet includes small and large dome options and one medium flange-style tip for enhanced noise isolation. We went with the flange style tip as it offers better protection against falling out during brisk runs or strenuous exercise.
Following after other Beats models, BeatsX relies on flat cabling to connect each earbud to its onboard amp, power supply and RemoteTalk module. Like other portions of the earphone, the cable is wrapped in soft-touch material that presents a premium feel and helps repel moisture.
BeatsX can also be considered a variation of the company's new Powerbeats3. Both are tethered designs that connect one earbud to the other via a cable.
Powerbeats3 packs its working hardware — amp, battery, communications suite — onto the earbud itself, while BeatsX shifts those components to two relatively small pods that end up sitting on either side of a user's neck. These — rather cheap plastic — component packs house BeatsX's power button with integrated white LED on the right side and Lightning charging port on the other.
Unlike Powerbeats3, which uses a common flat cable as an interconnect between earbuds, BeatsX employs a springy, malleable metal cable dubbed "Flex-Form." A component pack sits at each end of the Flex Form cable, then outputs to the usual flat ribbon cable that connects to BeatsX's earbuds.
As a neck-worn device, Flex-Form is exceedingly comfortable, but for some might be a tad bulky. Add soft-touch material to the mix and the flexible cable becomes a magnet for clothes or skin.
That said, Flex-Form does have its advantages, most prominent among them being the ability to stuff the device into the included silicone carrying case without worry of permanent bending. We tried creasing the Flex-Form material at numerous points, but the special metal simply popped back to its original springy state.
Beats has a history of tuning its headphone products to reproduce pronounced bass tones, and BeatsX does not stray too far from that tradition. Though not as overpowering as some other over-the-ear Beats devices, bass tones are definitely the star wireless in this IEM.
That is not to say bass overwhelms mids and highs. BeatsX is more refined than most recent Beats products — bass is obviously a big part of the sound signature, but the low tones now serve as a plinth for relatively crisp and clean treble notes. The overall profile is dynamic — and colored — in nature, much more so than Apple's own AirPods.
Most importantly, the acoustic customization is not fatiguing, something that can't be said for other Beats headphones.
While we would not consider tone reproduction natural, the bass-enhanced tuning brings is best for rock, R&B, rap and electronica. Classical, vocal performances, acoustic cuts and might be better served by tweaking Apple's built-in digital equalizer — accessible in the Settings app under Apple Music — though we would recommend leaving the EQ off in most situations.
Testing the earphones with Apple Music, a three month trial of which is included with each BeatsX purchase, the device was lively and responsive. As noted in our recent AirPods comparison, BeatsX volume maxes out a few notches below Apple's branded wireless offering. Still, thanks to a true sealed design, BeatsX maximum listening levels should be more than suitable for all but the loudest environments.
Battery life and software
Apple claims BeatsX packs in 8 hours of battery life and our tests found that number to be on the conservative side. We were able to sneak out nearly a few extra minutes of playback time while listening at normal volumes with our paired iPhone either nearby on a desk or in a pocket.
We did, however, see battery life decrease when taking the earphones into another room away from its host device. As can be expected, there was a noticeable battery life decline during phone calls, as onboard components pulled double duty in receiving signals from iPhone and collecting and sending back microphone audio from the RemoteTalk module.
With Apple's W1 chip, pairing BeatsX with an iOS 10 device is a non-issue. Simply turn the device on within range of a compatible iPhone or iPad and tap "connect." Once paired, users can check current battery status — complete with a custom BeatsX icon — in sound source panes system wide.
The W1 chip also allowed free roam of our house. As a test, we left our iPhone in one room and walked about one hundred feet away with no perceptible loss of functionality.
We also had a chance to test the Fast Fuel feature, which juices BeatsX up with 2 hours of playback time with a 5-minute charge. The function worked as advertised.
In all, Apple's system power estimates appear to be accurate.
Thanks to its silicone tips, BeatsX is easy to put on and forget about. The neck strap with its pair of component packs takes a bit of getting used to, but is for the most part unobtrusive. Further, since both sides are equally balanced, users are unlikely to find BeatsX sliding down on one side, potentially dislodging an earbud.
We did experience some wind and cable noise issues when running, but nothing out of the ordinary for wired headphones.
To our surprise, we found the magnetic earbud feature to be much more than a novelty. The design lets users secure the earphones as a necklace when not in use, much better than having them dangle free. During workouts, for example, snapping the earbuds together helps keep them out of the way of weights and machinery.
BeatsX is much better suited for running or walking than gym work. The Flex Form cable is just heavy enough to stay in place during repeated vertical movement. That same weight works against BeatsX for exercise that requires users to lay down supine, like free weight workouts, as the Flex Form cable, hardware pods and connecting wires tug on the earbuds. In such cases, Apple's self-contained Powerbeats3 or AirPods are likely better choices.
As for RemoteTalk, the feature appears largely unchanged from wired Beats earphones. A small, plastic remote control with integrated microphone located on the left earbud wire, RemoteTalk affords users physical control over output volume, track start/stop, call answering/ending and Siri. Users can perform many of those same functions with Siri, but there's something to be said for having a dedicated set of physical buttons at the ready.
Outgoing call quality was adequate, but with a single microphone dangling by our mouth, the experience is not up to par with AirPods' adaptive mic selection and beam forming technology.
Overall, BeatsX is a well-made, decent sounding earphone that works in a variety of environments. Add to that an easy pairing process and solid wireless connection thanks to Apple's W1 chip, and the package becomes even more appealing.
While we would not recommend the earphone for strenuous workouts, it is more than capable as a running companion, especially paired with Apple Watch. In that respect, BeatsX outperforms its Apple-branded AirPods sibling, fitting more ear types with its interchangeable ear tips and wing tips.
With Apple leading the charge toward an all wireless ecosystem by axing 3.5mm headphone jack from iPhone 7, and assumedly future iPhone models, vendors are quickly adapting and advancing their own Bluetooth headphone technology. Apple itself is pushing the envelope with its W1 chip, a highly efficient communications stack which is expected to see incorporation into a growing number of products in the months ahead.
BeatsX is a testament to Apple's wireless future, and while not perfect, it offers a glimpse at what the company has in store for Beats by Dre fans.
Score: 4 out of 5
Where to buy
BeatsX earphones are available now from Apple for $149.95. Authorized Apple resellers Adorama and B&H also have BeatsX models available for purchase with no tax collected outside NY and NJ, according to our iPhone Accessories Price Guide.