The new $150 Beats X wireless earbuds have taken a backseat to Apple’s AirPods ever since both products were announced at the same event last September. The truly wireless AirPods got a Jony Ive-narrated video and together with the iPhone 7 signaled the start of Apple’s wireless audio future. After that was done, Phil Schiller quickly described Beats X as “an affordable, light, comfortable headphone for all throughout your day.” They use a Bluetooth connection via the same W1 chip as the AirPods for effortless setup and quick switching between iOS devices and Macs. But that’s about as similar as the Beats X and the AirPods get.
These aren’t wireless wireless earbuds. They’re neckbuds. And until I gave them a try, I’d never been much of a neckbuds believer. I’m the guy who wears full-size wireless headphones almost everywhere — including the gym. And if I’m without my V-Modas or Bose QC35s, I’ll pull my trusty $10 Panasonic ErgoFit earbuds from my bag. So I’ve never really seen a compelling need for anything that neckbuds stand for. But companies like LG, Jaybird, and Samsung (plus countless cheap Amazon brands) are finding success with them, so clearly there’s something to this. And after a week or so of trying out Beats X, I think I get it. They’re effortless, comfortable, free of cord tangle, reliable, and usually sound good enough (if never anywhere near great).
My favorite thing about the Beats X is that I don’t feel like an utter doofus wearing them. The AirPods never fit my ears well, but even before I came to that frustrating conclusion, I didn’t feel great about having an electric toothbrush head sticking out of each ear. The Beats X shy away from the worst neckbud design offenses. There’s no ugly, hard plastic semi-collar that goes around your neck like LG’s Tone lineup. These are much more in keeping with the style of Jaybird’s sport earbuds. The two earbuds are joined by a long cable. The neckband area is semi-rigid, but sits comfortably and contours nicely around the back of your neck. It also stays put during runs and other movement.
The two sides are nearly symmetrical, which means these earbuds are weighted perfectly and won’t slip to one side or the other. Near each of your shoulders you’ll find little plastic housings that contain the Beats X electronics and help maintain that anchored fit. The one beneath the left earbud includes a Lightning port for charging. Goodbye, Micro USB! The inclusion of Lightning makes Beats X feel like the first Beats earphones that Apple had a real say in. A full charge takes around 45 minutes, and Apple claims you’ll get two hours of listening just by plugging in for five minutes when the battery is low.
Also on the left side — closer to your ear — is an inline three-button remote for controlling volume, skipping tracks, handling calls, and activating Siri (or Google’s Assistant on Android). The mic worked very well for me; Siri almost never missed words and no one had any complaints about how I sounded on the phone.
The plastic housing on the right side is where the power button is. When you’re not actually listening to the earbuds, they can latch together magnetically and rest centered at your chest. That was the case for me, but I’m 6’1″, so the cable will probably prove annoyingly long for some. Particularly when running, all that slack can cause the cable to bob up and down at the side of each cheek or rub against your chin. You could count this grievance in favor of the AirPods, but I like the security of a cable — especially when it’s light enough to wear all day and forget about. Unfortunately, there’s no auto-pause feature when you remove one of the Beats X earbuds. Apple’s keeping that exclusive to the AirPods for now.
The Beats X definitely wear well, and setup (with an iPhone) couldn’t be much simpler. Power them on near an iPhone and you’ll see the familiar pop-up that AirPods (and other new W1-enabled Beats headphones) trigger. Pairing is quick, and the Beats X quickly show up on my iPad and MacBook Pro, too. Fit is another big plus. Inside the box you get four sizes of eartips plus some secure-fit wingtips. But I never needed any of those because the default out-of-the-box ear tips fit my ears remarkably well. The seal was so good that I never bothered trying the other fits or adding on the wingtips. These stayed in fine for a 5-mile run without any help. (Beats X are not officially sweat-resistant like the Powerbeats 3, though, so don’t get them soaked.) That kind of immediate, great fit is pretty unusual for me; I’m a big baby about earbuds that cause even the slightest level of discomfort.
I can’t say that everyone will find the perfect match for their ear type, but if you do, the side benefit is excellent noise isolation. I never really raised the Beats X much higher than halfway up my iPhone’s volume meter, a far cry from the cranking I sometimes find myself doing with headphones. Turns out the Beats X make for great office earbuds, but be smart when you’re walking around city streets wearing them. It’s a night-and-day difference compared to the AirPods, which never let you fully ignore the outside world in noisy environments like the gym or subway.
The cable’s length can prove irritating at times. (Photo: Apple)
Counterbalancing all this praise is the unfortunate weakness of the Beats X: sound quality. Hold back your “told you so” or the stubborn callbacks to Beats’ old reputation as a company that favored bass above all else for a moment. That’s not the problem here. The Beats X offer up more bass than AirPods, sure, but I’d never describe it as aggressive. That bass oomph is welcome and in large part because of how well-planted the Beats X sit in your ears. My issue with the listening experience is on the treble side of things.
Depending on the music, the high end can come through shrill and metallic. It’s something you get used to, but everything feels like there’s a hair too much sibilance layered on top. Severity varies based on the what’s playing; Ryan Adams’ new album Prisoner sounds quite good and balanced front to back. But The xx’s I See You and Zayn / Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” demonstrate the unwanted, piercing highs. Cable noise can be an occasional annoyance, too. If two areas of the cable rub against each other — or your jacket or shirt collar — you’ll hear it pretty loudly. Popping out the earbuds and readjusting the cable is usually enough to eliminate the rustling. On the whole, I’d look elsewhere when I want to enjoy my music at its best, but I’m just about satisfied with the Beats X for everyday Spotify and podcast listening.
Sound quality is the biggest weakness, but other positives about the Beats X might help you forgive that
Apple says the Beats X can reach eight hours of playtime on a single charge. I never ran them down all the way to get an exact number, but the estimate has seemed accurate when I’ve checked the battery status during my time with them. If you listen to music every day, you’ll be charging them regularly, but at least that’s fast and now uses the same connector as the iPhone. You get a simple silicone case for carrying the earbuds around, but the thing is a lint magnet and starts to look gross both inside and out almost immediately. Bad material choice, Apple. The connection between the Beats X and my devices has been strong (I’ve experienced maybe a single dropout) and holds on across impressive distances.
The Beats X are very good wireless earbuds, and the added convenience of Apple’s W1 chip shouldn’t be ignored if you’re already surrounded by iOS devices and use a Mac. If the AirPods don’t fit in your ears, these are a great fallback option to have. They don’t put out the truest sound, but they make for mostly enjoyable listening, do a good job of eliminating outside noise, and are so comfortable that you’ll often forget they’re wrapped around your neck. Android users might want to explore other options like Jaybird since the Lightning connector on the Beats X isn’t so convenient in that scenario. But if that’s not a deal-breaker, the Beats X are exactly what Apple promises. They’re not positioned as any sort of breakthrough product like the AirPods. They’re just good, comfortable all-day neckbuds — so long as you find the sound quality acceptable.