Before Apple acquired Beats (by DrDre) I saw them as a youth-oriented brand, with their sound tuned to suit hip-hop, R&B, and other bass-heavy music. And even after the acquisition, I think they had that youthful vibe.
But I’ve always got my ear to the ground, as it were, and I was aware that the sound output of Beats had been tuned lately so that they were more ‘neutral’ and less bassy — or more ‘balanced’ as the marketing communications put it. Which I assumed would make them good for a wider variety of musical genres.
So when I started to get a bit frustrated with the battery life of my (second generation?) AirPods, I decided to get some Beats Fit Pro rather than the Apple AirPods Pro. The headlines put the Beats as slightly cheaper, but in fact Amazon have been offering the AirPods Pro at a discounted price for a while, so my choice wasn’t about the money. This was more impulsive than thought through, but there were a couple of reasons.
So why did I hit upon the Beats? Battery life (including case) is a bit better, and the design is supposed to be optimised for exercise (I was thinking of cycling), with a wing tip and no dangly arm. The Beats also come in more colours, and they have the same audio features (spatial audio etc) as the AirPods Pro.
Anyway, here they are. I went for grey. First impression: the case is shockingly large compared to that of my old AirPods: at least twice as big! It really is a bit of a chunk in a jeans pocket, but I always carry a Bellroy sling bag or wear a jacket with bigger pockets. The case isn’t heavy, however.
Pairing is as easy as it would be with AirPods, thanks to the same H1 chip. Just open the case in proximity to your phone and the offer is there. Across the room, the Apple TV box detected them and offered pairing straight away. Which would have been great if I could have put my hand on the tiny remote control and been able to see clearly the tiny symbol indicating which button to push. So I did that pairing the manual way. “Forgetting” my AirPods on my phone was sufficient to banish them from my iCloud account and they disappeared from my other devices. The Beats, however, appeared in my M1 MacBook Air’s Bluetooth menu.
Putting them in is not as straightforward as it is with Airpods, although not that tricky. Just apply to the ear and give a gentle twist and they should feel comfortable. Because they have noise cancelling, they need a good seal, and there are three sizes of foam tip supplied. There’s also a “fit test” feature built into the iPhone, which reported to me that I had a good fit with the medium.
Access to the controls on the phone, including the fit test, is a bit hidden. For most controls, including turning the active noise cancelling on and off or turning on transparency mode, you need to tap the ⓘ symbol next to the Beats in your Bluetooth menu. From there, you see the additional controls. It’s all a bit of a faff if you’re about to set off for a run or a bike ride, and you’re all gloved up, I think. You can also switch between these modes with a long press on the ⓑ logo on the earphones themselves. I don’t really like this move because too many presses and taps is painful to my ears: it’s a proper button too, not just a touch-sensitive surface. There are also playback controls available with the ⓑ logo, of which I’m only likely to use play-stop.
I barely ever make a phone call, so I’m not particularly interested in their call handling features.
There are still other controls hidden in the volume section of your iPhone’s control centre. Press and hold on the Volume and you get to choose different stereo/spatial audio features. You can do that thing where you move your head and the sound moves too, or you can keep it fixed. As to the former, I really have to shrug my shoulders at the whole idea of spatial audio. If I’m listening to music and I turn my head, I don’t really need the piano, say, to remain fixed in space. And if I’m watching TV and I turn my head, likewise, I don’t really need the sound field to move. It seems silly. Maybe it’s for people who like films, or something.
Anyway, they seem quite comfortable to wear. One way to tell is the pillow test: wearing AirPods in bed can be very uncomfortable due to the dangling arm of each ‘Pod. Because the Beats fit more properly into the ear, you can actually lie on a soft pillow for a good stretch of time without discomfort. This is pleasing. I’m not sure you should sleep the night in them, however: if one fell out, you might swallow it. But when I woke up at three in the morning and needed some background drone to put me back to sleep, I was able to put on a podcast and drift off again.
Another controversial area is the question of whether you should wear them on a bike ride. I think transparency mode means this is okay, but you shouldn’t go for a ride with noise cancelling on.
As to how they sound: no complaints. They are well balanced, and a selection of my favourite songs sounded very good, with clear instrument separation and no distortion. On the other hand, they do reveal the limitations of poorly recorded or over-compressed podcasts. Wearing them around the supermarket with noise cancelling on, I did notice that my every footstep created a kind of whooomph in my ear canal, which wasn’t pleasant. But it was only in the supermarket that I noticed this effect. I haven’t yet been for a bike ride because I am a coward about wet roads. The noise cancelling is unspectacular but sufficient for me. There are models from Bose and Sony which are supposed to be better, but I wanted the features offered by the Apple family of products.
There are Accessibility features built in, which you’ll find under the Sound controls on the iPhone (there’s also a special Beats sub-menu under Accessibility). You can, for example, tune them to boost certain frequencies to make voices clearer, or use one earbud only and still have noise cancelling on. You can also use Accessibility to play background sound to mask unwanted noise. You can have varieties of “noise” or choose Ocean, Rain, or Stream.
My go-to speaker/headphone testing tracks:
- Look Good and You Know It – Eric Church
- You Can’t Take it With You – Kelly Willis
- On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe
- Threaten Me With Heaven – Vince Gill
- Your Secret’s Safe With Me – Dan Colehour
- Side 2 of Abbey Road – The Beatles