There’s something remarkable about the new Beats X earphones. It’s not so much their sound quality — which is pretty good — nor is it the rubbery build, their wirelessness or the ease with which they rest in your ears.
No, it’s the combination of all these things with two very specific, additional ingredients: a W1 chip and an iPhone. Well, make that three: the chip, the phone and an obsessive enough brain to care about how it all intermingles.
I’m not a gadget dork — I’d really rather not talk about processor speed or anything that ends in an acronym — but I care immensely about how my devices mesh with and shape my life. Some people just use their phones: I worry about whether badge notifications on my home screen tick up my anxiety, I marvel still at its ability to control Spotify on my PlayStation, and I am convinced those of us humans who are addicted to internet-connected devices may one day be considered the first, primitive cyborgs.
The Beats X headphones, like Apple’s recent AirPods, inch us further along into that mechanical future. It’s not that they’re particularly futuristic or amazing in obvious ways, but the experience of using them is unlike most others.
Apple and Beats understand that good design minimizes friction, and these new earbuds, which don’t plug into your phone but connect to it in seconds, smooth out the bumps you’ve encountered with other Bluetooth equipment.
Say what you will about Apple — I’m on the record as believing it to be greedy, occasionally to the point of evil, and in some ways idea-starved — but when they nail an idea, they nail it. Let’s start with the W1 chip: Apple unveiled the technology along with its AirPods last September, and it’s built into Beats X. (Don’t forget Apple famously paid $3 billion to acquire Beats in 2014; the company gets special treatment.)
The cord looks silly as heck
The chip aids the Bluetooth pairing process, removing the need to enter your Settings app to connect your iPhone to your earphones. Press the power button on Beats X, hold them near your phone and they’re paired. I know better than to call this carefully engineered bit of earbud innards “magic,” but it is something like magic — fast and glitch-free. The connection is steady, with a longer range than other Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried, and using Siri via the attached microphone may give you the first Her moment of your life.
The W1 chip only works with an iPhone (or iPad) running iOS 10. On other devices, you’ll have to pair the Beats X via regular ol’ Bluetooth, which is easy but not a friction-free process. It requires settings, button-holding, menus, all that bad stuff.
I’d rather not bother. And I know how that makes me sound: My papou emigrated from Greece with nothing, entering the U.S. via Mexico after days spent scraping barnacles from ships in a Tampico harbor, and now I’m exhausted at the thought of fiddling with too many wireless settings on my cellphone. Still, technology like this is exciting for the promise it holds—may every gadget be so easy, dazzling and useful for everyone some day.
Note, however, that today is not that day.
These guys are pricey
Beats X will set you back $149.95, and they’re at their best with an iPhone 7, which starts at $649. That’s a lot of money.
While I don’t have a single complaint about the audio quality, you can get better-sounding headphones for less, or, you know, eat pretty well for a week instead. My Beats X were not provided by the company, and I subsidized them almost entirely by selling old Magic: The Gathering cards on eBay (as one does).
Are they worth it? That’s impossible to answer: Your $150 is different than my $150. But I don’t know that I’ve ever liked another set of headphones more.
Simple things, done well
As far as I can tell, there’s nothing unique about the rubber nubbins that slide into your ears and deliver your Radiohead. But the Beats X are very lightweight, and the cord connecting the two earbuds balances well on your collar—you will not feel encumbered by these, and I’ve comfortably worn them for hours in the office, on the train and through a workout at the gym.
About that cord, though: It looks silly as heck. You will have to live with resembling a goofy librarian stereotype from decades past when you wear these things.
It’s a bit of a shame, because “cool factor” would’ve edged the Beats X closer to perfect. That cord has a few things going for it, though. Like I said, it’s well-balanced, so the earbuds don’t feel heavy. There’s a microphone for phone calls or Siri commands, volume controls, a play/pause button and a Lightning port for charging. The cord essentially means that, unlike Apple’s AirPods, everything you need for the Beats X to work is built right into the earphones—there’s no case to plug in for charging, say.
And there’s another benefit. You can quickly pull the earphones out of your listening-holes and let them drop onto your chest if your attention is needed elsewhere. Because of the cord slung around your back, you don’t need to worry about Beats X falling out or getting lost. Each earbud is magnetic, so they’ll latch onto one another for extra security when you’re not using them.
As for the listening experience itself, I have no complaints. It’s possible that I care about audio quality more than the average person — I’m not happy when headphones obscure the little blips, whimpers and creeping plucks of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” and I need cans that won’t fuzz out the crunchy noise of “Mother Puncher” by Mastodon — but I’m not an obsessive. I don’t use a portable headphone amp, and I generally stream music via Spotify at 160 kilobits per second (kbps).
The Beats X deliver clear sound with very little to complain about, though I occasionally felt it delivered slightly screechy audio: The percussion in “Cowboys” by Portishead had a bit of a stabby quality to it with these earphones, as did “Kiss it Better” by Rihanna.
Still, the earphones isolate sound very well and let you hear each layer of the music clearly. Hard to ask for more in a wireless earbud out of the box.
The worst part
It’s a good thing you’ll want to wear Beats X a lot, because the carrying “case” they come with is a joke.
Really, it’s a pouch, a flimsy thing with a wide opening that barely contains the earphones. I’ve yet to figure out the perfect way to fold the Beats X into that garbage, and part of me worries that trying to jam them in would do more harm than good.
There’s really not a lot to say about this: It’s embarrassing that Beats shipped a $150 pair of earphones with nothing but a half-split condom for protection. At least they feel safe draped over your neck.
A glimpse into our future?
Beats X sound good and work well. The W1 chip makes communication between the earphones and your iPhone effortless, and they’re light enough that you may nearly forget you’re wearing them. Their construction means you’ll be happy even if you’re constantly taking them on and off.
It could be argued they represent a step forward for personal audio that may even eclipse the AirPods, which won’t fit every ear and require an external case to grapple with. These make the act of listening to anything via your iPhone, or communicating with Siri, buttery smooth in the way iMessage seals any irritating cracks in texting.
And so it’s yet another piece of personal technology that might make us all a bit more like cyborgs. If our future is covered in gadgets, though, at least it’ll sound good.
Good sound quality • Effortless pairing with Apple products thanks to W1 chip • Comfortable in all situations, including workouts
Fairly pricey • Audio isn’t 100% perfect • Gross carrying pouch
The Bottom Line
Thanks to their more universal design and smooth sound, the Beats X earphones are arguably better than Apple’s AirPods, but they don’t come cheap.