When Beats headphones first launched back in 2008, their bold, bass-heavy sound quickly made them favourites among devoted hip-hop heads, but anybody seeking a more refined sonic presentation – including this esteemed publication – often found they came up a little short.
In those early days, the biggest impact Beats had on the headphone industry was to convince the average consumer to invest a little more in their cans, with a flurry of clever marketing and celebrity endorsements ensuring Beats were the ones to be seen wearing.
Its latest products now also offer a more mature performance, and while we wouldn’t exactly call them neutral, they deliver a fun and energetic sound that suits most popular music. The company’s purchase by Apple almost a decade ago means they also work seamlessly with iPhones and other Apple products, offering extra functionality such as hands-free Siri support and compatibility with the Find My app. That said, more recent models, such as the Beats Fit Pro and Studio Pro, have made a point of being equally compatible with iOS as they are with the Android operating system.
Beats headphones can still struggle in terms of outright sound quality, but the best pairs, which we’ve outlined below, offer a combination of modern design, handy features, and all-day comfort that makes them a great option for many. There have been a few recent models that almost made their way onto this list, including the Beats Studio Buds + and the over-ear Beats Studio Pro, yet strong competition from Sony and Bose means they didn't quite nab the required ratings to feature. Maybe next time.
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All of these Beats pairs are wireless, so it really comes down to what you prioritise: low-end or portability. The Studio Buds are an altogether rather sedate offering, though still impressive in a more understated way, than peppier models such as the engaging sound profile of the Beats Fit Pro or, by way of comparison, the punchy and more mature Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II.
Beats offers some brash colourways too – check out the Yuzu yellow of the Beats Flex, while the various shades you get with the Fit Pro is a neat alternative for those bored of Apple AirPods' all-white design. And active types will want a pair made for exercise, like the Beats Fit Pro with their clever ear-hook design that keep the buds from falling by the wayside during your marathon training.
We've included other specs like weight and battery life too, to give you an idea of what they're like to live with on a day-to-day basis.
- Beats Studio Buds vs Beats Fit Pro: which wireless Beats earbuds are best?
The Studio Buds are unlike any Beats headphones that have come before them: gone are the over-ear clips, the brash branding and lurid colourways. Instead, they're demure – understated even – with a true wireless design and one-touch wireless pairing not only to iOS, but Android devices too.
They're the smallest and subtlest of any Beats headphones, with impressive longevity. Battery life totals up to 15 hours with noise cancelling on, or 24 with it disabled, while a five-minute Fast Fuel charge gives up to an hour of playback if you need to dash out the door.
Apple Music users can enjoy Spatial Audio for available tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos without having to enable it in their phone's settings (as with other headphones). They can also speak to wake Apple's Siri personal assistant. Active noise cancellation adjusts 48,000 times a second to mute background noise, though it doesn't have adjustable levels, just on or off.
Sonically, the Beats Studio Buds are more refined than the usual bass-heavy Beats sound, marking these out as a cut above the rest of the pack. We even prefer its balance over the newer, pricier Studio Buds +. A refreshing change of direction from Apple's subsidiary.
Read the full Beats Studio Buds review
The Beats Fit Pro are the usual stylish, workout-friendly, active noise-cancelling earbuds, yes, but they also have glimmers of brilliance.
The new wingtip design promises a more secure fit so they don't fall out of your ears mid-burpee. The Beats app for Android allows non-Apple users to enjoy the features of Apple’s own brand products, which are usually closed off to anyone not in the iOS ecosystem. The performance has been taken up a notch too, with better noise-cancelling, better sound and the addition of Spatial Audio. And they come in at a very reasonable price.
It's a good job too, as the wireless earbuds market is now more competitive than ever. But the Beats Fit Pro show that Beats can mix it up with the best at their price level. While it's just shy of achieving the full five stars, this is by far the most enjoyable and balanced-sounding Beats buds we've heard. Looks like Beats might have just come of age...
Read the full Beats Fit Pro review
The Beats Flex are a step up from Apple's bog-standard Lightning wired buds. They’re available in some fresh hues (including the Yuzu yellow sample before you), they charge via USB-C, have a 12-hour battery life, and courtesy of one-tap audio share you can split sounds with nearby Beats or AirPod headphones (provided you have an iPhone 8 or later running at least iOS 14). They're very affordable, too.
Four ear tip options give a good chance of finding a decent fit, and the cable is flat, like a strand of tagliatelle. Magnets keep the earbuds together when not in use.
Pairing is a doddle (even more so using an Apple device). They don't support some iOS features, including automatic switching to another device or hands-free Siri support. And there’s no noise cancelling either. But with the correct seal you’ll still enjoy good levels of passive noise isolation.
Audio quality is good, but not great. There's just not the same impact that the best Beats headphones manage to pull off. Still, the Flex offer a considered, smooth sound profile that’s preferable to one that is harsh or bright through the upper frequencies. A solid Beats bet at this end of the market.
Read the full Beats Flex review
How we test headphones
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door.
Of course, testing headphones don't often require such facilities (though we do often try audiophile headphones in our reference hi-fi system). What is important in our headphones reviewing process is that each pair is compared to the best in its price and style class – whether that's one standout pair or a few we favour the highest among the 100+ pairs we listen to each year for reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, and we keep class-leading products in our stockrooms so we can always compare new products to ones we know and love.
We are always impartial and do our best to ensure we're hearing every product at their very best, so we'll try plenty of different types of music and give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in). It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a pair has active noise cancellation – increasingly the case these days – we'll ensure part of our testing involves using them in different environments.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible, too. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
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Check out our Beats Fit Pro review