We haven’t necessarily been enthusiastic about Beats’ recent string of over-ear and in-ear headphones, with very few models even managing to earn a solid recommendation. While we’re often impressed with how the American brand’s headphones look and feel, not to mention the myriad things they can often do, our doubts have often lingered as to whether their sound quality is on par with the real class leaders.
Sound, after all, is the most important factor in dictating whether or not anything we review – be it a pair of speakers or a cheap set of running headphones – gets a good write up, and while the importance of size, features or design varies from product to product, sound quality remains paramount.
The Beats Studio Pro are the fourth generation of the brand’s popular Studio line, and when a review pair arrived in our offices a few weeks ago, we were keen to see if they could improve on the company's recent efforts and challenge the class leaders. What we’re hoping for is a sound that ditches those excessively harsh treble tones or flabby bass tendencies to give us a refined, musical and balanced listening experience, one that can bring the Studio line up to speed with its closest rivals from Bose, Sennheiser and Sony.
Comfort & build
As you’d expect from a company owned by Apple and with a reputation for being almost as much a fashion brand as an audio one, the Beats Studio Pro look suitably chic. Our test pair comes in a pleasing Navy Blue finish (Black, Sandstone and Deep Brown are also available), and while this latest iteration has a clean, contemporary aesthetic, a few more touches of a secondary colour might help stop things from feeling so monochromatic. 2023’s debutantes are – say it quietly – just a smidge on the dull side.
They feel good in the hand, though, with a robust yet flexible construction. The earpads themselves are constructed from UltraPlush fabric, a sort of memory foam/leather composite, with a firm consistency that can be unforgiving if the cans are pressing on, rather than around, your outer ear. Unlike some rivals, Beats don’t offer replacements either, so be warned that any external damage or deterioration can’t easily be remedied.
Elsewhere, the Studio Pro are adequately made, accompanied by a pleasing fabric case into which your cans will fold away effortlessly when you hit the road. Folding is a simple process, and while the loud popping noise they make can be disconcerting the first time your Beats are packed away, we didn’t face any structural issues during our tests.
On the face of it, the Beats Studio Pro are well-furnished with features. The way these features manifest and are distributed, however, is a little baffling, making it hard to make a straightforward assessment. One of the Pro’s big boasts is support for Apple’s Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking for “theatre-like sound” with Dolby Atmos tracks, a feature that can be tweaked and personalised via the Beats app. We give it a whirl and find our experience of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter to be satisfyingly cohesive, especially with regard to the presentation of the track’s various percussive elements.
The support for lossless audio (up to 24-bit/48kHz) through the wired connection is a fantastic boost, too, but considering that the supplied cable for the task is a USB-C to USB-C, you won’t be able to plug your Apple-made headphones into your iPhone without an adapter for the Lightning connector. More unusually, if you choose to use your cans simply via Bluetooth (which doesn’t support uncompressed hi-res), you can’t choose from Beats’ various sound profiles, as this can only be done when hooked up via USB-C, a strange omission that makes listening wirelessly significantly less versatile than doing so through a physical tether.
Codec Support SBC, AAC
Battery Life 40 hours (ANC and BT off), 24 hours (ANC / BT on)
Finishes x4 (Black, Deep Brown, Navy Blue, Sandstone)
There are two main physical inputs – one USB-C and the other standard 3.5mm – to choose from besides listening wirelessly via Bluetooth, while hi-res files are playable courtesy of an internal 24-bit/48kHz DAC. Be warned, however, that you’ll still need to switch your Beats on when using a wired connection if you want to actually hear anything at all.
Noise cancelling is next, and the Studio Pro deliver confidently with their implementation of such a sought-after feature. The understated cans offer two main noise cancelling modes via fully adaptive ANC and Transparency Mode, the latter of which lets outside environmental sounds, such as helpful train announcements, penetrate your ANC bubble. We find both work without fuss or failing, although we judged the Sony-WH-1000XM4 to be slightly better at shutting out the droning noise of our office’s over-enthusiastic air conditioners.
Battery life, meanwhile, is adequate at this level. If you’re happy to use a physical connection and turn off noise cancelling, the Studio Pro are just about able to eke out 40 hours of life, although that figure does fall to around 24 with ANC activated. Still, those numbers are enough to at least compete with the Sony WH-1000XM5 (40 hours without ANC, 30 hours with), and we’re impressed when a ten-minute charge courtesy of the Beats’ Fast Fuel feature offers the promised four hours of playback.
Weirdly, there’s no on-head detection or even the convenience of Bluetooth Multipoint, but other boosts help make using the Beats more pleasurable, with the new Pro clearly designed to bridge the iOS/Android divide. Hands-free control works well, though Find My Beats only gives the cans’ last known location rather than providing a ‘live feed’.
We can’t shake the idea, though, that the Studio Pro is a pair of cans suffering from some inexplicable compromises. The lack of a dedicated Apple chip (which was used in the Beats Solo 3 and in the Beats Fit Pro earbuds) seems like an odd decision, as does the omission of some user-friendly features we’ve come to expect from a new pair of headphones at this price, namely Bluetooth Multipoint, on-head detection and sound profile selection when used wirelessly.
Beats aren’t exactly shrinking violets when it comes to price, and while there are certainly cheaper models available, you can often end up paying a premium just for the cost of that famous ‘b’ emblazoned on the earcups.
The Studio Pro will set you back £350 / $350 / AU$530, a figure that puts them just under the original RRP of the class-leading Sony WH-1000XM5 (tested at £380 / $399 / AU$550). That said, the XM5 have been around for a while now, so prices have dropped to hover around the £300-350 / $300-350 mark, putting the rival cans in broadly the same ballpark price-wise.
For further context, we tested the five-star Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless cans at £300 / $350 / AU$550), while a pair of the excellent, more premium Apple AirPods Max came to our testing rooms with a much heftier price tag of £549 / £549 / AU$899.
The comparison here, really, should be with the Sony XM5, as not only are these the cans to beat, they’re pretty much identical in price as of right now, although it’s to the Beats’ credit that their original testing price is about £30 less than that of the Sonys.
Let’s start out with the basics by letting the Studio Pro loose with Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey In The Jar played via Bluetooth. The arrangement of the composition is competent enough, with that guitar coming to the fore nicely, yet there’s a slight feeling of sonic detachment that you wouldn’t expect to find in a pair of premium headphones, not to mention a perceptible lack of rhythmic drive. This is Irish-infused glam rock with a rebellious spirit, so we’d like more of that loose, Celtic feel to really punch through. Instead, an almost monotonous, removed drudgery takes over as the fun and folkiness of the guitar fade into the background.
Moving over to the Sony WH-1000XM5 really highlights the Beats’ shortcomings. The same Thin Lizzy track feels energised this time around, imbued with that infectious folk rock sway and surge that we found so lacking with the Studio Pro. The XM5 are more sophisticated, refined and have a greater understanding of the music played through them, yet they’re also a fun, far more enjoyable ride.
A Tidal Hi-Fi rendition of De La Soul’s The Magic Number comes next for the Beats, and new problems emerge. The track’s anchoring drum beat certainly has a sufficiently percussive kick to it, but the tune’s deeper registers feel somewhat fat and muddled. A rockier effort such as Weezer’s Buddy Holly does a strong job of conveying the song’s crunchy, alternative guitars, even if Sony’s WH-1000XM5 feels snappier, more dynamic and even more musically interesting. This, sadly, is a story that extends beyond our playing of Weezer’s back catalogue.
We reach for the Beats’ 3.5mm cable and experience a noticeable difference in sound quality. The same Weezer track retains that slight shortage in musical subtlety, but any muddiness and lack of cohesion is more convincingly rectified. Instead of the sound spilling around haphazardly, everything is pushed in a more focused, cohesive direction.
How about the promises of that USB-C lossless connection? We hook the Beats up to a laptop playing hi-res files using the cable provided and the cans are invigorated. A hi-res recording of Fleet Foxes’ Wading In Waist-High Water hits with real force, and while greater dynamic peaks and troughs would be nice, we’re treated to a clearer, more confident showing with the cable attached.
As shown above, competition at this level comes from the (older and cheaper but still available) Sony WH-1000XM4 and current WH-1000XM5. The Studio Pro by no means disgrace themselves, yet they’re still left wanting in the key areas in which the Sony headphones always seem to excel. For nuance, subtlety and rhythmic drive, not to mention musicality and dynamics, it is the Award-winning Sony cans that really set the standard. The Beats’ effort (when listened to wirelessly) pales in comparison, lacking in dynamism, energy and overall musical interest.
While this is unquestionably a well-made, competent and relatively handsome pair of headphones, a lack of true sonic interest or dynamism makes the Beats Studio Pro hard to recommend. In almost all areas, there are better rivals at this price that can provide what these competent challengers offer, but with more refinement, insight and aplomb.
- Sound 3
- Build 4
- Features 4
Read our review of the Sony WH-1000XM5
Also consider the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless