Beats X Review: The cheapest alternative to noise cancelling wireless earbuds

For the last month, I've been actively testing all of Apple's W1-chip wireless headphones: The AirPods, PowerBeats 3, Beats Solo, and Beats X. Each of Apple's headphones aims to fix a different problem in the wireless music industry — the AirPods are perfect for easy on-the-go music, no strings attached; the PowerBeats provide sweat-and-water-resistant tunes for heavy workouts; and the Beats Solo targets the over-ear wireless market.

And then there's the Beats X headphones: On the surface, they seem to aim for the same entry-level Bluetooth headphone market as the AirPods — I've found myself constantly comparing the two over the last few weeks on various trips and excursions.

Like the AirPods, they're small in-ear buds, but they have the customizable fit of the PowerBeats lineup, leading to significantly better noise isolation. They boast superior battery life, too, with 8 hours (or more) of listening time and a two-hour boost from just five minutes of charging (compared to just one hour's listening for the AirPods in the same amount of time).

But I recognize that my situation is somewhat unique: Not everyone gets to tote around both a set of AirPods and Beats X headphones for every situation. If you can only buy one, here's what makes the Beats X worth your cash.

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Fit and finish

I'm going to preface here with a bias: I really dislike in-ear headphones; I have since the earliest iPod earbud days. My listening hardware of choice for many years was a wired pair of Bose headphones, and wireless QC35s after that. In short: I like my ears covered and immersed in sound.

But the convenience of in-ear headphones is hard to deny. They're always a more convenient carry than an over-ear kit if you're limited in space, and eliminating the wired connection to your Mac or iPhone eliminates the awkward 10-second untangling dance anytime you want to listen to your tracks.

The AirPods were the first of Apple's in-ear headphone options I tried, and I was grateful to find that they weren't nearly as annoying as I remember Apple's EarPods (largely because of the lack of wires). The AirPods slid into my ears better than I thought they would — they didn't ever fall out when I exercised or skated, which is pretty darn important to me — but when you come down to it, the fit was merely "acceptable."

In contrast, the Beats X come with the same multiple ear cup options as Apple's workout-based PowerBeats, allowing for one of the nicest in-ear fits I've ever had. The medium-size ear cups I selected (along with tiny rubber winglets to keep the buds from twisting inside my ears when turning my head or otherwise moving) fit snugly in my ears without feeling like I've jammed something foreign and awkward in there; after a few minutes, I barely even notice I'm wearing them — especially vital given the Beats X's other marquee feature, its white neck cord.

If there's one thing I dislike more than in-ear buds, it's hanging cords. Between my various extracurricular sports activities and other weird movements throughout the day, I have a long history of yanking buds out of my ears at the worst possible time.

But the Beats X's flat rubber cord is surprisingly comfortable, minus the occasional microphonic "scratch sound" issue when laying against the couch. Two equally-sized battery packs weight the cord to your collarbone, allowing the buds themselves to arc forward of your face into your ears. In a perfect world, of course, those battery packs would be inside the Beats X earbuds themselves and there'd be no cord at all, but this works as an effective in-between while Apple perfects battery miniaturization technology.

The two earbud cords aren't completely symmetrical: The one on the left has a full play/pause/skip/volume remote. It doesn't add any measurable weight to the cord, but it does let you have vastly more control over your music than the tap-controlled AirPods.

As with the AirPods, the general fit and finish of the Beats X are excellent: Even actively using the white model, I've been unable to attract dirt or other scuffs and scrapes on the headphones. The rubber rear cord is thin without being flimsy, and the two battery packs provide great counterweights without being any sort of millstone around your neck.

About the only thing I don't like about the Beats X is its awkward, dust-collecting neoprene carrying egg: I used it precisely once in my pet-fur-covered home, and have since just stuffed my Beats X wherever they'll fit (pockets, fanny packs, backpack pockets, and the like).

Overall, after a month with the Beats X, I've found myself largely indifferent to the semi-corded wireless life. In an ideal world, I'd prefer an AirPods-like approach, but the cord hasn't detracted from my daily experiences with the headphones — and remote controls are a welcome presence.

General music quality

All Beats headphones are bass-heavy: Such they have been since their very first appearance, and the Beats X are no different. The in-ear models made the tinny treble particularly noticeable, especially to me, but a quick visit to the iPhone's equalization settings fixed most of my personal issues with the sound.

Are the Beats X the best-sounding in-ear buds you can buy? Not by a long shot, and they're in no way priced for that. You can't fit the kind of sound driver you'd need for top-tier sound in the Beats X's small package without adding another $100 or $200 to that price tag, and even then, physics might want a few words with you.

But for the majority of users, I suspect the Beats X will suit their sound needs just fine. If you're skeptical and have an Apple Store nearby, go down to try a pair out yourself; if you don't have that option, I also recommend buying a pair and relying on Apple's 14-day return policy to fully test them out.

Noise-cancelling without the baggage

The Beats X aren't officially noise-cancelling — none of Apple's headphone options are. They won't hold a candle to Bose's options, and they're not priced to. But their in-ear fit might otherwise fool most users into thinking otherwise, especially when used with louder music.

On multiple occasions, I've brought the AirPods and Beats X into a noisy cafe environment with background music and nearby conversations. Even at max volume, the AirPods can't effectively drown out background noise in my ears; the Beats X are almost the complete opposite.

Just this week, I sat in a cafe next to a group of people and was able to almost completely drown out their conversation (save for the occasional low-muffled noise) with the Beats X at 65% volume. The same test with AirPods required the volume at max to achieve a fraction of the same effect — and even then, I could still make out most of the conversation.

I tried a similar test on a recent flight to Dallas, TX for a derby tournament: The nature of my trip meant that taking a pair of over-ear noise cancellation headphones was next to impossible, so I decided to take the Beats X and AirPods for my airplane listening.

I gave up on the AirPods after a minute on the plane. At max volume, they were both too loud for my ears and failed utterly at drowning out the drone of the plane.

To the Beats X I went, and found myself pleasantly surprised: They won't beat a comparable Bose system, but I again only had to crank up my music to 65% to effectively mute the general airplane noise. I was even able to watch an episode of Legion at 85% volume without losing dialogue or resorting to closed captions.

And though this is a situation few may encounter, I also found them remarkably good to sleep in: In a room with three roommates on a tournament weekend, having good noise-isolating headphones is a must — and I especially appreciate ones that won't wake you up in the middle of the night because they've tried to strangle you in your sleep.

Sports usage

The Beats X aren't water-resistant, and thus aren't going to be a great pick for your sweat-filled Crossfit workouts or lifting sessions. But walking, general exercise, warmup skating, and most other light-to-medium workouts should be just fine.

I've done short lifting sessions with the Beats X, worn them on walks and short runs, done an hour of yoga, and used them multiple times during the aforementioned Dallas tournament for warmups. (Bonus for full contact sports players: Like the AirPods, the Beats X fit underneath helmets! Hooray!) I've also stored them (several times) in my sometimes disgustingly-wet gear bag after a game, without any negative effects. (So far.) While I wouldn't advise this last course of action as part of your regular use case, I think that for most non-intensive activities, the Beats X should do you just fine.

For those that need a more heavy-duty sports and exercise option, however, the Beats X aren't the headphones for you. If you're looking for a similar style of buds, I've just started testing the Jaybird X3, which I'm pretty enthused with so far.

Battery life and quick-charging

The best part of the Beats X and battery life? I don't notice it. The headphones have pretty much always exceeded my expected 8 hours of battery life, and its two-hours-for-five-minutes Lightning quick charge has been a huge boon whenever I've found myself in need of a charge.

In writing this review, I started with the Beats X at 36% battery life; two and a half hours of solid music listening later, it's only at 15%. I walked out of my house without a charging cable for my Beats X or my MacBook Pro, with no concern that either would die on me during my review writing — and that's the true beauty of Apple's headphones battery technology.

I will highlight Apple's decision to switch to Lightning for charging the Beats X; it's much more convenient to charge on the go than the PowerBeats or Beats Solo, which still use Micro-USB.

Pricing and availability

Here's the biggest differentiator between the Beats X and AirPods: You can pick up a set of Beats X buds today from just about any Apple Store or on Amazon — and for $10 cheaper than the AirPods. In contrast, Apple's truly wireless buds are at least six weeks backordered; you can get lucky by showing up at an Apple Store when they get in new stock (usually Thursdays), but it's hard to properly time.

If you want a great set of W1 in-ear headphones right now, it's hard to argue against the Beats X.

Bottom line

Beats X with Apple Watch

Beats X with Apple Watch

The Beats X aren't a perfect pair of wireless headphones — but at $149, there's nothing else in its pricing category that can compare. They have Apple's new W1 chipset and all the ease-of-use that come with it. They fit well, have decent (if not spectacular) sound quality, isolate most outside noise, and keep rocking long past their supposed battery life limit.

I still slightly prefer the AirPods for day-to-day usage, but that's only because of the Beats X's cord: When I'm going anywhere that requires noise isolation and I don't want the hassle of over-ear headphones, the Beats X are my buds of choice. For people who don't want to wait for a set of AirPods or need to drown out outside noise, I'd recommend the Beats X whole-heartedly.

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Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.