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On a recent episode of the Audio Unleashed podcast, Dennis Burger and Brent Butterworth talked about how far the Beats brand has come. As I had, they had reviewed early Beats headphones to much consternation. All that money and reach, and the ’phones sounded terrible. As bad as the early over-ears were, the on-ears that followed were even worse.
I think for a sizable chunk of the headphone enthusiast community, that was it. The company’s fate was sealed, never again to be considered. This kind of prejudging is unwise in my opinion, and in my profession, especially when you consider how much time has passed since those early models. Seventeen years ago, most TVs were still CRTs, hi-rez audio over Bluetooth was laughable, and the iPhone was barely more than a gleam in Uncle Steve’s eye.
Take, for example, the Beats Studio Pros I reviewed a few months ago. I thought they were a bit overpriced, but what Apple product isn’t? They sounded quite good, though they didn’t remotely match the sound profile someone who prejudges Beats might expect.
Which brings us to the $169 (all prices USD) Beats Studio Buds+ earphones. These mid-priced, noise-canceling, true wireless earphones have a claimed 36-hour battery life (including the case) and can play for an hour after just five minutes of charging. But how do they sound? Let’s have a listen.
In the box
In the box are three sizes of eartips—extra small, small, and large, to go with the mediums that are already on the earphones. I’m a big fan of extra eartip sizes, even if it’s just one size more than the norm. There’s also a USB-C-to-USB-C charging cable.
I absolutely love the “color.” Beats calls it Transparent, though it’s a few steps toward translucent. It’s not perfectly clear, but you still make out the innards. The case is the same level of transparent, and I think it’s an excellent alternative to the endless torrent of black or white earphones. If you’re not a fan, there are also black, white, pink, and silver options.
These are some of the smallest earphones I’ve ever seen, smaller than the last phalanges of my pinky fingers. But their design nestles into my ears surprisingly well, and unlike with most small earphones, I didn’t feel these would pop out if I bopped my head to the music too hard. They have a pinched end, so they’re easy to grip and remove from your ears or their case. Said case is a sort of flattened egg shape that isn’t any smaller than other cases for true wireless earphones, but it easily fits in a pocket, along with whatever else you carry in there.
The Beats app is pretty mediocre. You can choose between noise canceling on/off or a transparency mode, and change what the touch controls do. That’s it. There’s no EQ and no alternate sound modes, which Beats refuses to add. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can also get spatial audio if that’s your thing, but not on Android.
The Beats Studio Buds+ earphones have a balanced, if somewhat midrange-heavy, sound with some rolled-off bass and not much high treble. Overall, it’s a pleasing but innocuous profile.
I started with my favorite track from the Orb’s classic debut, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Island Records / Qobuz). “Little Fluffy Clouds” blends samples of various real instruments and electronic percussion. The soundstage of the Buds+ earphones was quite good for a traditional design, with some sounds seeming to sit out over my shoulders. There wasn’t a lot of low-end heft, but what was there was well controlled. Drums sounded tight and were well mixed with the other instruments, never taking center stage like they can with more bass-heavy earphones. There was a lot of midrange, but not so much that treble and bass were lost.
Switching genres quite a bit, I then played J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mutter’s Virtuosi (Bach, Bologne, Previn, Vivaldi, Williams, 24/96 FLAC, Deutsche Grammophon / Qobuz). Mutter and her ensemble absolutely cook on the lively first movement, practically speedrunning it. At first, I didn’t like the pace, but it has since grown on me. Unsurprisingly, Mutter’s violin was somewhat forward in the mix, but it was mostly in the left channel. I certainly got a sense of where everyone was sitting, though. The cellos and double bass weren’t lost, but they lacked some of the heft that earphones with deeper extension can deliver. There wasn’t much airiness to the Buds+ earphones either, but that can be overdone, so I didn’t miss it in this case.
Next up was New Order’s “Love Vigilantes (2022 Digital Master)” from Low-Life (Definitive Edition) (24/96 FLAC, WM UK / Qobuz). The soundstage was pleasingly wide. Bernard Sumner’s vocals, the guitars, and the snare drum all competed a bit, being boosted somewhat over the bass and higher treble. It wasn’t muddled, but the mids were more prominent than you’d get with more neutral ’phones. It wasn’t severe, though, as the mids didn’t overwhelm. I suspect the Buds+ earphones’ sound was tuned to accentuate vocals slightly, which isn’t a bad idea for a mainstream design given the wide range of use cases (podcasts, phone calls, infinite varieties of music, etc.).
There is not much to dislike about the Buds+ earphones’ sound. Not much to really love either, but considering the price, that seems fine.
Finally, a direct competitor for the Edifier NeoBuds S earphones, which I really like but are too often outclassed or outpriced. While the NeoBuds have a bass-heavy sound, they mix in some delightful treble. With Air’s “Sexy Boy” (Moon Safari, 24/192 FLAC, Parlophone / Qobuz), the bass intro extended extremely deep via the NeoBuds. It wasn’t as deep via the Buds+ earphones, but I’d describe the Beats as being more balanced rather than lacking bass, given the NeoBuds’ preponderance of low end. The cymbals sounded clearer and more realistic on the NeoBuds. So overall the Edifiers had deeper bass and much better treble. However, they also had more bass—probably too much for anyone who doesn’t like bass. Personally, I like the Edifiers more between these two, but such are my tastes. Despite their boosted midrange, the Buds+ earphones are the more balanced of the two.
At $250, the JBL Tour Pro 2 earphones are a bit more expensive, but I was curious how much the Beats would punch above their weight class. The JBLs have a fairly balanced sound. They’re also much larger and have a bigger case with a screen in it. With “Shameika,” off Fiona Apple’s brilliant Fetch the Bolt Cutters (24/48 FLAC, Epic Records / Qobuz), the JBLs had smoother treble and a little less bass. It showed how the Buds+ earphones don’t lack bass, but the extra mids sometimes hid that. Overall, I like the size of the Buds+ earphones a lot more than the tail design of the JBLs (and the Edifiers for that matter), but the step up in price gives a smoother, more balanced sound. The JBLs definitely aren’t as cool looking as the tiny Buds+ earphones though.
As far as noise canceling goes, the Buds+ earphones are better than average. They reduce some low-frequency sounds, roughly the same amount as the Edifiers. Both let in different frequencies, and neither are particular standouts, but neither are bad. Neither are in the same league as Sony or Bose earphones, but the best offerings from those brands are twice the price of the Beats.
These are some great true wireless earphones at a surprisingly reasonable price for an Apple product. I don’t think anyone would dislike the sound, but I’d be surprised if anyone loved it. Given someone’s specific tastes, they might be able to find similarly priced earphones that have more bass or more treble, i.e., a less neutral but subjectively more pleasing sound. Which is to say, the Buds+ earphones will definitely appeal to a wide audience and be liked by most of them. I’m positive they were designed with exactly this goal, in which case, they nailed it.
- Smartphone: Google Pixel 7.
- Portable media player: Sony NW-A306.
Beats Studio Pro Headphones
Warranty: One year.
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