Friday, November 27, 2020
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Beats Flex review: Apple’s budget Bluetooth earbuds | Technology

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The Beats Flex are Apple’s latest neckband Bluetooth earbuds, and bring many of the fancy features of its AirPods to headphones costing just one third of the price.

The new Beats cost £49.99 and replace the £129 Beats X as the firm’s cheapest wireless earbuds, sitting below the £129.95 Powerbeats, and Apple’s £129 AirPods.

In the world of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds, the older-style neckband models typically occupy the cheaper end of the market. They have wires connecting the earbuds to each other but Bluetooth to the phone.

The Flex earbuds are well designed with a balanced fit featuring two pods either side of a flat, semi-flexible cable that rests on the back of the neck. The earbuds are then connected to the pods via further flat, flexible cables.

Beats Flex review



The Flex are a mix of wireless and traditional earbuds; Bluetooth to the phone but with a cable that sits around your neck and wires to earbuds themselves. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

It is a tried and tested design, but one that’s like Marmite. Some will love neckbands, while others will hate their presence on the back of their neck.

The earbuds are light at just 18.6g, which is 7.7g lighter than the Powerbeats, and fairly standard with silicone ear tips of which four sizes are included in the box. I found them comfortable for an hour or two. The Flex are very much designed for day-to-day casual listening so that’s just fine. They don’t isolate you from outside noise all that well compared with some competitors, however.

Specifications

  • Weight: 18.6g

  • Water resistance: none

  • Connectivity: Apple W1 chip, Bluetooth 5, USB-C charging

  • Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC

  • Battery life: 12 hours

Controls and connectivity

Beats Flex review



The inside of the left pod has the mic and a multi-function playback and voice assistant button. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Flex have Apple’s older W1 Bluetooth chip, not the H1 chip used in the latest AirPods and the more expensive Powerbeats. They still support Bluetooth 5, seamless pairing with an iPhone, battery status popups on iOS, seamless switching between devices and audio sharing on Apple devices.

The Beats app on Android offers many of the same features as available on an iPhone, including assistance with pairing and battery status popups, as well as handling updates and various settings.

But the Flex do not support Apple’s latest automatic switching between Apple devices, which swaps to whichever device – iPhone, iPad or Mac – that’s currently active. Nor do they support the always-listening hands-free Siri mode, meaning you have to press and hold a button to talk to Apple’s voice assistant (or Google Assistant on an Android phone).

Connection to an iPhone 12, Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 and Google Pixel 4a 5G was rock solid.

The left side of the neck band has most of the controls, plus the USB-C port for charging and the microphone for calls. There’s a volume rocker and a multi-function button, which you press once for pause/play, twice and three times to skip track or press and hold for the voice assistant. The right side has the power button.

The earbuds magnetically attach to each other when not in use, which pauses the music too.

Sound

Beats Flex review



The volume rocker on the top of the left pod is handy for quick adjustments. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Flex sound good for the money. They handled most music genres very well, producing surprisingly deep bass, good treble and soft highs, which make for easy listening.

They manage to sound fairly raw and grungy for Nirvana, while still blasting out electronica at a suitably high energy levels. The bass can sometimes dominate a little, but the Flex manage to produce the really deep notes needed for something such as Lindsey Stirling’s Crystallise. They’re also punchy enough to give a proper rendition of My Morning Jacket’s Highly Suspicious.

You won’t be hearing new details in well worn tracks, but they sound great for a cheaper set of earbuds with a balance often lost in rivals.

The battery in the Flex lasts for just shy of 12 hours between charges. A 10-minute quick charge when the battery is low provides about 90 minutes of playback. A full charge takes about 90 minutes.

Sustainability

Beats Flex review



The power button is on the underneath of the right pod while the USB-C charging port is in the left. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Apple doesn’t provide a rating for the number of charge cycles expected from the battery in the Beats Flex. The battery is not replaceable, nor are the earbuds repairable, ultimately making them disposable.

The earbuds contain recycled parts where possible and recycled plastic for internal pieces. They also contain fewer and more durable components than predecessors and are designed to last longer, while the packaging is both smaller and contains less plastic.

Apple offers trade-in and free recycling schemes, including for non-Apple products.

Observations

Beats Flex review



The earbuds stick back to back via magnets so pause the music and to help prevent tangled cables when stored. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The magnets keep the earbuds from getting tangled, but they don’t coil up very well leaving them a bit of a mess in a bag.

  • Voice quality on both ends of a call was pretty good, although not quite as clear as with AirPods.

  • Replacement ear tips are available for free on request.

  • Having cables to the earbuds means you won’t lose them quite as easily as true wireless models.

Price

The Beats Flex cost £49.99 and come in four colours.

For comparison, the Powerbeats cost £129.95, the PowerBeats Pro cost £219.95 and the Apple AirPods cost £159.

Verdict

The Beats Flex are a set of good value, feature-rich Bluetooth earbuds from Apple.

They are significantly cheaper than their predecessors and Apple’s AirPods, but little has been sacrificed in sound or function. The headphones have simple pairing, seamless switching and a strong Bluetooth connection. They work just as well with Android devices, thanks to the Beats app, as they do Apple ones.

But they are neckband buds, which means there’s a band that sits on your neck and cables to the earbuds, not the truly wireless design that’s become popular in the past few years. It’s also disappointing that the earbuds cannot be repaired or have the battery replaced, partly due to the cost of repair being higher than the cost of purchase.

Overall, the Beats Flex are an excellent set of everyday Bluetooth earbuds from a name brand.

Pros: long battery life, good sound, W1 chip, good with Android or iPhone, seamless device switching, instant pairing, good controls, USB-C charging, good value for premium earbuds.

Cons: not water resistant, W1 older than H1 and lacks automatic switching between Apple devices, neckband design may not suit everyone, not repairable, battery not replaceable.

Beats Flex review



The Flex have the same battery popup and connection features as Apple’s AirPods on iPhones and iPads, but also on Android devices via the Beats app. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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