Beats Studio Buds Review: Balance and Sacrifice
Beats’ earbuds are getting into the active noise cancellation game, with the Beats Studio Buds also promising a much smaller package and more flexible product than its previous wireless headphones. The ANC earbud and headphone space is hotly-competitive right now, with mainstays like Apple’s AirPods Pro going toe-to-toe with Sony’s new WF-1000XM4, Google’s Pixel Buds A, and a host of rivals. The big question, then, is whether Beats’ mix of tight cross-platform compatibility can give its $149.99 Studio Buds an edge.
First impressions are off to a good start: it’s a far more convenient charging case than we’ve seen before from Beats, measuring in at 51.5 x 73 x 25.6 mm and 48 grams. The company’s packaging deserves a mention, too: the tiny box is also its smallest yet, and is made of 92-percent plant-based material that apparently comes from recycled fiber and sustainably-managed forests.
2019’s Powerbeats Pro – which remain on-sale alongside the Studio Buds, rather than being replaced by them – were among my favorites for general comfort, not least because of their soft earband. Studio Buds, like most of their rivals, rely on the silicone ear-tip to hold them in place. Beats says it considered thousands of different ear shapes as it figured out the small, medium, and large sets that come in the box.
Now, I have finicky ears, and that can make getting wireless earbuds to fit – and stay in place – tricky. With Studio Buds the result is good, but not quite as sticky as Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro. I wish Beats included a set of silicone “fins” like the new Pixel Buds A do, for a little extra security, though again I suspect I’m an edge case. Once they’re in place, each earbud is a little over 5 grams, and comfortable for extended wear; they’re also IPX4 water and sweat resistant.
While most rivals have opted for capacitive controls, Beats sticks resolutely with a physical multi-function button. A series of taps can control music playback or calls – one tap to play/pause; two to skip forward; three to skip back, for example – while a long-press switches between ANC modes. I like the button, and there’s definitely no uncertainty over whether you’ve pressed it or not, though it can be easy to accidentally tap when you’re pushing the Studio Buds into your ears.
By default, the long-press on each earbud is mapped to the same thing. You can change that, though, so that it triggers Siri – if you’d rather not use the “Hey Siri” wake word – or the Google Assistant, depending on whether you’re paired to an iOS or Android device. iPhone users will find those options in the iOS settings, while Android users will need to install the Beats app first; that also handles things like firmware updates. Usefully, Beats has also baked in “Find My” support for iOS and “Find My Device” support for Android, though you don’t get iCloud pairing sync, automatic Apple device switching, or audio sharing support as AirPods offer because the Studio Buds don’t use Apple’s H1 or W1 chip.
On the audio side, there’s a custom 8.2mm driver and a two-chamber acoustic design, relying on a two-piece diaphragm which Beats say was specially made with ANC in mind. Over the years, the company’s association with bass-heavy tuning has been tempered somewhat, and in fact Studio Buds are unexpectedly balanced in that regard. There’s low-end, sure, but not the heaping of extreme bass that you might first expect.
Still, it makes for enjoyable listening, plus a set of earbuds that aren’t just tilted toward dance, RnB, and rap. In fact the Studio Buds did better at classical than I expected, with an expansive soundstage and clean high-end that didn’t stumble into piercing shrillness. If anything I could’ve done with a little more bass thump; the bone-jarring rumble in Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend,” for example, fell short of the borderline-distortion that other headphones can deliver.
The flip side is that you can literally wear Studio Buds for hours and it’s not tiring. That’s thanks in part to a vented design, but the Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) helps there of course. It’s a homegrown system, Beats says, rather than what Apple uses in its AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
Beats’ handiwork is solid, though not quite what Apple’s (more expensive) earbuds deliver; there’s just that bit more outside noise that still makes it through. I do like how easy it is to switch between full ANC and Beats’ Transparency mode, though. That pipes through just enough environmental noise so as to leave you a little safer while trying to navigate busy urban streets, or have a quick conversation without pulling an earbud out first. You can also toggle between the two – or turn the system off altogether – in the settings.
Something I’ve missed is an in-ear sensor. With many other wireless earbuds, when you take one out of your ear the music automatically pauses; put it back, and it resumes again. It’s a neat way to handle those moments where you need to interact with the outside world, but sadly the Studio Buds lack the sensor for it; Beats argues it would’ve taken up too much space. Yes, I could switch on Transparency mode for those impromptu chats, but I still feel a little awkward with earbuds in when I’m talking to someone, even if I know I can hear them just fine. In calls, the microphones are underwhelming, with callers reporting more trouble hearing me when I was outside than I’d expected them to have.
Studio Buds also support Spatial Audio. If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, tracks that support the Dolby Atmos-powered system will play by default, and as you move your head the soundstage will move around you accordingly. It’s a mighty clever thing, though right now Spatial Audio songs are in the extreme minority. Beats includes a four-month Apple Music trial if you’re not already a subscriber.
As for battery life, Beats says you should see 5 hours of music playback with ANC switched on from the earbuds, or 8 hours with ANC off. The case has enough battery for two full recharges of the earbuds: so, with ANC on, you’re looking at 15 hours in total, or up to 24 hours with it off. 5 minutes in the case is enough for an hour of ANC-off playback.
Beats’ numbers lined up pretty well with my own experience, and I liked being able to use a USB-C charger with the Studio Buds’ case rather than Lightning. The downside is that there’s no wireless charging support.
Beats Studio Buds Verdict
There’s a whole lot to like about the Beats Studio Buds. While I wish the company had found space in the earbuds for an in-ear sensor, and in the case for wireless charging support, neither is a dealbreaker. I can’t really complain about Beats’ battery life or comfort, either. If you’ve grown to rely on some of Apple’s convenience features like iCloud pairing sharing, its absence may feel like a step back here, and though the ANC is reasonable it’s definitely not the best system on the market right now.
What stands out, though, is how balanced they are as active noise cancelling earbuds. Studio Buds play so nicely with a wide range of musical genres, it’s their flexibility that lingers; the same can be said for Beats’ commitment to giving all smartphone users pretty much the same experience, regardless of whether they’re iPhone or Android fans. At $150 they’re pitched right at the heart of the ANC earbud category, too. If you ever assumed you weren’t in Beats’ target audience given your music tastes, the Studio Buds may well change your mind.
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June 14, 2021 at 08:17AM