It’s fair to say that the big Beats Flex news last week got buried under confirmation that you won’t get headphones in the iPhone 12 box. Apple’s thinking is that most people either have earbuds already, or have their eye on something more rewarding than the old, bundled EarPods – for those who don’t, there’s now a significantly more attainable set of Beats that might just fit the bill.
Beats Flex isn’t being positioned as the ideal foil for an iPhone 12 – indeed Beats is particularly proud of its relatively platform-agnostic support for both iOS and Android – but it’s hard not to see the timing as more than coincidental. They’re the cheapest point of entry into Beats ownership, the $49.99 price tag half what the old BeatsX would’ve cost you.
In the process they’ve become the cheapest wireless headphones that Apple sells, the company having quietly stripped third-party options from its shelves. Despite that, they look and feel unexpectedly high-end. Eventually there’ll be Flame Blue, Beats Black, Yuzu Yellow, and Smoke Gray colors to choose from, but initially only the black and yellow are shipping.
Designed to snake around the back of your neck, the cable is finished in a soft-touch rubber that won’t let them tangle up, while two in-line blocks house the battery and other electronics. At 18.6 grams they’re hardly heavy; Beats includes four eartips in the box, and I found that with the right size it was no problem having them stay in place, despite the cable weighing on them in my ears.
When you do take them out, the magnetic earbuds snap together so that there’s less chance of them slipping off your neck. That’s nifty, though it does leave the eartips free to pick up lint and dirt: that clings pretty eagerly to the silicone rubber. Sadly there’s no carrying pouch included.
Despite the price advantage over BeatsX, you get more battery life: up to 12 hours, in fact, though that will depend on what volume you have them set to. I found Beats’ estimate was on the conservative side in my testing. Rather than Lightning, Beats uses USB-C to recharge Beats Flex, too. 10 minutes plugged in is enough for 1.5 hours worth of playback time.
There are a few sacrifices made along the way, unsurprisingly. Beats uses the Apple W1 chip for Bluetooth, audio processing, and easy pairing, the same as in the original AirPods. That means, unlike the Apple H1-powered AirPods Pro – or indeed Beats’ own Solo Pro and Powerbeats Pro – you don’t get hands-free “Hey Siri” support, nor any sort of active noise cancelation. Music doesn’t automatically pause when you take an earbud out, either, only when the earbuds click together magnetically, and there’s no water resistance rating.
The W1 means getting the Beats Flex hooked up to an iPhone was ridiculously simple: I pressed the power button, brought them close to the phone, and a pairing dialog popped up. Beats’ Android app promises to do the same if you’re not an iPhone user, as well as offering access to the settings that iOS has for the earbuds.
Primary controls are inline on the right, with a multifunction button that can answer or end calls, or trigger Siri or the Google Assistant, along with a volume rocker. That’s also where the microphone is. Given the length of the cord between that and the right earbud, it means the mic dangles somewhere below your chin: callers told me I wasn’t as clear as when I used the 2019 refreshed AirPods, with a little more background noise coming through, but it was still perfectly acceptable.
The same can be said for music quality. Beats puts a single driver in each earbud, with a dual-chamber acoustic design and vents to help balance pressure inside the ear. Given the price, I didn’t have expectations of the finest audio, but I proved to be pleasantly surprised.
Beats has a reputation for doubling-down on the low end, but the Beats Flex are actually a lot more balanced. You don’t get the heavy punch that more expensive earbuds can deliver, but the bass is measured and precise, without getting flabby. At the other extreme, the high-end delivers clean vocals, though again some of the sparkle that pricier headphones serve up wasn’t quite there. The most welcome surprise was to the midrange, where Beats’ earbuds deliver an unexpected level of detail.
Digging out a set of EarPods from the bottom of an old iPhone box – where, I’d wager, most end up staying – I was struck by just how much better the Beats Flex sound.
Beats Flex Verdict
That comparison, more so than any other, feels the most pertinent as we hurtle toward the big iPhone 12 release date. Opinion is still divided on whether Apple’s decision not to include headphones was correct, but I have zero doubt that the user experience from a set of Beats Flex will be exponentially better than from the old EarPods.
Beats Flex aren’t just an iPhone 12 proposition, though, and the Beats team deserves credit for making sure Android users are as welcome as they can be. While there are undoubtedly ways to get better audio quality out there, they generally cost considerably more than the $50 that Beats Flex ask for. The iPhone 12 may have got the headlines, but Beats Flex demonstrate that what’s left out can be just as important as what’s left in.