Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Beats Flex is superior to AirPods Pro.

Goodness, did I love my original AirPods – enough to wear out the (admittedly meagre) batteries over hundreds of hours of outdoor walking in under two years. I was ready to upgrade at the moment of the long-awaited announcement of something new, and the AirPods Pro seemed like the next serious step, boosting the quality and adding active noise cancellation, which then – before the industry at large attempted it – seemed like a serious accomplishment for something so portable.

I loved them too, at first. I even put aside my standing dislike – which has faded – of devices you insert into your ear canal.

Months later, the active noise cancelling began worsening in one ear. Not fade, but I could tell it was trying and failing to measure surrounding sound and compensate accurately. When I'd shake my head or take a step while jogging, I'd get noise instead of anti-noise: subtle sympathetic swooshes or squeaks.

Happily, the warranty plus patience took care of that. Unhappily, the same thing hinted at beginning with the other ear several months later, and this time my warranty had just expired. Not the best situation: I was left with a slightly defective, premium-priced product after just a year.

Happily, Apple instated a special replacement program for AirPods Pro exhibiting just this behaviour. Unhappily, some miscommunication led the staff to believe this second replacement occurred both outside the program and out of warranty, leading me to have to make multiple calls to Apple over two months, keeping my own records and advocating for a refund of not just one, but two replacement charges made – the second one seemingly an unrelated error. I know from experience that Apple generally has their customer relations together, but if I'd been a new customer, that bungle may have been my cue to exit.

On top of that, I reflected on my time with the Pros. It's impressive to have two isolated, high-quality earpieces keeping in perfect sync – but when they occasionally lapsed, they really lapsed. Now and then, for example, when only the right or left bud would respond, I'd spend half a walk trying to disconnect and reconnect them in every way I could think of – a predic which wouldn't have been possible with single-piece headphones. As it happened, all of this was at least enough for me to exit my use of the AirPods. I cleaned them carefully, and eBay it was.

The Beats Flex had been released, and that's where my sights had landed. Costing a fifth as much as the AirPods Pro, I might have thought they were "not as good," period. But the W1 chip connected them automatically to all your Apple devices like the AirPods Pro did – no compromise there. They were single-piece: the connecting wire sat gently on your neck, and you wouldn't lose or damage them if they fell out – they even click together magnetically, forming a sort of necklace (which also sends a pause message, while the Pros sensed they'd left your ears). They fit identically in the ear canal and feel fine. They're black. (At least, mine are.) They have a volume control. The don't have their own charging case, because the battery lasts many times longer – I've charged mine a handful of times over months of use. So far, no issues, no subtle defects predestined by lofty aspirations, no hassles with customer service. I found them on sale for $35. This has been way better, and I'm way happier. I enjoyed riding the hype for a little while, but I'd have missed this stroke of logic if I'd been any more fixated or less disillusioned.

So, what are the disadvantages to the Beats Flex? Beats doesn't try to cancel noise actively, but presence in the ear canal does plenty on its own. I can hear the overall difference in sound quality: the Bluetooth-like fidelity is audible, and the sound signature feels like it folds in a little more Beats-esque dolling-up of the spectrum to make it sound a little brighter and bassier than what it receives (though tastefully less than Beats was famous for doing in a previous decade). The AirPods Pro provided that luxurious, pillowy smoothness for gentle bass which the Beats Flex only imitates, but I'm out walking or jogging, for goodness' sake – not sinking into a velour-padded recliner for a vision quest.

Since this whole transition, Apple has ramped up "spatial audio," involving the gyroscope and other input to compensate for your head movements, dealing out the illusion of unmoving speakers around you. I tried watching Star Trek: TNG this way with the AirPods Pro before selling them – it was cool, but not amazing. Recently, I hear Eddy Cue thinks this is the next big thing for music, and the feature will arrive at the system level this year, while Apple Music tracks and tvOS add their own support for it.

If Apple thinks spatial audio is that big, then they're going to be bringing it to more people and more types of headphones in the future. I get the impression they've quietly recognized and addressed the aformentioned issues with the AirPods Pro as well. That's good, and maybe I'll give the headphone-scape another look when I have less doubt the reliability will be solid. For now, the Beats Flex – these humble, inexpensive things – are the ones that have proved themselves, and will remain my companion.