Wireless headphones are becoming the defacto choice for Apple users, with the iPhone 7 dropping the analog headphone jack. Apple Watch can also only pair with wireless music devices.
We don’t know what the future holds for the W1 chip, perhaps more manufacturers will be allowed to use it, but the product range is already diversified with what’s available today, spanning different form factors, audio quality, convenience, innovation and price points.
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The W1 chip gives wireless headphones seamless pairing to Apple products with instantaneous setup, syncing the configuration across your iCloud account to all your other devices.
Headphones and earbuds with W1 are also a great choice for Apple Watch users: the sound output will automatically switch been the Watch and the connected iPhone, as you use either device.
W1 devices also offer best-in-class range and battery life. W1 builds upon the Bluetooth class 1 standard so they work with any Bluetooth device, not just Apple products. The seamless pairing features are exclusively available when connected to Apple products however. This makes W1 Bluetooth earphones and headphones one of the best choices for iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch owners.
Apple & Beats Wireless Headphones Compared
- $299: Amazon (on sale for $219), Best Buy, Apple
- Closed back on-ear headphones with incredible range and battery life
- Available in Black, Gloss Black, Gloss White, Silver, Gold, Rose Gold, Violet & (PRODUCT)RED
The Beats Solo3 headphones take one of Beats’ trademark products and enhance its wireless capabilities with the W1 chip. As the largest W1 form factor available, it follows they also offer the best sound with large on-ear cans providing strong bass and loud maximum volume, although lower registers are slightly drowned out.
The W1 chip enables incredible battery life for wireless headphones, rated for up to 40 hours of playback time. Remaining battery can be checked on the hardware itself by looking at the fuel gauge LEDs. Alternatively, iOS will display the % in the Batteries widget. Wireless range is also significantly boosted to over 100 feet thanks to the W1, easily outstripping the typical 30 feet range offered by most Bluetooth headphones.
The Solo3 include a Fast Fuel quick charge feature, 5 minutes of charging provides 3 hours of music playback. There’s integrated on-ear controls for play/pause and beam-forming microphones for taking calls and talking to Siri. If you run out of power, you can use the 3.5mm headphone jack as a fallback in old-fashioned (yet reliable) wired audio mode.
Find out more: Hands on with Beats Solo3 wireless
- $199: Amazon, Best Buy, Apple
- Secure-fit wireless earphones, with sweat and water resistance
- Available in White, Black, Blue, Red & Yellow
Earphones trade some of the audio quality for convenience. The Powerbeats3 are far more portable than the large Solo3 headphones, and are positioned as wireless earphones for fitness and exercise. They feature sweat and water resistance, earhooks to keep the buds securely in place on your head and an overall lightweight body. This design keeps them stable, safely on your ears, during very intensive workout sessions. They come bundled with four interchangeable eartips to choose the best fit and comfort. You can even adjust the length of the dangling wire, to stay out of your way whilst exercising.
Taking advantage of the W1 chip, Powerbeats3 tout 12 hours of in-use battery life on a single charge; similar products in the market achieve eight hours or less. The earphones also feature a fast charge mode; a 5-minute top up adds enough juice for an hour of playback. With no LED indicators, current battery percentage will be visible in the iOS Batteries widget.
The Powerbeats cable include an inline remote and mic to control your playlist without digging for your phone. Like most Beats products, sound is bass-heavy but overall the buds reproduce the sound spectrum with good detail for earphones.
Find out more: Hands on with Powerbeats3
Unlike the others, the BeatsX are an entirely new wireless earphone design from Beats. The buds sit in your ears whilst the cable rests on the back of your head, like a modern take on a neckband. Although the pictures are somewhat deceiving, the product is drastically smaller.
The two earbuds are connected by a wire; when listening to music, the cable rests naturally behind your head as a loose neckband. The band is weighted to hold it in place naturally. When stashed in a pocket, the earbuds magnetically snap together to reduce the amount of tangled wires. BeatsX charge via a (bundled) Lightning cable, offering a solid 8 hours battery life.
If you are worried about the buds falling out, the box includes wingtips that can be attached to clip to your ear, so they stay in place. Even without the wingtips, the earbuds fit snugly into your ear and the BeatsX should be suitable for most activities from sitting down at home to jogging around the park. They are not rated as sweat or water resistant, though. Sound quality is decent with surprisingly good mid and high range audio, again lending on heavier bass. Maximum volume is noticeably lower than AirPods.
Find out more: Hands on with BeatsX
- $159: Amazon, Best Buy. Apple
- Small truly-wireless earbuds, more than 24 hours of battery life with charging case
- Available in White
Unlike the Beats lineup, the Apple-branded AirPods have a much more balanced sound with even reproduction across low, mid and high ranges with a balanced treble and less bass. You will find better overall sound quality from the Solo3 but that’s to be expected — AirPods capitalize on its unique selling points, namely the novel form factor.
AirPods are truly wireless, with each earbud completely independent of the other. This means there are no cables at all when playing music; the buds just sit on your ears. Comfort and fit will vary from person to person but it seems that most people can wear AirPods just fine. With no wires, AirPods work in either stereo or mono depending if you put both buds, or just one, in your ears.
They also include sensors to detect when they are inserted or removed, enabling music to pause and resume automatically. Wireless also means buttonless with no place for an inline remote; instead, you can double-tap the buds for Siri voice control … probably the biggest downsides of this design. AirPods charge in their carry case, which doubles as a portable battery back. You can expect to get five hours in one go from the AirPods and the Case can recharge the buds about four times over, for more than 24 hours of total playback time.
Find out more: Hands on with Apple AirPods
Best For Audio Quality?
Due to the laws of physics, bigger is always better where speakers are concerned. The Beats Solo3 are unquestionably the best W1 wireless headphones for sound quality with large drivers providing consistently strong and clear sound, with the trademark Beats bass. This should be unsurprising as the cans dwarf the other models here.
From the remaining three earphones, the Powerbeats offer the best overall sound but are again bulkier than the BeatsX or AirPods. AirPods have impressive sound for how small they are, easily besting EarPods, and are superior to the BeatsX thanks to their louder maximum volume and a more evenly distributed balanced sound signature.
Best For Battery Life?
On raw numbers, the Beats Solo3 headphones again win here with 40 hours music playback. Again, size acts in their favour: bigger chassis means bigger batteries. 40 hours is staggeringly good in the wireless headphones space and will last most people a week between charges.
That being said, the AirPods also offer close to that number if you include the recharging capabilities of the AirPods Case. You can get 24-30 hours from the AirPods without needing to find the charge cable. The Case also tops up the AirPods incredibly fast, so unless you plan to listen to music for more than 5 hours straight — with no breaks — the AirPods earbuds almost have ‘infinite’ battery.
Best For Workouts And Exercise?
Both the BeatsX and the AirPods are decent as gym or jogging headphones. BeatsX come with wingtips in the box to stop them falling out. Even with no cables or any supports, the AirPods can stay in most people’s ears surprisingly well.
However, the BeatsX weighted neckband will flop around constantly whilst doing serious exercise which is annoying. Wearing AirPods during active workouts is like taking a risk that they will probably be fine, but there’s a 1 in 100 chance they fall out of your ears and bounce around the floor.
That being said, the best choice out of the bunch for intense workout activities has to be the Powerbeats3. Not only do they have over-ear clips, they are also explicitly rated as being water and sweat resistant. They are advertized as gym earphones for a reason. And with 12 hour battery life, you could run 2 marathons before needing to charge.
Best Value For Money?
The cheapest are the BeatsX, at $149, obviously, and that price includes a carry case and four alternative eartips. However, the best value in my opinion has to be the AirPods, which come in just $10 more at $159. As long as the buds fit your ears, the AirPods feel like a very futuristic piece of consumer technology.
AirPods are price competitive in the truly wireless space, whilst also offering best-in-class battery life and portability. The AirPods case fits snugly inside the inner change pocket in most jeans. Compared to the others, AirPods also have some neat tricks like the auto-pause feature and the ability to output either stereo or mono sound, depending if one or both earbuds are in use.
What Should You Buy?
If you are looking for the best sound above all, then the Solo3 are the only W1 wireless option (you may want to consider other wireless headphones with better sound from other brands as well, but they won’t have the same range or battery life). The Solo3 also have the widest range of color options, if that is important.
For portability and sleekness, the AirPods are incredible. If you are looking for something to take to the gym day-in day-out, the Powerbeats are designed for that. Ultimately, what you should buy is a personal decision and depends on what you do in your daily life.
In general, I think the majority of people — who aren’t audiophiles — want something small and portable. As long as AirPods fit, they are probably the best universal answer; a good test to see if the AirPods will be comfortable is to try a pair of wired EarPods which are very similar shaped. The truly wireless nature of the AirPods is unique, and they are competitively priced. If they just aren’t compatible ergonomically, then look to the BeatsX for a good balance of sound quality and convenience.
An issue with buying AirPods right now is that they are still out of stock, backordered up to six weeks. eBay remains one of the only options if you want to get your hands on AirPods soon.
Naturally, personal preference plays a big role in deciding the best headphones. Let us know what you use, and why, in the comments.