Beats Flex review
Quick verdict: Apple's low-cost Beats Flex headphones deliver a pleasing sound for their price, but be ready for some comfort issues.
- Good clear sound
- Fast pairing with Apple devices
- Good battery life
- Slightly uncomfortable fit
- Dual controls take some getting used to
- Lacks fast switching found on newer Apple/Beats headphones
Beats has long sold itself as being a premium brand – at least in style if not always in sound profile – but that's not the market that Apple is targeting with the Beats Flex headphones. They're a distinctly low-cost set of wireless Bluetooth headphones that could be a good match for iPhone 12 buyers, given that Apple no longer includes any level of bundled headphones with its new phones. They're overall a very capable pair of headphones, although the banded design does introduce some comfort issues, especially if you want to use them on the go.
- Range of colour choices
- Magnetic clasp on each bud
- Like most neckband headphones, comfort can be a challenge
While there's absolutely no shortage of true wireless buds on the market, many of which take their design inspiration from Apple's own AirPods, the Beats Flex are instead a set of Bluetooth headphones built around a flat connecting cable that optimally sits behind your neck. The Beats Flex ship in four colour variants – Flame Blue, Smoke Grey, Yuzu Yellow or Beats Black – giving you plenty of style choice. The model I tested out was the basic Beats Black style.
The neckband cable matches the colour of your chosen Beats Flex pair, with a pair of long, lozenge-shaped control boxes in line to the left and right. The left side has the primary volume and playback/skip/Siri controls.
When not in use, it's also possible to wear the Beats Flex headphones like a necklace, thanks to the magnets in each bud tip that snap together in a pleasing way when near each other. This also powers down the Beats Flex, so you're not wasting playback time or power when they're not in use.
Apple provides four tip sizes for the Beats Flex in the box, and while everyone's ears will differ, I had few issues with the default tip size. What I did have issues with was the overall comfort of wearing neckband-style headphones for any considerable length of time.
That's a very personal matter of course, and some users will have less issue with it. But I found that the presence of the control blocks on the side of my neck was quite annoying, especially when out running.
One solution to this would be to drop the entire loop down my back, which does work, but then leaves you scrambling to grab them when you need to make a volume or track change. They're pretty clearly not designed as fitness-friendly headphones in any case, given the lack of IP-rated water resistance. A little sweat is probably okay (if a little gross), but these aren't heavy workout headphones.
- Very quick Apple pairing
- Slower for Android devices
- No automatic switching
- Good if slightly bass-heavy audio
Pairing the Beats Flex is a pretty simple process, and rather predictably, it's weighted towards users of Apple devices. If you've got a current model iPhone, simply powering up the Beats Flex should be enough to bring up a pop-up window inviting you to pair as needed. Apple does provide support for Android users who will need to pair through their device's Bluetooth menu, along with an Android Beats app that handles pairing with a single touch and allows for firmware upgrades.
The underlying heart of the Beats Flex for pairing is Apple's own W1 chip, as found in the original generation of AirPods. W1 is pretty good for quick pairing, but Apple has since improved its in-house pairing silicon with the H1 chip found in newer AirPods, and with it brought an even easier way to switch between active audio sources on Apple products. The lack of the H1 chip means that this isn't a function found on the Beats Flex headphones, so if you want to jump between an iPhone, iPad or MacBook, you'll have to do so manually.
Beats has a reputation for bass-heavy tuning, but that's only moderately present in terms of audio presentation. The actual audio is quite pleasant for headphones in this price range, although not to the level of, say, the PowerBeats Pro or Apple's AirPods Pro.
Throwing on Metallica's classic Enter Sandman gave a good degree of presentation between the heavy drum hits and churning guitar sounds, while trying out the softer vocal stylings of Suzanne Vega's Tom's Diner showed nice bright vocal reproduction. Switching over to the more electronic sounds of Howard Jones's The Prisoner did lose just a little in the way it presented the electronic drum tracks, but still quite good for a set of lower-cost wireless headphones.
- Up to 12 hours battery life
- USB-C charging
Apple rates the Beats Flex as being capable of up to 12 hours of battery life, and if you're using them with an iOS device – or via the Android Beats App – you can track that usage and power draw over time. One of the advantages that a neckband style set has over true wireless buds is that there's logically a lot more space to put batteries into the Beats Flex, and Apple has clearly taken advantage of this.
Volume and precise usage can vary this somewhat, but during my testing, I've had few issues getting near or sometimes slightly beyond that 12-hour figure, depending on how often I had to pull them down and pause music. The real challenge here for me has been more in the ongoing comfort arena, because I found that more than a few hours with a cable pushing against my neck just a bit annoying.
Apple is slowly and grindingly moving away from its proprietary Lightning cable standard, and surprisingly, that shift towards USB-C continues with the low-cost Beats Flex. You get a USB-C cable in the box, but no charger, with a socket on the right control module for actual charging. Apple's claim is that a 10-minute USB-C charge can give you up to 1.5 hours of playback time, although naturally, a full charge takes a tad longer than that.
Should you buy the Beats Flex?
- Buy it if you want the Beats style and easy Apple pairing.
- Don't buy it if you want true wireless freedom or exercise-friendly headphones.
I'm not going to lie – I didn't particularly enjoy the Beats Flex review process, because I ultimately don't like the neckband style of headphones and I can't ignore the fact that this did impact my enjoyment of listening to music through them. The Beats Flex headphones are a slightly weird product in this way, because even at their price point, there are actual true wireless buds that you can buy. And naturally enough, Apple has a number of actually wireless buds at higher prices that you could also aspire towards.
However, if you're a fan of that neckband style for its improved battery life and the fact that it's much harder to lose your headphones, their audio quality is really rather good compared to what else you'd get at this price point.
Pricing and availability
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman