I just tried Beats earbuds for the first time — here's what happened

 PR lifestyle image of Beats Studio Buds Plus in black/gold being removed from charging case
PR lifestyle image of Beats Studio Buds Plus in black/gold being removed from charging case

Despite listening to all kinds of headphones over the years, and more recently dozens of the best wireless earbuds as audio editor at Tom's Guide, you may be surprised to learn that I've never encountered a pair of Beats' earbuds. That is until earlier this week, of course.

As an audio expert with more years under my belt than I wish to mention, I care a lot about getting the best sound quality and helping consumers make the greatest possible connection to their favorite music through high-quality audio experiences. From Apple's AirPods Pro 2 to Sony's WF-1000XM4, I've experienced the majority of the best noise-cancelling earbuds around, but never Beats.

That may sound unusual, but Beats hasn't exactly chimed with my audiophile aspirations owing to its bass-rich sound tuned for the hip-hop music community. Since being at Tom's Guide, though, I've found myself embracing all kinds of audio products to suit many different styles, helping budget and aficionado music lovers alike on their journey to achieve better listening experiences.

Additionally, Beats hasn't launched a model for a couple of years, and so the arrival of the Beats Studio Buds+ ANC earbuds earlier this week was my first encounter with the brand.

Beats first impressions

Beats Studio Buds Plus held in hand with open charging case outdoors
Beats Studio Buds Plus held in hand with open charging case outdoors

As I mentioned in my hands-on review, the Beats Studio Buds+ ($169 / £179 / AU$269) are extremely compact and feel well finished. Sticking with the iconic design of the original, these are easily the smallest set earbuds I've encountered; to the point where my large fingers found it difficult to pop them in and out of the charging case.

If you're after a discreet pair of earbuds (apart from Beats' "b" branding that is), these are a very unobtrusive design. If you're after something a bit more substantial with a high-end look and feel, though, then you'll need to look at designs like the OnePlus Buds 2 Pro ($179), or the Nothing Ear (2) with their transparent styling for $20 less than the Studio Buds+.

What happened to Beats' big bass sound?

Beats Studio Buds+ transparent
Beats Studio Buds+ transparent

Our original Beats Studio Buds review mentioned the bass rich sound that was especially punchy with ANC or Transparency modes engaged. The review also mentioned that the treble was on a par with our AirPods Pro (our top best wireless earbuds at the time). This wasn't what I got from the latest Beats.

I was expecting the new Beats Studio Buds+ to have very similar sonic signature to the original version, with a big bass-heavy sound. But to my ears, the bass doesn't sound nearly as big or punchy as I anticipated, and doesn't live up to the description of the original.

In fact, the recently reviewed OnePlus Buds Pro 2 have a much bigger bass sound when listening to the two models side-by-side, although the Studio Buds+ do score better with more openness around the mid and treble frequencies. What's more, the new Beats Studio Buds+ don't appear to bring any greater bass depth or warmth over the sound signature of the more refined-sounding Apple AirPods Pro 2, which is surprising.

I can't help feeling that whatever adjustments have been made, the result is a less engaging sound overall.

What I did get listening to the Beats Studio Buds+ sonic sound signature is a lot more sparkle on high frequencies. While this initially gives the impression of sounding more open and detailed, it's exactly the frequency range that makes highs sound brash and tizzy, which can quickly get tiring. Even after a very short listening period, I found the sound balance fatiguing and too hard going with some tracks.

With Drake's "Search & Rescue", I can hear what feels like a hint of Beats' original signature sound working well. But with music outside the genre, the frequency balance tends to be on the lean side when compared to in-ear rivals. There's a lack of bass depth and warmth that I wasn't expecting when listening to Loreen's Eurovision-winning song "Tattoo" streamed via Apple Music, particularly when listening at lower volume levels. Even the bass-heavy "Cha, Cha, Cha" by Käärijä (Finland's entry) doesn't quite have the same level of impact, and the bass depth and warmth feels curtailed compared to several rival earbuds I tried.

Re-engineered Beats

Whether Apple-owned Beats has re-engineered the sound of the latest Studio Buds+ earbuds is hard to say for sure given that I don't have a pair of the original Studio Buds to compare them to. The press information does suggest that some internal adjustments have been made with a dual-layer speaker design for balanced bass levels with lower distortion.

This all sounds well and good, but I can't help feeling that whatever adjustments have been made, the result is a less engaging sound overall if you're buying these Beats buds to listen to anything other than rap or hip-hop. Of course, any sound EQ balance can easily be adjusted via your playback device or streaming service of choice.

Overall, I can't help but feel a little bit underwhelmed by the sound of the new Beats Studio Buds+, and this first encounter hasn't quite lived up to my expectations. The iconic design and new transparent option are enough to keep loyal fans interested, but in an overcrowded market these already feel outperformed by plenty of better-sounding and more feature-laden rivals.

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