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Beats Solo Pro review: beat the noise

If they fit you comfortably, these are the best Beats headphones yet

Beats headphones are everywhere. You have likely seen them on your commute, at the gym, and on the heads of celebrities and star athletes. Beats has sold over 30 million units of its mainstream on-ear Solo headphones over the years, and now there’s a brand-new pair with a long-awaited feature: noise cancellation. The Beats Solo Pros go on sale on October 30th for $299.95, and they’re the second release in what Beats says is a new generation of products that kicked off earlier this year with the Powerbeats Pro wireless earbuds.

The Powerbeats Pro were the first earbuds designed in collaboration with Apple from the very beginning, and the Solo Pros are the first headphones built from the ground up in concert by Beats and engineers at Apple. Beats headphones contain Apple silicon (the H1 chip is inside the Solo Pros, just like the latest AirPods). They go through the same quality assurance testing as Apple’s own products. And if you ever do have a problem with them, you can take them to an Apple Store, which is less of a hassle than having to pack them up and mail them out as you would for other manufacturers.

What I’m driving at here is that these are not the overpriced Beats of years ago where the product could hardly justify the premium asking price. Beats will always have its critics, but the Solo Pros offer good noise cancellation, better-than-expected durability, lengthy battery life, and a balanced sound profile that won’t rattle your skull with amped-up bass. There’s plenty of competition, but I expect these to become just as prevalent as their predecessors everywhere you look — so long as your head isn’t as big as mine.

The Solo Pros carry Beats’ DNA forward into a design that’s more refined than previous models. The greasy, glossy plastics seen on the Solo 3 and earlier headphones are now history, replaced by matte textures and exposed aluminum. These headphones are still predominantly plastic, but they feel sturdier and more robust than the Solo 3s. They have 40mm drivers just like the Solo 3s did, but the actual bits and pieces are all new. The ear cup cushions have increased in surface area by 70 percent compared to the Solo 3s, so there’s more padding making contact with your ears for better comfort and seal. And since these headphones have proven surprisingly popular at the gym and on runs, Beats has made some internal tweaks to improve their sweat resistance. The end result is headphones that still look the part but feel more deserving of your $300.

They come in a soft felt-like case, which is made from recycled materials and has a fair amount of give. I wouldn’t call the case super protective, but it’s easy to stow away in a bag. When you take the headphones out, turning them on is as simple as unfolding them. There’s no power button. Close ‘em up, and they’re off again. If you tend to wear headphones around your neck sometimes like I do, these will automatically conserve power whenever music or other audio isn’t playing. Unfortunately, the Solo Pros don’t automatically pause music when you remove them or pull away a single ear cup, and that’s one feature I really wish they had.

Apple’s H1 chip allows for seamless pairing with a nearby iPhone or iPad, after which the headphones are saved across all of your Apple devices. You can also do hands-free “Hey Siri” voice commands, and these support the new audio sharing feature in iOS 13, so you and a friend with AirPods (or other recent Beats) can listen to the same song or watch a video together. Don’t worry, Android people: these headphones work perfectly fine with your phones, too. Beats has an Android app for quick pairing — if you hate the regular Bluetooth menu, I guess — and installing firmware updates. The Solo Pros charge with a Lightning connector, and yes, I’m very much looking forward to the day that this company switches over to USB-C. There’s a small cable in the box for the non-iPhone crowd.

What you won’t find on these headphones is a 3.5mm input. Apple is determined to kill the headphone jack, and Beats has not been spared. If you want to use them wired for full-quality audio (or if the battery dies), you’ll have to buy a $35 cable from Apple that’s basically an aux cord with Lightning on one side. Unfortunately, even third-party versions of this cable are pricey if you want to avoid dodgy, non-certified options. Apple continues to nudge customers toward going wireless.

Put the Solo Pros onto your dome and, well, here’s the thing… they don’t fit me right. Even with the sliders fully extended, there’s plenty of earlobe showing when I put these headphones on. Now, I’ve got an enormous head. Good luck finding a hat that fits me. (When I was a kid in little league, they had to give me the special batter’s helmet, which was a size above the biggest one for normal-sized heads. That’s what we’re working with here.) But I don’t remember the Solo 3s feeling quite this small on me.

Since I’m an extreme case, I wanted more input and had a few other people wear them around the office for some feedback on fit and feel. Even those with regular noggins told me that the Solo Pros were a little too tight against their ears. The clamping force is substantial, and there’s a reason for that: for noise cancellation to be most effective, the ear pads need to pressed firmly against your ears for a good seal. This also helps prevent glasses or long hair from interfering with the noise cancellation. I get that, but some people will find these headphones fatiguing or run into discomfort wearing the Solo Pros for extended periods like, say, on a long flight. They’ve broken in a bit in the time I’ve been testing them, but it’s still a constant squeeze. Comfort is one category where over-ear headphones will always win out.

These are Beats’ first on-ear headphones with active noise cancellation. It works the same way as on the company’s top-end Studio cans: the Solo Pros analyze ambient noise with their built-in microphones and cancel out the clamor of city streets and the low rumble of a subway or plane. Everything happens automatically; you can’t control the level of noise cancellation with these like you can on headphones from Bose, Microsoft, Sennheiser, and other companies. The Solo Pros also monitor what you’re hearing to make sure that the noise cancellation isn’t messing with your music by comparing the waveform with ANC on to the original source file in real time and making subtle adjustments where necessary.

That all sounds very impressive. But in real-world use, I’d say Beats’ noise cancellation is good but still not a match for Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 or Sony’s 1000X M3s. It definitely is better than no noise cancelation, however.

The transparency mode button is now where the 3.5mm jack used to be.

If you need to hear ambient noise for safety reasons or to pay for your coffee or something, you can press the button on the underside of the left ear cup to enter “transparency mode.” The Solo Pros have one of the most natural-sounding passthrough modes I’ve heard yet. Nothing sounds overly-processed or digital. When you’re done hearing what you need to, just hit the button again to crank noise canceling back up.

Battery life is 22 hours if you stick to noise-canceling and transparency modes. If you turn both of those off (with a double-press of the aforementioned button), you can get up to 40 hours of good old music playback. Apple’s numbers are on point and in line with my testing. With that kind of endurance, I’ve only had to charge the Solo Pros once a week, if that. Should you somehow find yourself almost out of battery, a 10-minute charge should be enough to get three hours of listening time.

Now, on to sound quality. Beats’ reputation precedes itself. For years, it was about commanding, head-rattling bass at the expense of everything else. But that’s not true anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while now. Things started turning around with the Solo 3s a few years ago and then got really good with the Powerbeats Pro. With the Solo Pros, the bass is still pronounced but not boomy or overwhelming. It feels purposefully restrained compared to older Beats headphones, even the Solo 3s.

The word I’d associate with these headphones is clarity. They don’t have the widest soundstage in the world, but they’re balanced and consistently enjoyable. I listened to the 2019 remix of Abbey Road, and the Solo Pros made for a lively, dynamic listen with excellent instrument placement and separation for vocal harmonies. Switching over to Lizzo, the bass was thumpy without entering bloated territory. The mids aren’t lost or recessed, despite a tuning that goes for excitement over faithful reproduction, and the high end is well represented without turning shrill.

Do the Solo Pros sound as good as Sennheiser’s $400 also-noise-canceling Momentum 3 headphones? No. But there’s nothing wrong with them. That said, Beats doesn’t offer any EQ customization, so it’s worth trying them in a store first to be sure you’re into the sound. These aren’t audiophile cans, but they fill the role of everyday, take-everywhere headphones remarkably well.

But this is a review, and there’s always the nit-picky stuff. Aside from my disappointment over the lack of auto-pause and wired listening being way harder than it should be, I also think the controls on the right ear cup could use some work. You can press the top or bottom of the rocker to adjust the volume. Pressing the center plays or pauses your music. Hitting that middle area twice skips a track and three times goes back. But in my mind, the most sensible approach would be turning the circle on the right ear cup into an iPod-style clickwheel where pushing on the right or left sides would handle forward / back controls.

But even as they are, the Solo Pros are perhaps the best headphones Beats has produced. The noise cancellation isn’t best in class, but it’s still quite good. Frequent travelers or people who care most about comfort might want to stick with Bose or Sony. And if you’re in the big head club like me, these might not be the right fit. But just like their predecessors, I suspect you’ll start seeing the Solo Pros popping up just about everywhere before long. They sound good, last a long time, and look nicer while doing it.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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