When rumors circulated that Apple would stop including a series of wired headphones in the box with the iPhone 12, we should have seen this coming. On the day of the Apple event, the Beats company’s audio subsidiary announced a line of inexpensive wireless headphones that offer users an inexpensive option. The Beats Flex covers the basics with a handful of onboard controls, a different approach to auto-pause, and quick AirPods-quality pairing. Unfortunately, the features are not everything, and there is a key element that the flex does not work well.
The Beats Flex is very similar to its more expensive predecessor, the 150 Beat BeatsX. They are always behind – the wireless headphones with the Golden Neck or as I like to call them, the headphones with the neck. Visually, the main difference is that the company has moved the onboard commands of the cable attached to the left bud towards the pod end at the end of the neck. This ribbon that rests on your collar is where the flex got its name. Beats says that this flex-form cable is made of nitinol or nickel-titanium. It’s stiffer than an ordinary headphone cable, but it’s super light, and thanks to this design choice, you won’t have a piece of plastic sitting behind your neck. It is also coated with the same matte and soft material as the rest of the Flex, giving it a comfortable overall feel.
Beats says this cable makes the flex easy to wind up for storage. All the cables of these headphones are flat, even the two most flexible, which are attached to the headphones themselves. However, they do not remain wrapped as soon as you wrap them. The part of the collar remains in place, but these long rounded rectangles make curling or winding uncomfortable. I’ve never been able to find a method that fixed my frustration here. In addition, the threads connecting the buds seem too long to me. The extra length unfolds from your face or hugs your jaw depending on how you turn the headphone to put it in your ear. I understand that Beats is aiming for a universal fit for millions of potential users here, but for me it has created a pretty weird look that I’ve never gotten used to.
As for the onboard commands, what you use the most is on the left. A volume control is located at the top of an oversized Tic tac that houses some of the Flex components. Near the front edge there is a single circular multifunction button. This command supports play / pause (simple press), skipping tracks (double press), going back to the previous song (triple press) and entering the virtual assistant (long press). Since these are all body buttons, they are reliable and easy to use. Even if you need to press two or three times, the flex will receive any command without problems. On the left side is also the microphone for calls, just above the multifunction button. And on the lower ridge is the USB-C port for powered.
For the sake of symmetry, and I suppose to help the battery life, there is a second rectangular matter on the right. It holds the power button on the bottom tip exactly in front of the USB socket. The button also has a multi-color LED that lets you know when the flex is charged, connected, or in pairing mode. And its position, resting on your collarbone, means that you do not confuse the power knob with the volume buttons, which are located at the top of the other side.
Perhaps the most notable design element is the magnetic headphones. The back of the buds will fit together if they hang from your neck. Although the Flex does not have wear detection that automatically stops when you remove them from your ears, they interrupt when the two headphones are glued together. And the audio will resume by itself if you disconnect them. Most of the time, when you take them out and put them on your chest, they tend to be alone-at least it was the matter for me.
In the early days, The Beats headphones were known for their massive, booming-but almost painfully authoritarian-bass tuning. The company has recently opted for a fairer approach, and Flex continues this trend. There’s a decent amount of bass here, but these headphones don’t have the pleasant dull sound that can turn you on at the gym. The same is true to recreate the bass drum or drum machine of your favorite artists accordingly. I would even say that this is the least amount of low-end sound I remember in a Beats product. Of course, these are supposed to have a general appeal, and the setting is certainly more in the middle of the road.
The sound profile of the Flex also promotes speech and spoken content. It’s great if you watch a movie or a TV or listen to a podcast. It’s not the best thing if you want to blow up the explosive hip-hop of Run the Jewels. The lack of appropriately boomy bass sometimes has an impact on the big drums of metal bands like Gojira, sucking a ton of energy out of the songs. You just feel flat, and it’s consistent across genres. Sometimes you can hear a big boom, others it can be lost from one song to another. Atmospheric indie rock bands that create songs that have a lot of dimensionality don’t have that air quality on the flex. Artists love the distribution of apple seeds, which usually overlay textures of drums, guitars, synths and more, lacking this carefully constructed spatial component on the flex.
Compared to the EarPods, Beats Flex is better when it comes to sound. Apple’s wired buds are a bit of a touch with an emphasis on media. The Flex has better clarity and more range when adjusting. Not to mention that the new Beats headphones are more comfortable thanks to the interchangeable earplugs. All in all, the Flex’s feature suite is impressive for a headphone set, but unfortunately the overall audio quality is more than you’d expect for that price.