Review: Beats Solo3 Wireless On-Ear Headphones
The Beats Solo3 Wireless ($300) needs no introduction. Its predecessors have been extremely popular in recent years, and equally infamous to many in the audiophile community. The Solo3 is the first headphone available using Apple's new W1 chip — Apple's AirPods have yet to be released — and the on-ear Solo3 was featured during Apple's latest iPhone event to introduce the world to Apple's new mobile audio paradigm: wireless. While the Solo3 might not be a revolution in audio, it succeeds in showcasing some promising technology. Solo3 comes in seven different colors, including all the colors to match Apple's newest iPhones.
In the Solo3 box is a well-sized canvas carrying case, an analog cable with iOS controls, a charging cable, and a small Beats-branded carabiner. The carabiner lets you hang the carrying case from your bag, to ensure that everyone around you knows that you have Beats, even if you’re not wearing them.
We didn’t listen to the Solo3 expecting a balanced sound signature. The Solo3 sets expectations properly from the start, after all — it says “Beats” on the box, and beats are what you get. Bass is heavily emphasized in this headphone, with the slam and boom that we expect from the Beats brand. This low-end boost comes at a cost, however, as there is a loss of detail across the rest of the spectrum compared to other headphones we’ve tested. Sounds in the midrange and treble like snare drums and vocals can sound unnatural and muffled. Still, the Solo3 sounds better than the original Solo — where the original sounded like music playing underwater, the Solo3 just sounds like there is a huge subwoofer too loud and too close to the listener.
Bass this heavy is a guilty pleasure. Even though we prefer a much more balanced frequency response, the Solo3 is fun when you feed it the right types of music. Electronic tracks shine on the Solo3, since the loss of some detail doesn’t ruin the track and head-shaking bass is part of the experience. Rap was just as enjoyable on this headphone, though the Solo3 seemed to simplify multi-layered tracks into little more than vocals and beats. The fun ends, however, with rock and acoustic tracks that don’t benefit from the big bass boost. The Solo3 seems to want every song to sound the same — a solo acoustic guitar on this headphone seems to suddenly gain a bass guitar accompaniment.
While the sound of the Solo3 has improved since the previous generation, the Beats build quality has not. Compared to the Bowers & Wilkins P3 S2 that we reviewed last week, the construction and materials of the Solo3 leave much to be desired. Though the faux-anodized matte finish looks great, nearly every surface is thin plastic or rubber. All of the Solo3’s joints are loose. In sharp contrast to that of the B&W P3, the Solo3’s sizing mechanism is clicky and reveals ugly, unfinished metal that clashes with the rest of the headphone. The headband cushion is also a cost-cutting zone, made of grippy rubber instead of leather; at this price, the headband should have been made with leather to match the ear pads. Though the Solo3 was very comfortable — even for an on-ear — this is not the build quality that customers deserve in a $300 headphone.
To this point, this could have been a review of the Solo2, since the Solo3 seems mostly unchanged since the previous generation. What makes the Solo3 interesting is the technology hidden inside — the Apple W1 chip and a fantastic battery.
Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 left many headphone enthusiasts upset, and rightfully so. Wired headphones had the advantages of universal compatibility, instant connection, no battery to charge, and none of the extra compression caused by Bluetooth audio. When Jony Ive said that Apple believed in a wireless future for headphones, it seemed like a step backwards — we are familiar with Bluetooth headphones, and at no time did they feel (or sound) like they could replace wired headphones. In the Solo3, however, we see that Apple has found room to innovate.
The W1 chip is fantastic. Where pairing Bluetooth devices normally takes several button pushes, menus, and taps, the W1 chip enables pairing in just one tap — with the Solo3 in pairing mode, you need only place it near an iOS 10 device and tap “Connect” on the popup. Where sharing one Bluetooth headphone between multiple devices used to require un-pairing and re-pairing, the Solo3 was instantly paired with all iOS 10 devices, Macs, and Apple Watch. Switching devices is as simple as swiping up and selecting the Solo3 from the list of playback devices. The W1’s use of Class-1 Bluetooth also vastly improves range; the Solo3 maintained its connection without dropouts even with the iPhone on opposite ends of a house or different floors.
The Solo3’s battery life was also nothing short of amazing. Starting with a full charge, a week of casual listening and testing passed without the need for a charge. We finally forced the battery to zero by playing music non-stop overnight. The next morning, we let the Solo3 charge for exactly 15 minutes, which brought the battery to 23 percent. We again played music non-stop at 50 percent volume, expecting 3 to 4 hours of battery life — the Solo3 played for almost 10 hours before the battery died.
Through our usual headphone review lens (build, comfort, accessories, sound), the Solo3 is essentially unremarkable compared to its predecessor. However, the Solo3 is important because of the technology it showcases. In the Solo3, we see Apple’s pitch to the mass market for killing the headphone jack. With the W1 chip, Apple has made using wireless headphones as easy, if not easier, than using wired headphones. In addition, the excellent battery life and quick charging makes using Bluetooth headphones almost as convenient as using wired headphones — the battery lasts long enough that you can almost forget about charging. All things considered, the Solo3 gets our general recommendation.