Bluetooth Headphone Face-Off: Sony wins on sound, but Beats win on usability

I can’t stop buying headphones. Since 2018 I’ve bought three sets for myself, received one set for my birthday and bought or advised on the purchase of two more. I thought I was cured when I bought my Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones in 2021, to celebrate getting a new job, but just last week I picked up a set of refurbished Beats Fit Pro earbuds, because they were on sale at Woot.com for $100, or half of what I’d pay for new ones at the Apple Store.

It’s not like I need them. My M4s give me good noise cancelling for writing, while my first-gen AirPods connect easily to just about every one of my devices. But I persuaded myself that what I really needed was a pair of earbuds for working out, even though I don’t listen to music while running and I don’t go to the gym at the moment.

On the other hand, now that I’ve had a chance to play with them, I’m glad I got them. They may have edged out my AirPods, but I thought it would still be worthwhile to do a comparison of all three on certain aspects that I’ve found are important. So without further ado:

Fit

This refers to how they fit in my ear, or over it, and to how well they stay in place. With regard to the former, the AirPods are clear winners. They fit into the ear canal so nicely that after a while I don’t even notice they’re there. Their shape doesn’t create the vacuum needed for noise cancellation, but that’s actually a plus for me (which makes it even weirder that I got the Beats ones, but more on that below).

On the negative side, the ease of putting them in means they also fall out easily. I haven’t lost them or had them fall out while walking, but I am constantly checking and adjusting them. Not only that, but when I did go to the gym pre-pandemic, I’d wear them while walking on the treadmill and the sweat would make them fall out more easily.

The Sony M4s (as I’ll be calling them from here on) fit over the ears, so the band over my head helps keep them in place. They do create a bit of vacuum, but because it’s over the full ears it’s not so noticeable. They also stay in place nicely if I’m walking around with them on, but the weight of them makes that less desirable (and I’m a bit self-conscious walking around with them).

The Beats Fit Pros have that earbud tip that I usually hate putting in, but it makes sense for the noise cancellation. Unlike the AirPods, I’m aware that I’m wearing them at all times, but on the other time, I can trust that they’ll stay put. I went out walking while wearing them this morning, and I appreciated not having to constantly adjust them.

One of the reasons I got them was also the wings that are meant to hold them in place in the ear, and those are comfortable enough. If I do find that they’re bothering my outer ear, I can adjust them and solve it that way. I have only two complaints: the feeling of ear pressure when they’re in noise-cancelling mode; and the fact that when I used my phone settings to test their fit, it said it couldn’t get a good fit on my left ear. I’ll have to mess with the ear tips a bit, but hopefully I’ll be able to fix that.

Connection

I’ve also noticed differences in how easily they connect to my other devices and how well they stay connected. I’ve connected each of them via Bluetooth to my iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air and Apple TV. You’d think the AirPods would score highly here, but surprisingly they don’t, even despite the ecosystem advantage. They pair relatively easily with each of the devices, though it took a while to get them paired with the Apple TV. Once they pair, though, they drop the connection pretty easily. I’ve noticed it mostly on my phone, where sometimes the connection fails mid-sentence while I’m listening to a podcast.

The worst, however, is on my laptop. They require an extra step, of going to the settings menu and choosing them for my audio output. This setting just drops out at random from time to time while I’m wearing them, even though they maintain the connection. This happens less often on the iPad or Apple TV, but it’s particularly bad on the iPhone, since they’re meant to go with you and should therefore be reliable.

The Sony M4s have the most reliable connection, but with an asterisk: I mostly use them with the cord plugged into my laptop or iPad. This makes them way more reliable, but also less portable. Because they’re not Apple devices, there’s a little extra trouble to connecting them via Bluetooth, and they don’t seem to like connecting that way to my laptop. On the other hand, they connect just fine to the Apple TV.

The best overall are the Beats. Right out of the box they connected straight away to just about everything that was in reach. They even did so on the laptop, and don’t require me to choose them for audio output, nor do they drop the Bluetooth connection. Even if I wander out of range, they connect right up again when I go back to my laptop. The only time they dropped the connection was when I was listening to a podcast on my phone and set a timer; when the timer rang, they dropped the connection.

Sound

I need to do a full test of how music and voices sound on each of my headphones, but even without doing a full test I’ve seen a bit of a difference among all three. The other part of this section is noise cancelling, which doesn’t apply to my AirPods.

To be fair, all three sets of headphones sound good, certainly compared to the older, wired headphones that came with various devices over the years. One way I measure that is by how loud I have to set my devices’ volumes when I’m connected to the headphones. When using the AirPods I have to set the volume on my laptop to its lowest setting, while when I wear the Sony M4s I have to reduce the volume even further, by lowering it in the app I’m listening to: this is the same whether it’s on YouTube, Apple Music or Spotify. The Beats, on the other hand, don’t sound as good at such low volumes, though maybe this is because of the issue with the fit on the left ear.

Turning to noise cancelling, my impression is that it’s better on the Sony M4s than the Beats, both because of the fit issue and because the Sony ones cover my ears completely. The effect also seems to be more subtle with the Beats: when I turn on noise cancelling it blocks out the constant hum of my fridge and the nearby road, while the Sony headphones feel like they cut out the world. Noise still gets through, but not as clearly as when I wear the Beats.

The real test will be next time I fly. I wore the Sony M4s on the plane last summer and was impressed by how much engine noise they cut out. I’ll be curious to see how the Beats fare on planes.

The only other thing to note with the Beats is Apple’s spatial audio, which they’re compatible with. I didn’t notice it much when I listened to Apple Music on my laptop, but when I went walking with them I put on some music with spatial audio and there was a clear difference. Specifically, if I turned my head then the music concentrated in the earbud that was facing toward where my body was facing. To put it another way, if I turned to the left, the music sounded like it was coming from my right earbud.

It’s kind of a neat trick but not the surround sound I was expecting. Maybe I need to try it again when I connect them to my Apple TV.

Battery

In normal use all three sets seem equally long-lived, though the Sony M4s may have the longest battery life. That could be because they’re physically larger, meaning they can hold a larger battery. It could also be that I use them slightly less because they’re larger and more unwieldy, whereas the AirPods and the Beats get more use during the day because they’re easier to connect and I can move farther from my laptop with them.

The one extreme case where the Sony M4s have done clearly better than the AirPods is on long video calls. I regularly play Dungeons & Dragons, for sessions lasting 3 hours, via video calls on Discord. I usually use the Sony headphones for noise cancelling, and they always hold up well for the entire three hours. For one session I wasn’t able to use them, so I tried the AirPods, and they lost their charge after a short time, meaning I had to switch to another set of headphones. I haven’t had that happen again, but I’m curious if the Beats would work for as long.

Other stuff

The AirPods have the smallest, most portable case, which is nice, but it also feels more flimsy than that of the Beats. The Beats also have a stronger magnet in their case, which snaps them in place for charging. The case for the Sony M4s, meanwhile, is huge and unwieldy, but that makes sense because they’re over-ear headphones, so can’t be as small as the earbuds.

Both the Sony headphones and the Beats charge via USB-C, which is nice for most people, but because I’m so locked into the Apple ecosystem I actually find it nice that I can use Lightning cables for the AirPods. This means I can use one charging cable for my phone, tablet, iPod and AirPods, whereas the other headphones require another, special cable that doesn’t go with all of my other chargers and power banks.

Verdict

For audio quality and noise cancelling, the winners have to be the Sony M4s. They’re a little heavier and more unwieldy, but the sound is clearer and I suspect they block out more noise than the Beats. They’re not great for walking around, but they’re also not terrible at it, and at least I can trust that they won’t fall out.

For everyday use, I’d say the Beats have overtaken the AirPods. They may be a little less comfortable, but I never have to worry about them falling out while I walk, or even while I’m lying down. They also connect to all my other devices more easily, which makes them more convenient and quicker to get started using.

The AirPods will probably remain best for listening to stuff while I’m lying in bed or watching TV or generally staying still. Their sound quality is good considering that they don’t have noise cancelling and so don’t have to create a vacuum in my ear canal. I also appreciate the comfortable fit, though that fit is probably why they slide out of my weirdly shaped ears.

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