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I personally don’t prefer on-ear headphones. If it’s portability I’m after, I’ll go for a pair of true wireless earbuds, or if I want the best sound quality for extended listening, I’ll use over-the-ear cans.
On-ear headphones certainly have their place, though. They tend to be more affordable than their larger over-the-ear counterparts, they’re smaller and easier to stuff in a bag, and often lighter and easier to wear for long periods. The success of the Beats Solo series has made it clear: on-ear headphones have lots of fans.
With the Beats Solo Pro, Apple’s headphone brand has taken the very successful design of the Beats Solo 3 and tweaked it in some meaningful ways, while also adding a stellar active noice cancellation mode. The result is a fantastic, if pricey, pair of on-ear noise cancelling headphones. They don’t break new ground, but they’re probably the best on-ear wireless headphones for anyone with an iPhone.
Design and comfort
If you’re familiar with the Beats Solo headphone line, you’ll have a good idea what to expect from the Solo Pros. They’re on-ear headphones with thick, dense pads that come in a variety of colors—not as many as the Solo 3 now do, but still, it’s a veritable rainbow array. You get white, black, grey, red, and two shades of blue.
I have a very small head. Every pair of headphones I have are set as small as they will go. The Beats Solo Pros are no exception, but they are still comfortable to wear even for several hours. The earpads are thick and dense, but not at all stiff. If I’m wearing glasses, my right ear starts to get a little sore after a while, but that’s a problem I seem to have with any pair of on-ear headphones, no matter the brand or design.
I had our editor, Roman Loyola, who has the largest head of anyone I know (hat size 7 3/4), try them on for a couple hours. He had to adjust them to maximum size and they were still a few millimeters shorter than he would have liked (a problem he says is not unique to the Beats Solo Pros), but were still quite comfortable. We worried that, like so many other headphones he has used, they would wear out and break from being stretched beyond their intended design. Those with huge noggins should probably try before they buy.
The clamping force is significant, in part to help the earpads make a good seal that keeps out external sound, but I never felt like my head was being squeezed or that the pads were digging into my ears.
While they mostly look like the Solo 3 headphones, a few details have changed. The micro-USB charging port has been replaced by a lightning port (you get a black Lightning-to-USB-A cable in the box), and the 3.5mm jack for wired listening is nowhere to be found. You can buy a lighting-to-3.5mm audio cable for $35.
There’s a single button on the bottom of the left earpiece. Press once to toggle between noise-cancellation and transparency mode, press twice to turn noise cancellation off.
You won’t find a power switch or button anywhere on these headphones. When you fold them up, they turn off. Unfold and they turn on. Simple, but if you like to leave your headphones opened up on your desk, you’ll have to learn new habits.
The right earpiece has a small gap you can see from the side, because it’s actually a physical rocker switch. Click the top and bottom to adjust the volume up or down, or click the “b” logo in the middle to play/pause music. Double-click to skip forward to the next track, triple-click to skip back, and press-and-hold for a second to invoke Siri (or, on Android devices, Google Assistant).
I prefer these physical, tactile controls to the touch controls of my Sony WH-1000XM3. When you can feel something engage, it’s easier to use without looking at it. I like to wear noise-cancelling headphone when I do yard work, too, and touch controls don’t mix with gardening gloves.
The Beats Solo Pros come with a soft carrying case that looks like a big fat squat pill. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s really bare-bones—I would prefer at least a small pocket inside to hold a charging cable—and it’s very soft and squishy. It will protect your headphones for dust and scratches, but not from getting crushed by all the other junk in your bag. A slightly rigid case would have given me a little a little more peace of mind.
Beats have a reputation for being bass-y. “Bass forward” is the charitable description. With the Solo 3, Beats dialed back the bass boost a little, but it was still obvious.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tuning of the Beats Solo Pros have more in common with the company’s Studio line. There’s no overwhelming bass at all. Of course, tracks that are bass-heavy do have the appropriate thump (at least, as smaller on-ear headphones go), but at no point does the low end crowd out the mid or high frequencies.
My headphone and speaker test playlist is comprised of all sorts of music: modern pop, hip-hop, R&B, classical, 90’s rock, metal, you name it. No one genre stood out as exceptionally well represented—everything simply sounded as it should. If you won’t buy Beats headphones because you don’t like how they always boost the bass, it’s time to update your expectations.
For the size, they offer remarkable clarity and immersion. There’s just no way a pair of on-ear headphones are going to compete with the larger drivers of a really good pair of over-the-ear headphones, or the perfect seal created by great in-ear monitors. But at this size and price, I was duly impressed by the precision and clarity on offer.
Color me surprised that the Beats Solo Pros seem, if anything, a little quiet. I often had them turned up quite a bit further than other headphones to get equivalent volume, and could even max them out without blowing out my eardrums. There’s probably no reason for most headphones to get as loud as they do, but I wouldn’t mind a little more oomph here.
The headphones picked up on my “Hey Siri” commands just fine, though I found I had to speak up if I was on a busy city street. Call quality is excellent with the noise cancelling doing an excellent job of drowning out the world so you can focus on the caller. The people on the other end of my call said I sounded great, though of course noise cancelling doesn’t work for them, so they would often hear a lot more background noise than I would.
Battery life and charging
The Beats Solo 3 were renowned for their epic 40-hour battery life, and the Solo Pros continue to deliver that same longevity. But turn on noise cancelling or transparency mode and you’ll lose almost half your play time.
22 hours with noise cancelling enabled is still quite good. That’s multi-day battery life even on a long trip. In my testing, I was able to use them for a few hours a day for about a week before I had to plug in.
Speaking of plugging in, when your headphones are nearly dead you can get 3 hours of play time with a 10-minute charge. I went from nearly dead to about 35 percent in half an hour, which would be enough battery to last an entire trans-continental flight with noise cancelling enabled.
Noise cancelling performance
Noise cancelling technology has come a long way from the days where you could say “there is Bose and then there’s everyone else.” Other brands have been able to deliver top-quality noise reduction and impressive sound quality at the same time, and we can add the Beats Solo Pros to that list.
On-ear headphones are always going to have a bit of a disadvantage over the sound-isolating capabilities of over-the-ear headphones or in-ear buds that create a good seal, but the noise cancelling on offer here is top notch. It successfully dulled my lawn mower and leaf blower to a quiet background whirr, and turned a screeching BART ride into a quiet, comfortable commute.
There’s no calibration step necessary (or even possible) for the “Pure ANC” noise cancelling of these Beats headphones, and no way to adjust the strength of the effect. When it’s on, it’s on, and it continuously monitors outside sound and sound inside the ear cups with internal microphones, making thousands of adjustments per second.
I was worried that this automatic adjustment wouldn’t give me what I wanted, and I would miss some manual noise control. In practice, “it just works” (to borrow an overused phrase). It went from in the office to a busy outdoor street, walking past a construction site, to a coffee shop interior, and then a train platform all without ever sounding wrong. The continual adjustment simply feels natural and smooth, the whole world blending into the background.
As most do most noise cancelling headphones these days, the Solo Pros have a “transparency mode” that leaves noise cancelling enabled, but pulls in some of the outside environment along with it. It lets you more easily hear traffic, people talking to you, or announcements over a PA system. Such modes often make everything sound tinny and distant, but I didn’t get that from these headphones. Transparency mode has a more natural and pleasant sound than the similar function on most other headphones I’ve tried.
Not cheap or innovative, just good at what they do
At $300, the Beats Solo Pros aren’t cheap. That’s a high price for a pair of simple on-ear, walking-around headphones and ventures into “serious listening cans” territory. The Beats Solo 3, with no noise cancelling and no hands-free “Hey Siri” support, debuted at the same $300 price, but now cost $100 less. These sound better, have a nicer design, and and active noise cancellation.
For Apple users these are especially nice. The H1 chip means hands-free Siri support, easy AirPod-style pairing to your iPhone, and syncing to other Apple devices through iCloud. For non-Apple devices, it’s just another Bluetooth headset that you have to pair manually and hold down a button on the earpiece to bring up your digital assistant. They still sound as great, but using a Lightning cable to charge will feel proprietary and annoying to those who aren’t in the Apple ecosystem.
The Beats Solo Pros don’t really do anything new. There’s no groundbreaking technology on offer here, and no brilliant new design. We’ve seen all these individual features and functions before, and the design, while nicely tweaked from the Solo 3, is still very familiar. If you’re looking to be inspired by innovation, you’ll won’t find it here. If you want very good, very simple everyday on-ear headphones to use with your iPhone, the Beats Solo Pro fits the bill nicely.