First Apple W1 Wireless Chip Headphone: The Beats Solo3
The newly released Beats Solo3 Wireless ($299) shares much in common with the Beats Solo2 I so positively reviewed previously. Build quality and materials are very good; the look is stylish yet understated. The sound is nearly identical; bass boost moderately intrudes on the midrange, and it has a relaxed mid- and upper-treble. Though the Solo3 has an overall warm nature, there's certainly enough balance to portray all of the music without distracting flaws. This is a solid headphone.
The Solo3 is the first headphones to have the Apple W1 wireless chip. (Followed shortly thereafter by the Beats Powerbeats3 and the soon to come BeatsX and Apple AirPods.) In this review I'll take a close look at the features and functions of this W1 based wireless headphone, and how it differs from typical contemporary Bluetooth headphones.
The most touted feature of the W1 chip is extremely simple and streamlined Bluetooth pairing and unpairing with compatible Apple devices. (iPhones and iPads with iOS 10, Apple Watch 2, and computers running macOS Sierra.) It's important to note, however, that you must have your devices set up properly to take advantage of the W1 features. All devices must be iCloud connected on the same wi-fi network using a single user account. Also, "Handoff" will need to be enabled on all devices in order to receive phone calls (via Facetime) when the Solo3 is pared to a device other than your iPhone.
The first pairing you need to do is to your iPhone. Do not use your normal "settings/Bluetooth" to instantiate pairing, but rather swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring up your Control Center to turn Bluetooth on. Then push to power button on the Solo3 for two seconds and place the headphones near the iPhone. The headphone will communicate with iPhone using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)it does not use NFCand will automatically instantiate pairing. When accomplished a window will pop up showing the Solo3 is paired, and will display the name and current battery level of the headphone.
Shortly, all the data needed to pair with the Solo3 will propagate through iCloud and the Solo3 will show up as an available sound output device on the Control Canels of all your wi-fi networked Apple products. If you've got all your devices set up properly, all you have to do is pair once to the headphones from your iPhone, and all your devices automatically are ready to instantly pair to the Solo3 as well. Pretty cool...but the next function is the big trick.
Let's say you're paired to your iPhone and you want to switch over to your iPad to watch a movie. Simply turn on your iPad; swipe up for your Control Center; select the Beats Solo3 as your audio output device; and VOILA!, the iPhone releases the Bluetooth connection and the iPad picks it up and connects to your iPad. Basically, the big improvement the new W1 chip is that it allows current Apple devices to hijack the headphone's Bluetooth connection from each other for near instant switching without the user needing to un-pair and re-pair all the time.
This is where I got a little confused. After reading the copy above from Apple's product page for the Solo3 (which was more informative than Beats own page) I was expecting the Solo3 to be able to connect to multiple Bluetooth devices at the same time. Using a Sennheiser PXC 550 I can easily connect my iPad and iPhone simultaneously. If I'm watching a movie on my iPad and get a call on my iPhone, I can tap the accept call button, the movie will pause, and I can answer my phone. Do I really need the multi-device switching that the W1 chip enables?
I s'pose part of the answer lies in how a person uses these devices. I rarely, if ever, need to be Bluetooth connected to more than two devices. But I suppose there are some people that will benefit from easy switching between three or more devices that the Solo3 and other headphones with the W1 chip will offer.
The other half of the answer, the half that we'll just have to wait and see about, is that this is just the initial W1 chip feature set. If you can hijack the BT connection manually from a device, future versions may hijack the connections automatically. Perhaps as you put down your iPhone and pick up your iPad, the Bluetooth low energy connection will see that the iPad is near and may instantiate the switchover automatically.
If the Apple software ecosystem can propagate Bluetooth pairing information, perhaps it can also deliver the media stream as well. You could make commands for media to set up a stream from what ever the source of interest, and the iCloud will deliver it to the headphones regardless of its current paired partner or which device set up the media initially. When your BT connection switches to another device, the media stream will follow. The idea may be that you become totally device agnostic, your media just follows you around jumping from one nearby device to another.
I would also think the W1 chip could include DSP to set and keep an EQ. Possibly be able to set different EQs for different devices...or different types of content. Separate music, movie, and telephony EQs might be quite useful.
Bottom line: If you are Apple centric in your hardware environment, and if you've got the latest operating systems, and if you've properly set up your devices, and if you regularly need to switch between three or more devices, the Beats Solo3's rapid Bluetooth device switching may indeed serve your needs better than a quality wireless headphone with current two-device Bluetooth capabilities. But if you're not totally into Apple hardware and don't want to get drawn into their iCloud ecosystem, or if you never need to connect to more than two devices at a time, this is likely not the best headphone for you. You will be likely be better off with products like the Bose Quiet Comfort 35, Sennheiser PXC 550, or Noontec Zoro II Wireless.
Other Features and Comments
There are some other things worthy of note with the Solo3:
The Bluetooth range is simply astonishing! Easily 2-3 times further than any other Bluetooth headphone I've tested. From what I can tell the Solo3 uses Bluetooth Class 3, the 1mWatt Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) class for nearby (1 meter or less) device identification, and the 100mWatt Bluetooth Class A for audio and telephony. Best range is achieved if both the headphone and sending device are both operating with Class A transmitters, and I can't tell what class BT they are using. Another possibility is that Apple has begun to quietly implement the Bluetooth 5 standard announce in June that quadruples range, doubles speed, and includes beacons, location awareness, and and other "connectionless" services. At any rate, the range on the Solo3 is spectacular.
The W1 chip also touts significantly improved power efficiency; Beats claims the Solo3 has a 40 hour battery life. While I haven't measured it personallybecause every time I was seriously evaluating it I made sure it had a full chargeI can say it is extraordinarily long. Additionally, it has a "Fast Fuel" mode that will give you 3 hours of playback from a five minute charge from a dead battery. With a Beats Solo3 and normal use, it feels like you just charge it once a week or so when it's convenient.
Evidently there are some compatibility problems between the Solo3 and Apple TV. This is a problem Apple TV has with Bluetooth headphones in general, not just the Solo3. I'm just mentioning it here so people with Apple TV products know the Solo3 isn't a solution.
Here's a rather weird comment: The sounds the Solo3 makes to indicate power on, power off, BT connection established, and the like, are remarkably similar and not at all indicativeat least to meof what the heck is going on. It's as if this indecipherable series of confident beepity-boopity-beep tones are saying, "Don't worry, I know what I'm doing, just chill out." I've come to very much prefer voice prompts that tell you what's going on in plain English...well, I set my Sennheiser PXC 550 to Australian English. Curious to know whether you like tones or spoken prompts in the comments below.
The Beats Solo3 is a modestly over-warm and laid back headphone; inoffensive and without serious flaw (unlike earlier Monster models) these headphones will be sonically satisfying for most consumers. Build quality and styling are very good; numerous color choices are available.
If you are not Apple-centric and can't take advantage of the capabilities of the W1 chip with current Apple products and operating systems, you're far better served by products like theBose Quiet Comfort 35, Sennheiser PXC 550, or Noontec Zoro II Wirelessthat can simultaneously connect to two devices at oncewhich the Solo3 can not do.
If you are an Apple fan and have the need to switch Bluetooth connections between multiple devices often, the Solo3 might serve you well. But here again, if you are only connecting to two devices one of the headphones above may better serve. Also, the incredible battery life and transmission range of the Solo3 may tip the scales in its favor depending on your particular use.
There's no doubt in my mind that the W1 chip is capable of doing one hell of a lot more than what we can currently see in the Solo3, but we'll just have to wait to see what those things are. The Solo3 can get firmware upgrades through a USB connection to your computer, so it's going to be interesting what changes to function that might bring over time. I'd caution that introductory products like the W1 chip are more likely to become obsolete than more mature revisions of a product.
I see the Beats Solo3 as a legitimate alternative for Apple fans to other contemporary Bluetooth headsets, but I don't see it as a remarkable improvement....yet. We'll have to see how Apple fleshes out the W1 capabilities. Until then, I feel it's worthy of a solid recommendation for Apple users with up-to-date gear; but not worthy of a Wall of Fame slot due to the slightly high price and relatively narrow user base capable of fully taking advantage of its benefits. (Must have iOS 10, Apple Watch 2, or macOS Sierra to be compatible.)