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Forget AirPods: Beats just refreshed its most popular headphone line, and they sound great

Nearly a decade later, the Beats Solo 4 offer a more comfortable form factor and design while retaining its most beloved characteristics.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
Beats Solo 4 in Cloud Pink
Jada Jones/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Beats Solo 4 headphones are available now for $199 in Matte Black, Slate Blue, and Cloud Pink.
  • Beats' best-selling headphones return with up-to-date features, signaling that the company used the product's eight-year hiatus wisely.
  • A tight fit and small ear cups may cut your listening experience shorter than you'd like.

I've spent a lot of time testing headphones, and I find a new favorite with every fresh release. But one pair of headphones will always hold a special place in my heart: the Beats Solo 3 on-ear headphones.

Also: Beats Studio Pro: So close to being my dream headphones

The Solo 3 awakened my passion for headphones; they were the first pair I spent more than $50 on. I bought a Rose Gold pair in high school with the money from my first job, and they stuck with me throughout college. I still have them, but years of use have burnt out the audio components and worn down the ear pads.

So, when Beats offered me a pair of the new Solo 4 headphones to test, I was more than happy to see how the company used the eight years since the Solo 3's release to improve the Solo 4. The Solo 3 are regularly on sale for just over $100, but are the new ones worth the extra money? Let's take a look.

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The Solo 4 design shows Beats' deviation from flashy, chrome accents adorned with heavy branding with a transition to muted matte finishes with simplistic elements -- I think Apple may have been an influence in these design choices.

The Solo 4 ditch the mini USB port and instead have a USB-C port for charging and lossless audio. You can also now plug the headphones into a device to listen and charge them simultaneously.

Also: The best music headphones: Expert tested and reviewed

I tried the Solo 4 cans in Cloud Pink to trigger the nostalgia for my Rose Gold Solo 3. The Cloud Pink Solo 4 are stunning and aesthetically pleasing, making them suitable for people who like stylish devices.

In terms of audio, Beats has given the Solo 4 headphones a much-needed tune-up. If you previously strayed away from Beats because of their incredibly bass-forward sound, you'll like the Solo 4 sound much better.

The Beats Solo 3 and Solo 4 side-by-side

Beats Solo 3 (left) and Beats Solo 4 (right).

Jada Jones/ZDNET

One of Beats' taglines for the Solo 4 is "Amazing sound. Simplified", and I couldn't agree more. Instead of offering an artificially pumped-up, bass-heavy sound profile, the headphones have the most neutral sound I've ever heard from Beats. It's still not wholly neutral, but undoubtedly neutral to Beats' standards.

I listened to Kendrick Lamar's A.D.H.D and immediately noticed the Solo 4's modest bass response. Because the bass didn't overpower the midrange, I could appreciate minor details in the song, like Lamar's layered vocals and the psychedelic synth sounds in the upper midrange. Beats says upgraded transducers improve high-frequency responses, and passive tuning helps maintain sound quality over wired and wireless connections. I concur.

Like every other pair in the Solo lineup, the Solo 4 are on-ear, so the ear cups sit on your ear instead of enveloping your ears like over-ear headphones. The Solo 3's ear cups are ever so slightly bigger, but the Solo 4's new UltraPlush ear cup padding is more comfortable on the ears. 

Despite the new padding, I couldn't wear these cans for long. On-ear headphones have never been comfortable for me because I wear four earrings in each of my ears. After about 30 minutes of wear, the ear cups put too much pressure on my earrings, prompting me to take a break. The Solo 4's on-ear fit shouldn't bother listeners with glasses, but I'd avoid them if you have multiple ear piercings. 

Beats Solo 4 in Cloud Pink
Jada Jones/ZDNET

The headphones don't have any noise-canceling or transparency modes, but their passive noise isolation is impressive. If you think the transparency mode on other headphones lets in too much noise and noise-canceling blocks too much noise, the Solo 4's natural noise isolation is the perfect middle-ground.

The Solo 4 are the first device in the Solo line to receive Personalized Spatial Audio, and I don't have much to say about it. I'm not a fan of spatial audio, and it drains your headphones' battery. The spatial audio feature works -- and it works well -- but I prefer regular audio. Speaking of battery life, the Solo 4 headphones offer up to 50 hours of continuous playback, 10 more hours than Solo 3.

Also: The best headphones: Expert tested and reviewed

Like last year's Beats Studio Pro, the Solo 4 have increased interoperability with iOS and Android devices. For iOS fans, the headphones offer iCloud pairing, full access to Siri, Find My, over-the-air software updates, and Handoff. 

Android users can use Google Fast Pair, Bluetooth Multipoint, Google Find My Device, and the Beats companion app.

ZDNET's buying advice

The new Beats Solo 4 headphones deliver style and functionality for music lovers. If you weren't a fan of Beats' signature sound in the past, I challenge you to give the Solo 4 a try -- they might change your mind. A note about their fit: if on-ear headphones are your preferred style, you can't go wrong with the Solo 4. But if you prefer over-ear headphones, you may find the Solo 4 uncomfortable. 

If you're a loyal Beats fan, but want Beats headphones with more premium features, try the Studio Pro; you can regularly find them for $250 or less.

If you want over-ear headphones in a similar price range with just as much focus on sound quality, consider the Sennheiser Accentum Plus or the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2.

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