Audiophiles and lovers of booming bass alike often ask me what I think about Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, assuming I’ll somehow slam the company. But I’m actually a fan of what Beats has accomplished—in 2008, virtually no one was paying money for headphones (except for audiophiles). Beats more or less eliminated that complacency for dismal sound—true, it was achieved by making bass-heavy headphones a fashion statement seen on celebrities and athletes alike, but it was still a marked improvement over the status quo. The new Beats Studio, at $299.95 (direct), is the second version of the original pair made by Monster (Beats is no longer associated with Monster, and HTC, which had a controlling interest for a while, is now also jumping ship). Equipped with some decent noise cancellation, the signature glossy look, and the deep low-end that made this lineup famous, or infamous, the new Studio will appeal to bass lovers and repel purists.
Visually, the Beats lineup is possibly the most recognizable headphone design made since the 80s, even if that makes audiophiles cringe. You’ve seen them on the heads or resting around the necks of pro athletes and pop stars during press conferences and music videos—and that familiar look is a brand unto itself at this point. In other words: Beats isn’t going to mess with the formula too much. The Beats Studio looks, to the casual observer, like most other Beats pairs that came before it, offered in shiny red, white, or black, with a bright red lowercase B logo on each ear.
The circumaural (over-the-ear) design features large, exceedingly comfortable earpads and a well-padded headband. Even over long listening sessions, the earpads don’t get uncomfortable or too hot, and the same can be said for the headband. The headphones do not fold down flat, which is something much of the competition now does to allow for easier stowing.
The famously red cable is detachable from the left ear, and the Studio ships with two of them—one with an inline three-button remote control and mic for controlling playback, volume, and answering calls on mobile devices, one without. There’s also a red USB charging cable (it connects to the right ear)—this represents a leap for the redesigned headphones, as they now run on an internal rechargeable lithium ion battery and not AAA batteries, a minor victory for the environment. Beats claims an approximate battery life of 20 hours, but this will largely depend on how you use your headphones—specifically, how loud you listen to your tunes.
The left earcup has a Mute function—if you want to pause or play, use the remote on the cable, as the left ear’s button will simply mute your audio while it’s still playing. A Power button on the right ear activates the noise cancellation, and holding it down for a prolonged period powers them down. The power button can also be pressed and held for a shorter period to activate an LED display that shows how much battery life you have left—five dots is good, one dot is on the verge of death.
Annoyingly, you cannot listen to music on the Beats in passive mode without activating the noise cancellation, so the battery life will always be impacted by the noise cancellation circuitry when you’re using them. You can also (quite easily) unintentionally leave the noise cancellation activated—it will remain on even if the cable is removed if you don’t shut it off, as there’s no auto-off function like you find in some competing models. It doesn’t help that the Power button is tiny and easy to forget about.
The headphones also ship with a zip-up hard shell carrying case, a Beats decal, and a cleaning cloth.
Let’s first briefly address the active noise cancellation. It would be one thing if the noise cancellation circuitry were ground-breaking (it’s not) and was the primary draw for these headphones (ditto), but since it isn’t, it would be nice to be able to use the Beats Studio passively like many pairs allow you to do now. The noise cancellation itself is decent—it can eliminate wide swaths of ambient noise and even tone down chatter and talking around you a bit, but it can’t compare with the latest technology from the Bose QuietComfort series, and it also introduces a noticeable hiss to the equation. Many noise-canceling pairs do this, but few of them cost so much. The verdict here is: These headphones would be a better deal without the noise cancellation, and with a lower price as a result, but it’s intrinsically tied to the design, so thankfully it’s at least a somewhat useful feature.
As for audio, there aren’t too many surprises here. On tracks with intense sub-bass presence, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Beats Studio brings gobs of thunder. At top volumes, you feel like the drivers are vibrating your skull, as if your brain morphed into a subwoofer. At maximum volume, there was a surprising faint hint of distortion in the left ear, but it was so minor, and the Beats get so loud, that it’s not a major point—if you listen at levels like this, you will damage your ears. At anything even a hair shy of max volume, there is not any distortion, and there’s still thunderous bass. One thing Beats Studio gets right is knowing, at least, that you need to sculpt the high-mids and highs and boost them drastically, too, or you will have a muddy mix. What we end up with is a wildly powerful, entirely inaccurate interpretation of the original mix, heavily sculpted in the lows and highs—a sound that will thrill bass lovers.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” which doesn’t pack a tremendous bass punch, gets a huge boost on the drums and Callahan’s baritone vocals. In both scenarios, this would sound awful were it not for the accompanying high-end tweaking as well. Callahan’s vocals stay in the forefront of the mix, delivering a commanding richness in the lows and a crisp edge in the high mids, while the drums, with their sub-bass enhanced thump, still have a enough attack and treble edge to sound like real instruments.
It’s funny to me when people knock this sound—it’s basically the sound of every live rock show I’ve been to, with a thunderous kick drum and extra bright, crisp high-mids and highs. If there’s one marketing ploy for headphones I’ve always found dubious, it’s the idea that headphones will paint your drab music files in the colorful “live” sound everyone loves. Of course, that’s a strange notion, since most studio albums are anything but “live” and therefore don’t need this treatment. But for anyone who claims to love the powerful low-end and intense highs of a live rock show, the Beats sound signature comes pretty damn close to approximating it. This is what a club sound system sounds like, comfortably clamped to your head.
Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” thus, benefits greatly—as does “The Knife”—because these genres are more or less made with booming sound systems in mind. The kick drum loop’s attack on this track gets plenty of high-mid sculpting—perhaps too much, but certainly enough to help the kick drum slice through the dense mix. Meanwhile, the drum loop’s sustain packs a mighty thud, and the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with gusto. And yet, the vocals remain in the forefront here, as well, and are never overwhelmed by the boosting going on around them.
Classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” sound very sculpted—the higher register strings have a brightness to them that borders on the unnatural, while the lower register strings and percussion are delivered with a seriously enhanced richness. Again, this doesn’t sound awful; it’s just not accurate. It’s what music sounds like through a live PA system, but fans of classical and jazz music will probably not love the PA treatment their genres get.
Audiophiles can thumb their noses at these headphones all they want, but they sound a lot better than the lifeless, distortion-plagued $30 earbuds everyone used to use, and Beats perhaps single-handedly (along with the mobile device revolution) revived a headphone industry that was not exactly thriving. Are they overpriced? Yes, but that’s true of just about every celebrity-endorsed headphone pair. As a music lover and headphone reviewer, I’d rather see people overpay a little for a dramatic increase in quality than save money and settle for garbage.
However, as the earphone and headphone industry learns new tricks, like how to make $45 earphones with distortion-free, booming bass and a plethora of accessories, Beats may need to adjust its game to stay relevant. The problem Beats by Dr. Dre faces is not, as some audio snobs might tell you, that the company makes poor-sounding headphones—Beats produces wildly sculpted headphones, but not poor-sounding ones. The problem is: The Beats lineup is suddenly surrounded by some worthy competition in the overcrowded field it helped create, and those competitors often make a similar or better product, yet charge less.
If you’re looking for the big bass sound, but can’t spend $300, consider the SOL Republic Tracks Air, a wireless option that is sonically similar to the Beats lineup, or the Skullcandy Crusher, which allows you to adjust the bass level. If you’re not opposed to some bass, but would prefer more balance than the Beats Studio offers, check out the Phiaton Fusion MS 430 or the superb Sennheiser HD 558. The Beats Studio is a celebrity-endorsed bass machine, but the headphones are comfortable and powerful, and if you like the look and the booming bass sound, you won’t be disappointed.
|Active Noise Cancellation||Yes|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc