Beats by Dre is one of the biggest names in headphones.
No matter. Know this: Beats are big business.
They’re a huge hit, and the kids continue to gobble them up even though they’re shamelessly overpriced — the over-the-ears go for between $180 and $400 a pair, and the earbuds start at $100 (Monster Cable, the corporate parent behind the Beats curtain, has taken heat for marking up its cables into the realm of ridiculousness).
Even at those prices, Beats don’t sound very good. I’ve been testing the different Beats models for a few years — the folding portables and the beefier “Studio” and “Pro” sets — and found every pair I’ve worn to be substandard. There are scads of headphones offering vastly better sound for the same money or less. Deepening the mystery, Beats have historically relied on construction so shoddy, you’d be lucky to squeeze a year out of them.
And yet they’re everywhere. People love them. My failure to grasp the logic here is why I don’t work in marketing. Still, as cynical as I am about Beats — and celebrity headphones in general — I was curious about the new Bluetooth models. I try to welcome every opportunity to be wowed, to see the light and be converted, so when a pair of the new wireless Beats crossed my desk, I gave them a solid shake.
While these $280 headphones are instantly recognizable as Beats, there are a few key differences. First, no wires — these are Bluetooth headphones, so they rely entirely on a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone, tablet or a PC to transmit sound. (There isn’t even the option to plug in a mini cable, which is odd.) There’s also an array of buttons underneath a ring on the right earcup. By pressing different points around the ring, you can adjust the volume, advance through tracks, toggle the power, and handle the Bluetooth pairing. In the center of the ring is a silver play/pause button emblazoned with that big red “b.”
Just like other Beats cans, the frame’s tooling is almost entirely plastic, except for the hinges where the headphones fold up to fit into the carrying case. The hinges are metal, but they are rather flimsy and do not inspire confidence.
I charged them, paired them (super easy), and let them rip.
I wasn’t pleased with the sound. The bass is like a blow to the chest. The lows are brutally upfront, booming and flabby. The rest of the soundfield has been pumped up to compete with the wall of low end, but all this does is gunk things up. The highs are rendered dull and the mids lack any liveliness, making vocals sound hollow and making acoustic instruments sound muddy, processed and not at all natural. Delicate sounds lack the room to breathe, and even the less modest details like hi-hats and snare hits are all splat and thud.
Now there’s a big caveat to consider: These are Bluetooth headphones, so the audio is compressed to make the wireless jump from the source to the speaker. But when comparing them to other similarly priced Bluetooth headphones — Sennheiser MM 400s ($260) and AKG K830s ($250) — it’s obvious the Beats have a great deal of flavoring going on. While those other models are able to reproduce sound naturally, the Beats needlessly embellish the lows and roll off the highs much more aggressively.
To test, I chose a suite of albums ranging from old to new, intimate to raucous: John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Meddle and Animals from the latest batch of Pink Floyd remasters, AFX’s Chosen Lords, some Black Mountain, some White Hills, some Black Star, some White Rainbow.
If you’re into big and loud sound, the Beats will probably impress you when you very first put them on. But after 20 or 30 minutes, I just wanted it to end. I endured an hours-long listening session every day for a couple of weeks, and at the end of each, I had to slip back into my trusty ATH-M50 headphones and realign my chi before moving on with my day.
One thing I didn’t have to do was recharge them often. The battery life is very impressive — the Beats soldiered through several days of regular use between charges. Also, the Bluetooth connection held up in a variety of environments. Around the office and around the house, I only experienced a few signal drops, and only when I walked about 20 feet from my source.
I did have some issues with the design. The headband is tight like a clamp, and since these are on-the-ear headphones, the leather cups pinch the ears uncomfortably. Also, that ring of controls is inscrutable. When I thought my fingertips had found the correct bump for raising the volume, I’d press it and — whoops — we’ve jumped to the next track. This happened again and again, to the point where I’d have to take them off and look to remind myself where each control was.
Lastly, I placed a few phone calls. The audio quality was only so-so on both ends of the line, but I suppose they’d function in a squeeze.
Weighing the convenience of Bluetooth and the folding, travel-friendly design against the poor quality of the sound and the odd ergonomics, these Beats would be my second or third choice among Bluetooth models in the $150 to $200 price range.
But they cost $280 because that’s what the market will bear. That’s way too much, and I recommend you look elsewhere.
WIRED Great battery life. Nice folding design keeps things compact. They look pretty cool. Your friends will just assume you and LeBron James are BFFs.
TIRED Sound is needlessly overbearing and lacks subtlety, the audio equivalent of an MMA fighter with two pit bulls in an F-350 Super Duty who wants to know where the party’s at. Hinges feel flimsy. Pricier than an ounce of chronic.
Photos by Ariel Zambelich/Wired