It’s not hard to design headphones that win raves from bloggers and customers. Just give people a big, fat bass line and you can expect to be showered with praise for “phenomenal” beats, “exceptional sound quality”, and “blissful, skull-vibrating pure bass”. It’s a much trickier proposition, though, to design headphones that give you all of the above, deservedly winning plaudits for the booming basement – while sounding just as good in every other department: Rocking the house and stomping the beats one moment, bringing out the best in fragile folk and spine-tingling sonatas the next, that’s the real trick that few headphones manage to perform.
Producer Dr. Dre either felt the same way or was persuaded by a sufficiently sweet pay package to lend his name to a new contender in the high-end headphones category. Beats by Dr. Dre Headphones are made by premium audio brand Monster, which has so far specialized in offering oversized cables for hi-fi enthusiasts – making people believe, some critics say, that the sound must be better simply because the cables are bigger and every inch or centimeter of cord costs a relative fortune.
The “Beats” are far from a bargain either, selling for around $350 in the U.S. But if you have discerning ears they may well be worth the money. Once you get past the Ubersized price and the awkward, marketing-inspired name, you’re free to enjoy the music – and I generally found the good doctor’s hearing aid to provide plenty of listening pleasure. There are some minor glitches, which we’ll get to in a moment, but overall the “Beats” deliver a sound experience that many people may find positively ear-opening.
Here’s what you get for your money: First off, the “Beats” are actually more than just a pair of headphones. Thanks to a built-in microphone in one of the two provided cables, they also double as a headset for musical mobile phones, such as certain Blackberry models and Apple’s iPhone (the plug fits first-generation iPhones, too). Secondly, the “Beats” offer a certain amount of noise isolation and are clearly intended to compete with Bose’s Quiet Comfort models, which are particularly popular with travelers and command an equally high-flying price. Consequently, Monster provided its new kid on the block with everything it needs to have a fighting chance. So you get a travel case, a couple of adapters that let the “Beats” play on planes, and even a cleaning cloth – which, mind you, is not just any sort of cloth, but a “Monster Clean Cloth with Aegis Microbe Shield”. Shure, whatever. (Oh, sorry, that’s a different brand.)
Out of the box, the “Beats” didn’t wow me at all. In fact, we were off to a bad start. The “iSoniTalk” cable with its built-in microphone has a button that lets you answer phone calls – basically, it’s a little plastic box with a clicker, and it’s not sealed. At first, I thought this was a manufacturing defect, and when I lightly pulled on the cover to inspect this “defect” more closely, the cover immediately came off. Monster says there was an issue with the glue in the initial production run that has since been fixed. And sure enough, a few drops of extra glue quickly reversed the damage to my review unit, too, but you have to wonder why the designers decided to leave the talk button contacts open to moisture and other outside influences.
Next step: power up. Two AAA batteries are included – this isn’t some cheap China toy, after all – but I wish Monster had gone with a rechargeable solution, like Bose did. The battery compartment’s cover feels cheaply made for a high-end headset, and putting it back in place was more fidgety than it should have been. However, once you get past the preliminaries the “Beats” become a much more pleasant proposition. I found them comfortable to wear for hours, even though at 270 grams – roughly half a pound – they’re not exactly featherweights.
The earcups are nicely cushioned and completely enclose the ear – a design that helps to lock out ambient noise. In addition, the “Beats” come with “active noise reduction”, which is just another word for noise canceling and requires enough power that there’s no music unless the headphones are switched on; in other words, if you run out of batteries you’re out of luck. This is similar to Boses’s Quiet Comfort models, but different from certain other noise-canceling headphones, for example Sennheiser’s PXC 250, which can be used without batteries as well. (Naturally, in that case there’s no noise-cancellation effect; you need power for the electronic circuits that do the heavy lifting.)
To test the noise-blocking effect, which Monster puts at a maximum reduction of 14 decibels, I took the “Beats” to a busy intersection where a construction crew was at work. The headphones did an admirable job of shielding me from the ruckus – a slightly better job, actually, than Bose’s Quiet Comfort 3, which may be due to the fact that the QC3 sit on top of the ears rather than encasing them (as their sister model Quiet Comfort 2 does). By comparison, Sennheiser’s PXC 250 barely managed to provide any insulation from the commotion at all – not surprising, actually, as they are a compromise between basic noise cancellation and compact size. The “Beats”, in fact, are so effective at isolating you from your environment that you may find the mute button in the right earcup very helpful – once pressed, it allows you to hear what’s going on in the outside world without taking off the headphones.
Still, it was at home, under more relaxed listening conditions, that the “Beats” truly started to shine. Their balanced sound and broad spectrum of musical talents quickly won me over. New Order’s “Blue Monday” sounded appropriately energetic, almost metallic, while the Thievery Corporation’s “Un simple histoire” floated by as calmly and smoothly as a cocktail hour on the Copacabana. On Jack Johnson’s “What You Thought You Need”, the Monster headphones plunged deep into the cellar the moment the bass drum kicked in, but at the same time never threatened to overwhelm Johnson’s subtle acoustic guitar strumming. The Last Shadow Puppet’s “My Mistakes Were Made For You” bathed in full symphonic glory, and trance classic “3rd Earth” by Scott Bond and Solarstone exploded into pure thomping energy after a very calm, casually playful piano intro – once again showing that the “Beats” are the rare breed of headphones that manage to handle various musical styles equally well.
By comparison, my Sennheiser PXC 250 sounded thin and nasal (while still being better than a number of other headphones I’ve tried), and the Bose Quiet Comfort 3 often seemed to lack in transparency. Listening to the same song, instruments felt crammed together when I was wearing the QC3 but distinctly separated when I picked up the “Beats”. It’s the difference between walking through a narrow corridor or over a wide open field – suddenly you feel the air. And while it’s a bit like comparing apples and peas, I also gave my Bang & Olufsen A8 earbuds a try. They held up surprisingly well, considering their design puts them at a natural disadvantage in bass reproduction – as expected, their greatest weakness compared to the “Beats”.
The only headphones in my collection that truly gave the Monster pair a run for their money were Denon’s AH-D1001, which sell for abou
t $200 less. On the “Locust Mix” of Phillip Boa’s “Deep in Velvet” they dived right down into the same depths of bass as Dr. Dre’s creation (some 20,000 leagues under the sea), and the next moment they treated Yann Tiersen’s delicate “Goodbye Lenin” score with equal caution as Monster’s, careful not to break anything. Only in direct comparison did the “Beats” manage to nudge ahead from time to time – not by much, but overall they just sounded a bit roomier and more natural.
Whether that – and the better sound insulation – are worth the extra money you’ll have to decide for yourself. Much of this is a matter of taste anyway, so be sure to listen before you buy, for example at an Apple store or Best Buy outlet (Monster’s official retail partners).
The one troubling issue I found was that the “Beats” seemed to have a tendency to create interference noise, similar to what you sometimes hear when you place a mobile phone near a loudspeaker. Initially I thought the problem was related to using the Monster headphones with my iPhone, but the issue occurred with several iPods as well. It was enough of a concern that I contacted Monster. The company sent a second review unit for comparison. This one showed similar symptoms but much more more rarely – once or twice a week at most during many hours of listening – so the initial pair of “Beats” may have been defective.
If you mostly listen to classical music you might also find the faint background hiss distracting – it’s no more than a slightly elevated level of white noise related to the noise-reduction electronics, typical of this kind of headphones. Still, sensitive ears may notice it in quiet passages.
None of this, however, is to take away from the fact that Dr. Dre and Monster have managed to design a truly impressive set of headphones – one that kicks bass without neglecting the rest of whatever music you’ll let it play with. The raves are already pouring in, and this time they are justified.
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