In preparation for my move to San Francisco I have started selling many of my electronics and sundry possessions. Unfortunately, this included my absolute favorite technology purchase in recent years — the KRK Rokit RP5G2 studio monitors I discussed at length in my How To: Upgrade to Studio Monitor Speakers post. After selling the Rokits I began considering headphones as a replacement for my audio consuming needs. Investing in high quality headphones started to make sense for a few reasons:
- 1) I will likely have roommates at some point during my life in San Francisco and I can't blast music all day and night
- 2) My roommates might blast music all day and night so I will need some good noise canceling headphones to concentrate while I work
- 3) Headphones will easily fit in my Timbuk2 Commute 2.0 bag along with my trusty 17-inch MacBook Pro for various Caltrain trips to South Bay
After I decided to look into high quality headphones I became reacquainted with the Beats. While I had been aware of them since their 2008 Consumer Electronics Show debut, I never gave them a real look solely due to the Monster Cable association. I assumed the overpriced Beats were junk, as is the case with most Monster products (my lawyer tells me it's not libel if it's true). The headphones are the product of a collaboration between revered rapper, actor and producer Dr. Dre and Monster Cable. Monster positioned the Beats Studio headphones as their flagship personal audio product with an MSRP of 349.95 USD.
Monster also has a cheaper offering called the Beats Solo; they are smaller and lightweight but lack noise canceling functionality. The Beats Solo (MSRP 199.95 USD) are — according to a Monster representative on their Facebook page — geared towards bass while the Beats Studio were designed for all-around flat response. I would have thought it was the other way around with the powered Beats Studio being meant for bass. I say this because the Beats Studio have excellent bass, which I will discuss in the performance section of this review. The only Monster headphones product priced above the Beats Studio is a DJ-oriented pair, called Beats Spin, slated for a June 2010 release.
Let me start this review off by making it clear that I am an extreme critic of all things Monster Cable and feel they only sell over-marketed and overpriced crap aimed at taking advantage of not-quite-tech-savvy consumers unaware of facts like how HDMI is a digital signal and there is no difference in signal and thus video quality between a 10 Monoprice cable and a 250 Monster cable.
Unboxing and Setup
The Beats Studio box was a little larger and heavier than I expected. The box sleeve slides off to uncover a nice unfolding box displaying the Beats already folded inside of their own cheap carrying case. Glancing at the other side of the box reveals cables, adapters, batteries and promotional material. There are two adapters provided — one for converting the 3.5mm mini-jack to a 1/4-inch TRS connector as well as a dual-prong airplane audio adapter. Two male-to-male mini-jack cables (a red and black one) are included; both 4.26 feet (1.3m) long. The Beats Studio headphones do not have any audio cables permanently attached and have a female mini-jack port built-in — a very handy feature for a number of reasons. I like that I am not tied down to using the provided cables. If I wanted a different length or style of cable, such as a coiled cable, or if I just need to replace a damaged cable, I do not have to replace the headphones too. That being said, I think the included cables are the perfect length. Some people have complained that they are too short but they are perfect for my typical use — using them with my MacBook Pro on my desk or lap as well as using them with my iPhone in my pocket.
The black cable, dubbed the iSoniTalk cable for its handy compatibility with iPhones, includes an inline microphone and button. When connected to my MacBook Pro the button on the iSoniTalk cable can pause/play iTunes music and when connected to my iPhone can do the same as well as accept incoming calls and end them. It's regrettable that using the Beats Studio as a headset does not workout well; it's hard to hear yourself talk and the microphone is placed a little too far back to get clear sound without holding it closer to your mouth.
Those unfamiliar with the Beats Studio will be taken aback by the included batteries. Why do headphones need batteries? Well the Beats Studio use the batteries for both amplification purposes and to power the integrated noise canceling circuitry. More on how this all works later on. Installing the batteries was a trivial process that required unscrewing a panel on the left ear cup. The right ear cup houses the power switch and indicator LED.
Unfortunately — and this is a huge downside for the Beats Studio — the headphones only work with batteries installed and the noise canceling switch flipped on. There is no passive setting devoid of noise canceling that does not need battery power. You cannot use them at all without batteries.
The case is likely that the 40mm drivers used are too large to be powered without the aid of batteries. You will need to keep a drawer full of AAA batteries on hand. Okay I am exaggerating a bit, but an active user will need to replace batteries every 2 weeks with a moderate user replacing them every month. Of course, if you forget to turn off the headphones one night the batteries will need replacing much sooner. I have not owned the Beats long enough to test battery life claims but Jake Jarvis provided me with the aforementioned data from his own Beats Studio experience.
Fit, Finish and Feel
Everything about the Beats draws attention, for better or for worse. The outer facing construction is glossy plastic, which while looks nice at first I can imagine it will quickly become scratched and show regular wear and tear more so than if it had a matte finish. Monster claims the finish is scratch-resistant and I have only had the Beats for a week so I can't comment on that yet. One thing is for sure though, the exterior is a fingerprint magnet. That explains the included microfiber cloth.
The inner plastic of the headband has a matte finish that I like considerably more. Moving up the inside of the headband there are two small aluminum pieces neatly engraved with "studio" on one side and the Monster logo on the other side. The entire headphones assembly weighs in at just under 0.6 pounds. Compared to professional studio reference headphones weighing in around 0.7 pounds that are classified as mid-weight, the Beats are on the lighter side. While I personally prefer heavier headphones, the lightweight Beats Studio are ideal for travel.
In the event the color black is not your style, Monster also sells white and Boston Red Sox themed versions (at a 50 premium). Alternatively, you may opt to send in your Beats to ColorWare and have them drop some candy paint all over your 'phones however you like for 250.
Okay so that's a description of the headphones, but how do they really feel? Honestly, they seem flimsy and very plastic-y. While holding or putting them on there is a bit of a "plastic on plastic" dissonance. There are small fitment details that annoy me too. For example, the joints can extend slightly backwards past their stopping point. Another annoyance is that the ear cups freely move about and have no resistance, making for a plastic clank whenever you take off or move the headphones and the ear cups immediately drop.
Everything thus far in this section has more or less been nitpicking. What about the comfort? I can't knock off any points there; the Beats Studio feel great. Despite the ear cups and headband being wrapped in some sort of cheap vinyl/leatherette they never became too hot and remained dry.
As with all quality audio devices, best testing practices include listening to uncompressed (WAV), lossless (FLAC) or high bit-rate audio (256+ kbps MP3). In addition, it would be wise to test these headphones with a quality standalone audio output device like the PreSonus AudioBox USB I used in my Rokit studio monitor setup. However, I opted to test without an external audio output device as most people reading this review wouldn't use one; more importantly these headphones are meant to be mobile; used with iPhones and so on, but I digress. I listened to a plethora of FLAC and high bit-rate MP3 files with the equalizer off and OS volume at varying levels between 5% and 60% (Pro Tip: hold option and shift in OS X while adjusting volume to increase/decrease in tiny increments).
Before I dive into details, I will talk about the noise canceling feature of these headphones. Despite being called "isolation" headphones, the Beats are powered, active noise canceling headphones. This can be tested by simply turning them on and wearing them; no audio source or input cable necessary. My unscientific decibel meter (iPhone app) tests showed a max reduction of 4-5 dB. That is to say the average ambient noise level with the headphones worn but switched off was 44 dB and with them switched on it was 40 dB. I tried this in a number of scenarios with differing ambient noise levels. With the air conditioning on, the average ambient noise level was 53 dB and with the Beats Studio switched on it dropped to 48 dB. Monster claims a maximum actual noise reduction of up to -14 dB. However, it is important to note that the Beats Studio seem to do a better job at canceling out lower frequency sounds like air conditioning and refrigerator noise as well as some high frequency fluorescent lamp ballast hum than mid-range frequency sounds like people talking. Is a 4 or 5 dB reduction in noise level noticeable? Definitely. I would rate the noise canceling functionality in the Beats Studio as above average. Part of the secret behind this could be that Monster placed the microphones necessary for noise canceling on the inside of the ear cups, more accurate to what your ears hear, than on the outside of the ear cups. I have yet to take these on a flight with me but I imagine they will be a welcomed traveling companion.
Do they sound any good? While Monster claims these headphones are more about all-around flat response than being bass biased, my first impressions were along the lines of "Whoa, these things can make some great bass." For the most part bass is punchy with a response that is much closer to tight than boomy. Most rap songs tend to have a continuous boomy bass line — for example "Coca Coca" on Gucci Mane's The Burrrprint 2 HD album — and while the Beats perform well with those types of songs, the bass tends to overpower the weak midtones. Examples of punchy bass are found in any track on the new Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. That is the type of music that shows where the Beats excel, without any overpowering bass. Treble with the Beats Studio is clear and succinct. Any of DJ Tiësto's albums bring this out — in particular listen to "Sweet Mysery" on the Just Be album. It is the midtone reproduction with the Beats that I take issue with; it is a bit muffled. Bumping up the 250 - 2k range a tad makes midtones sound much more reasonable.
One particular measurement metric for audio quality is instrument separation, whether you can hear individual instruments in the music as if they are on their own rather than mixed and coming out as just one sound. This is an area where studio reference headphones and monitors must perform well so producers and studio boffins can accurately know what each change in their mixing sounds like. Unfortunately, this was a bit of a hit or miss with the Beats. At times I was able to detect a slight sense of instrument separation but most of the time, and this was throughout many of the tracks I listened to, it all just sounded mashed together. An example of a song where I was able to hear this favored instrument separation was in the song "Reckoner's Encore" on the Jaydiohead: Encore mix album.
Overall, the Beats perform well and I was most impressed with their ability to create bass like I've never heard on headphones before. I enjoy it so much I often adjust my equalizer settings to emphasize bass, such as when I'm watching Live Free or Die Hard and want to feel the movie, so to speak. If you don't consider yourself an audiophile (I don't) I think you will be happy with the Beats.
Below is a quick video of me showing off one particular issue with the Beats Studio; sound leak. Of course this happens with most headphones but it feels much more apparent with these headphones. Even at a comfortable 25% volume, I think they might be too loud in a library setting. I think it will be pretty easy to tell what song I'm listening to in this video.
While reviewing the Beats Studio I did notice one interesting quirk. I was watching an HD movie on my laptop streamed over Wi-Fi from my NAS across the room. I was wearing the Beats and noticed that in certain positions, notably when I pointed my head in the direction of the router, a prevalent static entered the headphones. I paused the movie stream and the static went away. I pressed play and the static came back.
I was about 10 feet away from my router — a typical distance for any apartment dweller. Given this experience I can only surmise that the Beats Studio are susceptible to radio interference and could use some shielding.
This is the part of the review where I mention how these headphones are expensive and then try to decide if their features, quality and performance can justify the cost. I purchased my Beats Studios for 229 USD from some random e-tailer I found on Froogle. Most retailers like Amazon charge around 299 while Monster sells them for a whopping 350. If I had no idea how much the Beats Studio cost and someone asked me to price them, I would say 199 would be a good price; nowhere near 300. The headphones feel like a toy with flimsy construction and cheap materials. Looking around online I have found several reports of ear cushions separating from the ear cups, among other build quality issues.
Another sizable downside to the Beats is their battery requirement. The option to have a non-amplified, passive setting lacking noise-canceling — even at the expense of degraded audio quality — would be a huge boon. I would hate to be traveling and risk carrying around useless headphones for the rest of my trip unless I kept extra AAA batteries handy.
The Beats do have one thing going for them over their more expensive professional counterparts; they are mobile. They are lightweight and fold compact with ease. In addition, you don't have to deal with some ridiculous 10 foot cord. The included 1.3 meter mini-jack cable is the perfect length for tasks like plugging into your laptop on a flight. The mute button on the Beats is ideal for one particular scenario that keeps coming to mind — ordering your drink or snack on a flight. I always have to take out one ear bud and pause my music or movie.
That brings me to one point about flying with headphones or ear buds. From moving about in my seat or leaning over to grab something I always manage knock out my ear buds, which is fine as I would rather that happen than break the headphones port in my laptop. With the Beats though, they are firmly planted on my head and the same action would stress the mini-jacks. That's not a big deal for the cable in the headphones, it would just unplug itself. However, depending on where the force is coming from, it could damage the laptop jack. It would be safer if one end of the cable employed a right-angle connector or magsafe-inspired technology from Replug.
I give the Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones by Monster 6 out of 10 Stammy's. If they were 199 I would rate them closer to an 8.
Disclaimer: I am not an audiophile.
What do you think of the Beats Studio? What headphones or ear buds do you use? Any of them with noise canceling?