Once upon a time, Beats Electronics annoyed a great many headphone enthusiasts. There was a blizzard of iPod-like marketing and the accompanying flurry of high-profile celebrity endorsements, and suddenly every tool and their moronic brother had a pair of the big B cans sitting on his neck.
The worst thing? Folks said they were flimsy. Oh, and “they” said they sounded terrible. Insult on top of injury, everyone said were also expensive. I think that last bit is the part that really tweaked the personal audio enthusiasts in search of sonic nirvana on the go.
But all that was a while ago.
In the last year, Beats Electronics has done a number on the hi-fi industry. That number? Something north of $500M. By many accounts, Beats — by itself — has exploded the headphone/personal audio market, now pushing past $2B. Given that hi-fi, as a total industry, is somewhat less than what Beats made last year (by some reports, less than half), I think it’s worth noting that snobbery is a bit silly. I’ve spilled ink here and elsewhere about the state of the state with respect to headphones and hi-fi, so I’ll defer that debate for now and simply note that there are a lot of Beats owners all over. I remember hearing that Gavin Fish, VP over at LH Labs, was fielding a lot of email from prospective investors around his crowd-funding for the forthcoming Geek Out and Geek Pulse products. For every user with [insert Audiophile Approved Brand here], five more wrote in asking about how the Geeks would help with Beats. The market has spoken and Beats has delivered. Like it or lump it.
Out of sheer orneriness, perhaps, I bought a pair of the brand-new Studio headphones. Announced last summer and just-released this past fall, the new Studios are a complete redesign of the “old clunkers” (I’m paraphrasing). I figured, if there was ever a good time to explore the brand, this might be the time to do it. I mean, why not, right? I had to know what all the fuss was about. It was my duty as a pseudo-journalist! On the other hand, what’s the worst that could happen? They’d suck, right? Given how popular these things are, I figured I’d just spin them back out pretty quick if needed.
Well, guess what? They don’t suck.
So, before I go all gooey-eyed and you start sharpening cutlery, lemme say this: they are not the best headphones I’ve heard. No. But they’re not the worst, either — not by a long shot. These new “2013 Studio” models are actually quite … good. Who knew?
Build and Looks
As I mentioned, apparently the old versions had a distressing habit of falling apart. I don’t have a pair, so I can’t confirm or deny that; but the new ones, I’m happy to say, are fairly robust. No, I haven’t pulled any Samsonite demos with them, but whatever. Everything that should wiggle (the ear cups) do, and everything else is reassuringly solid. Nothing rattles.
The cable jacks are snug and the cables are thin, flexible and non-micorphonic. The ear pads? Awesome — really plush and the leather feels delicious. The band is sturdy, with the metal extenders for the ear cups slickly tucked up inside the band. The headband padding is comfortable, soft and tasteful. The plastic is slick, almost mirrored, and while a total fingerprint magnet, it is really quite striking, as are the nearly-hidden little red accents on the speakers and the brushed-metal on the flange-extenders.
Dude. This is a hot pair of headphones, I don’t care who you are.
Fit is lightly snug, and there’s only a very mild sense of “caliper pressure”. That is, they’re extremely comfortable and this fit on my head may well be best-in-class (at least amongst my personal stable of headphones and on my generously sized melon). The ear pads I’ve already remarked on, and the cup-size is big enough to fit my Dumbo-sized handles inside without having to resort to the stuff-and-twist I have to manage on others, say, my pair of Sennheiser Momentums. The seal against my skull is good and I can move my jaw without either dislodging the cans or creating any noise in the headphone.
Happily, these headphones actually fold up, which is very convenient, and this alone means that they are a tidy little package for the on-the-go. Ballparking it, they’re about ⅓ smaller than the Momentums when the latter are also travel-ready. Winner!
There are two cables that come with the headphones — well, three, actually, as one is a mini-USB charging cable. Of the other two, one has volume controls for your iDevice and the other is a straight-through. There’s also a USB plug for charging.
They seemed begging for the road trip, so into the bag they went.
I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately, which is unusual, but it did give me the opportunity to really dig in and make with the what’s-what. Which is when I found out about the auto turn-off feature. Or rather, the lack of one. I’d been fiddling the day before the trip, left them on by accident and by the time I hit 10,000 feet the next day, they were dead as a doornail. Whoops. Luckily a full charge is relatively easy off the USB port on my laptop, but it was annoying — there’s power and with it, there’s sound. When you’re done, however, you’re done. I also forgot to turn them off the following two days — and each day, I was KO’d. Admittedly, I’d been using them for 5-6 hours, then they sat “on” for another 12 before I got around to realizing I’d drained them. 20 hours of “play time” may be a bit optimistic. Just sayin’.
The plane was also the perfect time to leverage that noise canceling feature, too. The engine and air processing noises? Blessedly suppressed. Better than my previous road-warrior champs, the Bose QuietComfort 2, actually. Which brings up an interesting comparison. I think the natural tendency for hi-fier’s will be to look at the Sennheiser Momentums as a natural closed-back, iDevice friendly, competitor (hell, I’m already doing that) — and that’s reasonable, given their similar pricing. But the noise canceling on the Bose was, by itself, enough to warrant its prime place in the carry-on luggage. I’m stunned that planes are still so noisy, some 100 years on now. Seriously? We can’t work this out? Bah. Anyway, the Momentums do fine as a headphone (better than that, actually), but as a defender of my personal-space and protector of my sanity, these closed-back cans can only do so much. The Bose does more — even if only on the plane. The Bose just sound rather … blah. The Studio, by contrast, protected the lower frequencies better and suppressed that ambient noise far better than the old Bose. The fact that they also sound better ….
Like I said, I can’t compare the New Studio with the Old Studio as I don’t have a pair of the latter to play with, so I’ll wave my hands here. It’s also almost unfair to compare them to the QuietComfort 2 as that headphone has been replaced, but for whatever it’s worth, these Studios outclass them on every level. Not even close.
The thing I think most would cotton to is the warm, full sound on the Studio. Remember, it is a closed-back design, so I was expecting the bass bump and sure enough, it was there. Overall, the bass has more impact but is generally a little looser than what I hear with my Momentums, and of the two, I think the Senns are more truthful to what I hear in real life, even if they don’t seem to reach as deep as the Studios.
Mid-range on the Studio is not as “augmented” as the bass, and voices have good resonance. I think the Studio present the frequency range as a common headphone “V” shape, for whatever that’s worth. Big bass that tends to creep up into the upper-bass.
On the high-res version of Brubek’s “Take 5”, the drum in the solo sounds dynamic and light, the drum head almost papery, with the snares obviously made of metal. Cymbals have, nice, brassy ring to them and the decays sound naturally drawn out. I’ve noticed a bit of top-end glare in the Studio that is source-material dependent, something that the more easy-going Momentums do not show. Again, reference that classic “V” shape in the response curve and I think you’ll have an idea of what’s going on here.
That said, the detail on the Studio is actually quite fine and refined. I was able to pick out whatever ambient cues or audio trickery I threw at them, and at 110dB sensitive, there was absolutely no issue with drive or dynamics with whatever I used as a source. I found that my more audiophile bits, the AK120 that I use for on-the-go hi-fi (with or without the fantastic ALO Audio International), tended to show off the non-linearity of the Beats far more than my non-audiophile sources, like the output on my MacBook or the iPhone I carry everywhere with me. With those as sources, the natural “V” curve flattens significantly — it’s not a stretch to guess how and why and with what these headphones are voiced.
Audiophiles are a picky and nit-picky bunch — hell, it’s a cliche to even mention it in passing. Whatever. Putting aside the historical baggage and the fuss-budget knee-jerk fanboy hipster objections, it’s easy to be impressed with the new Studio from Beats. It’s well made, has good features, and actually sounds quite good. If your taste tends toward the audiophile, this probably wouldn’t be a satisfying choice, but of all the bass-head cans out there, this one is actually quite listenable. And useful! That noise-cancelling feature is just delightful on the plane and anywhere filled with droning noise. Killer app, right there, at least for me — the Studios have fully, successfully, and entirely retired my Bose QuietComfort headphones.
The fact that these headphones actually look good shouldn’t be downplayed either. It’s not enough to make a great-sounding product. But making one that actually looks like it cost more than $50 to screw together — the Momentums are only barely passable in this respect — is apparently hard. Especially if you want it to not look like hair buns Princess Leia would sport or something the Borg might install on your face.
See? A Star Wars and a Star Trek reference in the same sentence! We aim to please over here.
Bottom line: recommending the Studio from Beats is easy. It’s a great sounding consumer-grade headphone! While I think there are other headphones at this price point that might be more “truthful”, like my Sennheiser Momentums, I’m finding it difficult to look down on the Studio. Seriously. It’s a solid offering! And given that it’s coming from a serious brand with serious reach into a growing market, I think this is a great headphone to get behind.
Looking for a bridge to head-fi or hi-fi? I think I just found my gateway drug.