Monday, 17 October 2011

Vic Takes on The Beats By Dre Studios

Despite the abundant number of reviews on the Beats By Dre Studio headphones, there appears to be a great divide on the consensus of these cans.  On one hand we have those who swear by it and consider it the Bruce Dickenson of headphones. On the other hand, we have those that throw up in their mouths when they hear the words 'audiophile' and 'beats' in the same sentence.

My approach to this may be somewhat unorthodox. I never understood the real appeal of these headphones. Sure they have Dr. Dre's name on them and sure they stand out visually, but surely they must have something else to justify the $350 MSRP right? Right?  My first reaction to discovering that they would be made by Monster was 'oh man, these things will be overpriced'. For anyone who doesn't know the Monster brand, they have become a popular audio/video interconnect cabling and accessory company with a reputation of charging more for their products compared to competitors who sell similar quality products.  It's not that Monster makes poor quality products. Quite the contrary to be honest. Still, the target demographic is the frivolous and ignorant for all intents and purposes. 

I have to admit, I had a negative perception of the Beats By Dre line before I even gave them a listen. I have the greatest respect for Dr. Dre but I don't care much for artist endorsements. It doesn't help that there is a similar Monster lineup for Bieber and his bedside buddies.  Anal Beads By Bieber I believe they were called. I finally gave the Beats Studios a listen last year at a big electronics store but it wasn't a fair test as the volume and sample music were not adjustable. The polarizing reviews on the Internet intrigued me enough to decide this will be my latest fixation.  I already had bias feeling towards the Beat Studios as I was almost convinced that the $350 could be better spent elsewhere.  So what better way to prove or disprove this then to buy a pair and entertain myself with a new toy?  Or toys rather. A proper review can't be done without proper comparisons so I added to my collection of cans to draw reference including headphones from mid-range offerings from Sennheiser, Sony, Denon, and JVC. Heck, I even got a pair of the higher end the Beats By Dre Pros. Lastly, I added some in-ear canal earphones to throw into the mix. I probably won’t get into these until a later post. I was going to add a few more noise-canceling variants but I am a minimalist after all!  This piece will focus on the Beats Studios however.  Note that I will use BBDS as short form for Beats By Dre Studios. I also want to mention that I’m NOT doing an overview on the features and specs of these headphones because that’s what the Internet is for.

A ton of unboxing videos can be found on YouTube so I won't bother with that. Besides, who wants to see me touching, smelling, and licking the boxes and wrapping? The packaging is fancy, but that's expected for something that retails for $350. In fact, they could have included more random useless filler as I'm sure there's a huge margin on these products. Honestly, when you purchase these, something should surprise you when you first open the box! Imagine this: You open the box and Dr. Dre pops out and slaps you in the face. Or, you open the box and find Justin Bieber hanging by the neck from the headphone cord. Or, you open the box and R. Kelly has a soggy surprise.

The first listen of my new set of Beats Studios almost caused me to have a heart attack. The Beats have a 3.5mm jack on the left side of the headphones where the mini-plug cable connects to. I do like the fact that the cable can be detached from the headphones but the connector has to be pushed into the headphones tightly or else scary things happen.  I had the connector not completely inserted into the slot during my first listen. I had decided to listen to the Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001 as my first sample of the new cans. Since the headphones weren't properly connected, the highs and mids were almost non-existent while the lows were all there. This frightened me quite a bit. There's a slogan that Monster uses with these headphones, something along the lines of 'hear music the way the artist intended it to be heard!'.    "OH MY GOD" I said to myself. "Dr. Dre intended his album to be whispered rap just like Shy Ronnie." (Fast forward to 0:50 below if you don’t know what I mean)

I quickly changed to the Dev album only to learn that she is actually a studio recording mouse or chipmunk! So this is how they wanted me to hear their music! This is what it’s like to hear music from the ears of an artist! I immediately thought of a clip of 30 Rock that a coworker had shown to me.

Something was definitely really wrong. People said these headphones were bad, but this bad? A few minutes later, I realized I had not used enough force to push the plug all the way into the socket. After snugly inserting the rest of the plug to the socket, things changed for the better. Songs were actually recognizable again. I spent about 20 hours running the Beats Studios with various music including artists like Dr. Dre, Cults, The Joy Formidable, The Arcade Fire, Adele, Feist, Eminem, Florence and the Machine, Tegan and Sara, Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Christina Peri, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dev, Metric, Mumford and Sons, Radiohead, The Black Keys, and Company of Thieves. So a good mix of Rock, Rap, Folk and Pop.  

First let's tackle listening impressions of Rap/Hip-Hop music, since these ARE the Beats By Dre.  I feel that these headphones are stronger in this genre. Bass is emphasized in the BBDS. Sometimes it sounds exaggerated. Mids are relatively flat and highs are generally lacking.  This was generally okay for the majority of rap songs I listened to. Sound reproduction for this type of music sounded pretty accurate.  I didn't have any hip-hop songs that were good for testing instrument separation, but subtle electric guitar in 'Forgot about Dre' featuring Eminem was surprisingly convincing.  I was concerned that hard consonants and 'Sss' sounds would be too emphasized and harsh sounding but that wasn't the case in my experience.

One of the weaker areas of these headphones is higher frequencies and female vocals. Christina Peri songs sounded like vocals were overpowered by mid-bass.  I did notice impressive reproduction of acoustic piano and acoustic guitar sounds from the Christina Peri album and Tegan and Sara’s live acoustic album.  I honestly did not expect the guitar strumming and piano trills to sound so accurate on these headphones.  Perhaps I had low expectations going on.  Either way, I was pleasantly surprised on that front.  

Listening to the Grammy Award winning Album Suburbs by The Arcade Fire gave me mixed emotions.  This album includes lot of background instruments typically not found in the alt/indie rock genre.  As expected, the BBDS sounded bass heavy but it sounded fine for some songs such as ‘Ready to Start’. On more delicate songs like ‘Sprawl II’, the background instruments sounded as if they were blended together with no real separation.  Percussion instruments were reproduced well but horns and bowed string instruments could have been better.

Adele’s fantastic album ‘21’ sounded quite good with the BBDS.  Adele’s voice fared well with the flat and predictable midrange of the headphones.  I was afraid the bass would be too ‘boomy’ for the soulful style of the album but it wasn’t a problem.

Note that I used no external amplification for these listening tests. Reason being that Monster doesn't expect these consumers to use additional amplification of the output source. As a result, I did my initial test using usual audio devices - Sony MP3 player, iPod Classic, HP Touchpad (with Beats Audio inside - whatever that means), BlackBerry Playbook, BlackBerry smartphones, a few Android devices, laptops and desktops and whatever else I could load MP3s on. MP3s were of 320kbps bit rate.  I may do a follow-up review in the future using my NuForce amp. Although Monster doesn't seem to post all the specs on these cans, I'm certain they have quite a high sensitivity and low impedance. Any mp3 player can power these to high volume with no problem

One gripe I have about the BBDS is that they don’t feel very comfortable on my head.  My right ear starts to feel irritated after an hour of listening. The cushions are actually very nicely padded so I guess the shape of my head is at fault here.

As all of you know, the BBD Studios are active noise-cancelling headphones.  If you didn’t, you do now.  They require 2 AAA batteries to operate. Does the noise cancellation work? Yeah kind of. I did find that it best blocks out sounds that I actually want to hear. For example, it does well cancelling sounds of vibrating cell phones, people sneaking up on me while I’m surfing the Internet, and the voices I hear in my head before I fall asleep.  There is a slight high pitch whine from the noise-cancellation that I could sometimes hear even when music is playing. It’s annoying but not annoying enough to write another annoying sentence about it.

There are quite a few reviews for the BBDS floating around the Internet that say things like 'the headphones make it seem like I am in the studio with the artist.' What a load of crap!! Have they actually ever been in the studio with the likes of Dr. Dre?  I want to know what kind of drugs they are on.  That being said, I think people want to hear the following from me -  I must say that I was listening to Dr. Dre on my BBDS and now my clothes smell like weed. I could have sworn I was right there in the studio with Dre and my [excerpt deleted] Snoop Dogg smoking a joint and producing some mad hits yo.  I think people tend to write their reviews after they are high when it comes to BBDS.  

Monster has done a tremendous job marketing this line of headphones. I would like to see them continue to push the Beats line and challenge them to go further with their marketing. For starters, I think they should try to market the headphones towards the deaf. Beats enthusiasts and the deaf share many similarities!  I would also like to see different types of advertising. Sure we've seen artists vouch for the Beats line. We've seen them used in music videos. So how about seeing them used in the next Harry Potter movie or better yet, the next Care Bears movie?

Admittedly, one of reasons I wanted to buy the Beats By Dre Studios was so that I could put them on, listen to ‘The Next Episode’ by Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Dogg, and yell out “DR. DRE MOTHERF#CKER!” along with the song. You know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, fast forward to 1:24 in the video below.  Was it worth it? Oh for sure! My neighbours probably heard me when I belted those words out.  ‘I don’t always sing along to rap songs. But when I do, I prefer BBDS.’ *in my best Dos Equis voice* Oh sure, you could belt out profanity while listening to other headphones, but you will not have the satisfaction of doing it while wearing Beats By Dre.
I also discovered that the BBDS also comes in Raichu Orange. If I had known this beforehand I would have bought them in this colour. That way I could plug them into my Game Boy while I play Pokemon.  Knowing me, I’d probably start talking like a Raichu when no one’s around me. Not that I don’t do that anyways.

Would I recommend this pair of headphones to people? It depends. I'm sure some people would be quite happy with them. In order to help people make the right decision, I formulated a quick questionnaire:
Do you have self-esteem issues? Did you drop out of school before the 7th grade? Did your parents give you allowance after you had your first full-time job? Did you line up on launch day for the iPhone 4S? Is Africa a country?  If you answered yes to any of these, you will love the Beats By Dre Studio headphones.

There is no rational reason to buy these headphones. There are however, a ton of irrational reasons to! Almost all the positive reviews for these headphones will state that these were the best headphones the reviewer has ever heard. Well, that may be true because those blokes haven’t listened to anything other than those white pieces of crap that come with iPods.  Yes the BBDS are better than stock iPhone earphones but that’s like saying doing taxes is better than being stabbed.   Then there are those who argue that the BBDS are fashionable.  You see people walking around with these around their neck with no wires even attached.  Hell, you can make walking around with a string of sausages around your neck fashionable if you market it correctly!

So in terms of sound, where do these fall?  At the $350 price range, I would say pretty much anything else around that price is better overall.  I would put them on par with the Sennheiser HD 448 and you can get those for about $100.  If you like heavy over-emphasized bass, the JVC HA-M5X can be had for $60 and have similar characteristics to the BBDS.  Sure, the BBDS has noise cancellation but I actually prefer noise isolation over cancellation.  If they made a version of the BBDS without the active noise-cancellation circuit and shaved $200 off the price tag, I might even recommend them.  For $350 you could get a pair of Sennheiser HD 595 headphones, which are better than the BBDS in every way. Ok they don’t look as flashy but you also wouldn’t be robbed by 10 year olds with threatening pencils.

I did mention there are irrational reasons to buy these.  These headphones may make you feel you belong in a studio next to Bieber and Kermit the Frog. They are probably cheaper than hiring company to keep you warm at night. They may give you confidence as you move your hands to mimic your favourite rapper. They may give you relief as you are reassured that you have helped line Dr. Dre’s pocket.  If they bring you enough pleasure, then they are well worth it no matter what anyone says.  If I see you on the street wearing these I’ll still think you’re an idiot, knowing that I have a few sets at home.  I have my own irrational reasons. Get your own!

I’ll probably put up other reviews of the headphones I acquired last week. Maybe I’ll even do a follow-up to this review.



  1. I don't think you've answered the most important question: how does Nickelback sound with them?

  2. Wow, my plan to buy new headphones just got a lot more complicated cuz I have more to consider now. Cool post though! - Maya