Let’s face it: Beats headphones don’t need press. The brand is, by far, the most recognizable in its market. In fact, it could be argued that a published review of a Beats by Dr. Dre headphone is more beneficial at this point to the publisher’s traffic than it is for the headphone brand; but that’s not why we’re reviewing them.
This reissue of the Studio is the first since it was originally introduced five years ago, and is the first effort at a retake on the popular model since Beats’ divorce with Monster, which is said to have had a heavy hand (if not the only hand) in the voicing of previous Beats headphones. When the new Studio were announced in July, Beats came right out and said that it had re-voiced the headphone to be more accurate and balanced. Whether that was what Dre and his crew had always wanted to do, or a response to heavy criticism from critics, is anyone’s guess. Either way, we wanted to give the revamped version a fair shake. It turns out, we came away pleasantly surprised. Here’s what happened.
Out of the box
If you want to see what it’s like to crack open the box on a new pair of Studio headphones, check out our unboxing video here.
Our first impression of the new Studio was mostly positive. The headphones are considerably lighter and more streamlined than before. You won’t find any straight lines with this new take, and the material in use feels a lot more flexible and resilient.
Along the top of our review sample’s glossy white headband (the Studio are also available in glossy black and red) Dr. Dre’s name goes conspicuously absent, simply reading “beats” instead (you won’t find Dre’s face on the box, either). Further down the headband where the ‘phones adjust for size, Beats has replaced what used to be exposed screws with a grey “studio” badge. Overall, the new Studio feel a lot less clunky than the previous iteration, if not just a bit cheaper.
The Studio are considerably lighter and more streamlined than before.
In the box with the headphones we found two red, rubbery, tangle-resistant headphones cables – one with an inline control microphone, one without – both with 90-degree 3.5mm input jacks, a USB charging cable, a USB wall adapter, a requisite carabiner, some product literature and a microfiber cleaning cloth.
The new studio maintain the best design element of their predecessor: spongy memory-foam ear pads covered in ridiculously soft leatherette. Unfortunately, other design elements that could have used improvement either remained the same or got worse.
The underside of the headband, for instance, is just as under-padded as it was before. The undersized case remains the same, but gets even more cramped due to the inclusion of more and larger accessories (we’re looking at you, USB wall adapter!). Cramming everything in the case is an exercise in frustration.
Features and design
Beats did more than just “re-voice” the new Studio to sound different. For starters, it eliminated the need for two AAA batteries by including a 20-hour lithium-ion battery. Battery strength and power status are represented by a row of small, white LEDs and a single LED on the power button, all of which live on the underside of the right ear cup.
The new Studio feature a re-booted, dual-mode noise-cancelling circuit. One setting is said to be customized for music listening, the other more aggressive for simply shutting out the racket around you. The so-called “Beats Acoustic Engine” uses DSP (digital signal processing) to ensure the headphones produce a sound signature as specified by whomever voiced them (which, according to all marketing, rests on Dre’s shoulders). From our listening tests, we suspect the noise cancelling and acoustic engine processes are in cahoots.
The headphones also include an auto on/off feature, though it can only be triggered by removing the headphone cable from the left ear cup. Leave them switched on and pack them up with the cable still inserted, and they’ll be dead the next day (which we learned the hard way, naturally).
Finally, Beats includes a mute button under the guise of the lower-case ‘b’ on the outside of the left ear cup. Pressing the ‘b’ button not only mutes music, but disables noise cancelling so you can hear that overworked, underpaid airline attendant offer you an undersized bag of crappy pretzels or overpriced box of hummus and cheese.
The new Studio’s lightweight design makes the cans less cumbersome than the previous version, but we remain bothered by the underside of the headband, which wore down on our crown in short order (we’re always whining about that, so take our gripe for what you will). Also, even though the ear pads are super comfortable, they don’t breathe very well and tend to warm the ears up pretty quickly. Of course, neither issue seems to bother most folks who wear them now, so we doubt Beats fans will start to complain.
The most consistent criticism levied on the Beats headphone line is that they are “bass heavy.” In our own review of the Beats Solo we blamed heavy bass for obscuring the midrange, and in our Beats Pro review we called the bass output “distracting.” But it would seem that the re-voicing of the Beats Studio involved pulling back the bass a bit – quite a bit actually – because these headphones sound nothing like the Solo, the Pro or the prior version of the Studio. In fact, the entire sound curve seems to have been re-worked, though not necessarily for the better.
We compared the new Studio two three other pair of over-the-ear headphones, including the V-Moda Crossfade M-100, the Munitio Pro40 and the Sennheiser Momentum. Test tracks were delivered by an Apple iPhone 4s and an Asus Zenbook Prime running Windows 7 and connected to a HeadRoom Micro DAC and Micro Amp.
Bass response – Still in yo’ face, but not nearly as boomy
While the new Beats Studio aren’t lean on bass, they absolutely do not exhibit the bloated, overresonant, everpresent bass response we’ve come to expect from a Beats headphone. Sure, if we pushed the low end hard enough with one of Dre’s own tracks or any other intentionally bass-heavy Hip-Hop cut, we could get some beefy response out of the Studio, but when we listened to songs like Marcus Miller’s take on “Summertime” or Tribal Tech’s “Slick,” bass response was right in line with what we expected it to be.
While the new Beats Studio aren’t lean on bass, they absolutely do not exhibit the bloated, over-resonant, ever-present bass response we’ve come to expect…
We didn’t hear any false fluff or boosting of the lowest octave. Bass-lean tracks, too, stayed lean. The Studio didn’t add any bass that wasn’t already there, pure and simple.
We then pulled out the aforementioned headphones to draw a comparison that would help illustrate how the Beats stack up against competition in the over-ear category. After our tests, we concluded that the Munitio Pro40 were much heavier in the bass and thicker-sounding in general.
The V-Moda seemed to have bass response on par with the Beats (albeit with a little less punch), but, thanks to warmer sound signature, felt a little bit heavier in the low-end overall. The Sennheiser Momentum were leaner in the bass than the Studio, though not by a huge margin.
In the end, we concluded that while the Beats Studio still place some emphasis on the punch that drum beats and bass guitar bring to the mix, they avoid injecting the tubby, booming bass that tends to shroud the rest of the frequency spectrum.
Midrange response – Pretty good, until it’s isn’t
The “midrange” as we call it means different things to different listeners. We think most would agree that the meat of the voice lives in the midrange, and as far as vocals are concerned, the Studio do fine. Outside of vocal reproduction, we found the Studio could render dark horn sounds with a richness and well-rounded approach that was impressive. That said, they lack some of the intimacy that we got from the Sennheiser Momentum, and we think that’s because of what’s happening in the upper midrange.
The upper midrange flirts around with the lower treble region, but has its own special effect on the perception of the midrange as a whole. When it’s shrill or compressed, as we found it to be in the Studio, it can give vocals a sort of honky sound – that’s “honky” as in something piercing like an air horn, people.
That effect puts a lot of snap into the sound of a kick pedal hitting a bass drum, but it also adds undesirable crunch to electric guitars, something we picked up on while listening to Cage The Elephant’s “In One Ear.”
Treble response – It depends on what you’re listening to
The Studio’s treble response had us bouncing all over our playlist in search of some kind of consistency. It turns out, we never found it, but that’s because music is inconsistent. The highs in one recording are bound to be different than the next – sometimes to an extreme. And while this has always been the case, the Beats Studio seem to exacerbate it. Those recordings with hot treble were intensely hot with the Studio and those with subdued treble seemed too subdued.
In trying to make sense of this, we’ve come to believe the Beats Acoustic Engine is responsible. Not only that, but we noticed that the volume setting had a dramatic impact on the balance of the treble response. Going back to “In One Ear” we felt the drummer’s high-hats were perfectly acceptable with our iPhone’s volume set at its mid-point. But once we got up to around 70 percent, the hats became difficult to endure.
Noise cancelling circuits tend to introduce a certain amount of hiss – something that is easily overlooked by most listeners when music is playing. But the Beats Studio present more than your typical amount of hiss when the headphone cable is plugged in. It wasn’t a problem for us on our flights from Portland to New York and back. With music playing inside the cans and the steady whoosh of airplane noise at play outside, the Studio’s noise-cancelling capabilities proved sufficient, though they still can’t compete with the likes of Audio-Technica or Bose’s noise cancellers.
This version features a re-booted, dual-mode noise-cancelling circuit.
On the other hand, if you turn on the headphones without the headphone cable plugged in, the Studio will go into a mode where we assume the Beats Acoustic Engine is turned off and only the noise-cancelling feature is enabled. In this case, the hiss is reduced to a minimum, and the Studio do an adequate job of blocking ambient noise.
We did run into one very strange situation, though. With the headphone cable plugged in and the Beats Acoustic Engine engaged during a flight, we went to rest our head on against the fuselage of the plane to discover that pressing the right ear cup close to our ear caused a fast and rather loud pulsing noise. This does not happen when the Studio are in noise-cancelling-only mode, therefore we feel it’s safe to say it has something to do with the acoustic engine. Either way, it’s totally undesirable and something travelers are bound to run into unless they avoid any kind of pressure on the right ear cup. Pressing in the left ear cup did not cause the same effect.
While the new Beats Studio deliver a re-voiced sound as promised, the changes aren’t all for the better. We do appreciate that bass response has been toned down several notches, but there’s sharpness to the midrange and an inconsistency to the treble that we found off-putting. Also, between the inconsistent frequency response depending on volume levels and the mysterious thumping we heard in our right here, we feel the Beats Acoustic Engine causes more problems than it fixes. As noise-cancellers go, the Studio do a decent job; but then, they ought to at this price.
While we’re on the topic of price, we can’t help but notice that the new Studio, priced at $300, cost the same as the much more sleek Beats Executive headphones. Frankly, given the choice between the two at the same price, we’d shoot straight for the Executive. That puts the Studio in an awkward spot, we think.
With all of that said, we know damn good and well that listeners the world over are going to scoop these right up. And with that being the case, we’re happy knowing that they’ll be getting a little less skull-pounding bass and a little more detail out of their music from this generation of Beats headphones.
- Lighter, stronger and sleeker
- Dual-mode noise-cancelling
- Auto-off switch
- Rechargeable battery
- Effective noise cancelling
- More controlled bass than before
- Odd thumping noise in right ear when pushed
- Response curve seems to change with volume
- Treble is shrill and piercing at times
- When battery dies, so does the music