After wowing hip-hop fans and audiophiles alike with his bass-blasting Beats by Dre headphones last year, Dr. Dre returned in 2009 promising the audio equivalent of V8 power from a tiny four banger: putting the same thump in a pair of earbuds. Thus, the Beats by Dre In-Ear Headphones were born. But can Dr. Dre and the audio wizards at a cable company really overcome the laws of physics that typically make earbuds sound so tinny? We pushed our skepticism aside to try them on and find out.
Features and Design
Like their much larger predecessors, the in-ear Beats adopt a number of stylistic cues that make them look as loud as they sound: gloss black mixed with chrome, and plenty of red accents to go around. The tiny drivers – only a little fatter than an eraser head – sit on flat, tab-like holders, with the Beats logo emblazed on a shiny seal on the back. Red, linguini-like cables string out the end, which were actually inspired by the food and designed to prevent tangles, according to Monster’s own Kevin Lee. Odd as the concept seemed, it actually worked surprisingly well in everyday use, and we liked how sturdy they felt, too. Unlike cheap cables that tend to come stiff and hold their shape after being curled up for too long, the pliable Beats cables lay perfectly limp and never got crinkled up.
The phones come packaged with a hockey-puck style carrying case – again embossed with the lowercase B – that zips shut. Inside, a tiny elastic pocket provides a place for the include silicon ear tips, which you’ll want to keep in the included plastic bag unless you want them spilling out at inopportune times.
The Beats come with a surprising variety of black silicon shapes; You’ll find the typical orb-shaped varieties in both large and small, but also an interesting pine tree shape with three soft, bendy baffles. These poke pretty deep into the ear, which gives them a solid-feeling grip, but also makes them a little less comfortable for extended wear. We liked the fit when on the move, but preferred the traditional tips for long periods listening in one place, like on the bus or in front of a computer. Like the ball-type tips, the baffled-type come in both large and small. Unfortunately, we did find the extra-soft rubber quite tricky to cram onto the buds in some cases, taking some serious finesse.
After choosing the right tips, the headphones go in and out of the ear without much confusion. They’re clearly marked with left and right indicators, and as long as you have the cables facing down (which gravity helps take care of) you can’t really get them in wrong.
Despite their variety, the Beats ear tips don’t seal out environmental noise quite as effectively as we’ve experienced from other headphones. This can be a bane or boon – in the office, we actually appreciated having some extra environmental awareness to avoid the impenetrable wall of isolation that sometimes comes with in-ear headphones (and the remedy: things thrown at the head by coworkers). However, if you plan to use them on a crowded subway or in a packaged hostel to escape snorers, they won’t be quite as effective as some alternatives, like Klipsch’s Image S4.
Fire up some music, and it’s hard to miss the wall of bass the Beats promise. Naturally, we had to run through some Dr. Dre to really “listen to the music the way they should: the way I do,” as Dre says on the Beats site. The low end of Still D.R.E. slammed in with serious aplomb – not quite enough to trick you into thinking you’re in the back seat of a subwoofer-packed Escalade, but far more than what most of us have come to expect from any speaker you put in your ear.
Even more surprisingly, the effect isn’t exaggerated or overwhelming. We expected the bass to sweep in and wipe out the rest of the music, but the Beats were surprisingly well balanced. Synth instruments and Eminem’s scathing vocals on Forgot About Dre come through just as crisp as the moving beat. In fact, on some tracks, we even nudged the bass higher on the equalizer – which the phones readily responded to quite nicely.
Despite their low-end proficiency, we also found that the Beats imparted an unwelcome sound to some music, making fuzzy, guitar-driven rock tracks seem a little harsher, deemphasizing bright elements of songs and erasing some of the detail found in better headphones like Phiaton’s Moderna MS 400.
Rap fans, rejoice. Monster’s Beats by Dre Tour in-ear headphones put back the bass that went missing when boom boxes gave way to iPods. And surprisingly, it doesn’t even appear that Monster used any juiced-up gimmickry to get there. While the Beats do a capable job above the bass line, drivers that go boom just don’t seem to sing like other phones in this price range do, so we can’t say that jazz, classical or even rock fans will find their tunes all that flattered by the Beats. And the $150 price tag doesn’t help the case. The $80 Klipsch Image S4, which pack some impressive bass of their own, clock in at nearly half the price, and sound better rounded across all genres. But for hip-hop moguls who crave Dre-tuned sound and style, the Beats deliver.
- Solid bass, as promised
- Eye-catching design and colors
- Truly tangle-free cords
- Variety of silicon tips
- Slight harshness, missing detail in music
- Difficult to change silicon ear tips
- Some discomfort with longer ear tips