Monster Cable and hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre teamed up on the Beats design. The result: Noise-canceling headphones that look way cooler than high-end competitors from Bose and Sennheiser. Beyond the cool factor, these headphones perform admirably for all types of music, and they can serve as a wired headset for phones with a 3.5-mm jack or adapter. The active noise cancellation, however, seems like an afterthought and keeps the headphones from achieving their potential. But we think Monster and Dre are onto something, and we look forward to improvements in future versions.
Features and Design
The gloss-black headband is trimmed in red and silver, and the relatively compact earcups are outfitted with soft leather and mesh pads. The well-padded headband has two hinges, and the earcups fold up so the headphones can fit in the large, rigid carrying case.
The left earcup’s outer cover comes off to reveal the battery compartment, which holds two AAA batteries (included), while the right earcup houses the power switch and mute button. A tiny red indicator light on the power switch shows you when the headphones are active, turning amber when the batteries are low.
To listen to music, you attach one of the two included cables to the jack on the bottom of the left earcup. Both cables will fit any headphone jack, but one has an inline microphone with a call answer/end button that can also pause music and skip tracks on some phones, including the iPhone.
Each cable runs about 4 feet, which turned out to be the perfect length for our 6-foot frame; if you’re exceptionally tall (above 6’4″ or so), you may have a tough time listening with your music player in your pants pocket. The package also includes a dual-mono airplane adapter, a quarter-inch adapter, and a cleaning cloth for the headband, which picks up tons of fingerprints.
The earcup pads is very comfortable, though the faux leather will definitely start to cook your ears on a hot day or after long listening sessions. The headband is comfy enough, but it could use a little extra padding. Although we didn’t need to extend the headband much to fit our head, large-headed folks may want to try these on before plunking down $350.
With the headphones and accessories packed up in the case, you’ll need a good chunk of room in a small backpack. If you’re traveling extremely light, you might want to check out active noise-canceling earbuds from Sony or Audio-Technica instead.
Image Courtesy of Monster
How We Tested
We tested the Beats’ sound quality using the headphones ouputs from an iPhone 3G and an HP Pavilion tx1000 laptop. Our source files were a mix of Apple Lossless, 320Kbps MP3, and 128Kbps AAC formats covering a dozen musical genres. We also watched clips from several action movies to check dialog clarity and explosion rumble. We tested the headphones noise cancellation feature on the NYC subway, in a noisy Starbucks, and on a 3.5-hour flight from New Orleans to New York.
The Beats’ most glaring design flaw is that they don’t play music if the batteries are dead or if the power isn’t switched on. Many other popular noise-canceling headphones — including Bose’s QuietComfort series — suffer from the same problem, but those have been around a while, so we’re a bit surprised to see it in these new cans.
Another irritating attribute is that the headphones leak sound, so others around you can hear your music. That also means the headphones don’t block out much noise passively, either, though this is what makes the mute button practical: If you don’t feel like taking your headphones off during, say, an announcement from your pilot, you can press the big “b” on the right earcup and mute the music and temporarily stop cancellation.
When switched on, the noise cancelation feature works fairly well, but it introduces a significant hiss in the upper midrange. The amount of cancellation depends heavily on the type of ambient noise around you. On an airplane, these take the bottom out of the jet’s roar enough to give you some sense of isolation, and the hiss isn’t too noticeable. On a subway train, they don’t block out the intermittent noises (clacking and rumbles) very well. In a noisy café, they can block out a general din, but you’ll still have to turn up your music a bit to drown out nearby chatters.
Two AAA alkaline batteries give you about 24 hours of listening time, which means you’ll want to have spares around or use lithium batteries, which last a lot longer. Also, when the battery gets low (indicated by the amber light on the power switch), the sound distorts audibly instead of maintaining high quality until it drops out.
We expected headphones designed by a hip-hop producer to have chronically overwhelming bass and not much else. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised by the Beats’ very well-balanced sound no matter what type of music we listened to.
The bass on tracks like James Brown’s Get Up (Sex Machine) and Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City had plenty of power and excellent definition — all thud, no mud. And it didn’t overwhelm the rest of the music, as happens with most hip-hop-oriented headphones.
The midrange in songs with prominent piano like REM’s Hollow Man was similarly clear, and the piano didn’t get buried in the mix on acoustic jazz tracks from the likes of John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. The transition areas below and above the midrange were also smooth — we didn’t hear any noticeable “holes” in the sound.
The highs had plenty of presence; in acoustic jazz, the ride cymbal and high-hat came through with good sparkle, while in heavily layered tracks like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the pops and slaps of the congas were easily distinguishable.
We made a few phone calls on our iPhone 3G using the included iSoniTalk cable with inline mic, and call quality was very good on both ends, even with some ambient noise present.
These headphones look and sound very good, and are best suited to casual use like walking around town or listening at your desk. Commuters and airplane travelers should stick with Bose’s QuietComfort 2 for its superior noise cancellation, or better yet in-ear models like Shure’s SE series, which block noise like earplugs. Serious audiophiles will definitely not dig the hiss and inability to turn off cancellation.
We sincerely hope in the next version of the Beats we’ll be able to turn off the cancellation, get sound without battery power, and not bother people nearby due to sound leakage.
• Very good sound
• Attractive design
• Doubles as a wired headset for calls
• Iffy noise cancellation
• Can’t play music without batteries and cancellation
• Leaks sound so others can hear