This morning, I revisited Stereophile's office sample of Beats Studio headphones ($299.95).
At one point, my naive ears loved these headphones. Well not loved.
I had always considered them dark, forcefully colored, and weighty, but I appreciated the bulky physical presence they turned the music into. Johnny Greenwood became JOHNNY GREENWOOD. But now, with nearly three years of working at Stereophile under my belt, I have a more informed ear. The Beats Studio sound distant. They sound veiled. They sound congested. They are noisy. They lack any sort of dynamic expression. Even 2Pac lacks air and relaxation. Listening to "Dear Mama", 2Pac's contemplative and appreciative words sail over a spacious beat and deep bass blasts, but all the air between his words and the synth bass is sucked out robbing the music of the space in which one can envision 2Pac delivering his emotional confession.
Or on Aphex Twin's "Flim" from Come to Daddy, the tightly swung snare that locks the piano into a forward-moving and snappy cadence is masked making the piano seem sluggish. The song is further slowed down by an overly accentuated bass synth.
But the Beats have their positive sides: the Beats sound big. The Beats are comfortable. The Beats are pretty. The Beats push thick and daunting waves of sound into your ears. Like on Prefuse 73's remix of the Books' "Pagina Dos", the Beats transform the chopped up and stereo spanning samples into a forceful and head-bobbing groove. The Beats make beats.
Recently in a reddit conversation, a user asked how the Stereophile staff felt about Beats, their proliferation, and what it means for hi-fi. Personally, I think it's great that someone with the cultural influence and stacks of cash like Dr. Dre is introducing the idea of good sound as being dope. All any interested customer then has to do is visit the words here at Stereophile or Amazon where many of the top reviews rip these cans to shreds. There's even a hilarious subreddit devoted to the ridiculousness of Beats pandemonium titled /r/audiojerk. A fitting title, no?
But what really inspired me to write this piece is all the affordable and great sounding headphones I have been listening to over the past few months that are so much cheaper than these $300 Beets. The Logitech UE 4000 on-ears offer a controlled palette of sounds with clear projection and tactile attacks. Though they lack some detail in the treble and soft to loud dynamics, they also only cost $100. One of the database managers here in our corporate overlord office just bought some Sennheiser HD 428S cans online for only $33 (MSRP $99.95)! These headphones offer neutrality, they are open to modification, and create a lovely sense of air and height. I miss mine. Or even the thin-sounding Klipsch S4s in-ears can give you detail, hyper instrument delineation, and speed for $79.99. Each of these models offer sonic compromises, but these compromises are acceptable at their given prices.
Bring on the Beats I say. Not everyone is an audiophile. Some people just want to be Lil' Wayne. And that's cool. Some people like to spend a lot of money to make themselves feel good. And that's cool too. But for those of us who want good sound for our money, there are other options and the internet helps reveal the truths. As a young listener, I sought impact, but now I want the truth.