The Entry Level #26 Page 2
Keep an eye out for more about the KEF X300A in this magazine, and at our sister site, AudioStream.com. In the meantime, I'll be holding out hope for a $300/pair version of the X300A. What do you say, Jack Oclee-Brown? Can it be done?
Beats vs Bowers & Wilkins
Throughout the travel and the storms and the work, in whatever remaining time I could find, I moved dozens and dozens of stupidly heavy boxes, mostly filled with books and LPs, from my apartment to Ms. Little's. The system was the last thing to go. Even so, I had to turn in my keys and say goodbye, to my landlord and to my old orange couch, before I could find the time to listen. And so here I am, aching to sit down, relax, and play a record. The only things keeping me sane throughout this period were my little blue 8GB iPod Nano and two sets of on-ear headphones: the nearly ubiquitous Beats Audio Solo HD ($199.95, footnote 1) and the increasingly popular Bowers & Wilkins P3 ($199.99, footnote 2), the latter reviewed by Sam Tellig in our December 2012 issue.
The time away from home provided plenty of opportunities to get to know these headphones. I listened on the plane to Puerto Rico, on the train to London, and, when the NY/NJ Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) system closed due to immense flooding, I listened on a cold and miserable ferry ride to Manhattan. I listened on the beach, by the pool, in the subway, on the street. I listened to music and to movies.
The Beats Solo HD and B&W P3 are, in their own ways, very well packed, each inspiring a certain pride of ownership. Unboxing the Solos reminded me of opening a new pair of sneakersthe thick, satiny enclosure even had that same wonderful scent of rubber, cloth, and leather. Unboxing the P3s was more like opening a piece of hi-fi gear: exciting, but an excitement tempered by the fear of damaging the precious goods inside. The Solos come with a distinctive red cable, their mini-jack plug angled for easy connection to an iPod; the P3s' thin, black cable mirrors the more delicate styling of the headphones themselves. Both cables feature volume and microphone controls and resisted tangles well. Both 'phones fold up easily and come with a carrying case for travel.
Headphones are as much a fashion accessory as an audio accessory, and they tend to impart to their owner a certain attitude. Wearing the Beats, I felt unusually youthful, urban, and hip; wearing the B&Ws, I felt more like myself. The Solo is available in eight dazzling colors to satisfy any taste and, potentially, any cause: With every sale of the Solo HDs in red, Beats donates a percentage of the proceeds to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. I chose red, but I'm actually most attracted to the bright green finish. The P3 is available in tasteful black or white, with brushed-aluminum accents; I went with black.
Though some preferred the Solos' bright red over the P3s' subdued black, and others felt the P3s looked sophisticated and the Solos sophomoric, both models drew praise from family and friends for their unique look and feel. Surprisingly, while the P3s felt lighter and softer on my head during short periods of listening, I found the larger, bulkier Solos more comfortable for longer sessions: The P3s tended to squeeze my ears right where they come into contact with the legs of my eyeglasses, causing some pain behind my upper pinnae; the Solos' slightly larger earcups avoided any painful contact with my glasses.
Still, I found the soft, smooth texture of the P3s' headband and earpads absolutely delightful, begging to be touched and giving off an air of luxury. The Solos, on the other hand, with their plasticky outer shell, seemed more like a nice toy. While I could find no manufacturing defects in my review samples of the P3s, there was something wrong with the Solos' right earcup: Whenever I adjusted the cup to achieve just the right placement over my ear, I heard a mechanical squeak. This had no impact on normal listening, but it was there.
Highs and lows
The night before our trip to Puerto Rico, I tried to trick Ms. Little into writing this column. "Wanna listen to some headphones?"
"I mean, just for fun. Only if you want to."
She sighed, reached for the iPod, donned the Beats Solo HDs, and listened. Who knows what she played? Katy Perry, probably. After a few minutes, she switched to the B&W P3s and listened again.
"The highs sound clearer through these," she said, holding out the B&Ws. "But the bass is bigger with the Beats."
"Good, good," I nodded. "Which carrying case do you like better?"
"Oh god," she said. "They both seem like overkill."
"They're both so goddamned big."
"That's great! Hold on a second." I scrambled for my notebook.
"I wouldn't want to put either one of them in my purse."
"It just keeps getting better!"
"Now you know why I kept those horrible earbuds around for so long. They don't take up so much real estate."
"Jeez! Can you just hold on while I get my pen?"
I bet you're wondering about the sound. The bass is bigger through the Beats Solo HDs. The highs are clearer through the B&W P3s. Pretty much.
In fact, everything was clearer through the B&Ws. I would never think of the B&W P3s' sound as "analytical," but compared to the Beats Solo HDs, it was Peggy Noonan, Mary Schapiro, Joe Buck. It broke things down, made better sense of the music, had me tuning in to different aspects of the sound and listening more intently. The Beats, on the other hand, shoved along by their thick, heavy bass, sounded soft, distant, and congested, and tended to present all of the music on a single, poorly defined plane. Somewhat surprisingly, electric guitars and synthesized bass drums sounded particularly tactile and forceful. I can understand why people enjoy the Beats sound: It was simple, physical, and made me want to get up and throw my fist in the air. The P3s were far more delicate and refined, re-creating a sense of space and depth appropriate to the recording venue and illuminating the artists' intent.
Through the B&Ws, the title track of Andy Stott's outstanding Luxury Problems (320kbps MP3, Modern Love LOVE079) showed moments of light and shade, and exhibited graceful movement with quick, detailed highs and taut, driving bass. The Beats communicated only the most basic sense of the song's rhythmic potential, obscured much of its subtle detail, and almost entirely sacrificed the lovely sizzle and sting of cymbals. "Luxury Problems" was still a great track, but it suddenly sounded poorly produced.
This wasn't my first experience with Beats headphones. In 2010, I spent time with their original model, the Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Studio; and in 2009 I attended an enlightening press conference hosted by Monster Cable and featuring discussions with Monster's CEO Noel Lee, recording engineer Jimmy Iovine, hip-hop producer Dr. Dre, and pop superstar Lady Gaga, where members of the press were invited to listen to Beats Heartbeats in-ear 'phones.
In their marketing literature and advertising campaigns, Beats has always stressed the importance of high-quality sound ("Poor quality, bad music files and crappy equipment have stood in the way of you and the artist you love"; see www.beatsbydre.com/beatsaudio), but audiophiles have often criticized Beats 'phones for providing a level of performance incommensurate with their price. Having spent significant time with Beats headphones, I feel this criticism is justified. Ms. Little's Philips CitiScape Downtown headphones ($99.99) are more neutrally balanced and offer greater overall clarity.
In my opinion, Beats Audio isn't selling high-quality sound so much as the idea of high-quality sound. But is that a bad thing? Not entirely. In a sense, Beats is doing a service to the high-end audio industry by convincing young people that it's okay to spend $200 or more for a good audio experience.
Audiophiles should think twice before gleefully criticizing friends and family for selecting Beats headphones over other brands. Instead, congratulate them on their purchase, tell them you think it's great that they care so much about their music, then share with them your Sennheisers, your Grados, your Bowers & Wilkins. See if they can hear the difference. See if they care.
Footnote 1: Beats Audio, PO Box 95232. Las Vegas, NV 89193. Tel: (800) 442-4000. Web: www.beatsbydre.com.
Footnote 2: Bowers & Wilkins, B&W Group North America, 54 Concord Street, North Reading, MA 01864. Tel: (978) 664-2870. Web: www.bowers-wilkins.com.