The Entry Level #26 Page 2

I asked Michael Johnson whether KEF might introduce a more affordable active speaker. He wasn't ready to commit, but he left room for the possibility: "From a marketing perspective, I think that would be really cool."

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 sneakers—the 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?"

"Now?"

"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."

"Really?"

"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?"

Sound
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.

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COMMENTS
volvic's picture

I have heard both of these as I was looking for headphones recently.  I didn't have the same experience you had, yes the Beats were slightly boomier than the B&W but not more so. Perhaps the music source or recording was responsible.   While I didn't buy the Beats I have to say they were not bad, not perfect and def'n more comfortable to wear than the B&W speakers and if I were to chose between the two would have picked the beats for my ipod but not for my home listening.    

Nick

Stephen Mejias's picture

That's interesting because the difference I hear is surprisingly, unusually dramatic. I listened to a wide range of music, formats, and sources, and the results were consistent. I don't doubt your experience, but I do wonder about the manufacturing consistency of some popular headphones. I'm getting a second sample of Beats soon, for a Follow-Up in our May issue, and I'll compare both—to one another, to the B&Ws, and to a couple pairs of Skullcandy Aviators.

volvic's picture

The Beats versions I heard happened almost two years ago (and the B&W more recent) with the same music sources on my iPad,  so it is possible that manufacturing techniques/bad sample/ my bad memory, etc., are responsible for this.  I took a long time listening to quite a  few different ones and the B&W had the edge for home listening but no way for outdoor listening, the Beats were pretty good - not great but pretty good, both had higher bass than I am used to.  I always thought that the higher bass on the Beats was more for a younger market and as a way to mask all the extraneous noise surroudings they would be used in.   In the end I opted for PSB for the iPod and Grado for home, I spent over two years trying to decide and you know what ? I am still looking for something better and greater. 

cheers

Nick

Stephen Mejias's picture

There are lots of interesting options out there, so your search may never be complete. I'm curious about a "crossover" model—a headphone that will work well both at home and for commuting/travel. In that regard, I'm currently most interested in the Sennheiser Momentum.

John Atkinson's picture

http://gizmodo.com/5981823/beat-by-dre-the-inside-story-of-how-monster-lost-the-world.

Fascinating stuff. And unusual for Noel Lee to take his eye off the ball like this.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

volvic's picture

What a great read!!! Lends credence to the fact that their headphones might not be the same ones one year ago, two years ago etc as they are no longer manufactured by Monster but by different companies with looks trumping sound.  Fits in with Stephen's comment about how now they may not be audiophile grade but hint at the idea of audiophile quality headphones. 

Stephen Mejias's picture

Well . . . my first experience with Beats headphones came back in 2010, when they were still tied to Monster, and I think those 'phones sounded a lot like the current models. But this is also something I want to explore more deeply in my Follow-Up: How have the headphones changed, if at all, since Monster and Beats parted ways?

volvic's picture

Very interesting topic look forward to the read. 

Nick

dalethorn's picture

I went to the Apple store and tried the new Beats Executive. Awful - worse than the little ones. So I asked one of the hip young attendants there "What do the kiddies do to hear any details out of these things?" - And he replied "Turn up the volume."

davescards's picture

Congratulations on your new relationship.  I'm going to miss your old apartment, and your outings with Natalie and Nicole.  It wasn't that long ago that you kindly shared photos of your cozy apartment with us.  And not that long ago that you first started your column.  It was a breath of fresh air from the mostly dry reviews found in Stereophile.  You quickly became my favorite writer/reviewer.  Recently, though, I was beginning to think you had lost that freshness, as your writing became less personal and more technical.  Now I understand why.  But please don't stop giving your reviews that personal touch.  Stereophile doesn't need another reviewer who drones on for pages comparing speaker cables.  Best of luck with your new life.   Hope you get to listen to your stereo system soon!  David

John Hall's picture

Let me start by saying I love this column! This is one of my favorite things to read each month. I was recently on Amazon looking at headphones and i saw the P3's selling for nearly $100 over your quoted price of $199! I went to a few other sites to check prices and they all were at or around $199. What's the deal AMAZON?! Buyers beware!

GearMe's picture

They can be listened to and purchased at Apple, J&R, and BestBuy (Magnolia) stores for $199 or online at Crutchfield.  It is also very unlikely that you can do better price-wise for new, in box product...as B&W has always controlled the market pricing tightly.

FWIW -- depending on what your sound signature preference is, there may be better headphones available with similar form-factors and prices (Beyerdynamic DT1350, Sennheiser HD25, Audio Technica ESW9, etc.).

I tend to buy based on value for the dollar. For my portables, I chose the dual driver, Phiaton PS320 ($90 at Amazon) better than the P3 for me and the Audio Technica ATH-WS55 Solid Bass for (were $30 at Microcenter!...now is $83 on Amazon).  The WS55 is a basshead can that blows away Beats in my opinion. 

Two headphones for less than the cost of one pair of Beats that allow you to enjoy your listening across all music genres!

andy_uranium's picture

I recently bought a pair of the PSB M4U 2 headphones... and enjoying them immensly.  I tried the beats but found them lacking in definement.  enjoyed the article.

coruja's picture

...with your mention of the once (and still?) venerable purveyors of fine quality loudspeakers, Messrs Celestion of Ipswich, England. Yet you allude to it no further in the article. I am bemused.

Stephen Mejias's picture

I am bemused.

I was invited to England to meet with a few of the people behind KEF and tour the KEF factory in Maidstone. KEF and Celestion have the same corporate parent (GP Acoustics), so, on the second day of my trip, we visited Celestion. Celestion was also very interesting, but we spent much less time there than at KEF. Basically, I got to see how Celestion's drivers are developed and assembled. Celestion no longer makes loudspeakers for the home, but are focused on guitar amps and pro audio.

Big Al's picture

I know they are not considered audiophile quality, but I do like the fit and appearance of these headphones. Does anybody know who is making Beats Pro ?

One thing I definitely agree with regarding Beats is they are responsible for bringing many folks into the arena of expensive headphones, so when they go looking for an adiophile quality ear phone next time, they will already be somewhat prepared for the cost.

Thanks for the article Stephen.

JDDisantis's picture

Have you heard the Spirit Ones by Focal, Steven? Give them a listen, its worth it. Great headphones. They're more in a catagory of the Bowers and wilkins P5s or the Beats Studios but they sound better and are cheaper. not too sure if they sound better than the P5s because I've never heard the P5s. See for yourself. I would love to read you're opinion.

DaveinSM's picture

My experience with the P3s is that they still seem mid-bass heavy compared to Grado's SR80i.  But I also discovered that the B&W's tonal balance seems to be more dependent on ear placement.  Placed a bit further forward, it mitigates the bass heaviness a bit.  But overall, I prefer the sound of the Grado's, which also are only half the price.

In all fairness, the P3's are more efficient with an iPod, and much more portable.  The fit 'n' finish and high quality of materials is much better than the Grado's.  Sennheiser's HD 439 also sound more balanced to me than the P3's, with better noise isolation than both.  They are lightweight but not portable, and quality of plastic could be better.  I also have a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50s on the way, which I hope will sound the best of all.

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