Monster Cable Beats by Dr. Dre studio headphones Page 3

Finally, I played a lossless file of Espers' "That Which Darkly Thrives," from last year's III (CD, Drag City DC416). Here, interestingly, voices were rendered appropriately: They sounded lovely and ethereal, and seemed to float above everything in a way that even my stereo can't manage. In my review of this album, I highlighted the "groaning bass and cello runs that lift the listener from the ground." Compared to my memory of that sensation as conveyed through my hi-fi, the Beats came up short, however, sounding slightly diffuse and not nearly as impactful. Bass, overall, had a distinctly loose and fat quality that hindered the music's momentum and impact. Guitar leads, on the other hand, were bright and strong, and imaging was, again, stellar.

Familial interlude
At my mom's house, I showed the headphones to my younger sisters. One is 15 years old, the other 27. Both very much liked the style of the Beats and found them comfortable. Neither thought them too bulky or awkward.

We ate lots of good food, teased each other, and sat around on the couch for hours. Then I went home.

Against the Phiatons
On the train ride back to Jersey City, I briefly reacquainted myself with the sound of the Beats headphones before comparing them with the Phiaton Moderna MS 400 ($249), reviewed by Wes Phillips in our January 2009 issue. In this price range, a difference of $100 is significant, but I'd had some experience with the Phiatons and, with Wes's review handy, figured those familiar 'phones would make a fine reference. Plus, the Beats and Phiatons have a similar fashion sense—both sets are red, black, and sleek—though the Beats bob to Raekwan, while the Phiatons slack along Bedford Avenue. It's the ever-blurring difference between hip-hop and hipster.

I can't help but think that some of the difference in price is due to the difference in packaging. While the Beats' packaging is superb—admirable, even—the Modernas' is nothing special. You probably won't want to display your Phiaton box—it'll be going in the trash or a closet—but it does the job. My review sample was packed neatly and safely, and looked fine. Whereas opening a set of Beats was like rejoicing over a new pair of sneakers, opening a set of Phiatons was like struggling with a new G.I. Joe action figure: There were all these little pieces of tape and tricky bits of wire looping through the cardboard. After a while, I just wanted to tear the damn thing open. I didn't, though. I was very careful.

In Wes's review of the Phiatons, he mentions that they "don't sit as lightly on the head" as some other headphones, and that their earcup pads and closed back form a particularly "tight seal." Wes nonetheless found the Moderna MS 400s very comfortable. I had a tougher time with them. It was never something that made itself immediately noticeable, but often enough I found myself having to adjust and readjust the 'phones' placement on my head due to discomfort, especially around my right ear. I have a large head, large ears, and I wear glasses—all factors that may have added to the problem. Will the Phiatons fit comfortably on your head? I'm willing to bet they will, but that will be a matter for you and your head to decide.

As for the Phiatons' sound, Wes felt they lacked "a touch of sparkle," but that they offered a "superbly tight low end" and were "extremely musical" overall. I had no problem with the tonal quality of the Phiatons' top octaves, feeling instead that they conveyed a satisfying sense of truth and air and detail—but I lack Wes's experience of headphones, and he was comparing the Phiatons to the more expensive AKG K701 ($499). Where Wes and I completely agree is in regard to the Phiaton's bass performance. A "superbly tight low end" is right. In this respect, the Phiatons were at the opposite end of the spectrum from Monster's Beats. While the Beats' bass could sound loose and overripe, detracting from the music's overall impact and momentum, the Phiatons kept the low end very much under control, resulting in greater drama and drive. Which you prefer may very well come down to how you like your bottom end.

For instance, listening to Espers' "That Which Darkly Thrives" through the Phiatons was surprisingly instructive. Though their imaging wasn't quite as impressive or as thrilling as the Beats', the Phiatons' tighter low end meant that this song's deep bass and cello lines were more cleanly delineated and had greater impact. In addition, there were instrumental textures throughout the song that I hadn't appreciated through the Beats—electric guitars sounded more powerful and therefore appropriately triumphant, while acoustic guitars rang percussively in the background. This distinction is very similar to that between a band with a good rhythm section and one without: Get the foundation right, and everything else falls into place.

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