Review: Beats Electronics Beats Studio (2013)
Beats Electronics justifiably describes the 2013 version of Beats Studio ($300) as "an icon remastered." Although the original Beats Studio was both overpriced and sonically underwhelming, it was indeed iconic: its industrial design was unique, widely praised, popular, and undeniably influential. Droves of clones and outright knock-offs followed its release, borrowing so heavily that less expensive Beats copycats often looked like its cousins. Consequently, it's not a surprise that the new Beats Studio isn't fundamentally different from either its actual predecessor or the numerous rivals that followed; instead, Beats has effectively released version 1.5, polishing each of the prior model's elements while hitting a somewhat more reasonable price point.
To briefly recap Beats Studio’s history and place in the Beats universe, Monster Cable famously co-developed a pair of over-ear headphones with rapper and producer Dr. Dre, releasing them as “Beats by Dre.” Made primarily from glossy plastic with a soft rubber top pad and plush leatherette ear cups, the first Beats model was obviously Apple-influenced in design, but used fashion and color to distinguish its larger body from then-ubiquitous earbuds and canalphones. It was also the only version with integrated active noise-canceling hardware, even after Monster released higher-end Beats Pro and lower-end Beats Solo models, rebranding the mid-ranged version as Beats Studio. Following Monster’s acrimonious split from Beats Electronics, a fancier model called Beats Executive combined the best features of Pro and Studio together. It notably adopted an extremely impressive metal variation on Studio’s design, but suffered from an ever-present hiss in its audio.
The single most impressive thing that Beats pulled off with 2013’s Beats Studio is a top-to-bottom tightening of the earlier design—the new model preserves the same core look and feel, but improves little details where there was room for improvement. Earcups now have taut leatherette padding that’s a more fitting extension of the plastic than the wrinkled predecessor. Studio’s old headband interrupted glossy plastic with separate metal extension joints and folding hinges; the new Studio combines both parts together, enhancing the headband with more prominent metallic bars in the process. Originally, the active noise-canceling hardware required a set of two disposable batteries and a power switch; now, Beats Studio includes a rechargeable 20-hour battery and automatically turns on when you connect the headphone cable. A small power-off button with an even smaller illuminating white center indicates that the power is on, and lets you check the battery’s status, indicated by five white lights hidden on the right earcup. Most of these nuances aren’t found in rivals—yet—and demonstrate that Beats is still ahead of the design curve, at least in small ways.
There’s only one problem with Beats Studio’s redesign, and that’s Beats Executive. Just under one year ago, Beats Electronics released Executive as a $300 metal model that otherwise was highly similar to Studio in looks and features, reaching a better compromise of look and feel than the metal Pro and plastic Studio models that came before. Apart from its sonic issues, it was a great design—sturdier and fancier than before, at the right general price—and felt like the future of the Beats lineup. By comparison with Executive, the new Beats Studio looks and feels cheaper, though it’s obviously in line with what most people would expect from Beats, and available in white, black, or red colors. If we had to spend $300 on a Beats model based purely on looks, Executive would win without question, but people could reasonably feel otherwise.
Thankfully, the new Studio has other factors on its side, starting with the sound. Once again, Beats has gone with a midrange and bass-focused sonic curve, presenting audio with a decided emphasis on the lower end of the audio spectrum. Basslines and other low-pitched sounds have the most prominence in tracks, demanding your attention over or alongside vocals, with relatively little treble and occasionally obvious distortion in the mid-treble. While this mightn’t sound fantastic to all users—and frankly isn’t, by the historic standards of $300 headphones—it’s the basic sound signature Beats fans are looking for, regardless of what audiophiles might prefer. All sorts of music sound good through Beats Studio, but rap and dance tracks are perhaps the best, engrossing the listener with powerful thumping and the occasional drip of treble. A light hiss is still present in the audio signal due to the ever-present noise-canceling hardware, but we didn’t find it to be offensively loud here.
Beats Studio’s in-line remote/microphone and active noise-canceling features work well, too. Functionally, the remote and mic are basically indistinguishable from Apple’s, and most likely use the same microphone capsule, but the controller looks and feels atypically nice thanks to some Beats industrial design tweaks. Combined with the new ear cushions, which we found to be comfortable and effective at passively sealing out ambient noise, Studio’s active noise-cancellation is good enough at blocking environmental sound that we were all but completely unable to hear music playing through speakers two feet away when listening to music through the headphones. Beats also includes a secondary cancellation mode that can be activated when music isn’t playing; not surprisingly, it’s solely effective at reducing bassy sounds, which can be useful to silence plane or train engine rumbles.
The new Studio also scores points for its pack-ins. While the inclusion of such frills as a carrying case, carabiner hook, cleaning cloth and twin (remote/remote-free) audio cables isn’t new, the redesigned, pill-shaped semi-hard carrying case and similarly pill-shaped wall charger are standouts. It’s highly unusual to see active noise-canceling headphones packaged with not only a rechargeable battery and USB charging cable, but also a wall adapter for travel use; Studio delivers all of these components in high style. The 20-hour battery life and charger make up for the fact that Beats Studio does not work at all without the power on; you have little excuse for not keeping them charged.
Our single biggest concern with the new version of Beats Studio is the $300 asking price, which sits between its predecessor’s initial $350 MSRP and subsequent $280 price; the new model can and should be a bit more affordable. As we’ve said before, there are dozens of other over-ear headphones that deliver equivalent sound quality at lower prices, or superior sound quality at similar prices; Audio-Technica makes some of the best-sounding alternatives, while Scosche sells some of the most directly comparable rivals. Beats has basically been shrugging most of its competitors off, outselling them by relying on fashion and more aggressive marketing, but now it has a cluttered lineup—particularly at the $300 price point. From our perspective, Beats Executive wins on look and feel, but the new Beats Studio wins on sound. Since sound quality for the price is the biggest factor in our headphone reviews, the new Beats Studio has a clear edge over Executive, and merits our general recommendation. It’s certainly an improvement over its predecessor, and worthy of the Beats name, but more aggressive pricing and further enhancements to its audio would make it easier to recommend. Our advice would be to hold off on a purchase until it goes on sale, or consider other options that deliver superior sound for the dollar.