Review: Monster Beats Pro, Solo HD + Studio Headphones
Beats Studio / Beats by Dr. Dre
Beats Solo HD
Monster's Beats franchise is nothing short of a phenomenon, having started as a headphone collaboration between the cable maker and legendary rap producer Dr. Dre before expanding to other artists -- Diddy and Lady Gaga -- and other products, including Beatbox speakers. Though we reviewed Beatbox last month and the in-ear headphone Beats Tour two years ago, we actually skipped over another and arguably the most iconic part of the family: the full-sized over-ear Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. Beautifully designed and as well-suited to the iPod aesthetic as anything we'd seen, particularly when a glossy white version launched last year, Beats by Dr. Dre also carried a crazy $350 price tag and our lurking suspicion that a hefty chunk was going to marketing. Despite our love for Dre's music, we weren't ready to buy into the over-ear headphones just yet.
These days, Monster’s huge Beats lineup is impossible to ignore. The base model has been rebranded Studio, and still sells for $350, a princely sum by headphone standards. Active noise cancellation is built into this headset, literally requiring you to keep twin AAA batteries inside the left earcup at all times, and a power switch on the right earcup turned on if you want to listen to your music; like Bose’s QuietComfort series, the audio goes dead if the batteries run out. Along with the first set of AAAs, Monster includes two headphone cables, one possessing a single-button remote and mic, the other without them, plus a hard carrying case, cleaning cloth, and adapters for 1/8” headphone ports and old twin-plug airplane audio ports. Studio is currently offered in original black with silver and red accents, a formerly Apple-exclusive white with silver, red, and gray accents, and a Red Sox version with blue, silver, black, and red mixed together in a visually cluttered design only serious Red Sox fans could love.
While there’s far more to the Beats story than this, it needs to be said that Studio—in black and white—represents the zenith of the family from a design standpoint, and an aspirational high point for headphone aesthetics in general. It’s not just the clear acrylic-aided glossy plastic arc formed by the unfolded headphones, their tasteful use of interior soft touch rubber, fabric, and foam to feel soft wherever they make contact with your face, or the fact that for such huge headphones they manage to look fashionable, anyway. All that combines with more subtle design choices that won us over on an intellectual level: pivoting and tilting ear cups with hidden interior cabling, the clean and multifunctional detachable cable system, and a slim, L-shaped headphone plug that nonetheless works with many of our favorite cases while offering a very low profile. A folding system helps Studio become small enough to pack somewhat inconveniently for travel; there’s no doubt that its size and price are the biggest knocks on otherwise appealing headphones.
Studio generally satisfies in the audio department. Countering the considerable hype that has surrounded the Beats family, it’s easy to point out this model’s sonic shortcomings—the presence of persistent and noticeable amplifier hiss when the active noise cancellation is turned on, for one, and the lingering sense that nothing we heard is actually worth the price tag given that there are many less expensive and smaller headphones with similar performance. As just one example, V-Moda’s subsequently developed Crossfade LP has a different, bass-heavier balance, but its own uniquely compelling aesthetic style at a $100 lower price point. JBL is repurposing prior AKG headphones—including some really great ones—using Quincy Jones branding to compete against Beats. In other words, there’s no shortage of compelling headphones to choose from at or below Studio’s $350 price.
But Monster did get some things right here. From moment one, we liked Studio’s audio balance, which provides judiciously emphasized bass and crisp highs without sacrificing midrange detail or blowing out the lows or over-sharpening the treble. Known for their rich basslines, Dr. Dre’s own songs hum without flooding your ears with the sort of overbearing bass that prevents you from moving your head to the beats; vocals and high hats stand out from songs rather than blending in—advantages over Crossfade, which tends to mix everything together for what V-Moda has described as a “club” sound. While the level of detail isn’t mindblowing in any way for the price, and we found the amplifier hiss hard to get past, it’s also obvious that Monster didn’t use cheap speakers in Studio, as we could hear at least two and sometimes three layers in songs that cheap earphones would render as flat. Moreover, whatever’s going on in the world around you disappears entirely once music starts to play through Studio, thanks only in part to the passive and active noise cancellation. This feature puts this particular Beats model into direct competition with Bose’s QuietComfort 15, which has a $50 price advantage but next to no cosmetic appeal.
There’s also Studio’s second audio cable to consider, which unlike QC15 includes a microphone and single-button remote control capable of play/pause and call start/end features, as well as Voice Control on supported iPod touch and iPhones. Microphone performance was two steps behind the in-line microphones found on current Apple earphones and Apple-sourced third-party remote and mic units, rendering our voices in a manner that callers described as “serviceable” to “good,” with noticeably less treble and intelligibility than Apple’s mics. The mic on Beats Solo HD was a step better in the treble department than the one used in Studio, though still a little behind Apple’s mic.
The other two versions of Beats here are newer and obviously inspired conceptually, if not in performance, by Studio. At $230, Solo HD offers fans of Studio’s design an option that preserves most of the larger model’s looks and feel while dropping much of the bulk, the active noise cancellation hardware, and some of the sonic performance. You still get the glossy plastic exterior in black or white—a clean, classy red is an alternate third color, charitably offered for (Product) Red—with the same gray soft rubber interior, accented by silver metal and hints of red, plus twin cables, a cleaning cloth, and a soft zippered carrying case. The two red cables include one with a three-button remote and microphone set known as ControlTalk, as well as a second cable without the controls. No batteries are required or included with Solo HD, and there’s no amplifier hiss when this headset’s connected to a device.
Solo HD achieves a significant size reduction by transforming its earcups into on-ear versions with the same pivot and tilting mechanism found in Studio, a design that makes them more comfortable than some of the on-ear headphones we’ve tested. Between the on-ear pressure and sweat that such cups tend to create, we haven’t been huge fans of on-ear designs in the past, but Monster’s soft, well-shaped padding minimizes the discomfort factor while doing a great job of sealing out ambient noise. Good passive noise cancellation can be nearly as powerful as battery-powered active noise cancellation, and with our ears, Solo HD blocked nearly as much ambient sound as Studio did.
On the other hand, Solo HD’s sound balance wasn’t up to snuff with Studio’s. Like V-Moda’s Crossfade LP, Solo HD is a very bass-slanted earphone with a tendency to render music with a muddle—the treble’s there and very obvious because it stands out the most from what’s otherwise a flat wall of sound. As just one example, Dr. Dre’s early Eminem collaboration Forgot About Dre so floods the ears with low-end sound that only the clicking high beats emerge from a blend of low noises and voices; Leave Their Heads Ringing would be lost entirely on these earphones but for some pop from Dre’s voice itself. This sort of performance might be acceptable in a $100 earphone, but for $230, Solo HD carries far too much of a design premium relative to its sonic performance.
The single best feature in Solo HD is its three button remote and microphone cable, which is as stylishly designed as the rest of the Beats gear. A swirled metal play/pause/talk/Voice Control button in the center defines the upper and lower plastic as volume up and down buttons, while a microphone sits on the other side in a tiny, pill-shaped hole. As noted above, Solo HD’s microphone performance was superior to Studio’s in offering more intelligible voice renditions, only modestly behind the baseline set by Apple’s own mic-aided earphones. Reports of problems with some ControlTalk units due to a lack of plastic insulation on the headphone plug’s bottom did not affect our review sample.
Last in the collection is Beats Pro ($450), and it’s here that the family runs into the most trouble from where we stand. The Pro model does away with the plastic found in Studio and Solo HD in favor of aluminum, changing the shape of the earcups from ovals to circles, and offering a variety of features designed to appeal to professionals. There are two input/output cable ports so that users can daisy chain multiple pairs together to “share mixes,” alongside a single included cable with coiling and completely redesigned plugs that lock into the headphones and offer more metallic looks. More padding in the headband helps your head deal with a frame that looks and feels even heavier and bigger than Studio.
The thing about Beats Pro is that it doesn’t represent the sort of smart step up from Studio we’d be inclined to recommend, even to the professional crowd it is supposed to be targeting, and there are three reasons: the downgrades, the design and the sound. Pro doesn’t include a nice carrying case like Studio; you get a soft bag with a drawstring. There’s no second cable with microphone or remote functionality, which some professionals mightn’t mind—but others, and prosumer buyers, might. And in the service of “uncompromised” sound, Pro unceremoniously drops the active noise cancellation system, interestingly portrayed here by Monster as a positive because the circuitry “adds other frequencies and colors the sound.” In other words, the feature’s good enough for “Studio headphones” but not for “Studio monitors.” While we agree with the decision to the extent that it removes amplifier noise from the audio signal, this comes across as marketing doublespeak, and makes Pro’s $100 price premium over Studio seem largely attributable to the new metal frame.
As much as we’d like to say that we liked the aluminum in Pro, we really didn’t. Thanks to the use of ratcheting earcups that have been paired with unfortunately semi-sharp interior metal edges, running fingers across the headphones sometimes feels just a little dangerous, and consequently, Monster’s pitch that you can flip one earcup off in producer or DJ style doesn’t resonate in the same way as with the flexible V-Moda Crossfades—it just doesn’t seem natural. Aluminum is visually a great material for high-end Beats headphones, but in practice, it just adds unnecessary weight and cuts down on the flexibility of a design that worked better in plastic.
Sonically, Beats Pro is fine rather than great for the price, which puts these into the same category as JBL and AKG’s top-end, awesome K701 series, now being marketed as the Q701—for $50 more. But unlike the K701, which produces luxuriously smooth, wonderfully balanced audio that feels as if it was massaged before reaching your ears, Beats Pro performs songs in a manner that we’d describe as clinical and respectably detailed apart from a significant bass push—effectively, reference monitors where low-end beats have been given added prominence to fight with the midrange for your attention. Having used reference monitors, neutrality rather than slant is generally the name of the game, and to our ears, Beats Pro has too much of a bass slant for its own good. Beats Pro does in fact enable you to hear parts of songs that would be obscured by the speakers commonly used in $150 on-ear designs, but then, so do many other headphones that don’t sell for as much as these.
Since Monster’s Beats lineup is as important for its industrial design innovations and differing features as anything else, our ultimate ratings for all three Beats headphones take multiple factors into consideration rather than just boiling each model down to its raw pricing and audio performance. Despite its high price and amplifier noise, Studio strikes us as the best performer in the bunch, offering the family’s most balanced sonics, active noise cancellation, and an iPhone-ready cable option—all with a still eye-catching design and solid carrying case. It merits our general recommendation largely due to the fact that it looks so sharp and sounds good, falling short of a higher recommendation because its price is too high when all of its assets are taken into account. Solo HD offers a better remote and mic, but also considerably less impressive audio performance at a lower price; it merits a limited recommendation to those who want the Studio aesthetic experience and are willing to give up treble and midrange performance to get it. Finally, Pro strips out features in a somewhat misaligned attempt to appeal to upscale users with bass-slanted but still semi-clinical sound; it’s only “okay” overall in our book, as the high price tag demands a level of audio greatness that just isn’t there, and it doesn’t have any features save for its body material to really make it stand out from a crowded field of alternatives. In any case, our hope is that Monster will continue to iterate on this lineup with new designs and enhanced sonic performance, as the fact that it cares so much about industrial design is inspiring given the massive number of bland headphones out there; pairing such beautiful looks with truly great sound at the right price points would make the company unstoppable.