For companies other than Apple, selling premium headphones has become challenging in the post-Beats world. Beats made big headphones cool again using Apple-inspired industrial designs and marketing, commanding $100 premiums while scaring better-sounding rivals out of the consumer market. Something different is needed to compete with the Beats juggernaut, and that’s what Alpine Electronics is attempting to do with the simply-named Alpine Headphones ($300). Par-priced with the well-known Beats Studio, the over-ear Alpine Headphones are targeting Beats’ biggest weakness — sonic performance — by building digital signal processors, digital/analog audio converters, and amplifiers directly into the headphones.
We need to note up front that we don’t generally recommend using standalone headphone amplifiers with Apple devices. Some audio companies try to make amplifiers sound sophisticated using techie acronyms and numbers, but they typically just make different parts of the music louder, add echoes, or filter out certain sounds. We would never recommend them to most users, as the same benefits can be achieved by choosing better headphones or changing a device’s equalizer settings. That said, there’s nothing wrong with integrating amplifiers into speakers or headphones at reasonable prices, particularly if they actually change the way music sounds. And that’s what Alpine has done here.
Cosmetically, the Alpine Headphones take conceptual cues from the Beats Studio headphones, swapping Beats’ glossy plastic for matte surfaces, and replacing their circles with diamond shapes. You can choose from white with black chrome accents or black with gold accents. Although Alpine’s sharper edges and flatter plastic aren’t as stylish as the Beats, they’re nicely offset by thick Beats-style inner rubber linings and plush padded ear cups. We were concerned about their comfort until we put them on, at which point they instantly felt good — just enough tension to stay on without too much ear or head pressure. Adjustments are subtly made at the base of the headband, and the ear cups swivel inwards to pack flatter. A carrying bag was supposed to be included in the package, but was nowhere to be found in ours.
There are a couple of design oddities you’ll likely notice when trying the Alpine Headphones on for the first time. First, there are no markings on the earcups to distinguish the left side from the right — you just need to learn that the included detachable audio cord dangles out of the right side. Second, while they’re fine to wear for listening, the headphones don’t rest comfortably around your neck when they’re off your ears, as the earpads beside the diamond-shaped edges will likely protrude into your chin. That might be good for providing head support when sleeping on a long flight, but it’s not a comfortable everyday feeling.
The big surprises with Alpine Headphones are in what they can do to your iOS device’s music, and how they do it. Oddly, Alpine has included Bluetooth 4.0 LE support here, but doesn’t use the wireless technology to wirelessly stream music. Instead, you download a free app called Level Play, which has two purposes: it lets you change the audio balance of the headphones using a five-point graphic equalizer, and less importantly, it promises to organize your music library into three different levels of intensity based on BPM and audio scanning. The latter feature was pretty much useless in our testing — a gimmick — and thankfully can be disabled within the app, but the former feature is critical to Alpine Headphones’ appeal.
Adjusting the sonic performance of headphones — rather than relying on the source device — has been an audiophile holy grail for years. Developers have occasionally tried to let users pick their own preferred treble/midrange/bass balances by offering kits with swappable filters, ear tips, and cables, tiny parts that were easy to lose and far from mainstream. Alpine’s solution isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot easier for average people to use. You load Level Play, pair the headphones one time with your iOS device, and make sure they’re also plugged in with the included audio cable. The app can tell you how much battery power is left in the Headphones’ 10-hour cell — more on that in a moment — and confirm that they’re both paired for wireless adjustment and ready to hear music through the audio wire, which has a three-button remote and mic unit built-in.
At that point, you go to the Sound menu and find 64Hz (bass), 250Hz (mid-bass), 1K (midrange), 4K (mid-treble), and 10K (treble) bars with dots you can slide up and down above a flat 0dB amplification level. Each parameter can be boosted by up to 12 decibels, reduced by up to 12 decibels, or left untouched at 0 decibels. Using the sliders along with whatever music you’re playing, you can dial in a preferred audio signature that works for your favorite tracks, and leave it locked into the Headphones until you want to change it in the future. Alpine’s twin 40mm drivers aren’t necessarily the ideal conduits for this feature, with the sort of middling clarity that Beats offers — but they do a nice enough job of replicating much of the audio spectrum without distortion that you can enjoy your music in your own preferred way. This is better than the overly mid-bass-focused audio delivered by most Beats headphones, and certainly a more specific level of control than the mediocre fixed-profile equalizers Apple builds into its portable devices. On the other hand, note that users of non-iOS-based iPods, such as iPod nanos, can’t make audio adjustments at all.
Keeping the battery on — incidentally a little too easy to accidentally do given the small power button’s location under the right earcup — does three things. First, it keeps the Bluetooth wireless feature active in case you want to change settings. Second, it’s required to be on if you want to hear the equalization you’ve set with the Level Play app. Third, it powers a bass transducer that’s hidden in the top of the headband. This speaker thickens the headband a lot, makes the headphones vibrate a little when turned on, and with the wrong settings can add a somewhat unpleasant sub-sonic, subwoofer-like edge to music. If you love listening to audio or movies with a little theatrical rumble, you’ll like what the transducer adds, but otherwise, you may prefer to use Level Play to make sure it doesn’t growl too much.
Regrettably, using the powered amplifier also introduces some staticky hiss into the audio — a common enough issue with amplifier accessories. The hiss isn’t too apparent when you’re listening to music at the 55-60% output level typically required from your iOS device, but can be heard during quiet parts of songs, and between them. It goes away entirely if you turn the power off, but then, so does your preferred sound signature, giving way to a flat presentation of music. You’ll probably want to use the included USB cable every few days of active listening to keep the battery running.
Our biggest issue with the Alpine Headphones is their half-baked Bluetooth wireless implementation. Alpine has said that audio streaming support was left out of this model due to lag, but it’s an obvious miss for a pair of headphones with all of this hardware inside. The company’s own promotional video shows wearers dancing and doing flips with the Headphones on, notably without either a cable or a device to interact with. It’s obvious that wireless streaming was originally intended to be here, and without this feature, the only real advantage Alpine has over Beats is equalization.
Overall, while the Alpine Headphones could benefit from some additional improvements down the line — more and better drivers per ear, full Bluetooth wireless streaming integration, and a more neck-friendly design — their adjustable sound-focused approach is a neat way to justify a Beats-like asking price. We wouldn’t necessarily pick this model over the flat B-rated Beats Studio, but that’s mostly due to design issues rather than sonics. If you like the way Alpine Headphones look and appreciate their potential for audio adjustment, give them a try. Otherwise, wait for the inevitable sequel, which hopefully will refine the novel concept with a more polished implementation.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPods*, iPhones, iPads