Challenging Monster’s Beats series of headphones on performance for the dollar isn’t exactly a difficult feat: since each headphone in the company’s lineup carries a significant price premium over rivals, almost anyone could deliver objectively better sound quality if that was the only thing that mattered. But it’s not. Monster’s Beats have succeeded in part because of great designs — a distinctive look and feel that’s modern, sleek, and iPod-friendly. So when relative newcomer Fanny Wang Headphone Co. announced its On Ear Wangs ($170) as a direct competitor to Monster’s $230 Beats Solo HD, it didn’t just lower the price: it went with an obviously similar design and made public comparisons between the brands in an effort to generate buzz. And it quickly got sued by Monster for its efforts.
We’re not going to wade into the legal minefield that now exists between Fanny Wang and Monster, but we will say this: it’s fairly obvious why there’s a lawsuit here, but these really aren’t the same products, despite their similarities. Monster’s Beats HD design is cosmetically a near-masterpiece of elegance, with clean curves, logical lines, and neat frills—an included in-line remote and mic, a second headphone cable, and a nice zippered carrying case, amongst them. The On Ear Wangs use thicker plastic and slightly cheaper-feeling interior rubber padding. They’re also molded with a wavy pattern that at one point looks a lot like the logo for another rival earphone company, V-Moda. And then, they’re offered in the same glossy white, black, or red color schemes as Beats Solo HD, though with different color accents that obviously set the On Ear Wangs apart. If they’re related at all—and Fanny Wang says that it worked with a former Monster engineer to develop them—they look and feel like cousins, not siblings.
Despite their differences, the On Ear Wangs feel a lot like Beats Solo HD when they’re on or off your head. Both use soft foam-padded earcups to reasonably offset the pressure the plastic headband uses to stay on your ears, and hide both metal extension bars and circular one-axis pivoting points so that the cups can adjust to the sides of your head. They both fold into three sections for easier carrying, though On Ear Wangs are again just a little larger and thicker, even when compacted. Neither headphone feels like it’s worth $200, but little details in Monster’s version are executed just a little better—not enough to matter much to anyone save industrial designers.
On Ear Wangs come with a furry carrying sack and a single headphone cable that looks and feels sort of like Monster’s, but instead uses straight plugs rather than L-shaped ones, and has a Y-splitter built right in so that two people can share the same iPod, iPhone, or iPad headphone port. Fanny Wang calls it the Duo Jack, and it’s a nice differentiator, but we’d prefer an in-line remote and mic instead if given the choice… and a zippered carrying case rather than one that’s closed with a drawstring. Judged on aesthetics, pack-ins, and overall feel, Monster’s Beats Solo HD has at least a small edge here across the board.
But Fanny Wang has two clear advantages in this particular match-up: pricing and sound quality. If you’re willing to accept the fact that the On Ear Wangs don’t look exactly the same as Beats Solo HD, the $60 price difference is a serious, non-trivial reason to go with the newcomer. And the On Ear Wangs sound better, too. At normal volumes, Fanny Wang’s speakers are clearer—less clouded—than Monster’s, an issue that only recedes in the Beats Solo HD when they’re turned up to unsafe levels, past an iPod, iPhone, or iPad’s 60% mark. The added clarity helps high and midrange frequencies to pop more, and better offsets the considerable bass in both headphones. We can’t speak for Dr. Dre’s personal sonic preferences, but his music sounded superior to our ears through the On Ear Wangs than his own Beats Solo HD.
That having been said, Beats Solo HD only merited a limited recommendation and B- rating from us, primarily because they weren’t particularly impressive sonically for their high asking price. Our flat B rating for On Ear Wangs is based on the fact that they’re not objectively fantastic earphones, either, but rather a more affordable and better-sounding alternative to Beats Solo HD—a worthwhile option if you’re willing to give up the Beats name, cleaner design, and better pack-ins. Whether people will actually do that is an open question. Fanny Wang’s name and that of the “On Ear Wangs” are so ridiculous— truly not sexy, as the company has suggested—that it’s hard to take them seriously, despite the assets they bring to the table. But as it’s owned by the same people behind Hard Candy Cases, this young company will have plenty of opportunities to improve itself, as well as the state of fashion-forward headphones. Legal issues aside, it has scored a small victory here just by delivering better sound for the price than Beats Solo HD. We’re looking forward to seeing whether Monster rises to the challenge by delivering better sound and value, or merely tries to use legal muscle to stay ahead of a growing pack of rivals.
Company and Price
Company: Fanny Wang Headphone Co.
Model: On Ear Wangs
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads Except iPod shuffle 3G