Before we get into the details of Monster’s new in-canal earphones, Beats Tour by Dr. Dre ($150), we need to briefly express a concern: as much as we love — seriously love — Dr. Dre’s music, there’s something a little troubling about buying special earphones to match the sound intended by a specific person. Do it once, and then other musicians might expect the same; some bands might record their music to sound bad in popular or competing earphones, just to drive sales to their own. If this happened, the result would be pandemonium, just as bad as having to buy special artist-specific MP3 players or download unique audio codecs just for given producers. The world is certainly a much better place without having to change earphones every time we change songs.
Having mentioned that possibility, however, the reality is that there are already hundreds of different earphones out there, and they rarely sound exactly the same. Smart companies know how to choose and then balance the miniature speakers inside to deliver sound that either appeals to the masses or to specific niches; others just toss components inside and cross their fingers that people will like them. That’s why we don’t hold anything against Monster for its choice to work with Dr. Dre, whose skills as a rapper and producer have deservedly received Grammy awards—the man has been making superb music for 25 years, under his own name and with others, including huge hip-hop acts such as Dre’s N.W.A. and solo artists Eminem and 50 Cent.
It’s therefore no surprise that Beats Tour is pitched as well-suited to “hip hop, rock, and R&B,” with especially powerful, distortion-free bass. A note from Dr. Dre on the back of Tour’s box says that the new canalphones will let you hear music the way artists and Dre hear it: with the “bass, the detail, the dynamics” found in his studio. And Monster has come up with a novel-looking design, too.
Most interestingly, Beats Tour features a red, tangle-free flat cable design that actually works: we’ve wrapped and unwrapped these earphones multiple times along with others we’ve been testing, and while we’ve had to untangle the others, Tour has been effortless from a cord standpoint every time. Monster has also come up with distinctive black earplugs that have the “b” logo on their flat outer surfaces, plus a kit with five sets of replaceable silicone eartips, and a semi-hard, zippered “b” carrying case. While we’re not fond of the color of the cords, we do like just about everything else about Monster’s kit; it’s a little new, a little familiar, and definitely distinctive.
The only major problem with the design of Beats Tour is that the earphones themselves are the wrong shape, and by “wrong,” we mean that these single-driver earpieces are roughly as large as any triple-driver design we’ve tested, yet they don’t fit as well. We tried the included eartips. Then we received not just one, but two sets of replacement eartips from Monster, which said that the new tips were softer and more likely to provide a better seal. Having tested more than a hundred different pairs of canalphones, many of which we’ve reviewed here, our feeling is that the problem with Beats Tour isn’t so much the rubber tips as the hard plastic housings of the earphones; their angles and lengths just don’t lend themselves to fitting as universally as smaller earphones we’ve tested. Monster’s new rubber tips may help you get a better seal, but they don’t stop the earphones from feeling intrusive in your canals, or in our case, unintentionally serving as wax cleaners. Every time Tour’s triple-flanges came out of our ears, they were turned inside out, and seemed to have scrubbed out our ear canals.
If you can get a good seal with the tips, which we did when using the larger triple flanges, you’ll hear what Dr. Dre wanted you to hear: bass. Connected to an iPod or iPhone, Beats Tour really brings out the low end in music, giving any song with a strong beat the ability to draw you in to its center, while making mids and mid-highs pop. On recent Dre-produced songs, such as 50 Cent’s classic In Da Club, the low beat pulses with the familiarity and resonance of your heart; in Outta Control (Remix), you can hear bass notes swell gently upward in strength without becoming dull thuds. Similarly, classics such as N.W.A.‘s 100 Miles and Runnin’ play with low-end energy matching Dre’s and Easy-E’s fast, angry vocals; the same bass-heavy balance also shapes off-genre songs such as Paul McCartney’s, making them even more clubby than they began.
Is this novel? No. Extra bass is perhaps the most common skewed sound signature used by headphone makers, and there are many other canalphones—Radius’s $40 Atomic Bass, as an inexpensive example—with similar sonic characteristics. The difference in Beats Tour is in the quality of that sound. Here, the bass is strong and notes are emphasized so that they overflow a little into the mids, but this is obviously by design rather than accidental; even if the song is Outta Control, Tour’s performance is completely controlled. You also continue to get most of the high-end sound you’d hear in a more detail-driven, similarly-priced earphone such as Etymotic’s hf5, though your ears will more naturally be drawn to the low beats than the high ones, such as synthetized claps; the choice that’s best for you will depend on what you’re looking for in your music.
Ultimately, the reasons to like Beats Tour—strong bass, nice cabling, and a price that strikes us as only a little high given the quality of the overall sonic package—are counterbalanced by non-trivial concerns over fit, comfort, and aesthetics. It’s unquestionably the case that these earphones won’t fit well at all in some ears, and will cause discomfort in others, even with newer tips, such that complaints about absent or deficient bass will be somewhat common. Yet if you’re a fan of hip hop or R&B music in particular, it’s definitely worth hearing Beats Tour for yourself to see if you like the sound balance and can get the earpieces to fit your ears and sense of style; those who order should pick a store with a good return policy, just in case. In the worst case, you’ll have some store credit to use towards buying Detox, Relapse, and Before I Self-Destruct in 2009.
Company and Price
Company: Monster Cable
Models: Beats Tour
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone 3G