After taking a back seat to tiny white earbuds for the better part of the last decade, full-sized headphones have really made a comeback over the last two years thanks to the design and marketing efforts of Monster Cable, which successfully popularized the Beats by Dre line of glossy plastic headphones. Decidedly overpriced but unusually stylish by the standards of their predecessors, the Beats headphones have recently been challenged by numerous less expensive rivals, but no one has yet found the “right” combination of superior styling and pricing to knock Monster off its throne. Today, we’re looking at new fashion headphones from several companies, starting with Monster’s Beats Wireless ($330), the first cordless Beats model.
In design and size, Beats Wireless sits somewhere between the previously released Beats Solo HD and Beats Studio: it’s an on-ear model that’s only a little bit larger than the similarly on-ear Solo HD, yet cosmetically very similar to a shrunken version of Beats Studio, and similar in weight because of the extra electronic hardware it’s packing inside. Despite the fact that Beats Wireless has a relatively small physical footprint by the standards of its wired brethren, it’s every bit as attractively designed as the flagship Beats Studio, with the same glossy plastic outside, rubber and matte plastic inside, pivoting earcups, and soft earpads. This time, the cushions are circular rather than oval-shaped, and there’s one tiny light on the bottom of each matching circular exterior: one on the left earcup glows red when you’re refueling the rechargeable battery, while the other flashes red, white, or blue to indicate Bluetooth pairing and power status. Monster’s lights are a lot less conspicuous than, say, Fanny Wang’s, so if fashion is your major reason for considering these, you have nothing to worry about.
Before diving into Beats Wireless’s functionality, it’s worth underscoring the fact that these are indeed some of the nicest-looking wireless headphones we’ve ever tested. While most of our editors still prefer canalphones, the Beats Studio design is one of the most appealing for traditional headphones, and as a smaller version, Beats Wireless is as close to a head-turner as fashion headphones come these days. Branding is obvious, but most of the Monster and Beats Wireless logos are subtle; only the prominent silver “b” marks on the sides are emphasized. Monster also includes a soft zippered carrying case and red cleaning cloth in the package, as well as a fancy micro-USB charging cable for the headphones, each item just a little nicer-looking than rival versions we’ve seen. If looks were the only thing that mattered, Beats Wireless would be right at or near the very top of the pile.
Unfortunately for Monster, sound quality for the dollar is a critical consideration for most headphone purchasers, and it’s here that Beats Wireless is somewhat of a disappointment. We say “somewhat” only because we were lucky to discover a way to make Beats Wireless actually sound respectable, after initially finding the audio to be seriously underwhelming—worse than the $230 Solo HD, which we previously noted has “a tendency to render music with a muddle,” performance that might have been acceptable for $130, but not for $230 or $330. Left on its default volume settings, Beats Wireless actually sounds worse than Solo HD, a level of performance that would have relegated it to a low C rating, possibly worse. If you don’t take the time to fix this issue, you’ll probably be disappointed with how unimpressive these headphones sound right out of the box.
This problem is due to Beats Wireless’s lack of support for volume mirroring with iOS devices: as a result, you initially need to adjust the headphones’ volume level independently, rather than with the on-screen slider or volume buttons on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod, then bear in mind that any volume adjustments you make on the headphones are going to diminish the quality of the iOS device’s audio signal. At the default setting, which appears to be around 50% of the headphones’ maximum, most if not all of the treble disappears from songs, so the audio sounds incredibly flat—even flatter than the Beats Solo HD, preserving all of the muddle and flat “wall of sound” presentation without even the occasional high to pop in your ears. But when Beats Wireless is turned up to its maximum, and the iOS device is adjusted to around 40% of its peak volume for safe listening, the sound quality becomes considerably better: while Beats Wireless is still a midrange- and bass-focused pair of headphones, enough treble detail and depth become evident in songs to help engross you a little more in your music than with even Beats Solo HD, though not enough so to make sense at this price level.
It’s also worth mentioning that Beats Wireless’s Bluetooth audio performance is pretty good. We were able to get a clear wireless signal from well over Bluetooth’s typical 33-foot distance—roughly three times that before the audio dropped—and there was no significant hiss, popping, or other issues. Bluetooth pairing is all but effortless with iOS devices, and the headphones are reasonably comfortable, too; we’re still not thrilled by having to handle ear pressure from on-ear pads, but Monster’s are amongst the better ones we’ve tested.
On the other hand, Beats Wireless’s implementation of ControlTalk features—remote and microphone functionality—is off a little here. There’s a combined power/call accept/call end button at the top of the outer right earcup, track back on the left side, track forward on the right side, and volume down/up buttons somewhat awkwardly below the rest. Their features are in no way obvious by touch alone, so you’ll need to learn where they are to make adjustments, and again, you’ll probably want to manage volume from your iOS device, instead. Unusually, the play/pause button is hidden behind the large “b” beats logo, and while it works to stop and start music, Monster has oddly decoupled it from activating Voice Control and Siri, which now requires a double-tap of the power button instead. Also of note is the microphone performance, which while acceptable overall is more muffled than with Apple’s remote and microphone units—your voice can still be heard by callers, just not as clearly. The mic hole is hidden on the bottom of the right earcup, similar to the location of the micro-USB port that’s used for recharging Beats Wireless. Monster makes no promises as to the battery life, merely stating that it’s “long-lasting;” we didn’t have problems continuing to listen to music and other audio intermittently over the course of five days.
Beats Wireless is a somewhat tricky headphone to rate. While we continue to believe that Monster’s industrial designs are some of the best we’ve seen for full-sized headphones, they’ve all come at significant price premiums relative to their audio quality, and Beats Wireless continues that pattern with a sky-high $330 MSRP—a $100 premium over the otherwise very comparable Solo HD, which itself was $100 too expensive given the sound quality it offered. It’s notable and interesting that Apple Stores are currently stocking Beats Wireless for $280, but even at that price it would be hard to offer this headphone even a limited recommendation; what you’re getting for the price premium is little more than a slightly larger, cordless version of Beats Solo HD, with its own idiosyncrasies. If you’re absolutely desperate to cut the cord between your iOS device and headphones, Beats Wireless isn’t a bad option, but between the price and its underwhelming volume and ControlTalk features, it’s not as good as it easily could have been. Our advice would be to wait for an improved sequel.
Company and Price
Company: Monster Cable
Models: Beats Wireless
Compatible: iPod touch 2G/3G/4G, iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S, All iPads