Thanks to its partnership with Dr Dre, Monster's Beats Pro have become a grand success. But are we really talking about a new reference product here or just a fad? That's the question...
There's nothing strange in an audio and hi-fi cable manufacturer launching a range of headphones, that's what you usually call diversification. But what's really surprising is that the manufacturer's most expensive headphones are endorsed by famous hip-hop producer Dr Dre and that they are a smash hit in spite of their $400 price tag! Within a few months, the Beats Pro and their less expensive variations have become a popular reference: you can see them on many heads on the street, despite their price and their "pro" flair. We must admit that the Beats have that something extra: they are lookers! Compared to the old-school designs from the 80's that still influence some AKG, Sennheiser and BeyerDynamic headphones, Monster tried to create a pair of headphones with a different look (available in black or white with a small, red "b" on each ear cup) and different high-quality materials, like brushed aluminum for the headband and real leather for the earcup cushions.
The beauty and the beast inside
It seems Monster has learned a lot from Apple's marketing strategies: the Beats Pro come in a nice-looking, heavy box with all the necessary accessories. Besides small guides, the package includes a soft cover and even a small antibacterial cloth for cleaning the headphones. All details of the packaging and the accessories have been painstakingly considered and the same applies to the headphones themselves. Among the good ideas introduced with the headphones is the locking system of the red cable, which enables you to plug it either to the right or the left earcup. The other end of the cable features an angled minijack and even a small rubber holder for the 1/4" jack adapter. A very good idea, considering how easy it is to forget where you put it...
The headphones are quite heavy, which will please some and displease the rest, but they feel pretty comfortable on my head and give an impression of roughness with their thick brushed aluminum parts. Both earcups can be folded, which is convenient for transportation and for DJ-style listening. The adjustable headband and earcups allow the headphones to fit every head.
In short, they look great, are well manufactured, well thought-out, and sold in a beautiful package (following Apple's footsteps). The only negative thing is that Monster doesn't include spare earcup cushions, probably because the cushions of the Beats Pro are washable... Time will tell if this strategy is right!
The cost of listening
Let's forget about appearances and focus on the performance. Monster certainly did a very good job regarding design and packaging quality, but the real question is: what did the cable manufacturer achieve in terms of sound quality? As usual on AudioFanzine, we used our reference songs for the listening session and we compared the product with the Ultrasone Pro 900, which are also closed headphones in the same price point.
Lou Reed - Walk on the wild side
The low frequencies are huge, and I'm not only talking about the double-bass that seems to be 40ft high, the snare, the guitars, the hi-hats and the lead and backing vocals have a very fat low-end compared with the Pro 900, although the latter are quite generous in this frequency range. The problem is that, at the same time, the highs sound rather dull: the response doesn't have enough air, which makes it hard to hear some attacks and reverb tails. Nevertheless, the listening experience is not unpleasant because the highs and high-mids are not sharp; plus, the low end flatters your ears. However, this fat low-end takes a bit too much space in the overall sound, which is detrimental to the other frequencies.
The Raconteurs – Consoler of the lonely
Compared to the Beats, the Ultrasone sound like the MDR-7506, revealing every painful detail in the high frequency range of this very loud song. Of course, the sound is more pleasant with the Beats, especially the distorted vocals that sound less sharp. However, the price you pay is a huge loss of detail: the tambourine in the bridge disappears almost completely from the mix, which is not acceptable from professional headphones that cost this much. Once again reverb tails are compromised, which is obvious on the talking voices in the intro: they have no depth and sound flat. In short, the Beats soften the sharp sound of the song, but its "deep voice" doesn't reveal many details; it even masks some nuances...
Pink Floyd - Time
While the clocks at the beginning of the track are really painful with the Pro 900, they sound softer with the Beats. Otherwise, we noticed the same things as with the other tracks: the low-end is so big that the rototoms sound like toms and mask some details of the song. In the intro, the overemphasized rototoms mask the organ part making it hardly distinguishable, while it is perfectly audible with the Pro 900. And the high frequencies you ask? Once again, the highs are way too far in the background and the spatial effect of the sound decreases: the different instruments are less distinguishable, they form some sort of sound magma that can't be fun to work with.
Gorillaz – Feel Good Inc.
It would be a lie to say that the "deep voice" of the Beats is unpleasant with such songs. It's like hearing good old Cypress Hill on the car stereo of a Hummer, with the subwoofers bouncing in the back. But if you listen carefully, you'll notice (again) that the sound fails to reproduce other frequencies in all their detail: in the intro riff, Damon Albarn's "sha ba dahs" lose some syllables while the acoustic guitars are less audible (especially the attack) in the break. Generally speaking, the sound suffers from a lack of air...which has its advantages with sibilants: they sound well-balanced with the Beats while they are too sharp with the Ultrasone Pro 900. This provides more listening comfort but it's a disadvantage for tracking and mixing.
Richard Strauss - Also sprach Zarathustra
The deep tones at the beginning of the track are easily manageable, but the problems appear as soon as the full orchestra comes in: between dull highs and overemphasized lows, the instruments seem to be pressed against each other, are less distinguishable, and get lost behind the almighty kettledrums! And what a lack of air!
The Beats look great and even if the bling-bling of its white leather won't be to everyone's taste (a black version is also available), the high quality materials, the listening comfort, the provided accessories, and the packaging justify the $400 price tag. But when it comes to the sound, the conclusion isn't as easy. The overemphasized lows and tiny highs make the Beats quite pleasant to the ears, but they also make them an aberration for your wallet, at least for studio applications. In fact, they can hardly compete with similar products from AKG, Beyerdynamic or Ultrasone. Monster applied a successful marketing strategy consisting in making headphones fashionable, while implying that the sound is good because the price is high thanks to a cleaver endorsement strategy...
In this regard, Dr. Dre is certainly one of the best hip-hop producers ever. I have a huge respect for the man and his work, but I would like to know for what kind of professional applications is he using these "professional" headphones that neglect so many nuances and details of the audio signal due to an overemphasized low-end. In the end it all comes down to marketing, which makes me wonder if Bon Jovi ever drove the Volkswagen Golf that holds his name...