Wireless headphones can look strange, but Dr. Dre’s “Beats” brand is here to show that cordless doesn’t necessarily have to mean clunky. Now, the real question is are they worth your money…
Features and performance
Headphones are more than just something to listen to your music with, as these days, it’s also about the look of the cans.
Take the Beats brand, for instance, which was founded by hip-hop artist Dr. Dre and Geffen Records Chairman Jimmy Iovine with the idea of now just making something that sounded the way the artists intended, but also looked good to boot.
We’ve seen and played with pairs of Beats in the past, and while they have more or less been known for making pop, R&B, and hip-hop sound more prominent, this year we got the surprise when a pair of Beats didn’t just sound strong in modern music, but decent across the board, also.
That impressed us, so we figured we’d take the new wireless Studio headphones for a spin, a pair of headphones that deliver sound wirelessly or wired, depending on if you’d prefer to be connected to a smartphone or media player with a 3.5mm jack, or rely on Bluetooth for the wireless connectivity.
This method of connectivity also changes the controls for the headphones, too.
If you decide to go the wireless option, you’ll have a big “b” button on the left side of the headphones for pause and playback, while a volume up and volume down button sit around the letter for clicks.
But if you opt for wired, your choices are far more limited, with a single remote on the cable for play back and volume control if you’re on iOS — because only Apple supports this style of remote (it’s on the jack itself called “MFi”) — and Android supporting pause and playback only.
The headphones are also portable, folding in place at the cans and making them easy to take with you, with a carry case also included in the box.
Keeping the headphones alive is a battery which is built into the unit and can be charged using a microUSB connector, a positive move from the recharge capability, though we’re still not sure why Beats likes battery operated headphones so much.
We’ll get to a quibble we have with this shortly, but first we should tackle the audio, because in this pair of headphones, it feels as if Beats is addressing some of the issues we’ve had in the past.
If you’ve ever heard a pair of Beats, the headphones have the potential to make bassy music — particularly that of modern sounds — emphatically bassy, which is great for some styles of music, but less so for others.
In hip-hop, pop, and electronica, this can be a great thing, with music made for the lower ranges of sound really pushed hard. But if you’re listening to something with more depth in the treble ranges — in highs and mids — this can be a little frustrating, and definitely unbalanced, such as is the case with jazz, classical, and even some rock and other forms of electronica, like ambient sounds.
But in the Beats Studio Wireless, this issue appears to have been addressed, with a clearer sound that doesn’t totally take the Mickey, which is a good thing.
We’ll go with our regular GadgetGuy Sound Test (because you can always play along at home) and start with some electronic, letting the ambient high pitched sounds of “Mirror’s Edge” creep into our skull from Solar Fields, which presents itself with balanced mids and highs, each distinct and separate, even when the low end of the bass starts up underneath it all.
This separation continues in the significantly louder “M66R6” by Mooro, as well as The Glitch Mob’s “Skullclub” which both amplify the heavier and lower sounds, pumping the volume and making the bass more prominent, sending the mids and highs to the back of the track, which the Beats Studio do a good job of recreating, still allowing you to concentrate on each underlying section of the song as the bass goes out above it.
Over to rock and the amped up sound continues in Muse’s “Supremacy” and Rage Against The Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” which pull back a bit on the mid volume, though each are still very clear, which is something we can also hear on “A Night at the Spleen” by Aussie rockers Closure In Moscow.
Over to pop and R&B, and one of the legendary tracks gets the once over with solid bass drum and obvious percussion overlays from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which plays nicely with the bass, synth sounds, and vocals, with little blurring of the lines and good separation. The sound isn’t as deep as we’d necessary like here, but it’s very easy to listen to.
Hip-hop is another area we expect good things from the Beats cans, and they don’t disappoint here at all, with Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” showcasing each part of the track distinctively with a solid punch of bass in the back end of the sound, while Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” is punchy and vibrant, keeping your attention as the highs, mids, and lows call out in between the vocal lines, flute, hooks, and percussion elements.
Even jazz sounds good through these cans, the first of our instrumental tracks being the relaxed sounds of the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing “Maria,” with a clear double bass obvious through the piano, drums, and horns.
It’s not quite the rounded bass we’ve heard from other headphones, but it’s relaxing all the same and very clear, which is a similar experience we have from the Rudy Van Gelder edition of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” though there’s a touch more bass here, likely from the quality of the remaster.
Finally in classical, you’ll find soft highs and mids, with obvious distinction between each, which was what we felt from Thomas Newman’s Wall-E piece “Define Dancing,” as well as Nigel Kennedy’s version of “Gymnopedie No. 1,” though each of these could have been a little warmer.
Beyond the consistent sound test, we’re also beginning to set up a high-resolution audio test, and it’s nice to see some support for high-res audio in these cans.
We’re not sure if it’s a feature Beats mentions — actually, we’re more or less sure the company hasn’t spoken about it — but we were able to hear our high-resolution tracks quite nicely through these cans, which surprised us greatly.
But we have some pretty severe reservations about the Studio Wireless, even if they do offer solid sound, and our chief reservation comes from the obsession with powered headphones by Beats.
We saw it on the first pair we reviewed — the Beats Studio — and here it is again in a pair of headphones that we can understand would need power when they’re acting as Bluetooth wireless headphones, because that makes sense, but should be able to work passively when the headphones are connected by cable to your phone.
Unfortunately, the Studio Wireless require power, require a charge, if they’re to work with your smartphone or tablet even if you’re opting to plug in using the cable, a move which is downright confusing and silly. Passive headphones have been around longer than active headphones, so we’re surprised not to see any aspect of the technology here, with the Studio Wireless requiring an active power source to function.
That is — simply put — nuts, and it’s frustrating to think that if you haven’t charged up the headphones, they won’t work at all, even corded, plugged into your mobile phone.
Worse is that there’s no cut off switch built into the Beats hinge, so that when you do decide to collapse the headphones — because they can collapse quite nicely with hinges built into the headband — the power stays on.
Who knew you could listen to music while the they were collapsed and in your backpack?
We’re not sure if this is one of those things Beats has just forgotten, but really, it shouldn’t have, because if the hinge were a power cut-off, you’d probably find happier customers.
That power is used to drive the active noise cancellation (ANC), which doesn’t seem to be able to be switched off, but it doesn’t matter much anyway, because it’s not very good.
Think of this as weak ANC technology at best, designed mostly for use in your regular day to day, quelling the sound
There’s also no Near-Field Communication, and that’s a problem because sometimes the Bluetooth can be a little hard to connect. We’re not sure why the Beats headphones throw up so much resistance, but if you have problems, turn them off and then on again, and then hold the main Beats button down for a second or two to get the cans into a pairing mode.
And then there’s that Beats button, and its awkward and cumbersome control scheme. There’s a single Beats button for skipping tracks when Bluetooth is engaged — press once to pause, twice to go forward, and three times to go backwards — as well as a volume up and volume down around it.
It works, but it’s clunky, and we’ve seen better, plus the whole press twice or three times thing will more than likely not work a few times, and you’ll be left pulling out your phone to skip tracks because seriously, that’s just so much easier.
At least the corded plug includes a remote, though it’s only compatible with iOS. But hey, it’s something.
Dr. Dre’s option to making your ears sing the praises of music without wires does result in a pair of cans with decent sound, but it’s lacking in usability and common sense as far as design and engineering go.
Headphones shouldn’t need power to work. That’s not a thing people have ever liked, and even though these have a modicum of active noise cancelling, it’s not enough to make us like the idea of powered noise cancellation over unpowered sound.
Seriously, this whole power requirement needs to just go away, and that feature alone makes the headphones lose some serious marks.
We can get around the awkward controls which really could do with a reworking, and we can deal with the lack of NFC. We can even deal with the exorbitant nearly $500 price tag, which is just way too much, but is likely something to come from the brand producing these headphones.
But that power problem is a stinger, and a deal breaker for us.
If you’re not bothered by either that or the price, chances are you’ll be in heaven because the Beats Studio Wireless cans sounds quite good, but with the price this high, we’d look around because there’s more out there than just cans carrying the Beats name.